Bernard Rose’s Japanese-language film Samurai Marathon, mentioned previously here after last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, has turned up on streaming services, at a price-point that’s close to them paying you to watch it. At one point this review was in the works for somewhere else, but now it’s here instead:
Not a surprise maybe that depictions of Commodore Matthew Perry and his appearance in Japan at the head of an American navy task force in 1852 have cropped up more frequently in the culture he landed on than in the one he left, given the events he set in motion. No surprise at all that in Bernard Rose’s Samurai Marathon, a boisterous and energetic story of those consequences for the residents of Annaka Domain, Perry marches into frame in the form of the director’s favourite actor Danny Huston, bringing with him an automatic amount of haughty intimidation on behalf of the U S of A, plus the shadow of Huston’s many vampires and nutters. Perry’s arrival sends not just diplomatic but psychic shock waves through the land: Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), the lord of Annaka Domain, awakens from a nightmare convinced that Perry brings doom along with him. Itakura orders his entire clan to take part in a foot race to prove its fitness for conflict, but a bad case of Fake News causes the clan to be attacked by soldiers sent by the ruling shogun, who believes that a rebellion has begun.
Samurai Marathon is another East Asia project for producer Jeremy Thomas, whose hot line to studios in the region must by now get answered after the first ring. And if it seems more of a surprise to find Bernard Rose directing, apparently joining the production at Thomas’s specific invitation, then a rummage through Rose’s back catalogue is a reminder that he pushes back against British film industry labels all the time. Samurai Marathon might lack the psychological anxiety of Rose’s chamber adaptations of Leo Tolstoy stories like The Kreutzer Sonata, or the arch social commentary of Candyman, or the semi-Ken Russell theatrics of Immortal Beloved; but Rose’s emphasis on faces and the emotions crossing them during moments of turmoil remains a surefire success as a storytelling style. He also rehired composer Philip Glass, still an exceptional contributor to any film, whose music pulses in the ether around characters, a conscious Fate respiring somewhere above and beyond.
The film has enough honest men and frauds, nobles and paupers, cruelty and mercy to feel like a fable, even though the plot is based on a true story and the historical resonances speak for themselves. Hiroki Hasegawa, last seen by me trying to avoid getting trodden on in Shin Godzilla, faces down an enemy armed with US weapons who tells him that Japan is going to have to change, which indeed it will. Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu) aggressively self-emancipates from the restrictions placed on her in a way that echoes both Shakespeare and Wonder Woman. Accountant Jinnai (Takeru Satoh) is pardoned for a mistake and spared from committing seppuku, but it’s the emotion on the face of his wife (Mugi Kadowaki) that makes an old tradition look incompatible with a coming era. And the story is now commemorated annually in the Annaka Marathon, Rose’s real-life footage of which shows it to be a full-on fun run of joggers waving and gurning for the camera, proving the golden rule that the victor in any culture war is the one in rhino fancy dress.
See also: me on Bernard Rose’s Mr Nice from 2011.