Takashi Miike Has Never Been Boring, Until Blade Of The Immortal

6.5
  • Adventure
  • Historical
2017-11-03
blade of the immortal
Manji and Rin in Blade of the Immortal. Magnet Releasing

Marketed as Takashi Miike’s 100th movie, Blade of the Immortal shows all the refinement that accumulation of experience would suggest. But not all rough edges need sanding down. Blade of the Immortal isn’t a bad movie. It’s not even anywhere close to Miike’s worst movie. But it feels somehow more dire than that. Blade of the Immortal feels like the end of weird, upsetting, risk-taking Miike.

Blade of the Immortal opens in black and white, as Manji cuts through a bunch of mercenary goons, but fails to save his child-like “sister” (actually a fully grown woman whose mind snapped when Manji killed her husband… it’s bad and dumb). Mortally wounded after the battle, Manji asks a mysterious old crone, Yaobikuni, for a merciful death at the point of her dagger. Instead, she pours “sacred bloodworms born of the holy lama” into his chest wound. Not only does he scream in agony as the bloodworms pull his body back together, but the whole world becomes saturated with color (blood red, most noticeably).

Years later, a quasi-cult of swordmasters called the Itto-ryu slaughter the students of a respected sword school, kill the school’s master and kidnap his wife, presumably for offscreen rape and murder. Their surviving daughter, herself a promising student, vows revenge. Could there be a better partner in revenge than a swordfighter who can’t be killed?

For a while, this plot works really nicely for Blade of the Immortal. Miike has always had a flair for weird secondary characters, which syncs perfectly with the oddballs of the Itto-ryu pulled from the Blade of the Immortal manga. There’s Kuroi Sabato, the macabre “romantic” poet who sews the heads of his female victims to his shoulders. Then there’s Magatsu Taito, the peasant swordmaster who takes revenge on the snooty samurai and combines profanity (“blow it out your ass”) with pithy little mid-fight sword lessons like “Lesson 2: Know the land, conquer all.”

It’s a familiar plot — kill all the mini-bosses to get to the big boss — used in Ninja Scroll, Kill Bill, Blade Runner, Class of 1984, Die Hard, that Miike recites better than most. For one, Miike keeps the exact membership of the Itto-ryu a little vague, so you’re not ticking off encounters, waiting for the climactic one. But while the one-on-one clashes between Manji and Itto-ryu members can be fun, Blade of the Immortal runs out of ideas well before the end.

Blade of the Immortal is very bloody, as you might expect from a movie about an unkillable samurai. It’s a fun premise for a character, because instead of being a generic invincible master archetype, like in Yojimbo or For a Few Dollars More, Manji is significantly less skilled than many of his opponents — he can just soak up a lot of punishment. It’s too bad that in every other way he falls right into the archetype of the surly, reluctant hero who growls but has a heart of gold. It’s also too bad that Blade of the Immortal never finds any interesting challenge for the character beyond throwing larger and larger armies at him. Blade of the Immortal constantly edges up to something interesting, then never quite follows through. The climax is nothing but a whirling, swirling, boring rampage through endless dudes, shot at about the level of excitement you’d expect from a generic summer tentpole.

Miike’s strength was never really action choreography, but creative vision. In Fudoh: The New Generation, a young boy balances the butt of a pistol on his upraised knee so he can better shoot a yakuza leader in the face (also, there’s an assassin who fires poison darts from her vagina). Dead or Alive ramps a cops vs. criminals saga into Dragonball Z territory, complete with energy blasts. Not every Miike movie is successful at situating its wild and weird elements — a weird frog man didn’t save Yakuza Apocalypse — but at least there’s a constant sense of experimentation.

I never thought I’d feel like my imagination for violent possibilities inherent in a chop-uppable swordfighter would outpace Miike’s. How the hell did the director of Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q and Audition, movies loaded with grotesque inventiveness, ever make something so bloody but bloodless that I could very nearly see the same from dullards like Eli Roth?

It doesn’t help that the main characters are so radically uncompelling. Even worse than Manji and his utterly derivative disdain for his own heroics is Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki). Why bother explaining her dedication to training and her natural warrior ability if she’ll only ever be the girl who gets in the way or needs to be rescued?

I have a feeling Blade of the Immortal is fairly true to the manga, maybe even enough that fans will see the fully-fleshed characters they love in these compressed bundles of cliche. But for anyone looking for a self-contained action epic that enlivens tropes rather than drowning in them, Blade of the Immortal isn’t it.

Blade of the Immortal is totally okay and fairly generic. In the context of Miike’s filmography, particularly as a celebration of his outrageous output, that’s about the most damning thing that can be said.

REVIEW SUMMARY
Blade of the Immortal
6.5
Takashi Miike Has Never Been Boring, Until Blade Of The Immortal
Blade of the Immortal is Takashi Miike’s 100th movie, but lacks his typical imagination and joie de vivre.
  • bloody
  • fun bad guys
  • more coherent than most Takashi Miike movies
  • the violence gets old fast
  • unimaginative
  • the two heroes are less compelling than the villains
  • where's the Miike imagination?
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