Takashi Miike has just made his hundredth film, and what a fine centenary moment it is. Blade of the Immortal takes the Japanese director to familiar territory, with samurai swordsmen and shoguns at odds with a renegade faction. In fact, there are many similarities with Miike’s highly entertaining 13 Assassins, not least of all the body (and limb) count.
Whereas 13 Assassins was a more classical tale, Blade of the Immortal is an adaptation of a manga comic about a cursed samurai who has to kill a thousand evil men to become mortal. And – spoiler alert! – in the film version our hero gets to about a fifth of that number in the first ten minutes before we’ve even got to the opening credits. The film opens in black and white. Our hero, Manji (the excellent Tetsuya Oishi), has killed some men, one of whom is his sister’s husband. She goes crazy and Manji becomes her carer. When she wanders off she walks straight into a trap. And when Manji downs his weapons in order to save her, she is sliced in two. Alone and badly injured, Manji comes across a mysterious 800-year-old woman in the woods. She puts bloodworms into his wounds, making him immortal. And thus the tale of the Blade of the Immortal begins and is in dazzling colour from here on in.
The plot revolves around a young girl seeking vengeance for her father’s death. He ran a dojo and was killed by Anutso Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi) and the Itto-ryu, a rival school that has unorthodox fighting methods. Anutso looks like he should be in a J-pop band, with his perfect lip gloss and cute accessories. There is a further plot complication with a rival gang to the Itto-ryu whose methods are similar and whose looks place them firmly in manga territory. The peroxide hair, Dragon Boy hairdo and sunglasses of these warring tribe members take some getting used to, but once you accept that this is manga-anime territory these characters and their appearance are not so incongruous.
The girl seeking revenge is Rin (Hanna Sugisaki) and the ancient woman points her in Manji’s direction. It is safe to say that Manji hasn’t aged well. He’s scarred, with one eye permanently shut, and he’s let himself go to be honest. As the fights and injuries progress, and the bloodworms lose their power, Manji looks a little worse for wear each time. What makes the film interesting is the theme of immortality. Manji sees man’s obsession with living forever as a burden to be endured rather than a gift. And Manji’s quest for becoming mortal is at the expense of literally hundreds of other men. Films that come to mind while watching are Edward Scissorhands and particularly Logan, for the weapons of choice appear from the characters’ copious sleeves they resemble a fistful of blades and there seem to be no limits to how many cutting instruments this lot can fit into their kimonos.
Despite the high body count, Blade of the Immortal is both extremely funny and very warm. It even looks brighter and warmer than the darker hues of 13 Assassins. Manji’s grumpy old man having to protect his squeaky-voiced sister substitute is reminiscent of True Grit as we see an old man succumbing to a tenderness he has long sought to subdue. Though overly long at 140 minutes, with a little too much time spent on limbs being lopped, this is an entertaining film with an immense performance from its leading man and it deals with the serious questions of both mortality and morality. Congratulations, Takashi, on your hundredth.