Samurai Marathon doesn’t resemble some of the samurai films that have been coming out of Japan in recent years, such as the Rurouni Kenshin franchise. These popular movies are jam-packed with action, stylized to the point of almost resembling superhero films (not unlike some wire-fu films in the kung-fu genre), and feature popular young stars in key roles. Because some of the cast from the Rurouni Kenshin films are also in Samurai Marathon, it is not surprising that some fans have noticed the shift in style. Samurai Marathon actually resembles a style from the recent past, most notably the films of Yôji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade), which utilize a slice-of-life realism that is more concerned with character development that flashy action scenes.
The narrative of Samurai Marathon lends itself to this realistic approach as it is inspired by actual events, with the necessary elements added for intrigue and suspense. Upon the arrival of American ships bringing gifts and propositions of a peace treaty, an aging daimyo worries that his samurai are unprepared, should the peace treaty end up a ruse. Unaware that these preparations will be training in the form of a competitive marathon run, rather than an attack that would go against the orders of the Shogun, a young samurai named Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) sends word of rebellion. Once realizing his mistake, Jinnai sets out to recover the message before it reaches the Shogun and blood is shed. Little does he know, there is another rebellion being planned during the race.
The Samurai Marathon continues to this day in Japan, and this film tells the true story of the first event that inspired it. The film also seems to take liberties with the facts in order to add some action to the narrative, but it is unclear how much, and I’m not sure that it matters. Either way, the narrative has all of the elements one might expect from a samurai film, including the nobility and honor, camaraderie of warriors, and scenes of swordplay. There is even a storyline involving a princess cutting her hair to try and escape, in what seems to be a Japanese take on the Hua Mulan.
The biggest fault of the film is that it feels somewhat rushed. I know this may seem odd to say about a film that many have complained is too slow, but the problem is that there are too many characters and sub-plots, and not all of them seem adequately resolved, if relevant at all. Though the relationship between a young boy and a former friend of his deceased father is touching, it often also feels out of place in this film. Similarly, there is a young footsoldier named Hironoshin (Shôta Sometani), who must decide whether to take a bribe to throw the race, despite being the favorite to win. By the time the race ends, it is so anticlimactic that the decision never really seems made at all.
Perhaps the strangest element of Samurai Marathon is not the film itself, but the details of the production itself. Though co-financed by Japan, it is directed by British filmmaker Bernard Rose (Candyman). However, I wasn’t able to sense any Western influence on the film (other than the minor cameo by Danny Huston as Commodore Perry), which seems to be a compliment when tackling a culture and history that is not your own.
The Blu-ray release doesn’t come with any special features worth mentioning, though the high definition presentation does enhance the visually appealing film. The cinematography of the lush setting is reason enough for the upgrade, especially in the slower first half of the film.
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 3.5/10
Special Features: 0/10