Discouraged by the arrival of U.S. Commodore Perry (Danny Huston), aboard black ships laden with bourbon and gunpowder, feudal lord Itakura Katsuakira (Hiroki Hasegawa) of the Annaka clan views his own forces with little confidence. They have grown slow and idle after decades of peaceful isolation, and as such he challenges all men of fighting age to a marathon to prove their mettle — the prize for first place being the winner’s wish come true. When Edo spy Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh) mistakes his lord’s agitation for insurrection, however, an order is placed in error and the shogun’s ninjas duly dispatched.
While not as sensitive as Memoirs of a Geisha or Letters from Iwo Jima, Samurai Marathon is surprisingly a congruous and measured entry in the growing genre of internationally produced Japanese period dramas — all the more so given that it was directed by Candyman’s Bernard Rose. Nevertheless, working from Akihiro Dobashi’s source material and in conjunction with the producers behind 13 Assassins, Rose hits the ground running with an arch yet perfectly conceivable culture clash. Faced with Perry, Katsuakira calls forth his trusted translator, only to receive the young man’s own best guess as he misinterprets American English as incomprehensible Dutch. This raises an eyebrow that is never allowed to settle.
It’s these small details that really set Samurai Marathon apart, for the marathon doesn’t really get underway until the film’s second act and the samurai action until its third, leaving the characters to entertain on their own merits — unaided by gimmickry or gratuitous gore. For the most part Rose’s ensemble seem more interested in the discrepancies between Eastern and Western painting or running techniques than in any differences in fighting style, particularly in the case of Princess Yuki, who escapes the palace and enters the race under an assumed identity in the hopes of winning the freedom to travel. Also in the running are Heikuro Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama), the man to whom Yuki has been promised; and Mataemon Karitayama (Naoto Takenaka), a seemingly redundant samurai looking to regain his standing.
There is a lot of information to impart in these early sections, as the film’s context and characters are explained, but this initial sprint allows Rose to assume a more leisurely pace for the rest of the film, the narrative passed like a relay baton between runners as they over- and undertake. When the swords are finally unsheathed, the action isn’t elaborately balletic or gratuitously grotesque, but strikes a perfect balance between being frenzied and easy to follow. Rose has clearly learned from his 2015 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and here manages to sideline many of the expected genre elements without slipping into melodrama as a result. The tone remains just affected enough to keep things entertaining, and the sight of characters running here, there, and everywhere — whether the marathon has started or not — remains amusing throughout.
Although far from sensational or instantly iconic, Samurai Marathon certainly has legs — and its basis in something approaching a true story (the ‘samurai marathon’ is run to this day, often in fancy dress) lends it extra novelty value. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the final shot transitions into a contemporary still of costumed contenders racing through Annaka’s modern-day streets.