When I started this blog, I said that one of my aims was to answer the question, “What has Japan got to do with the Catholic Church?” So far I’ve compared Japanese culture to Church teachings, finding that sometimes they’re quite similar, and sometimes quite different. But today I want to introduce a third category: the uncanny.
And where better to start than with death?
Specifically, a play about death. A play in which Death is one of the main characters. This play is called Elisabeth, and was originally written, I believe, in Austria. However, what I want to talk about is the Japanese adaptation of the play, which, after the localization process, wound up being something astonishingly . . . well, you’ll see!
First of all, the plot. This is a historical play about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with just one twist: Death is one of the main characters. As the story goes, Elisabeth died as a girl and descended to the underworld, where she met Death. However, Death fell in love with her, and rather than accept her life, he restored it to her, saying that he wouldn’t let her die until she fell in love with him. The play goes on to tell the true story of the life of the Empress, with the addition of Death pursuing her throughout her life, and, in the end, winning her heart.
The original version, as I understand, depicts Death as an abusive beast, and is something of a morbid horror story (the historical Elisabeth did have something of a fascination with death). The Japanese version I saw, however, changed the play to make Death a romantic gentleman. The biggest change in the script was the addition of an entirely new song, a love song which Death sings to Elisabeth when they first meet, establishing this as a classic love story. Except, you know, that she has to choose Death over her husband and, well, die, before the happy couple can be united.
It was a wildly popular play. Something about the idea of Death as a romantic gentleman waiting to welcome you into his arms really struck a chord with Japanese women (and a fair number of Westerners, as well!) And if you ask why . . .
. . . I’m sure the Catholics out there are saying, “Well, of course, because it’s a true story–including the part about Death! The minute they changed Death into a romantic character, the character essentially became God. God, who is all-powerful, has chosen to grant us free will that we may freely choose to love Him. But He doesn’t stop there–He actively pursues us throughout our lives. And, should we chose to love Him, we can spend forever with Him after we die. He Himself even describes this relationship as a marriage that supersedes our earthly marriages.”
Yes, yes, you got it already, and I didn’t even have to say anything. But here’s the real kicker:
How did the Japanese know that?!