Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 20, 2019 10:31 pm 
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Opening Night Film

Runners world, Tokugawa style

It's difficult to know what to make of this film, set in 1850's Japan, shortly after the arrival of Commodore Perry (Danny Houston, in the director's Frankenstein four years ago), breaking the country's centuries of isolation with his "Black Shiips." It's based on a presumably tongue-in-cheek 2014 novel by Akihiro Dobashi. This is not historical, you can count on that. Some aspects feel like a YA novel - blown up into a disorganized but pretty flashy film. And some of it is just wacky. It premiers as the Opening Night film of the 18th edition of the New York Asian Film Festival. It's a Japanese sort-of samurai movie, in Japanese, made by a British director known for Tolstoy adaptations admired by the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, and the horror movie Candyman. Go figure. It doesn't fit into any category. It had to stand by itself.

The Japan Times' reviewer James Hadfield has commented on an uncertainty of tone. He calls it "not-quite-comedic." But is that like not-quite-pregnant? Rose achieves visual beauty, has an all-star cast, and a score by Philip Glass that's energetic and elegantly stirring. The plot is too complicated to summarize and its early presentation is a jumble. If you want to see a motley crew of actors running an extended marathon (as described it's about 36 miles) through forests and mountains without prior training, this is your movie.

Along the way you've got a lot of cheaters, a lot of blood and mayhem, a little kid with an old samurai sensei, a repentant spy, a trigger-happy madman, and a runaway princess. And some pretty tired guys. There only seems to be one fellow, described as a "foot soldier" and therefore looked down upon, who's in any way trained as a runner when it all begins. Some elements are certainly comedic. But you'd need a sick sense of humor to laugh at all the disgorgements and beheadings, with realistic sound effects that must be holdovers from the director's horror film, Candyman.

The marathon is an offbeat way for a feudal lord, Itakura Katsuakira (Hiroki Hasegawa) of the Annaka clan, to get his men in shape for the tricky situation of having foreigners in the country. Unbeknownst to Katsuakira, there's a spy for the Shogun in his midst, Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), and he mistakes the marathon preparations for the planning of a rebellion and sends off a secret report that will lead to all the runners being killed. When he finds out his mistake he frantically sets off on a marathon of his own to ward off this action. Meanwhile there is Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), who can't get past the checkpoint.

For a while running of the marathon gives the cinematographer a chance to provide gorgeous displays of Japanese scenery and provides the tangled up action with some solid focus. Everybody seems to want to join in, like the Boston Marathon or the Bay to Breakers, wearing whatever they've got on, and that includes the (unsuccessfully) disguised Princess Yuki and the kid with the elderly sensei. There are understandable efforts to cheat with shortcuts and stolen horse-rides. There is blood, several beheadings, some awful use of the Colt 45 "Peacemaker"; sword fights, of course; some nasty uses of rope; even a bow and arrow. The marathon gets a bit lost. I was confused (not for the first time) about why the runners were being identified and given chits and turned around at a checkpoint, while some runners avoided that.

The focus on the marathon gets diffused as the vigorous conflicts between rival bands lead to fighting and the neat lining up of corpses, but still there is a remaining band of brave samurais back in the race, and when there's a shot of them speeding away with feet bound in frayed cloth, as a former participant in modern marathons myself, I winced. But the race is still on, and the arguments rage about who'll allow whom to win. Then more stuff happens. The crazy plot-spinner pulls out all the stops. It's funny, violent, silly, and strangely stirring the way things end. Darned if I wasn't kind of touched.

Samurai Marathon/サムライマラソン 103 mins., was released in Japan Feb. 22, 2019, and gets its US debut Jun. 28 as the Opening Night Film of the New York Asian Film Festival, 7 pm, at the Walter Reade Theater.


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