When Katappa-san killed Baahubali-san: SS Rajamouli’s films are the latest fan favourite in Japan

Fan art, manga, videos and cosplaying have followed the release of the ‘Baahubali’ movies in Japan.

Inokashira Park in Tokyo, with its swan-shaped paddle boats, is reputed to be one of Japan’s most popular dating spots. What if Amarendra Baahubali visited Inakoshira Park with Devasena and paddled his way into her heart in a swan boat? Is that how the idea for the flying vessel in the Hamsa Naava song came about?

These are the connections that Kanagawa Prefecture resident Shironeko Takano made after watching the Baahubali films, which she later reproduced in the form of a four-page manga. Takano’s Baahubali fan art is just one of the many tributes to SS Rajamouli’s blockbuster that have emerged in Japan after both movies were released there.

Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and its sequel, Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017), were released in Japan in 2017 on April 8 and December 29 respectively. Both movies had different titles – the first one was called Baahubali: The Birth of a Legend, and the second, Baahubali: The Triumphant Return of the King.

Image credit: Shironeko Takano/@sironeko_miiko
Image credit: Shironeko Takano/@sironeko_miiko

The versions released in Japan are shorter than the Indian ones, and were screened with subtitles.

Part one had its share of fans, but it is the sequel that has proved to be the bigger hit. Baahubali: The Conclusion has been a rage at so-called masala screenings of Indian movies, where moviegoers scream, shout, sing along, or throw confetti at the screen. Audiences at these screenings often come dressed like the movie characters. Unlike in India, they are expected to bring along brooms and dustpans and clean up after they are finished.

Twitter is awash with Japanese fans sharing fan art and manga dedicated to and featuring the characters from the films. Among the official admirers of the movies is Nippen-no-Miko-chan, a popular fictional character associated with the Japan Pen Writing Study Organisation. Manga featuring Miko-chan (to promote good handwriting) has been used on the covers of notebooks and magazines in Japan for almost five decades. On Valentine’s Day, the makers of the Miko-chan manga released a strip that shows her falling in love with Baahubali and creating a chocolate statue of him.

Image credit: Nippen-no-Miko-chan
Image credit: Nippen-no-Miko-chan

Among the reasons for the franchise’s popularity: the grand visuals, the song sequences, the emphasis on the values of strength and honour, and the triumph of good over evil.

Yoko Deshmukh, a Japanese translator who lives in Pune, helped reach out to Japanese fans of the movies. Miki Takahashi declared, “Baahubali has a lot of scenes where the actor pauses for a second to maximise the effect, which is similar to the mie-wo-kiru act seen in Kabuki theatre. It makes it easy for audiences who are unfamiliar with Indian movies to understand the crucial scenes.”

The comic-book aesthetic of the movies, in which key emotional moments are communicated through close-ups and sound effects, also find resonance in a culture where manga is popular, Takahashi added.

Image credit: Haruka Ota/@harukao_ta
Image credit: Haruka Ota/@harukao_ta

Some critics are even drawing comparisons with classic period and fantasy films from Japan and America. Yoshikazu Yamada of IGN Japan wrote that the Baahubali films reminded him of why one needs to watch movies in a theatre. Film critic Onodera argued that Rajamouli has inherited the spirit of Akira Kurosawa and George Lucas, and that his films are similar to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Lucas’s Star Wars movies.

Another film critic, Utamaru, wrote that Baahubali has the ability to be regarded as the Seven Samurai (1954) of India – become the movie set in an ancient Indian past that is able to connect to international audiences.

The central plot of the films – a prince banished from his kingdom and forced to live as a commoner before returning to his rightful place after a series of heroic adventures – is not too different from the myth of the Kishuryuritan (noble but separated hero) in Japanese literature and mythology.

Image credit: @moppon
Image credit: @moppon

Japanese folklore expert Eiji Otsuka in his book Gymnastics of the Story wrote about common elements among folk tales featuring the Kishuryuritan: the royal hero, who, after his birth, is put in a box or a basket and allowed to float in the river far away from the kingdom. He is then raised by poor people or animals. After becoming an adult, the hero seeks to reunite with his family, and the process usually revolves revenge. Rajamouli and co-writer K Vijayendra Prasad have expertly used these narrative elements, which can be found across world cultures, in the Baahubali movies.

According to another fan, Hanako Yokomori, there is another reason the Japanese find it easy to relate to a story sent in an indeterminate Indian past. The films have emanated from the land where both Hinduism and Buddhism were born.

The use of Hindu iconography and rituals in the movies has generated curiosity among Japanese viewers. Shion Yoshizaki created a series of tweets explaining visual concepts based on Hindu mythology to Japanese audiences. For instance, Yoshizaki tweeted about how the pyramid-shaped throne at the centre of the fictional Mahishmati kingdom has been inspired by the Sun Temple in Konark. In another tweet, Yoshizaki points out that while Mahishmati is protected by the sun god Surya and has a Shiva temple, Devasena’s Kuntala kingdom worships Krishna.

These elements are familiar enough to Indian fans of the movies, but they have created a host of questions among Japanese audiences. “The more the fans saw Baahubali, the more they had questions,” Yoshizaki said. “Why does Shivudu lift that massive stone and sets it below the waterfall? Why does Katappa place his head below Mahendra’s foot? What is that white powder Mahendra rubs on his chest? What is that yellow powder poured on the elephant? And so on. Since most Japanese are Buddhists and are not aware of Indian culture, they fail to understand the meaning behind each character’s actions.”

Image credit: Shion Yoshizaki/@tenjikukitan.
Image credit: Shion Yoshizaki/@tenjikukitan.

The movies have also earned brownie points in an unusual area: sexual harassment. The sequence from Baahubali: The Conclusion in which Devasena chops off an attacker’s fingers has been appreciated by audiences.

Above all, the exotic looks of the main characters played by Prabhas and Daggubati has charmed the locals. Japanese audiences are habituated to Hollywood stars, Yoko Deshmukh pointed out, but the Baahubali films have made them aware of the beauty of Indians.

Prabhas and Daggubati have cultivated a strong fan following among the Japanese, as is evident from Twitter, where Japanese fans are going through their back catalogues and rediscovering their hit films, including Billa (2009), starring Prabhas and Anushka Shetty, and Leader (2010), featuring Daggubati. According to Deshmukh, the characters from the Baahubali films and the actors playing them are being worshipped in Japan just as Rajinikanth briefly was following the release of Muthu in 1998.

The Japanese trailer of Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017).
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