Samurai Marathon, NYAFF’s opening night film, is a rather odd bird. It’s a Japanese jidaigeki period-piece from British director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Immortal Beloved) and British producer Jeremy Thomas (The Last Emperor, Thirteen Assassins), with composer Philip Glass and costume designer Emi Wada adding to the illustrious talent behind the camera. This apparent clash of cultures is appropriate to the particular era that’s being explored here: the film is set in the 1850s, and in the opening scene, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry (Danny Huston, in full stentorian mode) comes to Japan’s shores to open up the isolated country to the West, bearing guns and Kentucky bourbon. This prompts Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), sensing a national crisis, to get his samurai into shape for whatever is to come from this new, foreign influence. To that end, Itakura institutes the titular marathon, a 36 mile race, the winner of which will be rewarded anything that he desires. Infiltrated among Itakura’s men is Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), a spy for the shogun who misinterprets this contest as a plan for rebellion, sending a secret message to the shogun ordering that warriors quell this threat. When Jinnai realizes his mistake, he scrambles to stop the potential carnage that he’s set in motion.
Which is to say that, while this film is ostensibly about the marathon, it has significant pacing problems thanks to its introduction of numerous characters and subplots, all in rapid, haphazard fashion — and in the first 20 or so minutes. There’s also a wobbly sense of tone, awkwardly vacillating between a sub-Shakespearean comedy of errors and a serious drama with bloody battles and gruesome beheadings, a callback to Rose’s horror movie roots. Once the pace slows down a bit, and the multiple narrative strands become more easily discernible, Samurai Marathon settles into an entertaining pastiche, honorably respecting its cinematic forbears, albeit with less resonance than earlier examples of its chosen genre.
Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2019.