In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s, and I occasionally return to that theme. Past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
Ninjas are only a small part of Samurai Marathon (Bernard Rose, 2019), and although some elements are movied up for dramatic effect, the emphasis is on basic spycraft: no magic powers or convoluted mythology here. Based on historical events, Samurai Marathon begins with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s gunboats in Japanese waters in 1855 and his demonstration of the West’s technological superiority to the Shogun and his men. The abrupt intrusion of modernity rocks Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), hereditary lord of the Annaka clan, to his core: he knows that the samurai way of life will crumble in the face of inevitable change. (Just so we’re clear on his feelings, he burns a drawing of the American ships and has a nightmare of being killed by Perry’s Colt revolvers for good measure.) Decades of peace have made his men soft, however: many of the samurai in his service are warriors in name only, filling bureaucratic and ceremonial positions, never seeing actual combat or hardship. In order to prepare them for what he sees as an impending American invasion, he calls for a footrace over a grueling 36-mile course, mandatory for all his samurai, foot soldiers, and able-bodied men up to age 50 in his territory. The winner will be granted one wish.
The lead-up to the race brings the several main characters together, illuminating their places and showing what victory means to them. Despite the samurai’s softness, it’s the thing to be in this feudal, insular society. Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama), the cream of the samurai forces and arranged to marry Itakura’s daughter Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), believes the race is his to win, and arranges to do so even if it requires underhanded means. Yuki herself, yearning for the promise of freedom the Americans have brought, runs away and uses the race as a pretext to get to Edo, disguising herself as a man (but being recognized by everyone anyway). Hironoshin (Shota Sometani), a mere foot soldier, lives in poverty with his wife and child; widely acknowledged as the fastest runner, he is targeted by gamblers who bribe him to throw the race, and by Tsujimura, who urges him to stay out of the way for the good of the clan (or else have his legs broken). But victory for him would mean elevation to a samurai and a better life for his family. Mataemon (Naoto Takenaka), the recently retired palace guard, seeks to prove his loyalty and that he is not too old. When he encounters Isuke (Ruka Wakabayashi), the young, orphaned son of a samurai who hopes to become a warrior himself, he takes him under his wing and the two run together as a team.
Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), a samurai accountant (and the narrator of the film through voiceover), is a ninja: like his father before him, he secretly serves the Shogun as his eyes and ears within the Annaka clan. Jinnai sends coded messages to an “apothecary” in Edo, alerting the Shogun to signs of rebellion. At first he takes Itakura’s announcement as a rumbling of war, but when he realizes the race is only a drill, he tries to retrieve the letter he had already sent. Too late! Assassins have already been sent from Edo to take out Itakura. Jinnai, trying to undo the damage, learns that he is not the only ninja hidden in the Annaka clan!
Once all these characters and their motivations have been established, the race begins, the rest of the film taking the form of an elaborate chase sequence. The characters’ personalities are revealed by how they proceed: Mataemon, the old guard, running in the traditional “Namba” style, back erect, while Yuki leans forward in imitation of the Westerners she has observed; Tsujimura, determined to win, takes advantage of short cuts and cheats, while Hironoshin doggedly pushes forward. Meanwhile, the Shogun’s kill squad is on its way, led by the gunslinging assassin Hayabusa (Ryu Kohata), and as everyone crosses and recrosses each other’s paths, the truth slowly dawns on them: this is much bigger than a race for honor. There are bloody betrayals and retribution, and heel and face turns (it happens that the vainglorious Tsujimura does have some heroic qualities after all). The second half of the marathon, returning along the same path as the first, becomes a race against time to rescue Itakura and the Annaka clan, left undefended during the race.
Filmed in scenic Japan with an all-Japanese cast in their own language (the only Western actor I recognized was Danny Huston as Commodore Perry), Samurai Marathon nevertheless has the character of an international production by virtue of its English director Bernard Rose (Candyman) and his American collaborator, composer Philip Glass. It’s Glass’s score, much of it recycled from his own Mishima and full of familiar Glassisms, that really makes the film soar. The motif accompanying the foot race is a reworking of the propulsive funeral music from Akhnaten, but it’s hard to complain when it works so well, and I have to assume Rose heard the original and recognized its potential for scoring action. It’s reminiscent of John Boorman’s use of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana for King Arthur’s triumphant return in Excalibur, and the ending of Samurai Marathon is nearly as ecstatic.
This is a film about bodies in motion, and while there are likeable characters and themes of honor, history, and self-determination, many of the sequences are ultimately as abstract as Koyaanisqatsi. After the climax, Rose indulges in an epilogue that in other films might seem corny, transitioning to the modern day to relate that the Annaka foot race was the beginning of the Japanese Marathon, still going on today. Like Zack Snyder, Rose knows that what we really want out of cinema is a tableau of athletic bodies moving in slow motion, and then ratcheting to even slower motion as the music swells, but Snyder is far too self-serious to superimpose Edo-era runners over modern people running in gym shorts, business suits, and silly costumes, as Rose does here. It should be a moment of deflation, of “Now they call it . . .” bathos, but after running his characters, and us, through the wringer for a hundred and forty minutes of surging adrenaline, the release of tension had the opposite effect on me: it says, you know what? Against all evidence, sometimes the world is pretty fucking fantastic.
This is the latest I have ever posted a year-end roundup for this blog, but life happens, so if you’re still interested in seeing such an article, well, better late than never. Some of the same life events (detailed in previous posts) that kept me busy also cut down on the number of films I watched last year (you can see my complete Letterboxd diary here). On the other hand, I did manage to make it to the movie theater a little more consistently than I did in 2020 and 2021, although still not at the rate I used to attend. Between theatrical showings, streaming, and physical media options, I saw nearly forty movies released in 2022, enough to make a personal Best of 2022 list. Several films I wanted to see evaded me, including Flux Gourmet, Violent Night, and Babylon, and I have yet to see some of the biggest films with colons in their titles: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Avatar: The Way of Water.
Nevertheless! As always, the following list represents my favorites from among those I watched, and is subject to change (at the encouragement of a friend, I started posting more detailed reactions and star ratings to my Letterboxd account, but some of those movies have already changed in my estimation as they linger with me).
10. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson) was one of three new adaptations of the familiar story of a wooden puppet who comes to life, but the only one I saw (and, from what I hear, the only one worth watching). Although many details are familiar from other retellings, del Toro has once again put his personal stamp on the material, weaving religious and political struggles into the story and explicitly setting it in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II. This film was co-written by Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall), whose brand of fantasy turns out to be very compatible with del Toro’s. All of this is brought to life in gorgeous stop-motion animation (it’s been a boom year for the medium, in fact, with anthology film The House, Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, and Phil Tippett’s long-in-production Mad God all released in the last year).
9. A world-renowned chef (Ralph Fiennes) summons a group of rich clients, restaurant critics, and foodies to his island restaurant for an exclusive event, only to turn the tables, with each course revealing the grudges he holds against them. Fiennes’ performance as the chef is the best part of the film, gradually revealing the intense pressure under which he works, the toll it’s taken on his health and private life, and the masterful control necessary to bring a meal (or a revenge) together. I enjoyed The Menu (dir. Mark Mylod) while I was watching it, but in retrospect it has a very similar dynamic to Ready or Not, a film I still prefer. The pretensions of haute cuisine are perhaps too easy of a target, but expanding its scope to call out bloodless, unfeeling art of any kind makes it clear that it’s as much a jab at A24-style “elevated horror” as a call to bring out the guillotines. That Anya Taylor-Joy, who is practically the face of “elevated horror” since breaking out with The VVitch, appears as the audience surrogate among the diners and gets to deliver the third-act thesis statement makes the irony all the more . . . delicious.
8. Winsor McCay’s classic newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is in the public domain, so it’s fair game for borrowing and adaptation, but it’s a little strange that as far as I can tell, McCay’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits for Slumberland (dir. Francis Lawrence). But whatever, real heads know. The new film reimagines the protagonist as a young girl (Marlow Barkley), orphaned and sent to live with her emotionally closed-off uncle (Chris O’Dowd). Reliving memories of her imaginative father in dreams, she encounters Flip (Jason Momoa), a rogue who is able to move freely within the dream world—Slumberland—living out whatever fantasy suits him for the moment. McCay’s comic strip was famously episodic, with the tow-headed main character waking up at the end of each installment, but the film borrows liberally from films like Time Bandits (a map of Slumberland figures prominently), Inception, and the Disney+ series Loki (Flip is a fugitive dreamer, pursued by “dream police” whose bureaucratic look and ethos draw heavily on ‘70s cop shows, much like Loki’s Time Variance Authority) to provide structure. On top of that, Momoa plays the satyr-like Flip as an aggressive mix of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But somehow all these diverse elements come satisfyingly together; the dream worlds are dazzling and connect in fun ways (and since these are technically other people’s dreams, their relationship to the dreamers’ waking lives come as an amusing reveal near the end), and at its core there is an emotional arc that balances the power of dreaming with the importance of living your life while you’re awake.
7. I posted a longer review of The Bad Guys (dir. Pierre Perifel) on Letterboxd, but to keep it short, this is an example of the family-friendly animated comedy done right. A band of slick animal outlaws, all scary predators like Wolf, Shark, Snake, et cetera, is provided with a second chance, allowing them to find out whether they’re “bad guys” because they’re born that way or because society treats them as such. Drawing on a vocabulary of heist and con films, The Bad Guys delivers the pleasures of tightly-plotted scams and schemes (complete with double- and triple-crosses), witty banter, and characters who aren’t always what they appear.
6. Another film about the pleasures of behaving badly, Do Revenge (dir. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) calls its shots early on with prominently placed copies of Strangers on a Train and Dangerous Liaisons, and it’s similarly knowing about the media- (and social media-) soaked lives of the privileged young people at its center. After Drea (Camila Mendes) has her life at an exclusive prep school turned upside down by a leaked explicit video, endangering her planned-out life path, a new acquaintance, Eleanor (Maya Hawke), helps her get payback in exchange for help with her own revenge. Of course, things never work out quite the way we expect, even when they appear to go according to plan. Do Revenge is the Gen-Z successor to Heathers, and I mean that as the highest praise.
5. In Turning Red (dir. Domee Shi), thirteen-year-old Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) has everything under control, from school to friendship to her dutiful place in her family, until puberty comes along and wrecks everything: her sudden, unpredictable transformation into a giant red panda is fraught with metaphor (outside of educational films, this is the first Disney release to explicitly mention menstruation), but it’s also a powerful escapist fantasy. When she learns that her transformation is part of her family’s heritage, and that she is expected to follow her mother’s example of locking away her newfound power, she is forced to make a difficult decision. It sounds heavy, but Turning Red balances its exploration of generational trauma, the immigrant experience, and peer pressure with the goofiness of being in middle school and just wanting to see your favorite boy band in concert and writing merman fanfic about the cute boy you have a crush on.
4. Ten years ago, Funny or Die released a fake trailer for a heavy, dramatic biopic of “Weird Al” Yankovic with Aaron Paul as the novelty singer-songwriter. Amazingly, we now have the actual film promised by that trailer in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (dir. Eric Appel), starring Daniel Radcliffe (announcing the project, Yankovic asserted that “I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the role future generations will remember him for”). Detailing Yankovic’s incredible rise to the top of 1980s music stardom, his passionate affair with Madonna, having the tables turned on him when his original song “Eat It” was parodied by Michael Jackson, and his battle against a Colombian drug cartel, Weird is in the same vein as comedy “behind the music” films like This Is Spinal Tap and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but is even more amazing since, unlike those movies, it all really happened.
3. “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything,” says a dimension-hopping version of Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) husband, explaining why her every failure and missed opportunity makes her the perfect candidate to save the many branching realities that make up the multiverse. Taught to access versions of herself that made different choices and borrow their skills (everything from kung fu to playing the piano with her feet), Evelyn confronts the nihilistic Jobu Tupaki, a cautionary example of a jumper who’s seen so much that nothing has any meaning, but her real struggle is to avoid the same fate and make the best of the one life that’s really hers. Everything Everywhere All at Once (dir. “The Daniels,” Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) represents the fullest expression of the fascination with multiverses that has gradually gone mainstream in the last decade or so, but while it speaks the language of science fiction and superhero comics, the emotional stakes set it apart from the usual summer blockbuster (note the title: there’s not a colon anywhere to be found). It speaks to the pervasive sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere, and that acute nostalgia for things that never were that comes from imagining things would be so much better in some other timeline. Ultimately, connection to the multiverse doesn’t mean much if you can’t connect to yourself and the people around you.
2. Earlier this year, X homaged and updated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for a cinephile generation hungry to see itself in the spotlight: Mia Goth plays an aspiring porn actress, who along with her crew, runs afoul of a murderous old woman (also played by Goth). X was cool, but the prequel Pearl, also released this year (and, like X, directed by Ti West), is on another level entirely: Goth returns to reveal the old woman’s youth in World War I-era Texas, struggling to contain her sociopathic impulses and desire for fame and recognition against the strictness of her German immigrant family, her absent husband fighting the war, and the fears of contamination brought on by the 1918 influenza epidemic (filmmakers have tried with various levels of success to deal with Covid as a plot point, but this is the best I have seen, “pandemic cinema” that succeeds by analogy rather than hitting the subject head-on). Where X borrowed the grimy vocabulary of TCSM and Psycho and calls attention to its cleverness through a nerdy film director character, Pearl mimics Hollywood’s Golden Age through a surging, romantic score and visual references to The Wizard of Oz and the silent films Pearl hopes to star in, and the result is magical. Magical, and terrifying.
1. I’ve enjoyed all of writer-director Jordan Peele’s films so far, but I suspect Nope is the one I’ll revisit the most for its ominous Western/monster movie vibe. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play sibling heirs to a ranch that supplies horses to movie and television productions, left to run things on their own after their father’s death. A series of weird events around the isolated ranch and centered on a former child actor’s (Steven Yeun) nearby tourist trap leads the siblings to suspect UFO activity. I don’t want to spoil anything else, but Nope is scary, funny, and awe-inspiring; Peele knows his Fortean lore, the plotting is tight and fast-paced, and the meditations on spectacle and the treatment of animals in show business don’t feel like an afterthought or a heavy-handed message. I’m also fascinated by the observation that Nope is in part an homage to Steven Spielberg’s career, with numerous references in the visuals and names of characters, and that it’s ultimately a study of the “Spielberg face,” the trademark expressive close-up used to project a sense of awe and wonder in so many of the director’s films.
Honorable Mention: Over the years a number of self-distributed films have made their way to YouTube, sometimes for a limited time and sometimes for good. This year, the most interesting YouTube-distributed film I saw was Ambient Trip Commander, a one-man animated production drawn, animated, and scored by Danny Wolfers, who performs under the name Legowelt. The story is simple but not straightforward: an aimless young woman spends her days working in a synthesizer shop until a mysterious summons draws her to a distant town, home to both a Paleolithic cave and a mountain castle. A sinister pink being stalks her as she makes her way to her destination. With a handmade look and a cool electronic soundtrack, Ambient Trip Commander is mostly about vibes, a meditation on expanding consciousness and a love letter to retro synths and computers. It successfully captures the dreamlike feeling of being alone, traveling across an empty landscape at night: it’s both cozy and a little spooky.
Thanks for reading and following, and have a great 2023!