Self-sacrifice has come to have a pretty bad reputation lately. As virtues go, it used to have something going for it. It was lauded in the Roman Empire where it was declared "dulce et decorum" to die for one's country in battle. How many members of the Roman Legions actually believed this is hard to say.
But since the terrorist attacks against the United States, self-sacrifice has taken on a meaning it had fifty years ago. During the Second World War, Americans were at the very least shocked by the kamikaze, and the spectacle of self-sacrifice as a badge of honor. That men would willingly cast their lives away in the conduct of war was hard to fathom; that the Japanese soldier would even sing songs extolling the practice was difficult to comprehend.
So just what's so heroic about self-sacrifice, anyway? One answer lies in the series "Monster Rancher." Note: if you haven't seen the series and don't want me to spoil the ending, you might want to stop reading now. I'll understand.
In this series, a young boy rather heavy-handedly named Genki ("courage") ends up in an alternate reality based on a favorite video game. In this world, there is a struggle going on between the forces of good, which includes both humans and monsters of various kinds, and the forces of evil led by the supervillain Mu. I know that it's spelled "Moo" in the English dub, but I prefer the spelling "Mu" which also happens to be the answer to one of the great koans of all time: "Does a dog have Buddha nature?". The conceit of the show is that Genki, along with a girl named Holly, teams up with five other monsters and together go on a quest to find a "mystery disk" to release the spirit of the messianic Phoenix, one of the superstars of Asian mythology.
The theme of self-sacrifice isn't exactly kept in a box throughout this series. In a number of eps various monsters risk, and sometimes lose, their lives saving our heroes or otherwise fighting off what the dubbing insists on calling the "baddies." But it all comes together toward the end of the series.
In the next-to-last ep, "Tears," the character Pixie, a scantily-clad humanoid woman with horns and bat wings, is on the verge of death. Her faithful companion, a giant stone creature named "Big Blue," ends up melding himself with her to form a composite creature which is still mostly Pixie, even though it means Big Blue ceases to exist.
And in the final ep, "Blue Skies," the theme of self- sacrifice REALLY gets a workout. In a neat twist on the plot up until that point, it's revealed that the spirit of the Phoenix is NOT hidden in a mystery disk. Instead, it's inside the five monsters who have been teamed up with Genki and Holly for most of the series. The five must obliterate themselves in order to animate the Phoenix. Naturally, this is a cue for the series to turn on the water works as Genki must face and accept the self- annihilation of his friends.
And in yet ONE MORE variation on the theme, as the revived Phoenix battles Mu, who by now has morphed into a rampaging Godzilla with fur, Mu realizes that he and the Phoenix are evenly matched and "destined" to fight it out for all eternity, balanced out in a yin-yang sort of way. So, to put an end to this, it becomes Mu's turn to self-destruct, taking the Phoenix with him, setting all things right in that world while propelling Genki back into his own.
So what kind of self-annihilation are we talking about here? It's actually a far cry from that of the suicide bomber or kamikaze. For beneath the political idealism, the rhetoric of holiness, the dark side of self-annihilation as a weapon can be summed up in one word: contempt. The West, Japanese philosophers declared at a symposium held in 1942, was weakened by materialism, liberalism, capitalism, individualism and rationalism, which expressed itself in moral laxity and decay. It was a conclusion with which the Taliban would have agreed. But the argument didn't stop there. By the dark alchemy of war and nationalism, contempt for these qualities became contempt for those who lived by them. It was this quality contempt for life that poisoned what had been considered a virtue.
That which redeems the self-sacrifice of the characters in "Monster Rancher" is a compassion that balances out what would appear to be the low esteem in which one holds one's own life. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the Buddhist veneration of life, ALL life, which gives meaning to self-sacrifice when the alternative is the sacrifice of someone else's life. The final confrontation between the Phoenix and Mu becomes symbolic of the struggle to derive meaning from life in general, even at the cost of one's own life in particular. But when one throws one's life away because he thinks even less of someone else's life, then self-sacrifice crosses the line from honor to horror.