Samurai Marathon (Samurai marason)
Japan (2019) Dir. Bernard Rose
Just like we Brits have the London Marathon and the US have the New York Marathon, Japan has the Tokyo Marathon, but unlike ours, theirs has its own mythos for being an annual event. Yes, the Greeks started it all, but as we know, Japan always has their own twist on things.
1855 and American merchants have landed in Japan seeking to trade and bearing gifts. Commodore Matthew Perry (Danny Huston) excites the Shogun (Etsushi Toyokawa) with photographs, whiskey, and guns. However, the other feudal lords are suspicious of the Americans, fearing they will invade Japan instead. Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) of the Annaka Clan decides to pre-empt this with an unusual way to prepare his people.
His idea is hold a race for all men under 50 across a 58-kilometre mountain course, and the winner will have their wish granted. However, one of Itakura’s retainers, Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), is a spy for the Shogun, and thinking Itakura was announcing an attack on the Shogunate, sends a letter back saying as much. With the letter already received, Jinnai has to stop the shogun army from attacking the innocent runners.
With a title like Samurai Marathon, one would expect a sort of goofy comedy in the vein of the Cannonball Run but on feet and not with cars. The tone is in places a little comical early on but the sight of severed heads is rarely designed to elicit a laugh. Based on the novel Bakumatsu Marason Samurai by Akihiro Dobashi, this maybe a fictional work but the central premise is based on real events, as the pre-credits and coda make sure to establish, connecting the Annaka Run with today’s Tokyo Marathon.
Directed by Englishman Bernard Rose, known for the 1992 US horror flick Candyman, we are transported back to what was effectively the last hurrah of the samurai era of Japan, with this chapter of history closed twelve years after the race was won. This is not to posit the race as the catalyst for such almighty social reform but it does make for an interesting footnote to record an event like occurring in such close proximity to it.
To add personal stakes for the competitors of the race, the opening 20 minutes sprints (rather ironically given the main premise) through their introductions. First, there is Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), a talented artist yearning to break free from her father’s control. Having been betrothed to a retainer in order to sire a grandson, Yuki runs away, then upon hearing about the race, disguises herself as a peasant and enters, hoping to escape to Edo along the way.
Meanwhile, fast runner Hironoshin Uesugi (Shota Sometani) wants to win so he can be elevated to samurai status and provide for his family, but is then offered a lucrative deal of 100 ryo if he loses the race. Samurai Heikuro Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama) is in love with Yuki and plans to ask for her hand in marriage if he wins, devising a plan to have his men hide horses and a palanquin around the course to carry him to victory.
Finally, veteran samurai Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka) wants to run to prove he can still serve his master, taking a young boy Isuke (Ruka Wakabayashi) under his wing with desires to be a samurai like his late father. They form a trio with Yuki, who happens upon their shack during her first night away from home under the male identity of Kumanosuke though they see through it right away.
Unfortunately, most of this becomes largely irrelevant once the race begins, with only the occasional related reference to them amidst the impending arrival of the shogun’s army being the focus. Yuki’s mission is thwarted when the border guards recognise her and acting on her father’s orders detain her, just as the vicious Hayabusa (Ryu Kohata) shows up and blasts them away with his newly acquired handgun.
I can only assume Dobashi’s original novel featured the race more heavily and delved deeper into the personal goals of the runners to make it exciting for the reader and to flesh out the characters, which may be harder to translate to the screen, hence relying on the violence to spice things up here. As the promotional blurb proudly boasts participation of “the team behind 13 Assassins” fans of Miike’s film will be happy to know this is represented by the blood-soaked sword fights that occur during the race.
Even with spurts of blood, severed limbs, and tightly fought duels there is a notable absence of genuine drama, completely undermining the thrills of the race and the sword battles. It is difficult to pinpoint what is missing and at whom we should be pointing our fingers – is it director Rose or fight choreographer Hiroshi Kuze for not creating a sense of danger?
Another factor to this is the film’s erratic pacing, again ironic considering the marathon-running theme where consistency is key. A brisk opening act is followed by a slower set up for the race, which tends to meander most of the time, hampered by the lack of helpful indicators for how much of the course has been run. With no sense of time, distance, or even where the finish line is, they could be running anywhere.
On a more positive note, the cinematography is excellent, offering a catalogue of simply gorgeous shots to devour with our eyes, complimented by a lyrical musical score from Philip Glass. The cast feature many faces who should familiar to Japanese cinema, like Nana Komatsu, Takeru Satoh, Naoto Takenaka, and Shota Sometani, the latter rather oddly underused given the nature of his role, all of whom give their all as expected of them.
Perhaps it is wrong to say this, but as acceptably diverting, exceptionally well made, and valiant an effort Samurai Marathon is, its general sterility suggests maybe it would be best to leave making historical films about Japan to the Japanese?