Annaka is the Japanese analog for Marathon, Greece. It was there that modern Japanese marathon running originated. It was also the end of an era. Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” ushered out the Edo Period and helped launch the Meiji Restoration, but the samurai and retainers of the Annaka Clan give the Bushido code a last hurrah in Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon, which screens as the opening night film of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.
Of course, Perry is a bit flamboyant and cocksure—he is played by Rose’s frequent collaborator, Danny Huston. Frankly, he probably could have been worse, considering the ace in the hole he carried with him: firearms. The Shogun’s representative certainly sat up and took notice. Suddenly, Edo is more receptive to Western ways, but not a traditionalist like Katsuakira Itakura, the Annaka clan leader. To re-instill discipline within the ranks, he decrees all clan samurai and foot soldiers must participate in a cross-country foot-race throughout the surrounding lands.
As a samurai in the accounting division, Jinnai Karasawa must also participate, but he is in better shape than his Clark Kent persona suggests. He is actually a ninja secretly spying on the Annaka Clan for the shogunate, just as his forerunners had done before him. Unfortunately, he misinterprets the marathon as a cover for rebellion, but he is unable to retract his coded message to Edo once he realizes his error. When the Shogun’s forces arrive to wipe out the exhausted Annaka samurai at the finish line, Karasawa will have to make some hard choices.
So, basically, a Jidaigeki hack-and-slash battle (it’s a good one) breaks out during a track meet. Arguably, Marathon is maybe only 10% a sports film, if that. Instead, it specializes in intrigue and warfare. There is also a Shakespearean subplot involving Itakura’s independent minded daughter, Princess Yuki, who disguises herself as a man to sneak past the check point, so she can study Western art in Edo. However, her masquerade is easily seen through by characters who are evidently much more observant than anyone in Twelfth Night.
As a filmmaker, Rose has been all over the map from prestige projects like Immortal Beloved and Anna Karenina (1997) to trashy genre films like sxtape and the immortally beloved Candyman. You never really know what you might get from him, but happily, this is a return to form that definitely ranks with his prestige picture peaks. The is a big canvas historical, with a large cast of characters and a sweeping Philip Glass score, for extra high-brow status. More importantly, it is also a lot of fun, thanks to the brisk action and sly skullduggery.
Takeru Satoh (Kenshin Himura in the Rurouni Kenshin franchise) is perfectly cast as the aloof and conflicted Karasawa. Nana Komatsu finds a credible middle ground as the Princess, portraying her as neither a push-over distressed damsel or an invincible Michelle Yeoh-style swordswoman, but a gutsy forward-thinker. At times, Naoto Takenaka plays not-so retired retainer Mataemon Kurita a bit overly broad, but several supporting players really throw down with authority as various surprise turncoats within the Annaka ranks.
If you can’t a enjoy a film like Samurai Marathon, you’re probably a real killjoy. Yet, it is also classy, respectable cinema. You can tell, because it was produced by Jeremy Thomas (whose producer credits include The Last Emperor, Little Buddha, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence). Enthusiastically recommended, Samurai Marathon screens Friday (6/28), as the opening night film of this year’s NYAFF.