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.