Samurai Marathon (2019) review

Introduction

One would not immediately associate Bernard Rose, known from narratives like Paperhouse (1988) and Candyman (1992), with Japanese historical drama’s. And yet, his work on historical romances like Immortal Beloved (1994) and Anna Karenina (1997) might suggest Rose is not a complete surprising choice after all.

While the narrative of Samurai Marathon is based on the book ‘The Marathon Samuria: Five tales of Japan’s First Marathon’, written by Akihero Dohi, both narratives are inspired by a historical event, known as the Ansei excursion – a samurai foot-race that took place in 1855 and is considered the birth of the marathon in Japan.

Review

One day, with the impressive blacks ships anchored in the background, Commodore Perry (Danny Huston) meets Ioki Suketori (Etsushi Toyokawa). While he reasons why Japan should open the country, it quickly becomes apparent that neither can understand each other. Even the translator (Taishi Nakagawa), a Japanese well-versed in Dutch language, is unable to understand Perry. But the gifts the Americans brought with them succeeds in establishing a minimal communication – a minimal communication frightening many samurai lords.

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One such frightened samurai lord is Itakura Katsuakira (Hiroki Hasegawa), lord of Annaka domain. While his fifth daughter, princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), is mesmerized by exploring the world, her father Itakura wants her to marry with one of his loyal retainers, Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama). Yuki sees no other option than to run away. Itakura orders Tsujimura to find her if he wants to marry her.

Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), one of accountants of the domain, is also, unbeknownst to the Annaka clan, a spy for the Tokugawa government. When lord Itakura calls upon his retainers, Jinnai does not hesitate to send word about a brewing rebellion to the shogun. He only realizes his mistake when Itakura invites everyone to join a foot-race – a race from Annaka castle through the Usui gate to the Kumano Shrine and back. In order to stop the letter arriving at its destination, he sees no other option than to run and intercept the letter.

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Samurai Marathon is a rather unusual samurai drama, as the narrative does not fundamentally concern a conflict between Ninjo and Giri, but concerns instead a drama of an inner conflict and the drama of the misunderstanding – the power of the truth ascribed to the written signifier (General-note 1). The inner conflict concerns a tension between a fascination with the west and anxiety for the west. This tension is quickly revealed in Itakura’s nightmare of killing Commodore Perry with an American gun. Does this nightmare not evoke the hidden conflict the arrival of the black ships caused? Does this nightmare not subtly show that, behind the societal divide between those supporting modernization and those vying for protection, many protectionist samurai lords were internally divided – divided by the truth that change was needed (Narra-note 1)? In this way, one can also understand why lord Itakura remains so strict on his daughter, a daughter suffocated by the confines of the castle. As his daughter’s desire, a desire caused by the books of Dutch learning, is in itself a confrontation with his inner-conflict, the getting her in line amounts to quelling the truth that divides his subject. The foot-race, for that matter, can be understood in the same vein. As it is only in light of the dangerous power the Americans revealed that the weakness of the samurai comes to be punctuated, the foot-race becomes, beyond a vein attempt at leveling the game of military power, a way to quell his inner-conflict and the refusal to accept the truth of his nightmare (Narra-note 2).

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Samurai Marathon is, contrary to some expectations, a narrative that is not concerned with choosing sides in light of the coming Meiji period – reading the narrative in this way would be a great mistake. Instead, the narrative is concerned in showing, in a touching way, the loyalty of the samurai as well as the coming-into-being of a peaceful acceptance of an inescapable fate (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4).

Even though the substance of the narrative is fictional for the most part, the narrative has brought the historical setting to life with a pleasing attention for detail. Which side of feudal life is explored is largely function of which character is focused on. By focusing on lord Itakura, for instance, the spectator is allowed a glance at life at a samurai castle. And by Samurai Marathon’s focus on Jinnai, rebellious princess Yuki, and foot-soldier Hironoshi Uesugi (Shota Sometani), an exploration of the various aspects in the daily life of samurai under the Bakufu in made possible. But detail is not only to be found at the level of costumes, hairstyles, and the beautiful sets (the corridors of the castle, the inner-yards of the castle, the castle as such, the village surrounding the castle, its whorehouses, the shrines, …etc.), but also in the fluid integration of contextualizing historical aspects. One such aspect is the evocation of the impact the presence of the Dutch had on Japan before the arrival of Commodore Perry.

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The narrative structure of Samurai Marathon is successful in generating tension, by its thoughtful choice to leave some narrative elements hanging in the unfolding of the narrative. While one might mistake this as a lack of narrative conciseness, the subtle refusal to touch upon certain elements (like the arrival of the Tokugawa assassins) for a certain time, does not fail to generate a captivating tension for the spectator. Besides a lingering  tension, the narrative also fluidity incorporates light-hearted and touching moments – those moments related to Mataemon Kurita (Naoto Takenaka) and his training of Isuke (Ruka Wakabayashi), the son of the deceased samurai Kanbei – and some rare moments of visual comedy.

The cinematography of Samurai Marathon is mostly a dynamic affair – a concatenation of spatial moving shots and following shots with only sporadically a fixed shot thrown into the mix. Rose furthermore succeeds in using this dynamism – a shifting pace of concatenating shots and the use of many different shot-types – to create, as the narrative unfolds, many pleasing cinematographical compositions. It is especially due to crafting such a cinematographical fluidity that the spectator is able to enter the flow of the narrative so easily. Another cinematographical aspect that is important to mention is the integration of shots, before, after, and during the footrace, that reveal the wonderful spatial context of the narrative. While many jidaigeki do this is one way or another, Samurai Marathon succeeds in emphasizing this context – i.e. the beautiful scenery of Japan and feudal architecture – in an awe-inspiring way.

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While Samurai Marathon is not a chanbara narrative at heart, there is – luckily – some sword fighting present in the narrative. This sequences of sword-fighting are, in line with the serious tone of the narrative, framed in a realistic and, more importantly, exciting way. What’s also refreshing about Samurai Marathon is the choice to frame the violent impact of the sword in an explicit way – expect thus blood and even a few decapitations.

Even though the narrative voice that opens the Samurai Marathon provides context for the framing of the narrative, it also supports the historical dimension of the narrative (cine-note 1). While it is obvious that the substance of the narrative is, for the greater part, fiction, the contextualization grounds the frame of this true historical event – those historical elements giving the narrative its structure – in historical foundation.  Beyond its role of contextualization, this narrating voice is also instrumental in positioning the necessary narrative elements, e.g. the introduction of Karasawa as spy, for the narrative’s fluid unfolding.

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The dramatic music that comes to support the framing of the narrative might be somewhat unusual for a jidaigeki narrative, but it successfully fulfills its role in supporting and enhancing the fluidity of the cinematography. The dramatic musical pieces, furthermore, have a fundamental role in evoking and supporting the dramatic nature of the narrative.

What is also noteworthy is the beauty of the lightning and the interplay with light and shadow it causes. While the artful use of lighting is not fully sensible in day-time scenes, the impact of light and colour – an impact not without effects on the composition of shots as such – become clearly evident in those scenes taking place at night. The ensemble cast is successful in supporting the framing of the historical context. Hiroki Hasegawa’s performance brings his inner-conflict believably to the fore. Naoto Takenaka, for that matter, infuses all his grandfather charm in his role as retired samurai guard. And  Nana Komatsu underlines, especially through her fighting sequences, her versatility as actress.

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Samurai Marathon is a wonderful narrative about a less known historical fact – the first Japanese marathon. While this historical event had no true effect in the unfolding of history, Samurai Marathon succeeds, by intermingling various narrative threads into an effective narrative structure and allowing dramatic musical pieces support its unfolding, in turning this event into an exciting jidai-geki narrative. Rose might have created a somewhat atypically packaged jidai-geki, but it provides everything one should expect of a contemporary mainstream jidai-geki.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: Is it not in the confrontation between the gun and the samurai sword, that the choice for Japan was already made? Is the internal conflict of many Samurai Lords not the realization that, even if one wants to retain the current situation, no change leads to destruction.

For historical correctness, we should note that certain types of guns were already available at that time – mainly through the trade with the Dutch in Nagasaki.

Narra-note 2: Uesugi, the favourite to win the race, is revealed as torn between winning the race or getting rich by losing the race. This narrative thread, while of lesser importance, does succeed in making the race and the question of its outcome even more exciting. Of course, the race will take a completely different course.

Narra-note 3: Hayabusa, the leader of the gang of assassins evokes, by wielding guns, in essence the same truth as Itakura’s nightmare. The squashing of the imaginary rebellion with guns also emphasizes the violent power of the west. Against the military power of the west, it is either allowing change – i.e. the opening up of the country – or become subject of destruction.

Narra-note 4: The meeting of understanding looks between Itakura and his daughter and the fact that he shoots the last bullet only reveals the fact that he has made peace with the flow that history will take.

This acknowledgement is confirmed by allowing his daughter to travel to Edo.

General-note 1: Note that there are other jidaigeki that do not touch upon the conflict between giri and ninjo. But, in contrast with this narrative, these narrative are most of time comedic in nature. In this comedic jidai-geki narratives (see for instance, Mumon: Land of Stealth (2016)), one can often find unconventional musical choices as well.

Cine-note 1: Sometimes the inner-thoughts of characters (e.g. Jinnai and Itakura) are externalized by rendering the inner voice audible.

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