The Mike Toole Show
Follow the Melos Brick Road
by Mike Toole,
The air's getting cooler, the leaves are turning, and in my neck of the woods, the kids have all gone back to school. Fifth-graders are probably discussing their summer reading - popular fare, no doubt, like the Hunger Games or Percy Jackson books. When I was at school at that age, I greedily devoured the likes of The Outsiders, Watership Down, and The Stand. (Do kids still like Stephen King books as much as they did when I was one?) In Japan, one of the grand pillars of grade-school literature is a slender volume called Run, Melos, a reworking of an old Greek legend by one of Japan's most celebrated authors, the late Osamu Dazai.
Dazai's an intriguing figure. A bright talent with a gift for description and occasional fits of surprising humor, he published numerous favorites during his brief career in the 1930s and 1940s, including The Setting Sun and No Longer Human-- the latter's been adapted as a manga series, which Vertical has translated into English. Dazai was mercurial, though-- he had what you might call commitment issues, fathering children with a couple of different women before running off with a third (or was it fourth)? He was also obsessed with death-- in particular, his own, which led to numerous suicide attempts. The poor, troubled author finally succeeded in 1948, but not before leaving an enduring legacy headed up by Run, Melos.
I didn't stumble on this topic because I was interested in Dazai or Japanese literature in general, but rather because I was trying to sniff out the last scraps of anime involving Satoshi Kon that I hadn't yet seen. Obviously, I've seen the late, great director's own films. I've seen Magnetic Rose, the segment of the anthology film Memories that he scripted. I've seen his episode of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA series, and his episode of Master Keaton, and his art design in Roujin Z, and I've studied his layouts for Patlabor 2. Really, after I tallied everything up (a task I'd been inspired to do by reading his English-translated manga - hey, why ain't there a translation of World Apartment Horror yet?!), there were only two Satoshi Kon-involved anime I hadn't yet seen. One of them was an episode of Detatoko Princess, which I don't feel bad about continuing to put off. The other one? A 1992 film called Hashire, Melos!.
Hashire, Melos! is part of a category of anime films that, for whatever reason, has slipped through the cracks, with no legitimate presence on DVD shelves or streaming portals. I'd place it alongside a number of other lavish feature films and OVAs-- Future War 198X, The Eleven Cats, Yuki, Take the X Train, and My Father's Dragon, to name just a few-- that really ought to be dusted off and rescued. The case for Hashire, Melos! is that not only is run through with the cream of artistic anime talent of its day, it's a surprisingly different, ambitious take on Dazai's story. The original tale is fairly simple-- a shepherd named Melos is caught up in some trouble, sentenced to death by ruthless king Dionysius, who trusts no one among his court or vassals. Melos convinces the king to let him go for three days, in order to attend his sister's wedding. One condition: another must take his place on death row, in this case his friend, Selinuntius the stonemason. Melos grimly makes for home, while the dour king is delighted-- there's no way the doomed Melos will return, so now he'll be able to present his people with the perfect example of how dangerous it is to trust others.
The crux of the story, obviously, is that Melos really does intend to return, save his friend, and face his cruel fate-- he just has miles to go and obstacles to overcome to get there. In the 1992 film, however, director/screenwriter Masaaki Osumi (perhaps most famous for being the guy who got the original Lupin the 3rd TV series off the ground, before promptly being replaced by Miyazaki and Takahata) rewrites the playbook a bit. Here, Melos is a guileless country boy. He goes to Syracuse to buy supplies for his sister's wedding, and befriends the celebrated sculptor Selinuntius, who's plagued by self-doubt and a drinking problem. Melos bears witness to the king's cruelty before being caught up in it himself. Once again, the deal is struck-- Melos will depart to tend to his sister's wedding, returning to be executed on the third day. His new friend Selinuntius takes his place in jail. But here, forces opposed to the king try to render aid, while the obsessed monarch dispatches men of his own, to thwart the helpers and see the Melos has no choice but to run for the city on his own-- or run away.
Hashire, Melos! is an interesting film in more ways than one. I'm not exactly a big sakuga nerd, but I immediately recognized a good third of the names in the animator credits, which include the likes of Kill Bill animation director Kazuto Nakazawa, Oreimo director Hiroyuki Kanbe, and Wolf’s Rain director Tensai Okamura. Character designs are by Jin-Roh director Hiroyuki Okiura, which is partly why Melos looks exactly like Jin-Roh's main character, Fuse. (The other part is based on an artistic decision by Okiura, who rejected the director's notion of making the hero look western in favor of giving the movie a 'familiar face.') Toei provides the backbone of the film's production, but the director and creative staff come courtesy of Visual 80, one of those weird little animation studios that seems to periodically surface to try and take on a big project. Their other big successes? The Guyver OVAs, and the 1990 Moomin anime.
Okumi's Hashire, Melos! is also structured kind of weirdly. It opens with the epilogue, with the relieved Selinuntius confessing to the vindicated Melos one of the story's most poignant lines: “I suppose I willingly became a hostage because I wanted to save myself.” Later on, portions of the film are narrated by Alexis, the king's field officer and observer, who closes the story by bizarrely musing on what the people of the future might think of this tale. There's also some stunt casting, with pop singer Akina Nakamori playing the role of Lysa, one of the citizens opposing the king's policies-- she struggles gamely to keep up with the likes of Kōichi Yamadera as Melos and Megumi Hayashibara as his sister, Clair. More than anything else, Hashire, Melos! hits its stride when it relies on its animation. It's packed end-to-end with “wow!” moments, including an awesome, extended fight scene between Melos and some bandits animated by the great ‘full limited’ master Mitsuo Iso. Kon's hand isn't obvious, but it's no surprise that his attention to detail played a role in the film's art and layout. I suspect he might've done the sub-character designs for the aforementioned bandits, too-- the leader looks like Gin from Tokyo Godfathers! Interestingly, the movie came out during a time when Kon, urged by Katsuhiro Otomo, was “taking a break” from manga to try out animation. We're pretty lucky he decided to stick around as an animator!
Tracking Hashire, Melos! down wasn't merely problematic because of its age or limited release (VHS copies are plentiful-- you can even see VHS rips on YouTube-- but I've never once managed to find a listing for the purported laserdisc release)-- it was because the movie wasn't the only anime adaptation of Dazai's Melos story. In fact, it wasn't the only movie-length version of Run, Melos. Actually, it wasn't even the only movie-length anime adaptation by Toei Animation. They made a TV movie of Run, Melos in 1981! I've actually had that version in my collection for many years thanks to its status as a Dub that Time Forgot (thanks, Harmony Gold!), and for years I lumped the two films together, occasionally hearing about the newer one and wondering why those who'd seen it lavished such praise on it. Toei's 1981 Melos (retitled Run for Life: An Olympic Fable for the dub) isn't bad by any means, but it's pretty astoundingly average.
The TV movie is directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, who steered the ship on some of Toei's most beloved classics, fare like Mazinger Z, Devilman, and Captain Future. But his touch here is very predictable, full of muted colors, understated character designs, and obvious shot selections. This might be because the guy was just too busy-- in '81, he was also ramping up production on the following year's Arcadia of My Youth and the aforementioned Future War 198X, and complained vociferously about production issues in the pages of OUT magazine. The thing is, this version of the story is actually quite a bit more faithful to the original, going as far as restoring Melos's motivations for visiting Syracuse (he's a disillusioned kid, disgusted by King Dionysius's violence and suspicion, and enters the city with the vague notion of assassinating him). The film is tied together with a catchy theme tune by Isao Sasaki, which blares helpfully anytime Melos needs to start running back to Syracuse again.
For me, what really saves the movie is the adorably clumsy, sincere dubbed version, which features old Robotech-era voiceover favorites like Melanie McQueen as the narrator and Dan Woren as Selinuntius. In English, Melos's doubts and anguish are both touching and hilarious (“I'm going to lay down here and die,” Melos, puzzlingly renamed Philios, decides, exhausted, at the side of the road to the city. “I'll lay down and die. I'll just lay down here, and die!”). Best of all, the already-groovy theme song is replaced by an even better song, a motivational pop tune called “Run for Life” that sounds like it was lifted from the Karate Kid soundtrack. One thing that Harmony Gold did a great job with, though? Selling the damn movie. In researching Run for Life, I didn't discover much (oh hey look, Melos is voiced by TV and film star Teruhiko Aoi!), but I did notice, over and over, that kids all over the damn globe watched this film on TV growing up.
Of course, I remain partial to the English release. Man, check out that price down there! And kids these days have the nerve to complain when a 13-episode TV series costs more than thirty bucks. Why, back in my day, anime releases had pictures of bumblebees on 'em...
...and still, these two films aren't the only versions of the Melos story. There's an even earlier 1979 TV episode adaptation, part of the Heart of the Red Bird anthology series. More recently, a Mad House TV series called Aoi Bungaku freely adapted the story over the course of two episodes. Aoi Bungaku's a really cool show-- it's got a strong concept (loose adaptations of great modern Japanese literature, featuring character designs by popular manga artists) and a great staff behind it. Unfortunately, the series came out in 2009, making it one of the last shows to kinda get lost in the shuffle before online streaming became the rule rather than the exception. The adaptation is really interesting, tweaking the story to make it a loose tale of a playwright trying to churn out an adaptation of Run, Melos as a stage play. The character (called Takeda) both echoes Dazai's central idea behind Run, Melos: “Is it more painful to wait, or to be the one who makes others wait?” and echoes the famous writer's own doubts and fears. In one scene, he slumps over a blank page; “I am not a fortunate person,” he remarks. “A fortunate person would never have to write plays and novels.”
In collecting and watching anime, searching for something specific can lead you to some interesting places. I'm happy that this time it led me to 1992's Hashire, Melos!, a film that's once more fired up my imagination and my appreciation for animation, and steered me towards the works of Dazai, one of the 20th century's great writers. The thing is, the VHS rips of the movie that are out there look bad-- they take something that, in my eyes, is a pretty great film and reduce it to a muddy, discolored little image. The original film is still out there, waiting for a new scan and cleanup, so the hunt continues.
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