Takashi Miike is, in the purest sense of the word, prolific. He has dedicated himself to churning out film after film, year in and year out, often with wildly differing levels of success. Sure, it’s easy to look at fantastic works like Audition or 13 Assassins and say the man is a great director, but for every Audition, there’s a shamefully pedestrian outing like Yakuza Apocalypse in Miike’s filmography. Miike has always rode that line between shlock and greatness, and it gives the impression that even he doesn’t know what he wants to create next. He’s unpredictable, and despite how inconsistent his work can be at times, every now and then, a fantastic movie emerges from his twisted brain.
With Miike’s 100th movie, Blade of the Immortal, another great film has been born.
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Blade of the Immortal
Director: Takashi Miike
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Blade of the Immortal is the story of Manji (Takuya Kimura), an immortal samurai roaming around the Edo region of Japan. How did he become immortal? Well, after being labelled and outlaw for killing his master, and felling 100 men to avenge his sister, an old crone named Yaobikuni cursed Manji with the kessen-chu, sacred bloodworms that render their host immortal. Now, Manji must use his skills as a swordsman and his immortality to help a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) avenge her father’s death at the hands of the Ittō-ryū, a brutal order of warrior’s intent on conquering every dojo in Edo. This is a story of savage violence and revenge to be sure, but it’s framed within a tragic exploration of the honor-based culture of Japan, and the murky morality of both our heroes and villains. And, despite this, Blade of the Immortal never feels too cerebral or overtly graphic. It’s an easily digestible film that rewards viewers that mull over the themes and core messaging, without punishing those who came for a blood-smeared romp that stays true to the manga.
I nearly forgot to mention that! Blade of the Immortal is based on the manga of the same name, and that pulpy influence is felt in the best possible way in Miike’s adaptation. This film is first and foremost, fun at all times, without sacrificing the seriousness of the plot, or the emotional through-line that keeps Blade of the Immortal from feeling like just a gore-fest. It’s a tricky balance for any filmmaker to adapt a property like this, and Miike deftly pulls all the important elements from the manga together in a gorgeous tapestry that just works. There’s even a dose of humor sprinkled here and there that will blindside the audience, and get some hefty laughs from even the most stubborn of critics. Again, all the elements are woven together so well that this film can go from one tone to the next without feeling inconsistent. This is a beautiful tapestry that needs to be seen.
The most obvious element of that tapestry is the action, and as always, Miike makes it shine. Yes, the gore is over-the-top, evoking that Tarantino-esque directorial style we’ve all become so familiar with, but the fighting and the motion itself aren’t sloppily assembled – they’re calculated to land with ferocious force and satisfy the audience. Most of the movie is filmed in a wide-shot, and because of that, each stroke of the sword, every throat cut, needs to look convincing as hell for the final product to work. Thankfully, each fight is full of little flourishes, nuances and facial expressions that give these encounters an authentic and unique feel to them. Every fight feels different because each combatant brings their own distinct fighting style to the table, which not only makes these fights interesting, but makes them prime targets for a rewatch as well.
There are moments where the action does falter, and those reasons are readily identifiable. Blade of the Immortal uses its fair share of practical blood effects, but in the larger-scale brawls and some close-up shots of limbs flying off, there’s a lot of CG blood-spatter being employed that could have been done without. Don’t get me wrong – the spatter looks okay, but in contrast to scenes utilizing practical blood effects, or where makeup and blood effects are used together to highlight a particularly gruesome injury, the CG blood splatter looks pedestrian in comparison. There’s a bit of whiplash transitioning from scenes with good effects and poor ones – it feels like going from blockbuster to a student film.
The other poor aspect that comes to mind is the use of handheld shaky cam. As I mentioned before, most of the film uses a stable camera in wide-shot to capture the action, but there are a several shots with camera shake that aren’t that satisfying. Hits connect offscreen with characters we don’t see, and these shots do more to disorient the audience than to involve them in the bloodbath happening onscreen. Thankfully, it isn’t used all that often, but when it is employed, each strike looks far too blurry to satisfy anyone.
Still, the good severely outweighs the bad in Blade of the Immortal. The acting is well delivered, with Takuya Kimura giving a damn good performance as Manji, complete with little touches and personal characterization that bring his character to life. The story, the humor and the action are all here in force, creating a movie that is more than dumb fun, while simultaneously embracing the medium it hails from and translating it perfectly for live-action.
We’ve had a lack of great action movies lately; most entries in the genre are either trite and forgettable, or fall into the bland superhero version of action, where the action is so disconnected from reality that it’s hard to take it seriously. Despite the sacred bloodworms that keep Manji going, Blade of the Immortal in no way feels unreal or unoriginal. This is a unique, enjoyable action movie that almost anyone can enjoy. Takashi Miike, congratulations on your 100th film. It is supremely delightful.