‘Blade of the Immortal’ Review: Takashi Miike’s 100th Film Is Samurai Insanity
If Wolverine was a Samurai, it might play a bit like Blade of the Immortal. Takashi Miike‘s 100th film (100!) features a grumbling, jaded warrior who just can’t die, and Miike puts him through the ringer fight after fight (after fight after fight) as the bodyguard of a young girl on a mission of vengeance. It’s chaotic, utterly insane, and ultimately a blast, even if it is a bit of a meaningless mess.
The film stars Takuya Kimura as Manji, a Shogunate Samurai known as the “Hundred Killer.” How did he earn such a title? Well, by killing a hundred people, of course. Blade of the Immortal picks up fifty years earlier in a black and white sequence where we meet a still-mortal Manji trapped in a life caring for his younger sister (Hana Sugisaki) after he killed her husband in his line of duty. When a band of villains cruelly dispatch of his darling sister, Manji unleashes his full skills, slaughtering them in the street where they stand, leaving a pile of body parts littered around his sister’s dead body. A hundred men later, Manji has taken some critical hits and lays down to die when mysterious crone feeds “bloodworms” into his body, healing him on the spot. From then on, Manji can never die. He can only fight and grimace and continue to live, no matter what violence is inflicted upon him, knowing that the bloodworms will sew him up every time.
With immortality on the plate, Manji becomes a grizzled, lonely figure, embittered by his endless life until he meets Rin (also played by Sugisaki), a spirited young woman seeking revenge after a merciless group of warrior murders her father and allows his men to rape and kidnap her mother. Master Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) leads the group, known as the Itto-Ryu, who are determined to destroy all dojos and rigid codes of combat technique. At first, Manji is reluctant to take up Rin’s cause, but charmed by her plucky insistence and her resemblance to his sister, he eventually takes a job as her bodyguard, putting his immortal powers to work to exact the girl’s vengeance.
What follows is essentially a series of combat sequences as Manji takes on one henchman after the next. It’s entertaining, but it’s also draining and repetitive. The fights don’t have the kinetic elegance or distinguished choreography of superior samurai films, including Miike’s spectacular 13 Assassins, and the fights eventually seem to bleed into each other with little in the way of interstitial moments of drama or character work. That is perhaps the most frustrating element of what is otherwise a wildly entertaining film; Miike knows how to direct action, but aside from Blade of the Immoral‘s wild, spectacular final battle, none of the set-pieces feel singular or all that memorable.
That’s probably a result of the source material, Hiroaki Samura’s manga of the same name, which ran for decades and would have been better served by a serialized adaptation — be it a TV series or a film franchise. The roving nature of the story just doesn’t make for a strong standalone film, which starts to feel like a series of bloody vignettes, each duel carrying a bit less impact as the repetition wears on. There are some standouts though. There’s Makie (Erika Toda), a killing machine and devoted member of the Ittu-Ryu who goes on a bloody killing spree before falling to her knees in teary-eyed regret over her violent ways. Makie gets a great introduction and an even better exit, a surprise standout in the film. There’s also Eiku Shizuma (Ebizo Ichikawa), a fellow immortal who’s been alive for 200 years and curses the bloodworms even more than Manji. Miike plays up the duel between these two bedraggled to great comedic effect, slashing at each other with no concern for their well-being, a sloppy slapdash fight between two men who know they’ll be fine either way.
Miike leans into the manga aesthetic, giving his characters hyperstylized costumes and hairstyles that feel out of place in the real world, but also give Blade of the Immortal a cheeky flourish of fantasy. Most of the characters look goofy, but Blade of the Immortal is kind of a goofy movie so it works. Indeed, the film best succeeds when it leans into its campiness, especially in the comedic bits, which are peppered throughout the combat sequences with refreshing regularity.
The chaos is consummately entertaining, even when the character motivations rarely add up. Blade of the Immortal‘s biggest hiccup is failing to justify its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, which wears on the nerves somewhere around the third or fourth duel. Kimura is charming as the grizzled immortal, but he doesn’t quite have the chemistry with Sugisaki the film needs to flourish in the scarce moments between drawn swords. Speaking of which, there are some real crowd-pleasing moments when Miike gets creative with his weaponry, and one double sword in particular brought down the house. Fortunately, Miike sends it all out with a big, spectacular final battle that leaves limbs littered on the ground and a literal river of blood flowing through the battlefield. It’s just the exclamation point a film like Blade of the Immortal needs, it’s just a shame Miike takes so long to get to the punchline.