Saturday, April 21, 2007

Real Mourners At Funeral For Fictional Character

Raoh is dead. Long live Raoh.

Who the f..k is Raoh, some of you ask?

Clearly you haven't been watching enough action-packed, colour-drenched, blood-splattered Japanese anime.

We in The West like to point at some of cultural events in Japan and shake our heads in disbelief, amazement and smirk-filled wonder. "They're just so whacky!"

Of course, most Japanese look at the events detailed in the story below and think the exact same thing.

The hype of manga and anime in the US, UK and Australia makes out as if every single Japanese person lives, breathes and sleeps the usually violent little comic books and animated movies.

They are popular, and millions are utterly obsessed by the ongoing storylines, but they are not Japan itself. As Crocodile Dundee is not Australia. As drunken English northerners in love with men who can kick balls real good smashing up Italian cafes is not England. As campus massacring psycho killers is not the United States.

Still, it's an interesting social phenomenon, anywhere in the world. Which is why it's here, on this increasingly un-updated blog (I'll try to keep it more regular).

What is it? An anime funeral of course, in the (semi) real world. Real mourners for the fictional death of a fictional character :

A lone temple bell tolled through the Tokyo night. Seven priests chanted the doom-laden lament for the dead. Thousands of black-suited mourners queued solemnly in the rain to offer incense and prayers to their fallen hero, Raoh.

As the tears rolled down the cheeks of the bereaved, few seemed bothered that nobody had actually died.

For although Raoh exists only in the fantasy world of manga comics and anime cartoons, the grief experienced by ordinary Japanese at his funeral yesterday was real.

“He was like a father figure to me,” Makoto Sounodai, a 21-year old Tokyo student, said. “I feel about him the way Westerners feel about Elvis.”

Roland Kelts, of Tokyo University, an expert on anime, described the scene at the Koyasan Tokyo Betsuin temple last night as “perhaps the most extreme blurring of reality and fantasy that Japanese pop culture has produced”. The full Buddhist shokonshiki, or spirit-rising ceremony, represented the first time that a Japanese temple had held a funeral for a fictional character.

As the arch villain of one of Japan’s best-loved — and most violent — comics, Raoh has as wide a fan base as any music or film star. “Raoh showed us the inner strength of men and showed that power can rule the world as effectively as love,” said a sobbing 38-year old fan who called himself Lina, after one of the characters in the story.

As the seating inside the temple overflowed, 2,500 mourners watched the hour-long ceremony on giant screens outside. Those with seats at the front, who included the cartoonists and voiceover actors involved in the series, fingered Buddhist juzurosaries as Raoh’s soul was “sent back to his native star”.

In Fist of the Northstar, a manga series that started in the 1980s, Raoh is a vast, merciless tyrant whose cruelty and thirst for power make him supreme in the futuristic, postapocalyptic wastelands. Raoh’s brother and hero of the series, Kenshiro, has struggled to defeat this despot for nearly three decades and, in the latest movie, succeeds.

Although the action in Fist of the Northstar involves severed limbs and blood-soaked executions, many admire the series for its complex plots and moral dilemmas. Keiko Tsurugai, 35, a mother of three, said that her love for the comics arose from the way they tackled the dichotomy of love and hatred between brothers.

Seeing as this event came ten days before the Japanese premier of a new film in the Raoh series, it should probably be thought of as a unique cultural event, and a stunningly effective international publicity coup.

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