Once upon a time, the Tokugawa shogunate cut off Japan from the rest of the world, leading to an era of sakoku (closed country). The Americans eventually came around in “black ships”, led by U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. Samurai Marathon tackles one of the unusual reactions to his arrival based on Akihiro Dobashi’s 2014 novel.
The movie mainly benefits from the talent in front of and behind the camera. The roles are well-casted and their performances are endearing. The practical effects and fight choreography are well executed together. Rurouni Kenshin star Takeru Satoh continues to prove that he’s adept at samurai roles. Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka provides vivid greens that produce a striking contrast to the bloody violence. Costume designer Emi Wada adds details to the period setting.
The rest of the movie, however, suffers from an uneven script. It combines a comedic sports movie, a period drama, and a thriller.
Similar to sports movies, there’s a collection of characters each with their own motivations. There’s a ninja spy running along to maintain his cover, the princess attempting to ineffectively Mulan her way out of town, the warrior who wants to marry her, the messenger torn between money or dignity, a kid with a big dream, and an old man forcibly retired from the only life he knows. Shenanigans ensue as some of the runners try to cheat their way through a 58-kilometer track.
The slapstick comedy is interspersed with period drama while political intrigue brews in the background. While the shogun’s troops make their way to Annaka secrets are revealed. Things take a darker turn when these soldiers, led by a former Annaka clan member armed with the “Peacemaker”, arrive to stop a rebellion that doesn’t actually exist.
The movie melds these disparate elements together and ends up with underdeveloped characters and themes. There is something here about change, choices, and self-isolation, but they’re lost in a movie that doesn’t know exactly what to say with characters that could’ve told a better story.
It doesn’t help that Philip Glass turns in an uninspired soundtrack of violins and horns that don’t bother to lift any inspiration from nor honor traditional Japanese music. The production value is good enough. But the setting lacks a sense of place to show the audience what is potentially at stake and give weight to Lord Itakura’s worries.
If you’re looking for a popcorn flick with a Japanese flavor, Samurai Marathon would suffice. The action scenes are engaging enough if you go along with the plot. For those who want more than a westerner’s superficial take on feudal Japan, they’re better off looking somewhere else.
Samurai Marathon 1855
Samurai Marathon is an artificially flavored mediocre popcorn flick rather than a Japanese historical epic because of an uneven script.