RIYADH: Though many in the Arab World may instantly recognize the name of Duke Fleed, the name Jihad Al-Atrash may not ring as many bells. However, the former couldn’t exist without the latter, at least not in the Middle East.
For those who don’t know either, Duke Fleed is the main character in an anime called Grendizer. Created by Japanese mangaka Go Nagai in 1975, leapt out of its original orbit in Japan and crash-landed in the Arab World in the 1980s, where it has firmly established roots as a cult classic and beloved icon. Following a full Arabic dubbing the show quickly gained traction in the region, and amazingly continues to do so decades later.
A Lebanese actor with a long and extensive history in the world of Arab media, Al-Atrash lent his voice to the Arabic dub of Grendizer, playing the heroic protagonist. It is now recognized as one of his best roles, and almost certainly the one he is most famous for.
Al-Atrash spoke to Arab News at the recent Joy Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The event, which was held to boost investment in Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning entertainment sector, provided the perfect backdrop for the actor as he told his story: a giant statue of the eponymous Grendizer.
“Grendizer,” a massive success from its first broadcast in Lebanon in the 1980s, is something that Al-Atrash holds near and dear. And in this, he is hardly alone. “The Lebanese people fell in love with it,” he told Arab News. “The Arab people, especially in the UAE and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, remember ‘Grendizer’ very well. I was surprised and amazed at their strong memory.”
And even now the popularity has never waned. “When I meet people, they express great love for me. The most important thing is that many of them make their kids watch ‘Grendizer’ to learn ethics and values,” he said.
The actor told Arab News that he believes that the values “Grendizer” teaches are timeless, and that is why it has remained popular. “When Grendizer moved to Earth, he fought against evil and enemies who stood in his way, who wanted to destroy him and take over the Earth. He started to defend Planet Earth and called for peace, love, justice and respect for all human beings. All these are great human principles and values.”
Al-Atrash’s portrayal of the Duke was lauded for how he conveyed his feelings, particularly his sense of patriotism, given the political climate in Lebanon at the height of the show’s popularity. “Lebanon was at the time on the brink of the civil war that hit it later in the heart,” Al-Atrash explained, referring to the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon. “I was in too much pain over the war and what was going on in my country. I wanted peace and love to reign and I wanted the feelings of brotherhood and harmony to spread among all segments of the Lebanese society.”
His performance has even netted the approval of Grendizer’s creator himself. “Go Nagai said he is very happy that ‘Grendizer’ enjoyed this huge success in the Arab world, a success greater than that of Japan and other European countries,” Al-Atrash said. “He said he liked my voice a lot and wished (that) the Japanese character had the same amount of feelings and sensations.”
However, geopolitics aside, Al-Atrash also believes that Arab culture in general had a strong effect on the show’s popularity in the region. “Arabs are known for having noble and honorable values, magnanimity, generosity, encouragement, love of one’s country, love of one’s family and society,” he explained. “Arabs feel strong about these values. I hope we protect and maintain these values when raising our children and instill the values in their minds.”
Al-Atrash does, however, think that cartoons today have diminished somewhat in value. “The cartoons children watch these days teach them nothing but violence and violent ideas and make them engage in violent behavior with their classmates. Children imitate cartoon characters they watch on TV, (on) cell phones, and the latter are available everywhere. Cartoons today send directly or indirectly violent subliminal messages with no ethics, unlike ‘Grendizer.’ This is why I decided to stay away from acting in any cartoons. I don’t want my voice to be used as a tool to destroy kids, society and generations.”
With rumors floating around about an alleged remake of “Grendizer” to celebrate the show’s 45th anniversary next year, Al-Atrash said he is on board to reprise the role. “I’ve heard the rumors, but it’s all been talk at this point,” Al-Atrash told Arab News. “But I’m definitely interested (to record Duke Fleed’s voice in Arabic).”
In the meantime, he is able to enjoy memories of voicing the iconic character, in particular with his three daughters. “They love the show a lot. They introduce their friends to Grendizer and then tell them that Grendizer is their father,” he said laughing.