Monday, August 10, 2020

Samurai Marathon Review: A Historical Sprint With Brutal Swordplay

Release date: May 12, 2020
Running time: 103 minutes
Starring:  Takeru Satoh, Nana Komatsu, Mirai Moriyama

In 1855, a daimyo (Japanese lord) sends his men on a grueling marathon to discover if they're tough enough to face the newly arrived Americans. Misunderstanding his intent, the Shogun dispatches assassins.  Now the spy who sent the wrong information must run for his life to make sure that this town and its lord are not wiped out.  And while he is doing this, the daimyo's samurai are all running for their own reason, jostling for position, and trying to stay alive in this grueling endurance test.

Samurai Marathon has an interesting premise.  The race itself is the main event, but there is so much going on in the background as well.  There is intrigue within the daimyo's family, with a daughter who wants ot be free despite Japan's very limited opportunities for women.  There are several members of the Annaka clan who are vying for increased status and position by winning the race.  The way that they jostle for position and scheme are interesting to watch and provide some additional layers to this complicated race.  And on top of all of this, there is a plot by the assassins themselves as they try and quell this supposed uprising.  And as is typical of Japanese movies, there are also a few characters thrown in for comic relief.  The whole cast of Samurai Marathon are enjoyable.  Even the backstabbers are well acted and interesting.  Additionally, although he makes a limited appearance, it has the always enjoyable Danny Huston as Commodore Perry; a limited role but still one that is fun to see.  

Samurai Marathon has some great shots, sets, and costumes.  Everything in this film looks authentic.  It really transports you back to old Japan, with samurai, lords, and plenty of culture.  It really is remarkable and makes you feel like you are watching a truly historical film.  And although this movie bills itself as based on an historical event, it seems like it is just loosely based on it.  From what I could tell, the race itself happened but the intrigue was added on.  However, the fact that this period piece is set up so well despite the limited historical connection to the actual event is a testament to the filmmakers.  On top of the great sets, the sound in this film is decidedly epic.  It does a good job of setting the time period and accentuating the exciting scenes, of which there are plenty.  And one more thing about this film that I really appreciated was the swordplay and fighting scenes.  They are so brutal and visceral, and at the same time seem fairly accurate for what swordplay would be.  It is fast, sometimes messy, and always savage.  It is not choreographed stylistic swordplay like in other films; the fighting here serves a purposes and that purpose is killing the other combatant.

If there are criticisms of this film, it is that the movie introduces so many characters and story lines at the start that it was tough to follow.  I had to go back and rewatch the opening after I finished the film to try and put everyone where they belonged.  And the tone of this film, though sometimes serious, maintains a not quite serious not quite humorous tone.  It strikes an interesting balance but that might be a turnoff for many.  For example, any time the Americans are on screen or the characters are using American technology, "Yankee Doodle" plays.  And finally, this film seems very loosely based on history in that there was a race, but that is it.  But don't let these minor criticisms turn you off from his film.  It is an exciting, interesting, and wonderfully done period piece that is easy to enjoy.

Samurai Marathon starts off at a sprint, but for those that can keep up you will find a stylized period piece with amazing sets and costumes along with brutal swordplay.

Watch it.

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