Dave Sim, the creator of Cerebus the Aardvark, once referred to a comic book as “Good, if you happen to like that sort of thing.” I always felt that complement was backhanded, denying the book actual “good” status and only conceding quality in the eye of the beholder, but there’s a part of me that feels like it’s the perfect description of Blade of the Immortal. And I say that as someone who enjoyed it immensely.
I watched Blade of the Immortal at a film festival. It’s a movie I wasn’t sold on, but I knew I’d have friends jealous of the fact that I saw a movie they were just aching for. That I’d see it over a month before they’d have the opportunity was gravy. Basically, I saw the movie for bragging rights. I wasn’t a huge fan of Takashi Miike, more from ignorance than disinterest, yet I enjoyed the movie despite my initial misgivings. It’s well-paced, bloody, fun, and better than it has to be.
The opening scene sets up the action to follow. The main character, Manji (Takuya Kimura), is a samurai who is mortally wounded after slaughtering a literal army of brigands1 for murdering his sister. As he lies dying, a witch grants him immortality in the form of blood-worms that stich him back together. You can tell the scene is history because it’s in black and white.
A century later, we meet a girl named Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki). Her father is killed by the villainous Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi), who wants to end the dominance of modern martial arts schools and instead teach people to use all types of weapons. When Rin’s father refuses to join, he get slaughtered before her eyes. Rin seeks out a swordsman to get revenge and finds Manji living in self-imposed exile, wanting no more swordplay or adventures. Manji helps Rin (who looks like his sister) in an attempt at redemption.
From there, the bodies start to stack like cordwood. In his quest to take revenge on Asano’s behalf, Manji will have to face each of Anotsu’s lieutenants. I should note that Blade of the Immortal is based on a well-known manga, and these lieutenants are manga as Hell. Each has a different combat specialty and a different personality quirk. One, like Manji, is infected with blood-worms and his fight with Manji is a bloody mess. My personal favorite is the deranged, romantic necromancer who keeps the severed heads of women he loves, so that he never has to forgo their company.
Blade of the Immortal is immaculately paced. It runs two hours and 31 minutes but, other than your bladder, you won’t notice the time passing. It feels like an hour and a half, but, when you run through all the things that happen in your head, you’ll understand why it has such a long running time.
Given Manji’s immortality, you may be expecting something of a bore, as the main character never faces any real threat, but the film comes up with a clever limitation on Manji’s abilities that makes the fights more interesting, and infuses each fight with a personality and style that keeps the movie going. The final battle is amazingly put together, with two noteworthy characters standing against an army. The camera manages to follow both fights in ways that feel organic and original.
Neither of those observations should surprise anyone. The film is Takashi Miike’s one-hundredth, and shows all the marks of a veteran director doing a genre that he has mastered.
There is also a lot of character in the fighting styles and techniques. In many ways, Manji is precisely the sort of character Anotsu would want to recruit. Manji’s weapon techniques and choices of weapons used varies wildly, with convenience, happenstance, and tactics each playing a part in his selections. His fighting style is radically different in the first scene from the rest of the movie, given the hundred years that have passed. His modern technique centers around leaving openings for opponents to exploit and then landing fatal blows when the opponent drops their guard to exploit the opening. It’s clever and original. My only disappointment is that I would have liked to see more of Anotsu, and I would have liked to see Anotsu wield a greater variety of weapons and styles. For someone who believes that technique should be based on convenience and strategy, his fighting technique seems to be based on preference.
All of that said, the movie’s not for everyone. If you don’t like action movies, stay away. There’s nothing here that will transcend genre for you. If you don’t like your fantasy bloody and gruesome, this movie isn’t for you, reveling as it does in the awfulness of the injuries Manji suffers and inflicts. If you’re looking for a strong female lead, Hana Sugisaki’s Rin is compelling and has a couple of great moments, but generally falls somewhere between “girl in distress” and “comic sidekick.” This point pains me because I honestly like the movie and hate to ding it for a point on which most action movies fail. But representation matters, and if it matters that much to you, this may not be your movie. Also, if you’re overly analytical about your movies and are likely to object to the armory Manji carries in his sleeves, this film isn’t for you either.
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the adaptation, having never read the manga.2 There might be some comic adaptation hardcores who object to the fact that some character wasn’t as [insert adjective here] as [he/she/it] was in the comic or might object to what content was removed, but anything ending up on the cutting room floor likely would have derailed the immaculate pacing Miike establishes in the film.
On the other hand, if you like violent bloody samurai fights, Miike’s hundredth film is masterful, taking the audience on a ride that is at once thrilling and grotesque. Blade of the Immortal is a ripping yarn about a quest for vengeance and redemption, and you should see it, if you at all happen to like that sort of thing.