The heroic bodyguard at the centre of ‘Blade of the Immortal’ derives his ability to survive the most grievous bodily harm from sacred Tibetan bloodworms, introduced into his bloodstream by a mysterious elderly woman as he lies dying. As far as justifications for immortality go, Tibetan bloodworms aren’t as popular as being a vampire or a deity, but they have a certain appeal. When one of his limbs are lopped off, a network of fleshy threads writhes its way out of each of the wounds; these webs find each other, grip tight and pull their respective body parts back together, before a shimmering mass glimpsed between patches of skin mend the skin from the inside. It’s a gruesome but stylish choice, drawn straight from the eponymous manga series upon which the script was based and one that gels with the oeuvre of its director, prominent Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, previously responsible for controversial films like ‘Ichi the Killer’ and ‘Audition’. As its choice in immortality-imbuing plot devices suggests, ‘Blade of the Immortal’ delivers on all the utter madness and graphic violence that its source material and directorial pedigree promise. It lags a little too much to join the genre’s pantheon, but fans of the blood-soaked portions of Miike’s filmography will be pleased to no end.
In a black-and-white prologue, Manji (Takuya Kimura) slices and dices his way through dozens of men to avenge the death of his sister. As he lies on the blood-spattered battlefield, succumbing to his numerous wounds, an 800-year-old nun called Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto) approaches him, and drops a few bloodworms into a gash. As Manji cries out in pain, colour comes rushing back into the image – life without the possibility of death requires a different register of experience.
In a nearby dojo, a group known as the Itto-ryu, led by a warrior called Anotsu Kagehisa (Sōta Fukushi, coolly villainous), offer an ultimatum to the resident master swordsman: join their cause or die. The Itto-ryu desire that no dojo be allowed to impart one single style of fighting, preferring an ‘all come, all served’ approach to teaching. In the process of taking over or destroying other dojos, the Itto-ryu have filled their ranks with warriors trained in a variety of martial arts. When the swordsman in question refuses to yield, he and his wife are killed, leaving behind their young daughter, Rin (Hana Sugisaki). This being a samurai film, Rin sets out on a course for revenge, and who better to join forces with than an immortal samurai with a taste for revenge? Sugisaki is tasked with being the emotional centre of the film – it is her thirst for justice that must justify the onscreen deaths of hundreds of enemy warriors – and the young actress manages this burden well. She also proved to be an audience favourite in my screening; when Manji asks her ‘How do I decide who to kill?’, her reply – ‘Whoever is trying to kill me’ – elicited plenty of knowing laughs.
Their paths cross with the Mugai-ryu, a group of warriors led by Shira (Hayato Ichihara) who share their vendetta against the Itto-ryu. This is fortunate because, when the Shogun agrees to allow Anotsu and the Itto-ryu to run his official school, a great deal more fighters get put between Manji and his revenge on Anotsu. The madness of the fight scenes often makes the less eventful political machinations feel more lagging than they should, but the screenplay from Tetsuya Oishi keeps events moving along, even if there isn’t quite enough happening to justify is excessive length.
As Manji, Japanese actor and singer Takuya Kimura is asked to act through a handful of prosthetic scars (including a missing eye), and acquits himself well. His fight choreography is impressive (particularly in the climactic showdown he shares with Sōta Fukushi) and his intensity is unquestionable, but he also manages to deepen Manji with his believable, quieter moments spent contemplating what meaning life loses when one becomes immortal. With his striking half black, half white robe, Manji is never lost in the busy frames, and Kimura’s performance keeps the audience engaged.
Let’s be frank for a moment though – viewers aren’t watching ‘Blade of the Immortal’ for its impressive production or solid cast, they’re handing over their cash to watch Miike orchestrate samurai carnage en masse. The way that he shoots the battles is fascinating, often placing swathes of enemies between Manji and the camera, so we only see flashes of his whirling torso and gleaming blades between bodies, punctuated by the occasional bloody spurt. It’s supremely violent (one enemy dies impaled by a dozen swords, a hedgehog-like array of blades extruding from his back), but always stylish and looking for ways to be inventive.
Perhaps its appropriate that, of the hundreds of onscreen deaths throughout the film, only three register an emotional reaction. This is not a picture designed to make you feel, no matter how hard Hana Sugisaki throws herself into every pleading, emotional line. Instead, ‘Blade of the Immortal’ wants to make you grimace and squeal and gasp in awe. It is the ideal film for a mad, genre-based festival sidebar, such as Toronto’s Midnight Madness. It’s dark, funny, gory and plays best to a crowded theatre, who want to revel in the stylish control of a director who knows their craft and their brief. Unapologetically over the top and in your face, this is a movie that gleefully stretches the limits of restraint, good taste and credibility, but it can show you a terrific time if you’re ready for it.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting