Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Hiroaki Samura, Tetsuya Oishi
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yoko Yamamoto, Ebizo Ichikawa, Min Tanaka
Running Time: 140 min.
By Kyle Warner
Takashi Miike, one of today’s most prolific filmmakers, celebrated his 100th film as a director with Blade of the Immortal. And it’s tough to imagine a more perfect film for Miike by which to hit that amazing 100. Because the definition of ‘what is a Miike film’ has changed somewhat as he’s journeyed into mainstream filmmaking, Blade of the Immortal is a bit of a sampler platter of Takashi Miike. While we used to think of Ichi the Killer sort of extremes when we thought of Takashi Miike, now we must recognize that historical epics like 13 Assassins, manga or game adaptations like Ace Attorney, and bizarre family-friendly stuff like The Great Yokai War are just as common a Miike film today as any other. In Blade of the Immortal, there’s extreme violence, there’s epic costume drama, there are over-the-top manga influences, and there’s a pretty badass child actor all in one package. It’s a film made by a man who wears many hats. And for most of its 140-minute running time, the movie is a total blast.
Blade of the Immortal begins with guttural screams and sprays of blood. We open with a black and white prologue as a lone samurai named Manji (Takuya Kimura) fights to avenge the death of his sister, Machi. In a scene that calls to mind Sword of Doom, Manji slaughters dozens of men all by himself. Only when he begins to tire do they get in mortal wounds; he loses an eye, a hand, and is sliced across the face. When finally every enemy is dead, Manji is ready to join his sister in death. But a mystical old woman (Yoko Yamamoto) visits Manji in his final moments, judges that allowing him to die would be too merciful, and instead fills his cuts with holy bloodworms (?!) in order to heal his wounds and stop the bleeding. He will now be forced to live forever as an immortal (but not invincible) monster.
Fast-forward fifty years and Japan is now enjoying a time of relative peace, with martial arts dojos carrying on the tradition of the warrior but rarely testing their abilities in mortal combat. This void gives rise to the Itto-ryu clan of samurai, upstarts, madmen, and outlaws. The Itto-ryu travels around the country converting dojos to their line of thinking (mainly that tradition is worthless and that martial arts superiority is the only thing that matters) and killing those who resist. After the little girl Rin (Hana Sugisaki) is left as the only survivor of one obliterated dojo, Rin seeks out the mythical samurai who cannot die to be her avenger. And though Manji is initially reluctant to assist Rin, he sees in her the likeness of his dead sister (it helps that they’re played by the same actress) and sees this as a way to potentially redeem himself. Failing that, it may just be a good way to die.
And so Manji and Rin set out to kill the Itto-ryu swordsmen responsible for the death of Rin’s family and clan. Each Itto-ryu clan member is strange in his or her own way, making each encounter memorable. Kazuki Kitamura (Killers) plays a sadistic burn victim who wears the heads of his victims as ornamentation, Shinnosuke Mitsushima (The Third Murder) plays a masked assassin, Erika Toda (Death Note) plays a musician with special skills, and Ebizo Ichikawa (Harakiri: Death of a Samurai) stars as a killer monk with strange abilities of his own. With every bloody battle, Manji and Rin work their way closer to the Itto-ryu master played by Sota Fukushi (As the Gods Will).
Most of the movie is bloody mayhem. But there’s a decent amount of strong drama here, too. What I didn’t expect from Blade of the Immortal was such a nuanced take on what vengeance means. Rin, really quite wonderfully played by Sugisaki, is a character we’re automatically behind after she is witness to her father’s murder. But her quest results in so much bloodshed that she (and the audience) begins to question its cost. Sota Fukushi’s villain begins as irreprehensible, but the film also goes to unexpected depths to find what makes his character tick. It’s good stuff.
Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura (Space Battleship Yamato) may have found his best action hero lead in Manji, the horrifically scarred samurai who cannot die. What I liked is that Manji is not depicted as some sort of god figure but rather as something horrific and monstrous. He feels every cut just the same as any mortal man, but his trick is that he can stay in the fight longer with his horror show regenerative abilities (oh yeah, and this movie has a subplot about his weakening sacred bloodworms that splatter beneath the skin. It’s gross and I loved it). Kimura makes a strong impression in both the action and dramatic scenes.
You don’t have to be told going in that it’s based on a manga or anime, and therein lies my only major beef with the film. The story’s original format hasn’t been changed enough for film. Blade of the Immortal is very episodic. Manji dispatches one colorful villain and then is onto the next one. You can sense where the manga issue/anime episode ended and the next one began. In addition to the structure, one wishes that perhaps Miike had toned down the look of the film just a bit. When you take away the fantastical elements of Manji’s healing abilities, the samurai world and the violence are actually pretty realistic for a swordplay action movie. As such, the characters with crazy hairstyles and wacky costumes stand out in an odd way. There is also a subplot involving a Manji imposter that doesn’t resonate as well as the rest of the film, but at least that subplot results in a few good moments with Hayato Ichihara (Yakuza Apocalypse) and Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale).
Overall this movie is just a whole lot of fun. There is a moment in the big finale action sequence where people are slipping in blood as they battle beneath a bridge, meanwhile bodies are falling into view because more people are fighting atop the bridge. It’s very cool. In Miike’s filmography, the film it most resembles is 13 Assassins, but with Blade of the Immortal I sense that Miike felt freer to follow his instincts; which is to say, this can be a pretty weird and nasty movie. Bloody corpses and severed limbs are the most common props for stage backgrounds. It’s like a crazy combo of Lone Wolf & Cub and Logan – but with bloodworms! Blade of the Immortal is one of the best action films of 2017.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8/10