Blade of the Immortal
2017, R, 140 min. Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 1, 2017
For his 100th directorial credit (he’s already wrapped two more since filming this), Takashi Miike returns to Edo-era Japan for the first time since 2012’s sedate drama Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. However, Blade is much closer to the blood-spraying drama of 2011’s 13 Assassins, with even more fantastical elements. The sword wielder here is Manji (actor, musician, and anime voiceover stalwart Takuya Kimura) who has been cursed with immortality by a mysterious nun after a life of violence. Heading into self-exile in a rickety shack, his isolation is ended by Rin (Sugisaki). She needs an unkillable warrior to help her defeat the Ittō-ryū, a rogue sect of warriors determined to overturn the staid formality of samurai fencing schools by killing as many sword masters as possible – including Rin’s father.
Tetsuya Oishi’s script keeps many of the signature characters and events of the original, but inevitably has to make some changes and sacrifices. After all, it would be impossible to boil down Hiroaki Samura’s 30-volume story into 140 minutes. Purists may find issue with what he leaves in and takes out, or the fact that the blood worms that keep Manji alive seem even more capricious than in the book. Yet, it’s hard to find fault with the end result, especially Kimura’s coldly hilarious take on Manji as a sardonic pin-cushion, as likely to be impaled on a dozen blades as he is to be doing the impaling. With a mass of scars (the blood worms only do so much) and dark humor, he’s the perfect Miike antihero.
However, Oishi’s most significant shift is in the emphasis and underlying discussion of the story. Rather than pondering immortality and death, Oishi looks more at why we kill. As Manji and Rin pursue/are pursued, they meet opponents with differing motivations – some venal, some misguided, some honestly held. The question is whether their intention is worth the cost of so many lives, and neither Manji nor the vengeance-driven Rin are immune from this scrutiny. In that shift, Oishi squares what has always seemed like an impossible circle within action films: that the audience has come for the violence, but are also supposed to be outraged by it. Instead, he explores why the viewer should be OK with Manji’s bloodshed, while blowing holes in the formality and moral strictures of Bushido, and the self-justifications his swordsmen and swordswomen use for their wanton acts of carnage.
And carnage there is aplenty. From the opening monochrome massacre that provides Manji’s motivation, through the closing battle of Manji vs. his nemesis Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) and half the shogun’s army. He even slips in a moment that will make fans of his transgressive masterpiece Ichi the Killer squeal with nauseated delight.
A version of this review previously ran as part of our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage.