Samurai Marathon (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2019]

Every May in Annaka city, Gunma Prefecture, a marathon is held that claims to be the oldest in Japan. Its origins can be traced back to when Commodore Perry arrived off the coast of the country in 1854 with his black ships and, through threat of aggression, ended 260 years of Japan’s self-imposed isolation. Leaders across the land reacted differently to his arrival. One cautious feudal lord, Katsuaki Itakura of the Annaka clan, tested the abilities of his samurai by holding a marathon. This story is brought to life by British director Bernard Rose, perhaps still most famous for Candyman (1992), who worked from the novel “The Marathon Samurai: Five Tales of Japan’s First Marathon” by Akihiro Dobashi. The resulting film, Samurai Marathon will sweep audiences away. It’s a well executed adventure that, once it gets up and running, provides plenty of action and amusement.

The film’s set-up is a sprint to get everyone to the starting line. Opening with the arrival of Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) and his treaty demands it dashes into Katsuaki Itakura’s (Hiroki Hasegawa) organising a marathon 36 miles long to toughen up his warriors in mind and body for potential attacks from foreigners. The promise of a wish being granted to the winner is the motivation for the ensemble of runners which consists of fighting men of all stripes from lower-class spear-men like Hironoshi Uesugi (Shota Sometani), who dreams of being raised to the status of a higher-class samurai, an aged samurai recently put out to pasture named Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka), to the chief retainer’s son, Heikuro Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama) who wants to marry Itakura’s daughter Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu). All are vying to win and all are introduced quickly as are the people connected to them such as wives and children. By the time we get to the starting line at the 40-minute mark we get a vertical view of samurai society and become connected to characters who are all distinctly sketched.

There are a couple of wild cards in the pack not least the lord’s spirited daughter, Princess Yuki, a girl influenced by western culture, who escapes the castle to take part in the marathon in disguise to win her freedom from her father’s domain, and Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), a melancholy ninja who has infiltrated Annaka to masquerade as a samurai while remaining secretly loyal to the Shogun and spying on events for his handlers. It is he who initiates the film’s biggest conflict when he mistakenly views what is a simple gathering of samurai for an exercise as an act of rebellion and warns the central Edo government who dispatch assassins to the Itakura’s castle. When Karasawa realises the mistake he tries to stop assassins during the race.

The pacing becomes steadier by the time the marathon is launched but the film still proceeds at a good pace and plot twists are frequent as are action and even comedic scenes as cheating and betrayals emerge. Neat editing cutting between different characters keeps everything coherent as the course of the marathon runs through fields and along mountain paths. 

This gloriously natural and rugged landscape with steep, winding tracks bordered by steep slopes and vertiginous plunges down ravines is delivered to the screen through sweeping pans and long shots that give scenes breathtaking backdrops while also clearly tracking where everyone is. The film takes place almost entirely in and around the mountainous terrain surrounding Shonai Village in Yamagata Prefecture and the sets, costumes and props create a feeling of verisimilitude for the era reminiscent of the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy (2012/14/14), which cinematographer Takura Ishizaki also worked on. Rose’s film is less bombastic in action stakes than those films, though, as the combat here is gritty giving the skirmishes and story tension which heightens as the assassins get closer to Katsuaki Itakura.

Everyone gets a go at a fight and there are many highlights, from combat on horseback to Nana Komatsu’s Princess Yuki proving to be a rose with many thorns as she scraps with men. Rurouni Kenshin lead actor Takeru Satoh gets a really well-shot duel rich with thrusts, blocks, slides, and stabs that will have audiences on the edges of their seats as the twitch movements and sharp blades could spell death for either combatant. Amid the action and adventure is comedy, especially from Mirai Moriyama and Naoto Takenaka who put in slightly overly theatrical performances, Takenaka especially as the camera zooms in on his flexible body and rubbery face as he makes gags about being out of shape.The film makes a final dash at the end as the marathon closes, character-arcs and plot points come to a fitting close, the pages of history turn and westernization occurs. The ending is satisfying, especially with an overlay of shots from the film and the present-day marathon just to sell the idea that this is real history. All liberties taken with the story are in service of making the film a lot of fun as this is a definite crowd-pleaser.

Samurai Marathon opens the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on June 28.