ON IN CINEMAS
Blade of the Immortal (2017) directed by Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike’s 100th directorial credit is based on a manga comic. Set in feudal Japan, it starts off with sepia-tinted flashbacks explaining the backstory of its central character - Manji (played by Takuya Kimura). He plays a Samurai who turned against his Shogun master. However, during his angry rampage, he ended up killing the husband of his little sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki), thus driving her insane. He subsequently takes care of her while wandering the land as a fugitive. However, one day when he lets her slip out of sight she is captured by a group of mercenaries.
When Manji confronts the group things get out of hand and their leader kills his sister with his sword. The rage-filled brother fights with them, killing them all in the process but sustaining a number of severe injuries including the loss of a hand. While he lies there in a pool of blood, a wandering sorceress named Yaobikuni arrives on the scene. Since Manji feels that he has lost all purpose in life with the death of his sister, he asks this lady to kill him. However, she refuses and instead decides to infect him with so-called “bloodworms” which cause his wounds to heal and for him to gain immortality.
Move forward 52 years later and a young girl named Rin - who bears a remarkable resemblance to Machi (she’s also played by Hana Sugisaki) - trains in swordsmanship under her father, who runs a fencing school. Later that night they are visited by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) of the Ittō-ryū clan. Rin then watches helplessly as Anotsu kills her father and lets her mother be gang-raped by some of the other clan members.
Some days later, while Rin is bringing flowers to her father’s grave, she is visited by Yaobikuni. She tells her that she can seek vengeance against Anotsu by hiring the now-immortal swordsman Manji. She goes to visit him and, while he is initially reluctant to agree to her quest for retribution, he takes a shine to her due to her uncanny resemblance to his long-dead sister. Thus begins a slew of violent confrontations.
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The prolific Miike
Cult Japanese director Takashi Miike has displayed an incredible work rate since his first film in 1991. Having made several films and TV productions in almost every year since then, he has amassed 102 directorial credits on IMDB to date. They have been rather eclectic, alternating between drama, horror, yakuza pictures, science fiction and even a horror-comedy-musical called The Happiness of the Katakuris. While many are unknown in the UK, quite a few (such as the latter) have been released here (sometimes only on home viewing formats) and have gone on to gain niche followings.
Most of his films have been a little too offbeat (and, often, featuring extremes of violent or sexual content) to break through into a wider Western audience. However, his excellent 2010 chambara (the Japanese term for Samurai/sword fighting movies) 13 Assassins came closest to a mainstream breakthrough success in terms of both style and critical/commercial reception.
Blade of the Immortal returns to the chambara genre which broke him through to a somewhat wider world cinema audience with 13 Assassins. However, while his 2010 hit had a distinctive Akira Kurosawa feel to it, this one feels more akin to the comic-book style of the early 1970s Lone Wolf and Cub series (which was also based on a manga). In other words, we get lots of violent confrontations, blood, dismemberment, wildly overblown characters, implausible leaps through the air, historically-inaccurate weaponry and occasional fantasy elements. This is also the sort of stuff which fits in well with much of Miike’s earlier output such as Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer. The relationship between masterless Samurai Manji and the childlike Rin even has some echoes of that between father Ogami and son Daigorō Ittō from Lone Wolf and Cub, albeit with a rather different dynamic between them.
Great, but not mindless, entertainment
The emphasis here is on grand, almost hilariously splattery entertainment. It is bookended with two frenzied, whirling, high-body-count massed sword fights as per the extended climax of 13 Assassins. In between, a number of colourfully outlandish characters pop up (e.g. a facially-disfigured man with a penchant for severed heads and underage girls, an incredibly acrobatic woman who seems to have emerged from a beat ‘em up video game) and engage in painfully brutal swordplay with Manji.
However, the film avoids mindless predictability due to its meditative tone on the value of mortality and the fundamentally selfish ethics of revenge. The story also adopts some neat twists on the standard route for this kind of film as one antagonistic character gets a sudden attack of conscience and a seeming ally turns out to be far more cruel and brutal than the man whom they are pursuing. There is a genuine sense that, beneath their overblown comic-book facades, these characters are human beings cast adrift in an unforgivingly violent world. Even the supposedly super-heroic element of immortality and being able to recover from would-be fatal wounds is presented as being counterintuitive to living with the rest of humanity.
While Blade of the Immortal never becomes dull during its 140-minute runtime it’s arguable that it runs somewhat longer than it really needs to. Still, it's another twisted triumph from Takashi Miike - who here displays both his ability to be outrageous and his talent for crafting respectable plaudit-winning masterpieces within one film.
Runtime: 140 mins
Dir: Takashi Miike
Script: Tetsuya Oishi, from a manga by Hiroaki Samura
Starring: Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Yôko Yamamoto