It feels right to acknowledge the achievement of the puckish genius that is Takashi Miike on the release of his 100th film. It may be true that his manic edge seems slightly blunted in recent years, and his reputation as Japan’s most wayward cinematic son supplanted by the likes of Sion Sono; but Blade of the Immortal is not the work of a man awaiting a letter from the Queen. Combining two sources of inspiration that have proved fruitful for Miike in the past, Manga series and a samurai setting, Blade is a film of relentless energy with a truly insane body count.
Sometime in the Edo period, idealistic samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) is on the run after killing his corrupt lord and his bodyguards, one of whom was the husband of his sister Machi (Hana Sugisaka). The girl has gone insane with grief and, forced to look after her, he is quickly tracked down by a band of ronin. Machi is hacked down by the leader of the ronin, which spurs Manji into killing every member, sustaining mortal injuries in the process. Just before he dies, he is visited by an 800-year-old nun who implants ‘sacred bloodworms’ into his body, which not only heal him but make him virtually immortal.
50 years later he encounters Rin Asano (Sugisaka again), who recruits him as a bodyguard to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a group of evil samurai led by the vicious Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi). As he survives numerous encounters with these warriors, someone else is also assassinating Anotsu’s henchmen.
As with so many of Miike’s films, Blade of the Immortal is a real melting pot of influences. There’s a dash of Kurosawa, with Manji echoing Toshiro Mifune’s solitary ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. There is the weary existentialism of many vampire films with a romantic bent, such as Only Lovers Left Alive. In the Manga series from which the film is derived, Manji must fight to regain his mortal status, so he can die as a real samurai. Miike also merrily ploughs the gleeful splatter of some of his celebrated earlier works, spraying it Pollock-like round a more coherent narrative frame than his recent messy misfire, Yakuza Apocalypse.
There’s also something of the western and the road movie embedded in Miike’s vision. The grizzled, cynical Manji comes to care for the young, fiercely precocious Rin beyond his commission, very much like True Grit, and the episodic structure, along with the vivid, eccentric characters they meet along the way feels like Lone Wolf and Cub via Easy Rider and all tinged with the elegiac melancholy of Logan. The action is hectic, brutal and often played for dark humour. Miike is by now a true expert at handling intricate, complex fight sequences and the carnage here matches his Kurosawa-rivalling work on 13 Assassins. Takuya’s jaded badass isn’t portrayed as an untouchable superhero, as each encounter adds further scarring to his patchwork face and body. Sugisaka is also given far more to do than play the damsel, with Manji often essentially pulled along in the wake of her monomaniacal drive for revenge. For fans of contemporary Japanese cinema there are also welcome glimpses of Death Note’s Erika Toda as an assassin who cries in remorse after every kill; Miike regular Renji Ishibashi; and Chiaki Kuriyama, aka Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill, kicking arse in fine style once more.
However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Blade of the Immortal comes in a hefty 140 minutes and never lets up the pace. This length may have been better used to allow some ebb and flow into the storytelling, offering some quieter moments of reflections or character development. Some further insight into Manji’s ambivalence to his condition would have been welcome for instance, rather than cursorily through another battle with a fellow, similarly tortured immortal. Instead of moments of calm, Miike complicates the narrative with the addition of a rival band of warriors equally intent on toppling Anotsu’s gang. This introduces another array of mad characters relatively late into proceedings and plunges the film into an endless cycle of fights. Despite the constantly imaginative staging and the physical skills of the actors, one can’t help but be slightly wearied by the sheer cacophony. It’s akin to a tired parent being screamed at by a rambunctious toddler.
However, for all the repetition of the plot, all is forgiven come the final showdown which beautifully bookends the film with its startling opening. It’s gory, ridiculous and choreographed with the precision of a ballet. It’s also virtual pornography for anyone who’s even slightly fetishistic about weaponry. What an array of swords, maces, axes, shuriken and staffs for all tastes! With all these goodies being put to head-splitting, entertaining use one begins to wonder if the baddies may have a point in their desire to unite all the various styles of fisticuffs.
While undoubtedly overlong and self-indulgent – it does feel like Miike was so proud of his fight scenes that he couldn’t bear to kill his darlings – Blade of the Immortal for the most part overcomes its episodic structure and occasional bagginess to be quite a jewel in the canon of this most prolific of filmmakers. With 30 volumes of the source Manga that could be mined, it’s not unconceivable we may see Manji and his blood worms on the big screen again.