Had it been distributed widely and marketed properly, Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal might have been a considerable art house hit. An epic in the Akira Kurosawa tradition, Blade features thrilling action sequences, three-dimensional characters, and long-gestating passages of suspense. Unfortunately it screened here only twice as part of the Chicago International Film Festival, and it never received a full run. It’s now available on DVD and BluRay, so viewers who missed it at CIFF can catch up with this grandly entertaining action fantasy.
For fans of the Japanese cult director, one of the pleasures of following Miike’s remarkably prolific career has been watching him try on all sorts of styles and genres. Miike has proved himself adept at gross-out comedy (Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer), children’s fare (The Great Yokai War, Zebraman), horror (Audition, Imprint), crime sagas (The Negotiator, Shinjuku Triad Society and its sequels), and art movies (Izo, Big Bang Love: Juvenile A), yet his most characteristic films (Dead or Alive and its sequel, Detective Story) careen between multiple genres, exuding a sense of formal playfulness that recalls both classic surrealism and the French New Wave. Now that Miike has been making movies for three decades, he’s learned to concentrate his wild ideas, organizing them under a hard-won formal mastery. Some of his films of this decade, like his remakes of 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri, exhibit a mature thoughtfulness that’s relatively new to his work. Blade of the Immortal continues this trend, but it also incorporates the playfulness of Miike’s earlier films, making it one of his most well-rounded achievements.
Set in an unidentified past era, the film kicks off with an impressive ten-minute battle sequence that Kurosawa himself might have admired. Shot in black-and-white, it follows the disgraced constable Manji (Takuya Kimura) as he takes on dozens of armed bounty hunters along a public thoroughfare. The swordplay is incredible, and Miike renders it more exciting by cutting between wide shots (which draw attention the sheer number of men Manji’s up against), close ups (which make palpable the considerable stress that Manji’s under), and handheld camerawork (which sweep viewers into action choreography). Manji kills all of his opponents, losing his little sister, a hand, and one of his eyes in the process; now having lost his social position, his family, and lots of blood, the swordsman prepares to die. But Miike, adapting a manga by Hiroaki Samura, has something else in store for Manji: a creepy old woman shows up and bestows upon him the gift of immortality, inserting magical bloodworms under his skin that will keep him alive forever. Miike signals the character’s transformation by changing the film from black-and-white to color, a move that evokes, of all things, The Wizard of Oz.
This entry of delirious fantasy into period action spectacle is pure Miike, yet rather than create a jarring juxtaposition (as he might have done in the past), the director moves fluidly from one element to the other, creating a new aesthetic whole. Blade of the Immortal maintains this sense of unity as it proceeds, integrating fantastic elements into a relatively old-fashioned samurai tale. The film’s sleek, sophisticated form may have something to do with producer Jeremy Thomas, an art house stalwart known for his collaborations with Nicolas Roeg, Nagisa Oshima, Bernardo Bertolucci, and David Cronenberg. The films that Thomas has produced share a certain glossiness that helps to streamline their radical content, and his collaborations with Miike (13 Assassins, Hara-Kiri, and now this) are no exception. Immortal looks gorgeous, not only in its cinematography but in its nuanced production design; the film may take place in a medieval Japan assembled from pieces of other movies, but that assemblage is so detailed that you can lose yourself in it anyway.
After the prologue, Immortal jumps forward 50 years to a martial arts school outside of Tokyo. A roving band of swordsmen called the Itto-ryo attack the school one night, killing all the instructors and taking the director’s wife captive. (This is part of the Itto-ryo’s larger plan to conquer all the schools, or dojos, and unify all martial arts instruction under their authoritative leadership.) Rin, the director’s preteen daughter, survives, vowing revenge on the men who killed her family. She tracks down Manji, now living as a hermit in a secluded glen, and begs him to guide her in her quest. Manji accepts, mainly because she resembles his long-dead sister (they’re played by the same actress, Hana Sugisaki), but he makes clear that revenge will not come easily. It requires not just physical training, but moral preparation— though he’s killed many men, Manji asserts that it’s never easy to take a life.
The passages of moral reflection give Blade of the Immortal its heft, balancing out the rousing action sequences. (Since the film runs nearly two and a half hours, it makes plenty of time for both.) Miike and screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi also enrich the film through their development of the supporting characters, who include another, more sullen immortal; Anotsu, the impetuous leader of the Itto-ryo; and a shrewd imperial official who comes to play diplomat between Anotsu and the government. There are also some affecting sentimental passages that both show the developing relationship between Manji and Rin and remind viewers of how good Miike has always been at directing children. Rin emerges as a headstrong but emotionally conflicted girl; she may be the film’s most relatable character, providing Immortal with an emotional center as strong as anything Miike’s imagined.