Described as “a lively action flick with a samurai twist,” latest Well Go USA release Samurai Marathon meets that description with a unique vigor. Directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman) and adapted from the novel “The Marathon Samurai: Five Tales of Japan’s First Marathon” from Akihero Dobashi, itself inspired by a real event, Samurai Marathon is a comedy, thriller, and action-filled period drama rolled into one. More often than not, it works to convey the fluidity of normal life: how it can be peaceful one moment and filled with unexpected violence in another. The trick is that in order to get the story moving along, the screenplay by Rose, Hiroshi Saitô, and Kikumi Yamagishi struggles with any kind of flow that doesn’t stop-start each time a new individual or motivation is introduced. So while the film itself is the “lively action flick with a samurai twist” experience as promised, it doesn’t evoke the kind of munificence it wants to bestow upon the proceedings.
In 1855, United States Naval officer Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) presents various objects of peace to Ioki Suketora (Etsushi Toyokawa), Chief Minister to the Shogun, in hopes that Japan would break its long-standing tradition of isolation from outsiders. Unimpressed by the news of potential Western influence, Lord of the Annaka Domain, Itakura Katsuakira (Hiroki Hasegawa) decides to throw an impromptu 36-mile footrace involving only his samurai and foot soldiers to see how in-shape his army is, offering up the gift of a wish to the winner. Mistaking it for an act of rebellion, a spy sends word to the Shogun, who dispatches several of his men to quell the uprising. Meanwhile, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), plots her escape from her father’s castle so that she can journey to Edo and begin a journey to America. With the fighters exhausted, the Lord distracted, and a band of killers en route, the fate of Annaka seems destined for destruction.
If you can’t tell from the summary, Samurai Marathon is a touch convoluted. Just getting all the pieces together uses a myriad of introductions, some which flow together nicely and others which feel jammed in. The discord is more pronounced with characters like Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), who gets introduced and then guides the audience through his backstory. No other characters are given this treatment, though there is plenty of jumping around between characters to try to establish them all before the marathon begins. In that short in-story time between the start of the film and the race, numerous motivations and conflicting interests are set-up, including the aforementioned spy, Princess Yuki’s rebellion against her father’s wishes, several runners with desire to win the race, and even a newly retired guardsman who joins the marathon seemingly to prove he wasn’t ready to quit protecting the Lord. It’s a lot and the story doesn’t manage it well enough for it to feel like anything but a slog. Having not read the original novel, it’s unclear if the five stories it covers are individual tales that eventually converge or if it includes a similar set up, but it doesn’t quite work in a 104-minute film that needs to rush to get to the race while still creating satisfying introductions.
Then there’re the mixed genres. There’s nothing wrong with comedy in action (see: any Jackie Chan film), or thriller mixed with action (see: any John Wick film), drama mixed with comedy (see: Jojo Rabbit/Parasite), or even thriller mixed with comedy mixed with drama tossed with a dash of action (see: Clue), but the balance has to work. In the opening sequence, the audience watches as someone, later introduced as Princess Yuki, uses ink to draw Commodore Perry’s ships while a narrator establishes the period and events. From the photo, the audience is transported to the beach where the meeting between ambassadors takes place. What begins feeling regal turns cartoonish as the American soldiers march along the beach singing “Yankee Doodle” as they head to the meeting location. The strangeness (and hilarity) of it only compounds when it’s discovered that neither Perry nor Ioki have a proper interpreter. Given the isolation of Japan, it makes sense that they wouldn’t know the language and the exchange highlights American arrogance as Perry presumes Ioki understands English. There are later moments of levity, typically within the storyline of Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka), the aforementioned retiree who doesn’t want to stay retired, and a few which occur naturally between characters. One aspect of tone that Samurai Marathon nails is in setting the period, but not maintaining any of the airs of the era. Characters use colloquialisms, there are no grand speeches of Japanese tradition, and the people are just that, people. It makes the shifts in tone easier to bear because sometimes life is like that: a drama one moment, a comedy the next.
For the all the things that make Samurai Marathon difficult to engage with fully, once the race itself starts, the fun truly begins as the focus narrows from the entire town to just the racers. The intrigue of the false rebellion, Yuki’s desire to escape, the conflicting racers: all of it becomes more streamlined and naturally meshes, leading to an ending that’s deeply satisfying. There is the odd bit of editing to contend with (like an out of place slow-motion sequence), but the film itself hits its stride once its things begin to happen. The action sequences staged by sword fight coordinator Hiroshi Kuze (The Last Princess) and stunt coordinator Kai Nakayama (Kingdom) are smartly designed to fit within the confines of the period. The original music from famed composer Philip Glass (The Illusionist) isn’t so much of the period, but it does capture the emotional significance of the events at play: light, airy, and playful in the comedic moments and somber when the narrative is more serious.
While this certainly isn’t the strongest adaptation of historical events, the strengths within Samurai Marathon leave audiences feeling satisfied. They’ve gone on an adventure, potentially learned something about a culture previously heretofore unknown, and likely had a good time while they did it. It certainly helps that the chemistry among the actors and their performances sell the sincerity of events, even when the comedy is higher than the drama. There’s no extreme reach, just people being people in a way that tickles the funny bone. So if you can handle the messy narrative and get down with the business of the race, you’ll find yourself at the end long before you realize.
No special features were available at the time of this review.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, and digital May 12th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.