Epic voyage makes ratings soar

LOCAL HEROES : Monkey Stone Rock
If you had been in Trafalgar Square one Saturday in October, you would have witnessed, almost certainly without knowing it, a small moment in Japan's cultural history. It didn't look like anything special: two young Japanese men tottering to a halt in front of a bank of television cameras. They had not eaten for three days, and for the last 20 miles of their journey, they had walked. They were dazed, skinny and dirty, and were whisked off to a Japanese restaurant and an expensive hotel.

But back in Japan, when this small event was broadcast, ratings were in the millions. National newspapers compared the two lads to Buddhist holy men. A book about them sold 700,000 copies in the space of 10 days.

The two saints are Hiroyuki Ariyoshi and Kazunari Moriwaki, a pair of 22-year-old comedians known collectively, and for no discernible reason, as Saruganseki - "Monkey Stone Rock". Six months ago, they were recruited by Nippon Television for its Saturday-night comedy programme, entitled, with equal surrealism, Onward, Tele-Youth! Such programmes, the staple of late-night broadcasting, traditionally exert little pressure on the intellects of their young viewers, with a digest of music, chat, imbecilic party games and views of nipples. The unknown Monkey Stone Rock were hired to provide another key ingredient of the youth show mix: sadistic sniggering at the hardships of others. Flown to Hong Kong under false pretences, they were presented with 100,000 yen (pounds 570) between them, and instructed to make their way to London.

The weekly updates on their misadventures (they were trailed by a camera crew who were forbidden from giving them material support), were intended as no more than the usual silliness. But as the pair grew poorer, hungrier, more sick and more desperate, the show became a cult, capturing one-fifth of the Saturday night audience and taking on an epic, spiritual significance.

"Within six months," wrote the august Yomiuri newspaper, not noted for its effusions on dippy television programmes, "the two comedians, so cocky and lighthearted in the beginning, took on the appearance and attitude of religious men."

The sticky sentiment lurking beneath this apparently silly undertaking is suggested by the words of the lads' theme tune, "The Longest Journey":

Fighting against strong winds

You, the travellers,

Are heading for a destination

Far, far away.

Until we meet again, keep

Early on, however, the smiles were wiped off their faces. Ariyoshi and Moriwaki were arrested in Thailand, and were reduced to begging in India, where they were hospitalised for food poisoning and malnutrition.

To Tele-Youths in Europe and America, the idea of working your way across Asia may not appear very remarkable but, to pampered young Japanese, it was eye-poppingly bold. Twenty-two thousand miles and 190 days after their departure, they returned to Japan as heroes. In Tokyo, thousands of people turned out at a baseball stadium to welcome them home. The longest journey is over, but its message of endurance and steadfastness will live on.