'Blade of the Immortal'
Even the most ardent fans of cult Japanese schlock auteur Takashi Miike might be shocked to learn that ‘Blade of the Immortal’ is his 100th movie as a director. That’s insane. The guy works at a fever pace, cranking out at least two or three pictures per year. The results are usually hit-or-miss, but the hits are stunning this time, which will be enough to get attention for those who enjoy blood-soaked entertainment.
Miike’s reputation is likely better in North America than in his home country because we only get the cream of his considerable crop, instant cult favorites of depraved entertainment such as ‘Audition’, ‘Ichi the Killer’ or ’13 Assassins’. Miike’s latest feature is one of his largest productions to date, with backing from Warner Bros. and decades’ worth of manga legacy to adapt.
The film is based on the popular comic series that’s been running with great success in Japan for years and years. As a result, Miike had quite a wide range of open-ended source material to choose from. The gory set-pieces have a “greatest hits” mentality as if plucked from so many successful stories. At the same time, he’s essentially working with a story that’s all setup with no particular ending to find. Inevitably, that means the narrative will be episodic and a little unsatisfying. You just have to expect that going in. However, within that rambling structure is a wild ride of samurai fiction worth taking – maybe not for the full butt-numbing two hours and twenty minutes that Miike puts you through, but definitely for a while.
The movie doesn’t waste time getting down to the nitty-gritty. It opens with samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) ripping through opponents with his blade. The scene is shot in gorgeous black-and-white to resemble classic samurai films. It’s just bloodier, obviously. Then Manji rips through the wrong demigod in his quest for revenge and ends up with worms in his bloodstream that curse him to a life of immortality. We then jump ahead an untold number of years. Manji is still kicking, just now missing an eye and boasting a number of scars to compliment his bad attitude. (He’s immortal, not invincible!) He’s approached by a young and innocent orphan named Rin (Hana Sugisaka) who begs him to serve as her bodyguard and train her to avenge the death of her parents at the hands of a super evil swordsman. As with all gruff and morally ambiguous heroes, Manji scoffs off the idea of fatherly advice and heroism at first. Eventually, he’s impressed and even moved by the girl and agrees to train her as a protégé. That leads to bonding over a series of bloody battles featuring a series of amusingly insane weapons. Obviously, there’s an end goal (or end boss) in mind, but the movie takes it’s time to get there.
‘Blade of the Immortal’ is both a lovingly absurd and gloriously bloody bit of poppy fun, and a long and lingering tale of brooding and inner demons told in a distinctly Japanese manner. At times, it feels deadly boring, while at other times it’s wild and alive. The storytelling is episodic and lumpy, often lurching between battles and conversations with little cohesive purpose, but sometimes singularly focused on its protagonist’s inner plight to the point of tedium. In other words, it’s a Takashi Miike movie. The guy has never been the most narrow-minded or focused storyteller, and ‘Blade of the Immortal’ brings out both the best and worst of him. It allows him to indulge in digressions that go nowhere and lose sense of the plot for the sake of god knows what, while also providing a simple and elemental action/fantasy drama to cut loose with when he finally snaps back into focus. When the movie wallows in its mythology and gets lost, it can be a slog. When it snaps back into place, it’s one of the most thrilling and gloriously goofy films of the director’s 100-title strong career.
The grouchy Manji and stubborn Rin might be stock character types in this genre, but they’re brought vividly to life by Hana Sugisaka and longtime action star Takuya Kimura in ways that resonate in fantasy pop terms. The videogame-esque journey through a series of escalating boss battles with cartoonish warriors leading to a Big Bad gets repetitive and tedious, but is filled with delightfully imaginative carnage and characterization. Graphic gore and ridiculously bloody splatstick comedy retain interest even when the narrative sags and drags. Thankfully, it’s all worth it for the finale where our cartoon heroes carve through a full army featuring literally hundreds of extras. It’s a remarkable bit of manga style action that Miike executes like a master, with bodies dropping everywhere like the climax of his admittedly superior ’13 Assassins’.
Although there’s not much to the movie beyond the bloody surface, it’s worth the ride, especially during the insane climax. It’s not Miike’s best, but he’s also made at least 70-80 movies that are worse. So that ain’t bad. Fans of anime-style carnage will be pleased. That’s who the movie was made for. Miike knows his audience and knows how to amuse himself while racking up a record body count. ‘Blade of the Immortal’ does exactly what it’s supposed to for a very specific audience. No one else will likely even realize that this thing exists. At least those who appreciate this particular brand of Asian Extreme cinema should go home happy.