Takashi Miike’s been one of the biggest shock jockeys of Japanese cinema for eons. Ichi the Killer (2001) was a high-splatter mark for lovers of extreme gore, and Miike’s output has been an extraordinary arterial gusher. Blade of the Immortal is billed as Miike’s hundredth film, and while one could quibble (glancing over his Wikipedia bio, I count somewhere in the mid-nineties), the fact is the guy’s made an astonishing number of films. And he’s only fifty-seven!
Blade of the Immortal finds Miike plying his grisly gonzo in the service of a long-running samurai manga. Is the legendary director finally in danger of becoming a hack, or does his blood-slicked blade cut through one more time?
Manji (Takuya Kimura) is an undead warrior gifted with immortality by the enigmatic woman Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto). Originally a hatamoto, a samurai in direct service to the Shogun, Manji is expelled when he kills a superior after discovering his corruption. Even worse for him, Manji slays several guards in the process, one of whom is married to his sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki). The shock drives her mad, and Manji tries to protect her even as he flees. Surrounded by bounty hunters, Machi is cruelly cut down, and Manji snaps. He kills a hundred soldiers before falling to his wounds. Yaobikuni, 800-years-old and mysterious, puts blood worms in his body that keep him alive. Fifty years later, he’s a renowned recluse, the ageless “Hundred Killer,” but he craves the death that has been denied him.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki, again) is orphaned when her parents are killed by the Itto-ryu, a ruthless school of samurai adhering to no fixed technique or weapon. She swears revenge on their leader, Anotsu Kagehisa (Sôta Fukushi), and though her father was a dojo master and taught her, she’s far too young and lacks the skills. Yaobikuni appears to her, suggesting she take Manji as her bodyguard. He’s reluctant, but Rin bears a striking resemblance to his lost sister. She awakens long dormant feelings of family and his need to strike against injustice.
The film follows the pair as they track their quarry, running into henchmen of the Itto-ryu in gleefully gory interludes along the way. Anotsu strives to consolidate his school’s growing power with the Shogun, seeking to be appointed the sole school of the Shogunate with him as its head. As the climactic battle draws closer, Anotsu’s reasons for his uncompromising ambition are revealed, blurring the lines between hero and villain.
As ever, Miike tackles his story with gruesome verve. Limbs fly, blood gouts, and Manji flails wildly, his sleeves full of weapons, his body wracked with wounds that stitch themselves together again. Kimura is convincing as the weary samurai, and his thorny relationship with Rin develops naturally. Fukushi’s Anotsu is a first-rate villain, with an aloof intensity and a look straight out of a Final Fantasy game.
Blade of the Immortal is a good, albeit familiar yarn in blood-drenched trappings. The fight scenes are clever and enjoyable, though Manji’s undead gift means many of them run too long. The final confrontation is such an endless stretch of samurai falling like wheat before a scythe that it borders on tedious, reminding me of my own room-jumping light-sabre fantasias when I was ten. Hacking innumerable soldiers to pieces is pretty cool in a movie, but after the first five minutes, you get the idea.
While it doesn’t measure up to the very best of Miike’s work, Blade of the Immortal has style to spare and an evocative story that questions the underpinnings of the classic revenge tale. A sharper hand in the editing suite would’ve made a world of difference, but as it stands, it’s still two katanas up!