Of Artists, Minstrels & Drowning Friends

How far would you go to save a friend?

We never expect it will be that far; that it will be too far, and will push beyond the bounds of what we’re willing or have the capacity to offer. Instead, somehow, it will always be doable in the moment and we won’t really have to make a decision. It will be natural. Because that’s what friends are for—true friends, at least.

But sometimes it does take a decision, and one that can be painful, confusing, and not at all guaranteed to actually make a difference. This is what Yatora experiences in episode 10 of Blue Period and, in a different way, what Biwa goes through in The Heike Story as well. The artist and the minstrel. Each has a friend who is drowning: for Yatora, it’s Ryuji/Yuka, for whom the watery struggle is metaphorical; and for Biwa, it’s Tokuko, whose drowning is quite literal.

Lifeguards are taught that a drowning person is more dangerous than a loaded gun. Instinctively, in the panicked fight to survive, a drowning person can drown the rescuer. Even if that person is a friend.

But Jesus said that love is the willingness to lay your life down for a friend. That’s going uncomfortably far. 

His definition of friend was similarly challenging (much like his definition of neighbor!). One of the last things Jesus did was to address his betrayer as “friend”, in the garden when Judas came to turn him over to the authorities with congenial words and a kiss of greeting. Jesus knew his true motivation, yet still called him “friend”: “Friend, do what you are here to do,” (Matthew 26:50). I like to think Jesus was extending one final opportunity to Judas to change his mind and think better of what he was about to do; that the savior was reminding him of their relationship. Before the day was out, Jesus had laid down his life for that friend.

What does it mean to imitate Christ in this? In the area of friendship and sacrificial love? 

Interestingly, although not consciously engaging with scripture, this is basically what episode 10 of Blue Period is about. What does friendship look like when someone is drowning, be it either by the actions of others or through self-destruction (it’s a little bit of both for Yuka…and isn’t that true for all of us?).

Was Jesus commissioning us all to die for others literally, the way that he did? What a question! But therein lies the answer, I think: namely, that he already did it. He was the one to give his life once for all, so that for us, the charge to lay down our lives becomes metaphorical, or perhaps more accurately, spiritual. (This is something that is discussed in my post on magical girls Yuki Yuna and Madoka Kaname.)

So then we’re left with the question, what does it mean to lay down your life (metaphorically or spiritually) for the sake of a friend? Here too, Jesus provides a helpful insight: it means allowing someone else to make a claim on your life. Not all of it, because boundaries are healthy! (Jesus practiced those too, with his many retreats to the mountainside and escapes from the crowd.) But a claim on our time and resources. In other words, permitting others to interrupt us.

Jesus knew that doing the will of God did not always look like doing what he had planned for the day.

Jesus did it all the time, much to the occasional annoyance of his disciples and petitioners who deemed themselves to be rather important. It happens with the woman who had the issue of blood; with the crowd of over 5000 who stalk him up the mountain; with the little child; with the foreign woman whose daughter is ill; with the woman at the well who came from the wrong social background and a life of immorality; with the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus, and the invalid whose friends broke in to Jesus’ meeting by digging a hole in the roof; with his mother and her untimely request for a wedding miracle; the list goes on. Jesus allowed himself to be interrupted, all while yet “being about his father’s business” (Luke 2:49). In other words, Jesus knew that doing the will of God did not always look like doing what he had planned for the day.

In fact, Jesus recognized that it was God himself who was interrupting his plans! He saw his Father’s fingerprints all over these seemingly ill-timed interactions, and showed his love for God as well as for the people themselves in giving them the time of day.

This was a lesson that Moses had to learn too, when he was out shepherding on the mountainside, as he had done for forty years. He saw that burning bush—apparently a relatively common phenomenon in the desert—and after awhile, seeing that it wasn’t being consumed (how long it took him to notice, I do not know!), Moses went to check it out. He let himself be interrupted and as a result, encountered the angel of the Lord, had a lengthy conversation with God, and received a divine commission for his life. 

During that conversation, when Moses voiced his fears about not being up to the task, God asked him to throw down the staff that he held in his hand. This staff was not simply a piece of wood, but a symbol of his profession for the past four decades, the marker of who he was in society, and a tool of his trade, a testimony to his specific skill set. When he threw it down, he was surrendering all of that to God, all the prestige, effort, and expertise it represented; he was throwing down nothing less than his plans for his life. While it lay down on the ground, God imbued that staff with something greater—his own power—and transformed an already potent symbol into something far grander and more meaningful. But it only happened because Moses let God interrupt his day and, symbolically, his plans for his life too.

In Blue Period, Yuka challenges Yatora to do the same: to let himself be interrupted for the sake of a friend. Only, Yuka makes the request mockingly, no doubt out of self-protection: “If someone is drowning, you’d bring a lifesaver, but never jump into the sea. If someone is crying, naked, you’d give them some clothes and listen to them, but never take your clothes off.”

Yuka doesn’t expect Yatora to actually make so significant a sacrifice for a friend, knowing him to be a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. Knowing too that Yatora is on the verge of his entrance exams for art school and is fully consumed right now with refining his skill and technique as an artist. It isn’t a convenient time to rescue a friend.

But there’s more to it as well. Throughout the series, Yatora maintains a certain distance between himself and others by always responding to them “correctly”, but without heart. He isn’t vulnerable with others—his friend Koigakubo calls him out on this—and he doesn’t know what to do with the vulnerability of others either, so he pretends not to see the fullness of their need or the extent of their helplessness. In so doing, even the little he does is stripped of meaning and fails to comfort, because it lacks commitment from the heart.

“That’s who you are, Yatora,” says Yuka. “You’re cool-headed and that’s correct. Doing correct things makes you excellent. And you’re always an excellent model student. But if you can only speak from a correct perspective, I have nothing to say to you.” Whether he means to be or not, Yatora is only capable of being a fair-weather friend.

In The Heike Story, the challenge comes not from the friend in need, Tokuko, but from within Biwa herself, or perhaps the universe. Biwa sees visions of her friend’s impending death by drowning, and feels powerless to change what she believes is fate, and therefore beyond her control. At first, she resists the visions, begging Tokuko not to leave when she is scheduled to make passage over the sea, certain, no doubt, that she is going to her death. But as the years pass, Biwa becomes numbed to the warnings in her visions and she even stops looking for them. Instead, she seeks serenity, reconciling herself to the inevitability of it all. As she does so, Biwa throws herself into her music so fully as to remain absorbed in her instrument even as the tide of battle turns around her and the Heike perish. As she plays on, through the tumult, Tokuko rises and steps up to the boat’s edge, unnoticed by Biwa.

But then the unexpected happens, in both cases. Yatora and Biwa both suddenly question their priorities, Yatora at length and in conversation with others, and Biwa in a flash. They come to the same decision: the artist puts down his paintbrush, and the minstrel, her biwa, and they both rush to the water’s edge to reach out and rescue their drowning friends.

The story doesn’t end there though. Once the high drama of the rescues subside, both Yatora and Biwa return to their lives and pick up the tools of their craft once again, where they find that something has changed. As with Moses and his staff, they discover a new depth of skill and creative power as they handle again the brush and strings.

During his emergency trip to the ocean with Yuka, Yatora gains the knowledge of himself that he needs to produce a truly striking and original work of art in his exam the next day. Meanwhile, in overturning Tokuko’s “fate”, Biwa discovers her own agency and gains a perfect ending for her song of the Heike, ensuring that the final word of their legacy—which now belongs to Tokuko—will be one of reconciliation rather than pride and anger or despair.

Both the artist and the minstrel attain new heights, creating masterpieces in paint and melody because they let themselves be interrupted by a friend in need.


There is a tension here that I won’t deny: we are called to walk along the narrow way, not turning to the left or to the right, yet still permitting our journey to be interrupted by others. And it is also true that not all interruptions are godly: some are distractions, injecting fear, panic, or self-importance into our day.

But godly interruptions have the power to change our lives and the world we live in for the better. They have the capacity to bring us even more fully into God’s purposes for our lives, while inviting us to draw nearer to one another as well. One might even say that interruptions are the heart of community-building.

So let’s pause a little more readily, leaning in to listen and see if maybe that’s the Father’s voice asking us if we’re willing to stop, willing to interrupt our plans for another, or maybe simply for him.

After all, he’s our friend too.

The Heike Story can be streamed on Funimation, and hopefully soon on Crunchyroll too. Blue Period can be viewed on Netflix.


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