Classics can be a slog. There's something about being made to read books that are "good for you" that takes the fun out of it. I remember working my way through Goethe's Foust and Dante's Inferno during my last couple years of high school -- Dante I loved, Goethe I hated. Were they books deserving of their praise? Probably. Would I go back and re-read either one? Probably not.
Run, Melos is a classic of modern Japanese literature, more akin to Western students being assigned The Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby. Written by the acclaimed (and suicidal) Osamu Dazai, it's apparently a favorite to teach in Japanese schools. And like many western favorites, it's been adapted to the screen. In fact, it's been turned into anime no less than three times. The first and second variations, released in 1979 and 1981, have all but disappeared. The third time, in 1992, they added an exclamation point to the name. Does it deserve it? Although it's not a thrilling tale in the typical sense, Run, Melos! is an enjoyable story of trust and friendship, and it deserves a larger western audience than it ever found.
Based on the ancient Greek legend of Damon and Pythias, our story introduces us to our title character, a youthful, slightly meaty man who's jovial but not particularly reliable. He's on a quest to get a ceremonial sword for his sister's wedding. Through a series of coincidences, he makes the acquaintance of a master stone mason, Celine. Celine was once known as perhaps the finest craftsman in all of Syracuse, but now his greatest claim to fame is his ability to drink anyone else under the table. They strike up an unlikely friendship.
That friendship, only a few hours old, is immediately put to the test when Melos is put on trial for conspiracy against the king. Dionysius II is a ruthless tyrant who distrusts everyone and has had his own family members executed for imagined treasons, and he assumes the worst of Melos. He's sentenced to death, though he's given an unexpected reprive. His friend Celine will take his place in jail, giving Melos three days to return from his sister's wedding. If he comes back, Celine will be spared; if not, Celine will die. Melos is a good-hearted fellow, but will he risk everything to save a man he barely knows...a man who has willingly put his life on the line for his new friend?
It's not surprising that Run, Melos! was never discovered outside of Japan. Though the animation is solid for a film of its time, it's not technically or visually stunning. (It doesn't help that the only versions available to us are taken from VHS subs, kind of surprising for the digital era, but I digress.) I'm sure it went unnoticed because it has only a few action sequences; no ninja, robots, or tentacles are present, which is pretty much what was being imported to the US twenty years ago. It has several beautiful shots, but it doesn't have an artistic hook that makes it stand out. Take that the very best versions available are quite fuzzy, and it might not seem worth the effort to track down.
That thought would be wrong, however, for apart from a couple of minor problems, Run, Melos! is deeply compelling. It's a story about trust -- trust in one's community, in strangers, in perhaps fate or God or something more. It's about how trust can make a shiftless person take responsibility for his actions, how it can inspire us to live life to the fullest. While entertaining -- it's not an educational or inspirational movie per se, but one we can simply enjoy -- it's got something deeper going on than most films. It's surprisingly conversational. It's not a "talkie" film, but when people talk, they generally talk about things that matter. While sentimental at points, it never falls into sentimentalism.
If there's a low spot in the film, it's the character of Dionysus II. In Dazai's original story (and the legend), Melos was actually guilty of the crime of which he was accused; here, he's innocent, the victim of a paranoid despot. That makes Melos more relatable and we're more concerned for him, so the change isn't terrible. However, Dionysus II becomes a one-dimensional overlord in the process. The character growth is left to his minions. I suppose I'm used to simplistic bad guys in anime, but this story deserved a more nuanced characterization.
Save that minor issue, Run, Melos! is a very good motion picture that has been neglected for far too long. Due to circumstances, I was forced to watch the film in two blocks, and many times when that happens I have to start over because I lose my place. Here, though, the events were so compelling that I was ready to find out if Melos would be able to keep his word. It's no lost classic, but collectors and animation fans will find this a most pleasant surprise if they run across it. If you like anime that's a bit deeper and more touching than the norm, it's worth seeking out.
Run, Melos! -- violence, very brief nudity -- A-