Mortally wounded after an epic-sized duel, the master swordsman Manji (Takura Kimura) is supernaturally revived to walk feudal Japan as an immortal. 50 years later he is called upon to aid a young woman (Hana Sugisaki) seeking revenge for the murder of her father.
Takashi Miike is one of the most prominent and unique figures in Japanese cinema. He is one of the most eclectic filmmakers in film history, applying his immense talents to pretty much any genre one could imagine. Outside of Japan he remains best known for his chair-squirming thriller Audition, but his career spans comedy, drama, horror, period epics, arthouse, a western, and even a growing line of children’s films. He is also jaw-droppingly prolific. At the most breakneck period of his career he was known to direct up to six films in one year. He has slowed down somewhat recently, but slow for Miike is still dizzyingly fast for everybody else. Blade of the Immortal is his 100th film as director, and the first of two features he had in the cinemas in 2017.
The film adapts the popular and long-running manga of the same name, which was written and illustrated by Hiroaki Samura from 1993 to 2012. Many film adaptations of such lengthy properties often collapse in the attempt to squeeze in too much material in too little time. Miike wisely keeps his adaptation simple: a lengthy prologue introduce Manji and his immortal curse, and the subsequent two hours set him off on a single sword-fighting adventure.
Take the fantasy elements out and Blade of the Immortal is a brilliantly effective throwback to the “chanbara” sword-fighting films of the 1960s. The film begins in black and white, which combined with its extra-wide aspect ratio makes it immediately recognisable as the same kind of film. Miike takes inspiration from Hideo Gosha, still one of the great action directors of world cinema, whose samurai films and television dramas were among the most popular in Japan 50 years ago. The action looks good, and is presented on a wonderfully over-the-top scale. The film’s first sword-fighting sequence pits Manji against about a hundred or so mercenaries and bounty hunters. That is the first fight: the film manages to top it for scale before the credits roll.
Structurally the film falls into a very episodic narrative, with Manji having to fight against a series of talented adversaries on the road from his home to the criminal martial artist Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi). Each enemy fights with a different weapon and style, which makes the entire film feel very true to its serialised manga origins. Rather than become repetitive, however, these duels form a spine along which Miike lays a sense of conversation, character development and comedy. There is a surprising amount of humour in the film, whether it comes from the dialogue, an absurd situation, or simply the sheer excess in the violence depicted on screen. Unlike some of Miike’s films it is not an especially gory work, but the number of on-screen deaths is formidable. Takuya Kimura brings a wealth of rogue-like charm to Manji, supported very well by Hana Sugisaki as the earnest but immensely likeable Rin.
Blade of the Immortal is pretty much a pitch-perfect manga adaptation. Miike does exactly what he is required to do: turn a long-running comic work into an effective and entertaining Summer blockbuster. This is possibly the most mainstream work he has ever made, and showcases just what a talented and enormously versatile director he is. Fans of action cinema and particularly those of samurai flicks are going to have a whale of a time.
This review was first published at FilmInk. For Australian readers, the film is currently streaming free of charge on SBS Online. It is also available on home video in most country markets.