An Olympic Fable: Run for Life
One of the most obscure anime titles in my VHS collection was found in a battered case in a used video bin at a now-shuttered video store back in May 1998. At the time I had no idea what its exact origin was, but I was sure it was Japanese animation, thanks to the © 1983 Harmony Gold credit on the case and the style of art seen in the intriguing image of a young man in Ancient Greece running with a look of urgency on his face. Harmony Gold is the U.S. company that crafted the 85-episode syndicated series, “Robotech,” in 1985 by stringing together three unrelated anime sci-fi series from 1982-84 and adapting the dialogue so that the stringing together made sense. The title on the case of the videotape I bought is “An Olympic Fable: Run for Life,” while the onscreen title on the tape itself is just “Run for Life.”
Some research on whatever limited internet resources I had back in 1998 revealed that the 68-minute film contained on the tape was a TV special produced by Toei Animation in 1981 and originally titled, “Hashire Melos!” (Run, Melos!). It was based on a novel by Osamu Dazai, a celebrated Japanese author who died in 1948. It’s a tale of friendship that is tested by a cruel ordeal imposed on a pair of friends by a tyrant in an ancient Greek city. In the course of the story, Filios, a shepherd sentenced to death for a minor offense by the tyrant, a man whom the shepherd had once fought alongside, is allowed to return to his village to attend the wedding of his sister but is ordered to return in three days or his closest friend, Adamantus, a onetime court sculptor, will be crucified in his place. Needless to say, Filios runs back home some 30 miles, arranges the wedding and presides over it and then runs back on the third day only to face numerous obstacles including a flood that has washed out the one bridge he needs to cross a raging river and an attack by mountain bandits that leaves him too injured to run.
It’s quite a suspenseful and moving tale and is told with the kind of boldly-etched dramatic artwork that has given anime its worldwide reputation. It helps that it’s so well-dubbed (by voices that will sound familiar to anyone who’s watched “Robotech” or any of the other early anime releases dubbed by Carl Macek). The piece works on a number of levels, but I was most taken with the way it builds and evokes the worlds these characters move in, starting with the farming village where Filios and his sister Elena live. Filios herds sheep while others in the community grow grapes for wine. They are close to the land and the bounties of it and have a rich appreciation of it. The wedding party for Elena and her husband, Cerentus, is a lively affair with lots of drinking and dancing, an unabashed celebration of love and community.
In the city, we see an ancient urban setting but one that’s marked by a malaise that results in a more hesitant and restrained street life than Filios remembers from his earlier visits. He is appalled to see his friend Adamantus’ magnificent statue devoted to the Goddess of Love lying in ruins, and replaced by statues of fierce lions.
When the king and his party march through the streets, a little girl accidentally lets loose her dog which spooks a horse and causes an officer to fall. Filios takes responsibility for it and is soon imprisoned and ordered to die.
Later on, when Filios has been temporarily freed, we see the landscapes that he must travel through to and from his village and the harshness of it as he suffers an injury that threatens to prevent him from getting back to the city on time, making the ever-lowering sun a constant threat.
This TV special was directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, a pioneering anime director who was involved with some of the most memorable anime TV series and features of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. (More on him below.) As far as I’ve been able to determine, this program is now out of print and has never been released in the U.S. in any other edition. Nor do I find the original Japanese version available anywhere overseas. I’m happy with my VHS copy, but it sure would be nice to see the original Japanese version on an upgraded format. Fortunately, I know that at least one other person has saved their VHS copy because when I went to check on YouTube, there the film was:
So now at least others can see it.
Dazai’s novel was also adapted into a full-length anime feature in in 1992 and called HASHIRE MELOS, which I would later acquire on VHS in a Japanese-only edition. It was 40 minutes longer than the TV special and much harder to sit through. Granted, it was very talky and lacked subtitles. The animation was slicker and more fluid, but the added scenes didn’t seem to contribute anything new or substantial to the proceedings. I’ll stick with the English-dubbed TV special.
For the record, the character names I used above are from the English dub and differ significantly from the names used in Osamu Dazai’s novel. For more information, see the book’s Wikipedia page:
Great Conquest: Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Tomoharu Katsumata directed another epic of the ancient world that also, so far, has only had an English-dubbed VHS release in the U.S. and is now out of print. Moving from Ancient Greece a few hundred years B.C.E. to Ancient China in the 2nd century A.D., GREAT CONQUEST: THE ROMANCE OF THREE KINGDOMS (1992) is a Japanese animated rendition of the classic Chinese text, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and offers a full-fledged 118-minute theatrical epic with a story spanning a couple of decades and a plot packed with massive battles, murderous court intrigue and internecine conflict in a not-yet-unified China.
It was released by Streamline Pictures, Carl Macek’s company, around 1995, about when I bought my copy, at a time when Streamline was still a major player in anime distribution in the U.S. (AKIRA, LENSMAN, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, GOLGO 13, VAMPIRE HUNTER D, DIRTY PAIR, CRYING FREEMAN, etc.), although not for much longer. In fact, GREAT CONQUEST was their last release for two years and the next-to-last title to be released by the company.
The English dub is good, performed by the same crew that did a lot of Carl Macek’s dubs (including RUN FOR LIFE), and is bolstered considerably by narration provided by Japanese-American actor Pat Morita. (There is more narration in the dub than in the Japanese original, since there is considerable historical background necessary to get American viewers up to speed. I would have assumed that Japanese viewers would need similar tutoring, but maybe not.) The script adapts several early chapters from Volume One of the text and focuses primarily on the friendship between three “sworn brothers,” Liu Bei, Chang Fei and Kwang Yu, as they seek to help in the unification of their country by allying themselves with the leaders most apt to accomplish that goal. The constant stream of murders and betrayals and factional warfare wears down their idealism and faith in leaders but never their friendship.
There are other plots in play, including Liu Bei’s long-delayed marriage to Li-Hua, and long stretches where none of the protagonists are involved, including the famous tale of Tiao Chan (Diau Charn in some tellings), a court minister’s daughter who is recruited by her father to simultaneously charm the Emperor and his leading general in order to turn them against each other and shift the balance of power. It takes up eight minutes of the film and I recommend that interested viewers seek out the Shaw Bros. film, DIAU CHARN (1958), the studio’s first color production, to see the whole story told.
The film is filled with lots of spectacular imagery, including sprawling landscapes and epic battle scenes with thousands of warriors on horseback and foot. In addition, the production design recreates numerous fortresses, palaces, villas and spacious interiors. Every time I see this film I’m astonished at how fluidly the action is animated and how extensive it is.
The dialogue scenes are more stiffly animated, but that’s a compensation I can live with. The character design could have used a little more detail, since there are many characters who look too similar to each other and are adorned with the same beards and moustaches. I got temporarily confused a few times, especially since there are so many characters to keep track of.
But overall, it’s a worthy historical epic and one that I prefer over John Woo’s RED CLIFF (2008), which is based on later chapters from the same text. (For the record, I prefer the shorter North American cut of RED CLIFF to the longer two-part five-hour version released in China.) There is a Mainland Chinese TV series from 1995 based on the text that’s supposed to be really good. Episodes of that are up on YouTube as well.
I would love to have seen GREAT CONQUEST on the big screen and don’t know why it was never released that way. And now that Streamline’s gone out of business and many of the U.S. licenses to its properties have expired, who knows if or when we’ll ever see this film in another format. I’m glad I have my VHS and I even bought a Japanese-only VHS copy from Book Off just so I can at least see it in Japanese.
The English dub is up on YouTube—in eight parts!—and erroneously stretched out anamorphically so that the characters all look twice as wide as they should.
Here’s a link to Part 1:
I’ll stick with my VHS. Those of you who are intrigued enough to want to see this film properly should consult Amazon.com, which has used VHS copies for sale at reasonable prices. If, like so many people these days, you no longer have access to a VHS player, then you’re simply out of luck.
And now a word about Tomoharu Katsumata, who directed both of the above films. (The onscreen director credit for GREAT CONQUEST is Katsumata, although the VHS case identifies Masaharu Okuwaki as the director. On-line sources dispute the credit. IMDB says Okuwaki, while Anime News Network says Katsumata. Okuwaki’s credits are otherwise undistinguished except for one of the Lupin III movies, while Katsumata has great experience with epic anime, so I’m sticking with him.) Among Katsumata’s other notable anime achievements are his directorial credits on such classic anime series as “Mazinger Z,” “Devilman,” “Cutey Honey,” “UFO Robo Grendizer,” and “Fist of the North Star,” plus several notable theatrical features including THE LITTLE MERMAID, ARCADIA OF MY YOUTH (the Captain Harlock feature spin-off), FINAL YAMATO and BE FOREVER YAMATO (two of the feature spin-offs of the Space Battleship Yamato franchise). In addition, he directed two sequels to SANGOKUSHI (the Japanese title for ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS), in 1993-94, neither of which has seen any release in the U.S. I would love to see those, even in Japanese-only VHS editions.
And finally, here are my IMDB reviews of three of the films discussed above: