Death’s eternal kingdom: a visitors’ book

Researching an artist’s life, I stumbled on a compelling and touching Japanese website, Art and Literature Junkie Paradise. The ‘English version’ link on the homepage will lead you here. It’s worth the journey. Of all the travel sites on the web, this one, devoted to the ultimate destination, is one of the best I’ve ever visited.

It’s a fascinating record of an individual’s sense of connection to the influences that shaped him, a thirty-year pilgrimage to the graves of  “domestic and foreign writers and artists.” I came upon it through a 1940s image, found by chance, clicked on purely because it was one I hadn’t seen before. That one click opened the door to a maze of wonderland burrows, leading through time and space to the common final destination of uncommon people.

My entry point looked enticing, but simple enough – a page recording visits to the graves of 23 popular comic artists and fantasy writers who influenced and inspired the site-owner. There are photos and comments on each grave, along with photographs of the subject in life, and in most cases a few images of their works. The majority of these graves are outside Japan. The occupants range from Charles Schulz and J.R.R. Tolkien to Shotaro Ishinomori. Osamu Tezuka’s grave is recorded along with that of his beloved Walt Disney.  The historic range is wide, from 19th century French novelist Jules Verne and Danish genius Hans Christian Andersen to 20th century Americans Jack Kirby and Bob Kane. Ippei Okamoto, one of the fathers of modern manga, is there.  Women are represented by Tove Janssen, Chihiro Iwasaki and Machiko Hasegawa. I spent several happy hours with a translation programme and a dictionary on this page alone.

Then I started clicking on the links  and went deeper and deeper, into pictures and accounts of many, many more graves – famous artists and writers from all over the world, and figures from Japanese history. It’s a travelogue of arrivals at places of departure, where the aim of every journey is to record and honour a life that may be over, but is not forgotten.

The pictures are truly celebratory: all around the famous graves, life goes on. Sometimes props have been added by the photographer: Herman Melville’s gravestone is scattered with colourful pens and drawing implements. Sometimes the setting is warm and congenial: Shakespeare rests in a homely, pretty English church, Dostoevsky in an enclosure of pink flowers, while Primo Levi’s simple grave-slab is surrounded by ivy and shaded by a beautiful little Japanese maple, its feathery leaves of peach and flame striking even in longshot. And sometimes the tributes have accumulated over time: a pretty girl adds another kiss to the lipstick-covered Paris tomb of Oscar Wilde.

There’s irony and bleakness, but always an appreciation of the subjects’ humanity. Kafka is entombed in hard, grey, straight-cut stone, and the pictures of his grave seem oddly dissonant beside the portrait of a young man with a quirky smile, but the setting in Prague’s Jewish cemetery is serene and verdant. The low grave marker that Philip K. Dick shares with his twin sister Jane records that she lived just six weeks. It was fifty-four years before he joined her  under the grass at Fort Morgan’s Riverside Cemetery. In the photos, taken in summer 2009, a fluffy toy lamb sits on Philip’s side of the grave marker, a whimsical reference to his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, inspiration for the movie Blade Runner.

Sometimes the photos include the site owner, other visitors and companions. The text records mishaps en route that will strike a chord with every traveller – stolen luggage, churches and museums unexpectedly closed on the day of the visit, pictures and negs taken years ago and now lost, missing shots substituted with postcards.

In a new introduction written in September 2009, the owner, now in his forties, talks about the series of journeys that started when he was a teenager, and the comfort and inspiration he derives from the works of great writers and artists. For him, visiting a grave is both a chance to render thanks for all the occupant has given to him, and a moment of physical connection when the hand is laid on the gravestone or touches the soil.

Many of us spend hours online following links in pursuit of knowledge that turns out to be less useful than we hoped. This time, I got more than I hoped for. This site is not, ultimately, about death, but about the value we find in what the dead leave behind – not so much a visitors’ book of those who have checked into their final destination, more a triumphant world tour diary for the greatest performers in history.

2 thoughts on “Death’s eternal kingdom: a visitors’ book

  1. Thank you for making “The Art of Osamu Tezuka”, I got it as a Christmas present from my family and i gotta say that it is a fantastic book. I consider myself a Tezuka fanboy and your book is a fantastic read full of interesting facts of my favorite mangaka.

    • Thank you for the kind words. For me, one of the most thrilling things about making the book was working both for established Tezuka fans like yourself, and for complete newcomers with no idea of his genius. I really wanted the book to have something for both kinds of reader, so it makes me very happy that you found interesting stuff in there.

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