In the hope of regaining his soul and finally achieving inner peace, a skilled but cursed and cranky immortal Samurai agrees to help a young girl avenge her parents, murdered by a group of ruthless outlaw swordsmen and their enigmatic leader—but their bond soon becomes greater than one of pure convenience, in this adaptation of the violent Manga series and the 100th film of Japanese director Takashi Miike’s long and illustrious career.
After taking on virtually every genre and exploring almost every theme in a prolific 25-year-plus directorial career, Miike returns to the roots of Japanese cinema for his 100th credit, channelling Kurosawa as well as the classic Hollywood fare which influenced him, and indeed the many filmmakers who were subsequently influenced by him—for this ultra-violent, farcically graphic and often darkly comical Japanese samurai western.
Takuya Kimura stars as ‘Manji’, a former samurai who’s cursed by a witch with immortality—thanks to an infusion of some gruesome but therapeutic ‘bloodworms’—after getting revenge in a great battle but suffering a huge personal tragedy. Now destined to wander the feudal Japanese countryside as a hermit, Manji accepts a mission of revenge from young ‘Rin’ (Hana Sugisaki), herself a victim of tragedy, looking to avenge the murder of her parents at the hands of brutal swordsmen and rebel ‘fencing’ school the ‘Itto-Ryu’ and their elegant leader ‘Anotsu’ (Sôta Fukushi)—a fearsome master swordsman with his own lust for revenge. But their sombre quest soon forms an unexpected bond between these two tragic souls, as they face all imaginable manner of foes and learn that revenge is not the answer . . . but is best served cold and bloody.
As AC/DC once so groovily exclaimed, “If you want blood (You’ve got it)”, and that could easily be a tagline for this movie. Miike splashes buckets of blood and farcical amounts of graphic violence on his cinematic canvas, drawing on influences from decades of exploitation cinema and the filmmakers it influenced like Quentin Tarantino, plus of course the classics which inspired them all—creating a quintessentially Japanese story of tradition and revenge with plenty of humour and some genuine pathos, in what can be best described as ‘Yojimbo’ meets ‘True Grit’ . . . with a bit of ‘Highlander’ thrown into the mix.
Unsurprisingly ‘Blade of the Immortal’ is packed with action, featuring plenty of gloriously graphic and creative sword-to-sword fights with more than a stylistic whiff of ‘Kill Bill: Vol. 1’, and using an array of weaponry going well beyond the traditional Katana. The result often hilariously places Manji in both ludicrous group battles as well as one-on-one contests against an array of often superior foes, which he seems to overcome by sheer stubbornness . . . and the ole’ immortality thing of course.
The action is all expertly choreographed and set in the beautifully rendered backdrop of rural feudal Japan, all vividly captured in full colour spectrum (beyond just the flowing crimson) by cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who also brings to life the fine costume and production designs—all evocatively underscored by composer and regular Miike collaborator Kôji Endô.
Beyond all the flash & slash through, there’s also some genuine pathos and melancholy in the story, mostly surrounding the bond which forms between the two leads and the tragedies within each of their narratives which link them together, as well as the tragedy within the depiction of the principal antagonist Anotsu— taking him beyond an archetypal villain towards something slightly more layered, and signalling Miike & co’s efforts to create nuanced characters which go beyond a genre piece with exploitation film tendencies.
Screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi also makes sure that his adaptation of the manga also underpins the narrative with classic Japanese social themes, which were part of the fabric of society during the Shogunate era and remain relevant in the culture today. ‘Blade of the Immortal’ intricately weaves into the story the omnipresent notions of the sanctity of honour and the defying of tradition, as well as the role of the ‘outsider’ in Japanese society—and the many ways it can manifest itself.
Yet ‘Blade of the Immortal’ works best when it’s unashamedly violent and farcically graphic, and although it may not be as nuanced or expertly balanced as his own ’13 Assassins’ or some of the many films which have inspired him, Miike latest is a gruesomely hilarious and majorly entertaining piece of regional genre filmmaking with echoes of many a classic style—boasting more than enough to get you excited for the likely sequel (or even series) it inevitably sets up.
The Bottom Line…
An outrageous and stylish samurai revenge romp packed with gory hilarity and swordfights galore—but with plenty of charm and even some poignancy to balance it out—‘Blade of the Immortal’ is a hugely entertaining and memorable potential franchise-starter, for a director who has already turned his cinematic gaze towards his next 100 films.
‘Blade of the Immortal’ is out now in Japan, and on the 8th of December in the UK.