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A curious movie called Hashire Melos came out in 1992. It never gained much recognition among western fans, probably due to its subject matter, and even in Japan it has yet to be released on DVD. Yet it features work by many renowned animators, not least Hiroyuki Okiura, director of Jin Roh, who supervised the animation.
I finally got to see this two nights ago after many years of searching, and I was quite pleased with the film. I recommend checking it out if you like this period of anime history as much as I do, especially the style of animation during this period.
The production studio was a short-lived studio called Visual 80 whose claim to fame was the last Japanese cel animation Moomin series from 1990. They had previously produced two other literary anime: Belle and Sebastian and The Yearling. The director of Run Melos was the erstwhile puppet theater director turned occasional anime director Masaaki Osumi, best remembered for the early Lupin III episodes and the first Moomin series from 1969 by TMS.
It's a strange movie because it doesn't fit in. It seems out of nowhere. Suddenly, amidst all the love comedies and supernatural psychic aliens and space operas, we get a quiet realistic drama set in ancient Greece. Adaptations of foreign and domestic literature are admittedly not that rare in anime, but more often than not they are sub-par productions far from the lavish treatment given this film.
Run Melos reflects the emerging interest in realism around this time that produced films like Only Yesterday (1991), Patlabor 2 (1993), Junkers Come Here (1994), Anne's Diary (1995) and eventually Jin Roh (1999) and Satoshi Kon's films in the 2000s, not to mention various other significant non-feature items. Aside from Hiroyuki Okiura himself, a number of the more prominent realistic animators participated in the film. According to an interview with Okiura, many of the staff who worked on Rojin Z transferred over to work on this film, which would go some ways to accounting for the impressive staff roll.
This film has fairly splendid production quality thanks not only to Hiroyuki Okiura's work as animation director, but also thanks to this group of awesome animators. These days when I look at staff rolls I don't recognize anybody. When I look at this one, I recognize everyone except for two or three people. Many of them went on to become famous directors or animators.
This film is the biggest stepping stone leading to Hiroyuki Okiura's later film Jin Roh, and he cites these two films as the films closest to his heart among the films he's worked on. Many of us are hoping he will direct another film. In the meantime, discover this early film that in many ways laid his foundation as a director.
It's a shame that this thing has been completely overlooked because it was one of the major anime films of the day. It's not a great film, but it's far from terrible. The directing is quite interesting and unlike any other anime film. The low-key story is very appealing. It has solid animation quality overall, and contains a number of scenes with excellent animation.
The story is a retelling of one of the most famous novels of the Showa period by Osamu Dazai, the tempestuous author who famously made no less than five attempts to commit suicide between the age of 20 and 38, the last one finally proving successful.
The story in outline (minus key details) goes thus:
It's 360 BC on the island of Sicily, which at the time consisted largely of Greek colonies. A farmer named Melos from a small town in the southeast travels to the nearby town of Syracuse to purchase a ceremonial sword for his sister's wedding. Under the iron thumb of the local dictator, the town is roiled with unrest. Melos finds himself caught in the middle of court machinations, and is forced to undertake a grueling run back to his home town to see through his sister's wedding.
(Note that the story is not a retelling of the famous though spurious anecdote about the Greek messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens to report the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, but is rather clearly inspired by it.)
Although a time-travelling Sicilian would probably have a thing or two to say about the authenticity of the trappings, they did put considerable effort into fleshing out the details of life in that day. The layouts are assiduously realistic in terms of perspective, cinematic in framing, and the backgrounds meticulously detailed. In a sad and touching coincidence, it seems that Satoshi Kon was to thank for many of the film's careful, detailed layouts. I watched this film the day he died.
(Aside about Kon's involvement: This would have been his second major job in anime after Rojin Z, which he participated in through his connection with Katsuhiro Otomo. He supposedly drew about 1/10 of the layouts in Rojin Z. He began by drawing concept art and seamlessly switched over to doing layouts and even character roughs, and he presumably did more of the same thing in Run Melos. He had been working mainly as a manga artist, and he appreciated the task for the opportunity it afforded to draw intricately detailed backgrounds. This obsessive detail would later be translated to his storyboards, whose maniacal detail make them double as layouts. It was while working on Rojin Z that Satoshi Kon met Hiroyuki Okiura, and Okiura invited Kon to work on Run Melos. Kon himself probably had no idea where the casual decision to work for a little longer in animation would eventually lead him.)
I would have preferred a more authentic foreign design, but in fact Okiura wasn't originally asked to do the designs. He was originally asked just to be the sakkan. But after extensive talks with Masaaki Osumi, he came to the conclusion that the designs that had been submitted did not meet Osumi's requirements, and it would be more troublesome for him to have to fight against inappropriate designs throughout the film than merely redesign them accordingly himself. And that is what happened. He wasn't a designer by trade, and it shows. I honestly don't care much for the designs. They betray minimal understanding of the nuances of facial feature, and fail to express individuality or national features. Instead of drawing real people, a bulbous nose is slapped onto a textbook design and this is passed off as a generic 'foreigner'. It's kind of insulting.
Apparently Osumi himself instructed Okiura in how Japanese features differ from foreign features, but Okiura chose not to implement this information. He felt that because film was intended for a Japanese audience, an accurately foreign design might have impeded audiences from relating to the characters. I find the logic convoluted and spurious, but I can't blame him too much. Although the two protagonists and womenfolk are quite bland in their design, the despot and the older characters are much more interesting, with craggy features and oddly elongated silhouettes reminiscent of Takashi Nakamura's designs.
But aside from the designs themselves, I'm very impressed by the way they move. The character acting is bereft of the cliches that plagued anime as much back then as they do today. Cleansing the air of ingrained habit and taking a new approach to character psychology more closely based on determining how each character would act in his or her position was Masaaki Osumi's great contribution to this film. Hiroyuki Okiura says he learned much from Masaaki Osumi and the experience was a major turning point in his career. In hindsight, the approach to acting in this film does seem to presage the approach of Jin Roh, with its restrained, methodical acting. It's hardly hard-core realism by any means, but there is a considerable degree of detail in the expression of the subtleties of body movement in many shots, although it's not as uniform as in Jin Roh (and although there are also many less fortunate shots that clearly went uncorrected).
The personalities of the characters are also interesting. The despot ruler in particular is an interesting study in contradictions. Normally anime would go over the top in depicting this kind of character as a crazed, bloodthirsty lunatic. But in Melos that's not the case at all. The first rumors we hear about him at the start of the film paint him up as such, but when he finally shows up, he proves far more sanguine and reasonable than the rumors suggested. No lunatic could manage the complex political maneuvering needed to hold onto the reins of power the way he has. His personality is a balance of humanity and necessary cruelty.
One scene in particular memorably illustrates that he has many facets, like any human being. After having just personally executed a rebel and devised a Machiavellian scheme to cruelly toy with Melos in an attempt to bolster his popularity with the citizens of Syracuse, the next morning we see him kneeling besides his pregnant wife, his ear against her belly, exclaiming proudly, "I felt him move!". The scene seems deliberately provocative in its moving tenderness and serenity coming after such scenes of cold calculation. A multi-layered individual like everyone else who happens to have acceded to power by the whims of fate is more convincing than a cartoon villain. The opaque motivation of the tyrant, who seems to sincerely believe in what he is doing, helps to prevent the film from becoming a black and white study of evil versus good.
The story presents an openly interpretable morality tale about the need to trust other human beings, and the crisis of one man's faith in humanity. The script is many-layered, with the main theme being played out on different planes - personal, political and philosophical. An uneducated farmer caught up in political struggles beyond his knowing desperately seeks the trust of strangers to save his life, a cosmopolitan stone carver betrayed by his own father seeks to regain his faith in humanity by placing his life in the hands of a stranger, and the citizens betrayed by their ruler seek democracy. The film poses fundamental philosophical questions in the style of the old Greek philosophers. There are moments when it felt like I was witnessing a performance of one of Plato's dialogues. And I mean that as a compliment. Some of the most interesting philosophical exchanges occur with the despot, who comes across as understanding and insightful, just misguided.
Though I don't really know much about director Masaaki Osumi other than that he started out in puppet theater, and that I loved his 1969 Moomin series, I think it's this very different way of conceptualizing characters that makes this film unique, and it's Masaaki Osumi who's to thank for it. Like Isao Takahata, Osumi cannot draw and relies on his associates to create the storyboards. According to Okiura, the way this worked was that Osumi would convey to Okiura what he wanted at the animator meetings, and Okiura would either draw the storyboard from scratch or correct the storyboards drawn by other people. Okiura asserts that he still clearly remembers what Osumi told him at this time, and that it laid the foundation for his mindset as a director.
Osumi seems to be the kind of director who, rather than getting caught up in the story, steps back and takes more objective perspective. He thinks things through logically and doesn't lose sight of the big picture. He doesn't have a particular style of drawing that dominates what he might want to express. Oftentimes I find it's the outside directors, the ones who aren't used to industry conventions, who create the most refreshing animation.
The details of the production apart from the character animation are also nice. Little things like the way the water arcs through the air off the back wheels of a cart driving through the rain are well observed details that I appreciate seeing. The art of Hiroshi Ohno is magnificent, especially the paintings of carvings. The carvings play a central role in the story as metaphors for the artist's loss of faith, and crappy art would have ruined their impact, but Ohno's art fully captures the elegance and refined sensibility of ancient Greek sculptures.
Among animation aficionados, the film is best remembered for the action scene in the forest animated by Mitsuo Iso, which certainly features the most impressive body movement in the film and is one of his best pieces. It reminds me of his animation for the Eva movie. Satoru Utsunomiya did the part right afterwards. Toshiyuki Inoue also delivers a great sequence with the cockfight scene. He's got an amazing ability to draw every character three dimensionally from any angle or body position. The movement is fun yet realistic. He also supposedly animated a lot of the horses. Hiroyuki Morita handles one of the most poignant scenes in the film, the scene where Melos parts from his sister in the rain. The scene feels raw and real, the sister getting up naked from her marriage bed to go to the window and wave goodbye, and the husband pulling her back to bed, leaving Melos alone to face his fate. Michio Mihara handled the scene with the beggar boys attacking Melos at the beginning. I suspect Yasunori Miyazawa did the wedding dance scene, though I'm not positive. It's not as characteristic as his other work around this period.
Even apart from this there are many other great names in the credits; too many to point out. There's also a number of people who went on to become directors: Tensai Okamura, Shin Matsuo, Toshiyuki Tsuru and Hiroyuki Kanbe.
There aren't many films like this one. It doesn't cater to fan tastes, and it's about as far removed as you can get from everything cool, hip or sexy. I personally love low-key films like this. It's low-key realism and solid human drama that I think makes Summer with Coo the Kappa a great film. It's more films with this spirit of independence that we need. I'm a great fan of what anime has achieved in terms of realism in animation, and this is one of the earliest tentative examples of realism in the post-Akira period. It's one of the stepping stones that leads to the great realistic films that followed, so it's required viewing if you want to have a sense of the evolution of realistic anime.
Script & Director: Masaaki Osumi
Character Design and Animation Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Art Director: Hiroshi Ohno
Storyboard: Katsumi Terahigashi, Mizuho Nishikukbo, Hiroyuki Okiura, Masaaki Osumi
Toshiyuki Inoue, Satoshi Kon
Hiroyuki Morita, Michiyo Suzuki
Kumiko Kawana, Michio Mihara
Katsumi Matsuda, Yasunori Miyazawa
Sumio Watanabe, Masayuki Kobayashi
Tensai Okamura, Mitsuo Iso
Saitani Umetaro, Akihiro Yuuki
Tsutomu Yabuki, Kenichi Oonuki
Kazuya Takeda, Harumi Izawa
Takahiro Komori, Satoru Utsunomiya
Eiji Suganuma, Ken Aratani, Reiko Eda
Koji Ito, Yoshinobu Michihata, Kazuyoshi Takeuchi
Hiroyuki Aoyama, Shigetaka Kiyoyama, Yoshishige Kosako
Hideki Hamasu, Michio Fukuda, Shin Matsuo, Takuya Saito
Toshiyuki Tsuru, Toshinari Yamashita, Takao Yoshino
Shinji Hashimoto, Riwako Matsui, Hiroyuki Kanbe
Tetsuro Karai, Yumi Chiba, Fumiko Kishi
Kenji Yoshida, Kazuto Nakazawa, Shinya Takahashi