Who more appropriate to tell the story of Manji, an immortal samurai who is tired of living, than Takashi Miike, a filmmaker who has made 100 films in the past 30 odd years. Isn’t he, like his protagonist, a little exhausted regardless of his skill level? Blade of the Immortal argues that, no, Miike is ready to continue what he’s great at doing: splashing screens everywhere with action, blood, and maybe a few too many characters.
After a brief and brutal black and white prologue, Blade of the Immortal moves forward about fifty years to introduce us to Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki). Her father heads a dojo, and Rin aspires to be a strong warrior herself one day, but those plans are derailed violently when the Ittō-ryū, a group of lawless swordsmen who believe in using any weapon, practice, and tactic as long as it results in a victory (which clashes with the more classical techniques and beliefs of the dojos), arrive at the dojo and slaughter her father and abduct her mother. She is guided to Manji (Takuya Kimura), the titular immortal, and asks for his help to seek revenge. From there they need to knock down the various extremely well costumed but ultimately underdeveloped Ittō-ryū lieutenants in order to get to their leader Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi), the man ultimately responsible for Rin’s parents demise.
First things first: Miike is an expert filmmaker. You can’t make 100 films without picking something up along the way (nevermind that people probably wouldn’t allow you to make 100 films, some of them with massive budgets, if you weren’t good at it). Not all of his films are going to be absolute hits, and Blade of the Immortal has many notable flaws, but there’s still a level of craftsmanship that radiates throughout the film. The action is inventive and coherent, and even though it occasionally (rarely) grows spatially incoherent it never feels unintentional. The compositions throughout are arresting, and though Miike isn’t sole responsible for this the costumes are, as mentioned above, astounding (their inventiveness is most likely a product of their manga roots). While the movie is overly long as a whole, there is never a scene that in particular overstays its welcome. Every scene is funny, action packed, brutal, and tense, the way a movie about an immortal samurai should feel.
Only in taking in the larger picture does the film fall begin to feel disjointed, too lean in some places and too bulky in others. I knew vaguely that the film was an adaptation of a manga and anime, but even if I didn’t the film betrays this fact quickly: there is a lot of plot and a lot of characters, and it feels like it should have been cut down but someone was afraid of offending some source material. Even the treatment of characters betrays its publication history. The movie is episodic to a fault, with each villain serving their fifteen to twenty minutes of screentime before signing off forever. I was introduced to Miike through his fantastic film 13 Assassins, and as the title suggests it is a movie jampacked with characters. Its taken me a few watches, but I know the characters of 13 Assassins. I don’t think a massive cast of characters necessarily means a lot of poorly explored characters, and I know Miike with the right script is good at suggesting depth. 13 Assassins works because though each character is given only a few lines we know why each is doing what they’re doing and then watch them do it, in reaction shots, group shots, background shots, etc. throughout all two hours. We have time to reflect on them and grow to like them, which can’t be done if we’re introduced to a character and then fifteen minutes later it is signalled we should forget them.
On the lean side of things we’re presented with Rin and Manji’s relationship. Manji helps her because she looks like a sister he lost (Sugisaki plays both characters) but that’s it – their bond never grows beyond that and what she offers him never expands. It would be one thing if he truly failed his sister, but he didn’t – he was beat simply by circumstance, and so there is nowhere for him to emotionally grow, and as a result he, as well as their relationship, feels particularly one note. There is a brief moment during their first meeting where they philosophize about revenge (and the points Manji brings up in his reluctancy are genuinely interesting) but once he comes on board the film totally washes its hands of those questions. If anything, the few scenes Rin and Anotsu share are more complex than the ones she and Manji share. Manji’s actual lesson he learns is vaguely interesting, but the uneven and bizarre delivery of it cripples the effect it could have had.
As always, character depth might seem a lot to ask of a movie with so many brutal and excellently crafted fight sequences. “Just sit back and enjoy it!” you might cry. But fight sequences are always bolstered when they have real stakes, and it’s fair to request of Miike that he deliver those stakes because we know he can. He does in 13 Assassins. He does in Blade of the Immortal whenever Anotsu fights, because Anotsu is a complex character who we hate and also, in later stretches, we feel sympathetic for (while still hating him). The fact that he fights with a razor sharp hook shaped massively heavy axe is cool, the fact that he’s a complex villain who fights with a razor sharp hook shaped massively heavy axe is awesome. If only the rest of the characters had the same level of complexity to back up their beautifully crafted fight sequences.
Blade of the Immortal was 7 two-prong daggers out of 10 Darth Maul’s lightsaber inspired katanas.
- Characters teleport too many times in this film, and it’s very spatially confusing. They’ll be sitting in one place and then two shots later be standing somewhere else. It’s unsettling, and it really looks like they simply forgot to get all the shots.
- One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from a Czech screenwriter, Jan Fleischer (hey Jan!). He always reminded us to situation our characters within families and societies, and to always ask ourselves what everyone else would think about things. When my pal Frank turned in a script with a character getting into a fight with someone else on a hospital payphone, Jan asked him quickly “what does the guy behind him on line think about this?” It’s an important question, always – one American films generally miss, I think, and foreign films from both Europe and Asia tend to understand (which makes sense, given the cultural values & ideologies). For all the problems with Blade of the Immortal’s script it does a good job of situating the story in a broader context: the Ittō-ryū are going around murdering high ranking teachers, and the film doesn’t pretend the government and bounty hunters would just totally ignore that, that only Manji and Rin would be “clued in” as it were. Lots of larger powers are constantly moving around and affecting the story.
- I know I ragged on this movie a lot and then gave it a decently good score, but it’s a ton of fun. Manji stores the weapons of his vanquished foes up his sleeves! Up his sleeves!! Throughout the movie he’ll dramatically thrust his arms towards the ground and five swords come out of each one, stabbing heavily into the ground until he selects the one he wants to use. It’s a great callback to the characters we’ve seen him kill, and it’s also just awesome. That alone warrants a few points.
- Saw this at the Alamo Fantastic Fest, doubt it’ll get a wide release – shout out to Alamo once again for a cool film experience!