Puritans, capitalism and hard work in Galaxy Express 999

(Note: I’m going to use U.S. and America interchangeably. I just want to say that I realize this is horribly unfair to our neighbors to the north and south. I’m doing it because it’s easier to write, not because I believe that all of the Americas are somehow one monolithic culture. I apologize if anyone takes offense to this.

Also, I’m going to talk about Divine Grace and Good Acts and many other religious ideas that I have a passing knowledge of. If I get anything wrong, please let me know.)

My dad always had a pet theory he would reflexively go back to when we talked about the United States’ growing problems in foreign relations.

For the sake of giving it a title, I’ll call it the John Wayne theory. The theory basically goes like this. In the American films of the 1950s, the good guy was always right, and the bad guy was always wrong. There was no moral ambiguity. Those were the movies that America shipped around the world. People got to see America as John Wayne. And anyone who wasn’t America, well, they weren’t John Wayne.

Not only that, but John Wayne always won.

When America started having problems was when they stopped being John Wayne. When heroes started being morally ambiguous. When America wasn’t always right. When the hero would lose. It made other countries not only think America could be wrong, but it made them believe that the U.S. could be defeated.

Now, this theory has some holes to it. I recognize that, but I do think it points out a thread that is really prominent in U.S. literature. It’s the idea that the world and society are fundamentally fair.

This is such a large part of the American mythos that we have an entire political party that has taken it as their battle cry. It shows up when people talk about the American Dream. That anyone from anywhere can be anybody, they want.

Horatio Alger Jr. (Public Domain)

Perhaps it’s part of the Englightenment thinking that helped found the country. The idea is that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights. Personally, I’ve always thought it had its roots more with Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories. Basically, a young person with nothing more than pluck, talent and a little luck could go from an urchin on the street to a man of wealth and station.

I bring this up because I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Tarbox on Third Impact Anime about his chapter in Leiji Matsumoto, Essays on the Manga and Anime Legend. In the chapter, Tarbox talks about Matsumoto’s The Cockpit and the idea of the noble failed hero.

The noble failed hero is a concept posed by Ivan Morris and is meant to counter the ideas of the monomyth and the hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell. Morris poses this concept of a hero that stands by his principles no matter what, even when it means they will die because of it.

While I think you can indeed find any number of noble failed heroes in Galaxy Express 999, I want to pick up something else that Tarbox mentioned during the interview with Third Impact Anime. A necessary element for these noble failed heroes is that the world itself needs to be corrupt.

This leads me down a couple of trains of thought regarding episode 59.

What I want to do today is go down that rabbit hole for a bit because I don’t think Horatio Alger is the only force in U.S. thought. Another force is just as important, and while it’s easily co-opted into capitalism, it’s an uneasy marriage.

That force is Puritanism.

The Idle One’s Mirror

So I’m not sure how much of a synopsis I need for Episode 59, but I will give the basic idea. Before Tetsuro and Maetel land on the planet, Tetsuro has a flashback to working with his mother in what I can only assume is a mine. The two of them are hauling large backpacks full of rocks. 

This struck me as odd at the time because they live in a society where they have mechanical bodies. Yet, they force people to haul rocks by hand? What kind of capitalist hellscape was this? 

But I soon saw that only Tetsuro and his mother were hauling rocks by hand, and other people were using trucks to transport larger loads more quickly. In the memory, Tetsuro’s mom says he should not give in to laziness, and she wanted him to remember what it’s like to work your hardest doing physical labor. 

This wasn’t a capitalist hellscape at all. No, this was a capitalist ideal. Hard work using the tools that you’re given.

More on that later. 

Anyway, Maetel gives Tetsuro some cryptic hint about learning about the value of hard work on the next planet. 

Well, the 999 lands and Maetel doesn’t want to leave the train, so she lets Tetsuro wander off again. He soon finds an empty but still automated planet. Every place he’s going, he’s followed by a heavy-set woman who arrives just as he’s leaving. 

We soon find out that everyone on this planet has become morbidly obese to the point where they literally are wearing homes as clothing. They are giant balls of fat who cant move under their own power. They’ve become this way because they rely on machines and the government to provide for their needs. 

(OK. This episode is quickly becoming a series of conservative talking points, but that is neither here nor there.) 

Here is where we learn that the woman who is following them is named Saborina. She came to this planet with her beau. He became like the other settlers while she is resisting that urge. Now she begs Tetsuro to help her find a way onto the 999. 

A couple things go wrong here. The first is that her husband/boyfriend finally succumbs to the planet’s curse and becomes a house-sized glutton. And then Saborina learns that she can’t board the 999 without money to buy a pass. 

Tetsuro is willing to go to war with the 999 for her, but instead of egging him on, Saborina says she was wrong to only think about depending on others. She promises that she will earn her pass, and she will save her husband/boyfriend from the planet’s curse. 

Hard work, predestination and Puritanism

It would be pretty easy to walk away from The Idle One’s Mirror and see it as some sort of capitalist parable. First, you have a society where no one has to work for anything, and the cost is a society of indolent and fat people who accomplish nothing. They are so meaningless that even guides of the planets don’t include this one because it just doesn’t matter. 

And I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely convinced that it isn’t just that. This really does show a lot of the potential dangers of socialism, as told by any free-market economist ever. 

That is except for one piece. 

See, capitalism is based on the idea that everything is essentially fair. No matter who you are, if you have the pluck, talent and a little bit of luck, well, you too can succeed. 

The thing is that capitalism co-opted an idea from Puritan thought. Well, really, it predates the Puritans, but they elevated it to an entirely new level. The idea is that idle hands are the Devil’s Workshop. So it really dates back to St. Jerome, and then it was mentioned by Chaucer. 

The Puritans, though, took this idea to the next level. I’m going to quote a paragraph that basically matches something that I had learned. 

“Hard work and industriousness were stressed as pillars of the Puritans’ faith. Puritans believed that when believers worked hard, it brought glory to God. They further believed that hard work brought prosperity, by which they could provide well for themselves, their families and the needy around them.

The Puritans’ dedication to self-reliance and acquiring wealth through hard work and thrift was based largely on the belief that material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing.”

Classroom The Impact of Puritan Beliefs on Work Ethics (synonym.com)

Capitalism leaned very heavily on this idea of having a moral component to work. Success is a sign of God’s blessing. Hard work was a way of showing your dedication to God.

That would be the end of the story, right? I mean, hard work is a moral good. That’s just a feedback loop in a capitalist society. The problem is that capitalists borrowed the idea that hard work is moral, but they ignored a different part of Puritan thought.

See, Puritans don’t believe in a fair world.

OK. That is a bit of an oversimplification. Puritans took their cues from John Calvin, who expressed the idea of Divine Grace. This is the idea that once you are “Saved” you can’t become “Unsaved.” This means that nothing that you do after becoming Saved will change that status. This runs directly in opposition to the Catholic idea of Good Acts, where you need to actually be a good person and do good things so you can get to Heaven.

(Yes, I’m biased. And I’m probably still oversimplifying this.)

Now there is two ways to interpret Divine Grace. One is the cuddly way that most Evangelist preachers do. You become “Born Again” and voila, you’ve accepted Christ and everything you do is imbued with Divine Grace.

The other way is how Puritans interpreted it. Basically, nothing you do will get you saved. It would be a complete crapshoot if you won the heavenly lottery. To be honest, it’s a wonder that the Puritans didn’t just give up and just go out into the forest and form a commune.

But even in the face of this utterly unfair system, they continued to work hard. Even though it may not accomplish anything. Even though they could just be as quickly cast into a fiery pit of brimstone as see choirs of angels.

Hard work was a good completely separate of whether they would receive any tangible reward for it.

Idle Hands

So I think whether by accident or on purpose, Matsumoto hit on something close to a Puritan parable. Saborina decides that just being given something is wrong. Just demanding something is wrong, and that the only moral thing to do is to work hard to achieve her dreams. 

But she is doing this in an unfair world. The government works to keep her from working. The jobs she would do are done by machines. But even in the face of that unfairness, she must work for her dreams. 

While it doesn’t match up perfectly with Puritanical thought, I think it’s closer. 

But I am curious what other people think? Am I too far off base here? Is there a Japanese concept that incorporates this idea that hard work is a moral good free of actually having any real meaning?

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading. 

4 thoughts on “Puritans, capitalism and hard work in Galaxy Express 999

  1. I was reading on Buddhist philosophy’s presence in anime for different reasons, I ended up reading a little on the work ethics as well and just went back to check whether there was a comparison between Puritan practices and Buddhism. To summarize, apparently, both are similar in terms of devotion to work. However, the Japanese belief system is more focused on unification rather than individualism, spiritualism found in everyday life and objects, and effort compared to Puritans’ work-for-future-and-God kind of approach. The paper I came across was quite old and isn’t cited by others, but still had interesting ideas that may be of use. Here’s the source: A Christian and a Japanese-Buddhist work-ethic compared, Winston L. King, 1981.

    I have to say, even though this show was recommended to me by a friend before, I wasn’t able to make much progress but I’m reading your reviews with great interest ~

    1. I’m really glad that you’re enjoying these. Sometimes I worry that I’m writing just to the ether. 🙂

      I never thought to compare Buddhism to Puritanism. That is an interesting comparison. Do you know where I would find a copy of it? My web search didn’t come up with a lot.

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