The New York Asian Film Festival returns for its eighteenth year, kicking off its annual celebration of some of the strangest, weirdest, and most eclectic filmmaking throughout Asia. The opening night film was the North American premiere of Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon which debuted earlier this February in Japan. Based on screenwriter Akihiro Dobashi’s 2014 novel, this jidaigeki (“period film”) examines one of the more unusual native reactions to the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” in 1853 which forcibly ended Japan’s era of sakoku (“closed country”) wherein the Tokugawa shogunate largely cut the country off from the outside world. Convinced that these strange foreigners intended invasion, Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) of the Annaka clan which ruled over modern day Gunma Prefecture announced a compulsory 30-mile marathon for all men under the age of 50 so as to test their mettle. Additionally, he proclaimed that whoever came in first would be granted a single boon of their choice. This footrace would inspire the modern day Japanese Marathon and has entered the realm of folklore. However Dobashi and Rose take their story well off the beaten path of strict historicity in favor of a sprawling epic rich in political intrigue and fantastical violence.
The film features a large ensemble cast, the key to them being Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), a low-level servant of Lord Itakura who’s secretly a member of a ninja clan serving as spies for the shogun. For hundreds of years Jinnai’s family watched the prefecture for signs of rebellion or resistance, and his lord’s sudden summoning of all his combat-ready men to his palace was too much for him to ignore. He sends a covert message to the capital warning of possible insurrection. By the time Jinnai realizes his mistake, it’s too late—the message has been received and the shogun’s assassins are en route to quell a rebellion that doesn’t actually exist. The result is a bizarre hybrid of sports film and ticking clock thriller.
Meeting the standard beats of the sports genre, Rose assembles a hodgepodge of eclectic characters all with their own motivations for winning the race: Hironoshin Uesugi (Shota Sometani), a kind-hearted commoner with dreams of becoming a samurai; Heikuro Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama), one of Lord Itakura’s retainers who wants his daughter Princess Yuki’s (Nana Komatsu) hand in marriage; the avuncular Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka), a retired guard who wants to prove his worth in his old age; the lion-hearted Isuke Fukumoto (Ruka Wakabayahi), a young boy who wants to support his widowed mother. Even the aforementioned Princess Yuki makes an appearance dressed as a boy after running away from her father after being forbidden from traveling to the capital to study Western art and science. There are shenanigans aplenty as the contestants struggle and cheat their way through the route, some being as harmless as one runner forcing his servants to carry him part of the way on a litter to the deadly, as one runner ends up throwing his compatriots into a gorge.
However, it’s the thriller aspect of Samurai Marathon that proves the film’s ultimate bane, as the tonal juxtaposition of deathly serious political intrigue fails to mix with the largely breezy, apolitical tenor of the marathon scenes. The sequences of Jinnai fighting with the shogun’s ruthless assassins feel ripped from a different movie, eschewing the rest of the film’s lightness for ultra-violent carnage where heads go flying through the air and men shriek like animals as they’re gutted with swords and shot full with arrows. Ironically these moments of fighting are the most engaging and well-choreographed in the entire film, small surprise considering the creative team’s pedigree: Rose is perhaps best known for his work in horror, particularly 1992’s smash slasher hit Candyman, and his cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka has worked on numerous samurai films, most famously the recent live-action adaptations of Rurouni Kenshin.
Samurai Marathon is a fatally confused film, unsure what it wants to say or do other than exist as an excuse for Western creatives to play with the toy box of feudal Japan. There are moments where the narrative falls away and we get fetishistic glimpses of the culture that ensnared Rose’s fancy: an unexpected flourish of food porn, a bizarrely timed traditional tea ceremony, a sudden tutorial in namba aruki, the idiosyncratic method of running longing distances used by on-foot messengers. Rose also seems almost embarrassed by his presence as a foreigner on a Japanese film set, as he constantly undercuts the film with masochistic jabs at Western culture, whether it’s characters calling white people barbarians, having samurai mock guns as unsporting, or having a feudal lord struggle to drink American whiskey. The film even opens with a bizarre comedic prologue where a contingent of American soldiers led by Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) march onto a beach for a diplomatic meeting singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Philip Glass’s score does little to bridge this cultural gap between East and West—the famously eclectic composer practically sleepwalks his way through the soundtrack with uninspired violin patterns and horn blasts that do nothing to reflect or honor the spirit of traditional Japanese music. Even if that was the point, the music here is shockingly uninspired. Glass’ name might look great on a marquee or movie poster—especially for an Opening Night film—but as with Rose’s involvement, it should only recognized as a gimmick meant to put butts into seats for a thoroughly confused and mediocre movie.