Blade of the Immortal lacks depth as a quest for redemption narrative, but makes for good (and very bloody) pulpy fun in Miike's skillful hands.
In addition to being an adaptation of the Japanese manga series written by Hiroaki Samura (first published in 1993), Blade of the Immortal is the 100th film directed by Takashi Miike. As one would expect from the cult Japanese filmmaker responsible for such movies as Audition, Ichi the Killer, and 13 Assassins, Blade of the Immortal is an extremely violent and stylish exercise in genre storytelling; one that blends the archetypes of the samurai genre with tropes commonly found in both Eastern and Western comic books. The final film result may not represent Miike at his finest, but it does prove that the highly prolific storyteller has yet to lose a step. Blade of the Immortal lacks depth as a quest for redemption narrative, but makes for good (and very bloody) pulpy fun in Miike's skillful hands.
Manji (Takuya Kimura) is an infamous samurai who is cursed with the ability to heal from any wound - essentially making him immortal - by an ancient being known as Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto), following a legendary battle that nearly costs Manji his life. Some fifty years later, Manji is approached by a young girl named Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki), who wants his help in seeking revenge against a group of master swordsmen known as the Ittō-ryū - in particular, their leader Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi), who killed Rin's father in combat and doomed her mother to an even darker fate.
While Manji has little interest in helping Rin at first, he eventually takes her under his wing and helps her train, in addition to battling the members of Kagehisa's swordsmen clan himself. The Ittō-ryū are no ordinary fighters, however, and Manji soon comes to realize that his unique powers alone won't be enough to defeat them. It thus falls to the lone warrior to embrace his newfound purpose in life, as he seeks to make amends for the terrible events that set him on his dark path to begin with, all those years ago.
As mentioned earlier, Blade of the Immortal is part classic samurai adventure, but also part comic book fantasy. The adapted screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi, who also wrote two of the Japanese language live-action Death Note movie adaptations, faithfully streamlines its manga source material into a solid, if predictable, three-act redemption storyline for the Manji character. The "immortal" warrior and his journey can't help but bring to mind Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and his own redemption quest in this year's Logan; from the protagonists' shared traits (non-aging warriors with incredible self-healing abilities), to the fact that both movies pair their antiheroes with a figurative or semi-literal young daughter. Blade of the Immortal lacks Logan's thematic and narrative substance, but does touch upon interesting questions about mortality, the meaning of life without death, and the morality of killing for vengeance.
What Blade of the Immortal lacks in originality and deeper meaning, it makes up for in terms of sheer craftsmanship. Working with his 13 Assassins cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita and production designer Toshiyuki Matsumiya (Sakurada Gate Incident), Miike delivers a samurai epic rich in painterly imagery and striking compositions here. The director further demonstrates his mastery of action filmmaking here too, bringing Blade of the Immortal's many sword battles to life through top-notch fight choreography and clean, non-frantic camerawork that captures ever strike and blow. While the film takes advantage of Manji's incredible healing powers to inject some dark humor into the proceedings, it also goes overboard with the sheer amount of bloodshed that its protagonist can both endure and dish out. As gruesome as Blade of the Immortal's action sequences are, they aren't equally thrilling, for the same reason.
Much of the characterization in Blade of the Immortal comes through the film's one-on-one showdowns; scenes that pit Manji - whose rough and tumble style is reflective of his personality - against a variety of foes with different fighting methods and techniques. Most of the members of the Ittō-ryū are entertainingly wicked, but aren't fleshed out beyond what their brief appearances allow for. The same could be said for the character Shira (Hayato Ichihara), a member of another swordsmen group (Mugai-ryū) who at first presents himself as an ally to Manji and Rin, but ultimately cannot hide the truth about his vile nature. The film has more success with its portrayal of big baddie Kagehisa, who never loses his sense of quiet menace, even as the film gradually presents him in a more sympathetic light over the course of its runtime.
Kimura and Sugisaki are both equally good in their respective roles as Manji and Rin here, with their relationship serving as Blade of the Immortal's beating heart. The dynamic between the characters isn't all that unique - with Manji as the disillusioned warrior and mentor who understands the true price of revenge in ways that his angry mentee Rin cannot - but it allows for some funny and emotionally meaningful exchanges between the pair, all the same. Blade of the Immortal works as a self-contained story about the pair and their adventures together, but their chemistry is strong enough to suggest that they could carry another installment on their shoulders (should one ever happen).
Blade of the Immortal commemorates a major milestone in Miike's filmmaking career by serving up all the bloody mayhem, carefully orchestrated action, and solid genre entertainment that fans of the filmmaker have come to expect from him over the years. The film blends comic book elements and samurai movie tropes in an interesting fashion, but fails to break new ground for either of those genres. Blade of the Immortal likewise falls short of the artistic heights that Miike has scaled before with his more mature features in the past, most notably 13 Assassins. It's an enjoyable romp nonetheless - one that fans of samurai epics in general may want to check out at some point. Here's to the next one hundred Miike films!
Blade of the Immortal is now playing in select U.S. theaters and becomes available on VOD starting Wednesday, November 8. It is 141 minutes long and is Rated R for bloody violence and carnage throughout.
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