With a body count in the thousands and a breakneck pitch that starts at feverishly intense and only builds upwards, “Blade of the Immortal” is certainly one of Takashi Miike’s most lethal works. But then, how else should a director with Miike’s talents celebrate such a milestone? You see, not only is his adaptation of a popular manga overloaded, overlong and gleefully over-the-top – it’s also the director’s hundredth feature film.
Based on Hiroaki Samura’s eponymous series, “Blade of the Immortal” follows Manji (local mega-star Takuya Kimura), a cursed samurai and unkillable killing machine who broods and maims his way across Edo era Japan. Thanks to the “sacred bloodworms” coursing through his veins, Manji can heal any wound and ages in slow motion, and that’s not the only similarity to a certain Marvel hero, as this film also hinges on the relationship between the older sell-sword and young girl he’s paid to protect.
That girl is Rin (Hana Sugisaki), the daughter of the martial-arts establishment (kenjutsu branch) who is made an orphan when her father is killed and mother abducted by the evil gang of swordsmen, the Ittō-ryū. So Rin does what any one else would do in such a situation: She vows cold-blooded revenge and hires an immortal samurai to do the dirty work.
That’s about the entire plot of this 2 hour and 20 minute film. We occasionally check in on Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), the semi-androgynous head of the Ittō-ryū as he tries pull-off the Michael Corleone gambit and work his outlaw gang into the lawful establishment, but for the most part it’s just Manji, Rin and another Ittō-ryū lackey battling without honor or mortality, working their way up to the big boss.
Indeed, the gorging and bloodletting starts before the film really does, with a number of splashes and spurts over the opening production titles. Miike knows what his audience wants, and boy, does he give it to them.
Take the opening prologue, which explains the origins of Manji’s powers (he calls them his curse) and the reason why he is so protective of young Rin. Miike basically kicks off this film with what would be very rousing climax to any other, staging a long, bruising fight between the lone Manji and at least two hundred well-armed assassins and showing in painstaking detail what the combination of blades, bows, and shurikens can to the human body.
To great aesthetic effect, Miike shoots this opening salvo in crystalline digital black and white, which makes every spurt of arterial spray look like inky pools on a Rorschach test. But the bracingly visceral opening creates an obstacle “Blade of the Immortal” only partially overcomes. When kicking off with a whole lot of combat and then offering a lot more of the same, it sets the audience up for a lot of combat fatigue.
Miike and crew try to obviate that outcome by focusing on the particularities of each Ittō-ryū assassin – all them have wildly different costumes, personalities and fighting styles – and by thinking of new ways to mangle the main hero’s body. The central conceit is actually kind of brilliant: By fully embracing what is already implicit in every superhero movie – that that main character is never really in mortal danger – the filmmakers open the door to wonderfully inventive action beats, like when Manji cuts off his own arm to get himself out of a trap knowing full well that he can fuse it back on when the fighting’s done.
Still, for all the great action and idiosyncratic antagonists (Erika Toda, as a brutally efficient warrior who can’t stomach violence is a particular standout) “Blade of the Immortal” is altogether too much. Even at two hours, the film would feel awfully repetitive; at nearly two and half, even the ostensibly thrilling end battles feel like a drag.
That being said, the film’s repetitive structure suggests a unique new approach for comic book adaptations. Miike and screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi don’t follow the common path, taking the main characters and broad beats and building them into a closed, new narrative (with room for a sequel, naturally). Instead they treat the various issues in a long-running series as if they were chapters in a book. Watching the film is like binging on a number of back-issues you picked up all at once. It may not be the most wholly successful approach, but leave it to Miike for coming up with something new. A hundred movies in, and he’s invented a new genre – the comic books movie.
“Blade of the Immortal” premiered in out of competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Magnet Releasing recently acquired U.S. rights to the film.