Student Critic Oliver Thomas reviews
(Bernard Rose, Japan/UK, 2018)
The year is 1855. The black ships of America bring to Japan photography, bourbon whisky and a pair of revolvers that the American Commodore (Danny Huston) affectionately calls the ‘peacemaker’. This marks a moment of transition, ending the tradition of the samurai. To prepare for the threat of modernisation posed by the Americans, the Ankara lord devises a marathon to impose values of discipline and courage over his disorderly clan.
The film traces various characters’ strands as they attempt to complete the race. Princess Yuki (Nana Komatso) has a passion for art and aspires to travel to the west. After her father denies her this privilege and arranges her marriage, she runs away and joins the race in secret. Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is bequeathed the family tradition of spying on the Ankara for the rival clan the Shogun, and after mistakenly ordering an ambush his loyalties become conflicted.
Samurai Marathon would pack a stronger punch if it started with the marathon itself and let go of its expositional and historical context. This would place the viewer directly in the action and excitement from the off, giving the film the thrilling confusion of a Battle Royale-esque contest, where the various characters and subplots are introduced and eluded to along the way.
Blood squirts, pours, and flows in characteristic and enjoyably excessive style. The spectacle of violence is joyously playful and gimmicky, for instance, the memorable shot of an upside down, decapitated head spitting up blood. The samurai fight without traditional elegance and chaotically swing and stumble, coughing and vomiting to the finish line.
Samuirai Marathon’s comedic elements offer unnecessary tonal shifts that detract from the action, most notably the misjudged inclusion of a hungry bear. As it enters its final act, the film struggles to maintain its pace, hindered by the needless Chariots of Fire inspired slow motion.