The arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s infamous “black ships” in 1850s Japan prompted some unusual reactions from a country that had spent the past few centuries shut off from the outside world. Few were as offbeat as that of the feudal lord Itakura Katsuakira, who decided that the best way to prepare his samurai troops for the onslaught of modernization was to turn them into long-distance runners.

This quirky episode provides the basis for “Samurai Marathon,” a lavish, heavily fictionalized jidaigeki (period film) brought to us by Bernard Rose, the British director of “Candyman” and “Immortal Beloved” fame. It’s based on a 2014 novel by Akihiro Dobashi, also known as the screenwriter of the “Samurai Hustle” series, which should tell you how seriously the film takes its history.

It doesn’t seem sure quite how seriously to take itself, though. The opening scenes, in which Perry (Danny Huston) introduces a Japanese delegation to the wonders of American technology and bourbon, strike an affected, not-quite-comedic tone that Rose sustains for the next 100 minutes. It’s fun, though never particularly funny, and Philip Glass’s opulent score sounds like it’s being piped in from a more straight-faced historical epic.

Samurai Marathon (Samurai Marason)
Run Time 104 mins.
Language JAPANESE, English
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Viewers would do well to pay attention during the first 15 minutes, in which characters and plotlines are introduced at such a frenzied clip, it’s like Rose is hitting the fast-forward button to get to the good bits. For a movie about distance running, “Samurai Marathon” doesn’t really know how to pace itself.

Unnerved by the arrival of Perry’s fleet, Lord Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa) proposes that his samurai test their mettle by competing in a nearly 60-kilometer race, with the winner getting anything he desires. There’s just one complication: One of his men, Jinnai Karasawa (Takeru Satoh), is actually a spy working for the shogun. When the lord musters his men to announce the race, Jinnai misinterprets it as a call to arms and sends a message to his masters in the capital, who dispatch a squad of assassins to quell the presumed uprising.

While Jinnai tries to rectify his mistake, others are getting ready for the race, including a fleet-footed commoner who dreams of joining the warrior class (Shota Sometani), a recently retired samurai looking to prove his worth (Naoto Takenaka), and a veteran retainer (Mirai Moriyama) with eyes for the lord’s daughter, Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu). To complicate matters further, Yuki has just run away from home and is intent on joining the race herself.

Although the film’s exposition is a mess, it finds its rhythm once the runners set off, not realizing that their domain is about to come under attack. Rose’s preference for shooting group scenes from a distance, panning between different characters, encourages his all-star cast to perform as an ensemble rather than a mass of competing egos, and with “Rurouni Kenshin” cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka on board, the action sequences are fluidly and coherently staged.

Once the swords start clashing, the race gets rather forgotten, so when the film finishes with a photo montage of legendary Japanese marathon runners, it’s a bit disingenuous. As a paean to Japan’s athletic heroes of old, “Samurai Marathon” leaves a lot to be desired, but as breathless entertainment goes, it leaves most contemporary jidaigeki in the dust.

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