By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
At only the age of 57, prolific film-maker Takashi Miike, known to many movie-goers around the globe for memorable fare such as Audition, Ichi the Killer, two Crows Zero features, and three Dead And Alive movies, returns yet again with Blade of the Immortal, a relentless, at-times overwhelming mix of cathartic drama and elaborate blood-letting that leave action flicks like Rambo and John Wick to shame.
Beginning in gorgeous black-and-white, we are introduced to Manji (Takuya Kimura), a disgraced samurai who was ordered by his master to kill a high-ranking official, a murderous act which now sees him on the run with a large bounty on his head. Roaming the countryside with his sweet-natured younger sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who suffers from a major mental illness, Manji cuts down anyone who gets in his way, and as such has garnered quite a notorious reputation. One fateful day sees him encounter a particularly imposing gang, made up of dozens of sword-wielding thugs, wanting to claim that bounty, and although he eventually defeats them, it is at great personal cost to both himself and especially Machi.
Lying on death’s door amongst the massacre he has created, Manji is visited by a mysterious, 800 year-old old nun (Yoko Yamamoto), who places a curse on him, infesting Manji with magical bloodworms that turn the mortally wounded warrior into an immortal. Cut to fifty years later, and the story now focuses on teenager Rin (again Sugisaki), who lives with her parents at a renowned dojo, where she obsessively trains under the tutelage of her father. One night they are visited by a dreaded clan who have been demolishing dojos right across the land. Lead by the ethereal-but-deadly Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), Machi witnesses the death of her father and the brutalisation and kidnapping of her mother. Filled with hate and wanting revenge, Machi is eventually pointed towards Manji, who grudgingly agrees to help the youngster out.
As the two embark on their violent journey, both develop the kind of father-daughter relationship that was cruelly taken from them.
Screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi (who adapted the manga Death Note and Higanjima for the big screen) and Miike have noticeably tried to be faithful to such a long-running source (spanning two decades), packing multiple characters and plot threads into its lengthy, 140 minute running time. Some may feel a number of these secondary players are extraneous, needlessly bloating an understandably condensed storyline that has to be crammed into one feature film, but its exploration of man’s cyclical reliance on violence (a theme Mike tackled before in his challenging, under-rated Izo) is shown through multiple viewpoints via a substantial gallery of colourful characters, evil, flawed, or otherwise. Given her extensive training at home, Mike and Oishi nicely subvert Rin’s reaction to the real-life bloodshed she is suddenly surrounded by, a wide-eyed revelation (and revulsion) that is both refreshing and pertinent.
Takuya Kimura is suitably gruff as the immortal Manji, but he never completely falls into outright anti-hero, as the audience need to feel that there is some hope of redemption possible inside this killer who has generated so much carnage. He also handles the physical aspects of Manji’s role convincingly. Hana Sugisaki conveys Rin’s need for revenge with a growing sense of the brutal world that exists around her quite well. Anyone who has seen her terrific work in Pieta in the Toilet and Her Love Boils Bathwater (the latter earned her a Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) may find her performance here a little disappointing, but of course the tone here is very different.
Giving the tale a notably expansive feel is the use of notable actors in minor roles, some of which feel like extended cameos. These include Hayato Ichihara (Box!, Yakuza Apocalypse, Rainbow Song), Erika Toda (Death Note, Death Not : The Last Name, Goemon, Prophecy), Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill Vol. 1, Battle Royale, Library Wars), Kazuki Kitamura (Full Metal Yakuza, Turn, Like A Dragon, Thermae Romae 1 and 2), and veteran Tsutomu Yamazaki (Departures, The Woodsman And The Rain, Shield of Straw, The Magnificent Nine).
The battle scenes, as expected from Miike, are exceptionally well-handled, and certainly recall the director’s work on 13 Assassins, except, believe it or not, with a higher body count. The huge confrontation that occurs near the beginning would be the finale for most other action films. Though based on Hiroaki Samura’s famous manga, other films do come to mind, such as the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, which also followed the exploits of a teen girl who tries to exact revenge by hiring a grizzled gun-for-hire. Another is James Cameron’s Terminator 2, which similarly contained a father figure/protector-and-child dynamic (coupled with the guardian’s unstoppable nature), while there could be comparisons made to Virtuosity, with its villain’s capability of regenerating damaged parts of his body, but using nano-bite technology instead of magical bloodworms.
Miike shows a typically fine eye for chaos, and effectively mixes frenetic close-ups with beautifully framed wide shots of the warring samurais and their aftermath. Since Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007, the first film he shot in widescreen, Miike has utilised the format to outstanding effect, and Blade of the Immortal is no exception. Bringing this blood-splattered concoction to a perfect shine is the superb cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita (Year One in the North, 13 Assassins, Crows Zero II, Rinco’s Restaurant), immersive music score by Koji Endo (Audition, Izo, Ace Attorney), and first-rate editing by Kenji Yamashita (13 Assassins, For Love’s Sake, Lesson of the Evil).
With all the bloody mayhem going on, Miike does give the audience some time to catch their breath by photographing the quieter, talkative moments in subdued, almost static takes, allowing the film to continually re-focus on its two damaged leading characters. There are also nicely timed moments of humour.
Coming off the ultra-stylish, inspired, and utterly hilarious sequel The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, Takashi Miike delivers again with Blade of the Immortal (amazingly, his 100th film as director), which should please both fans of the manga and the ever-growing fanbase of this energised, one-of-a-kind auteur.