Film Review: Blade of the Immortal

A faithful adaptation of a classic manga that drags at times but offers enough exciting moments at others to make it worthwhile.
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In recent years, Japanese gore-meister Takashi Miike has kept himself busy making movies adapted from fairly esoteric Japanese manga. He’s also followed the age-old Japanese tradition of making Edo-period samurai films, but with the type of violence and gore that’s made him a genre legend. Blade of the Immortal fulfills both requirements for a modern-day Miike movie and, remarkably, it’s also the director’s 100th film.

Based on the beautifully drawn but often controversial comic by Hiroaki Samura, Miike’s film opens with a spectacular black-and-white swordfight during which the story’s anti-hero Manji (Takuya Kimura) fights off a large gang that has done unthinkable things to his younger sister, Machi. Despite his skills, Manji is killed in the fight, but a witch helps mend him with “bloodworms” that keep him alive but scarred and haunted by his sister’s ghost.

Fifty years later, a young girl training at her father’s martial-arts school watches her dad get murdered by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), a killer from the rival Itto-ryu school, who also takes her mother. This young girl is Rin (Hana Sugisaki), who runs into Manji and hires him to help her get revenge. He agrees to train her because she reminds him so much of his younger sister—maybe that’s because both Rin and Manji are played by Sugisaki.

As a movie, Blade of the Immortal works well for the same reason the comics Are so entertaining, because Miike remains faithful to capturing the serious nature of Rin’s need for vengeance, but also instilling it with mild humor. Part of that comes from the relationship between the grumpy immortal Manji and his young liege, but also from the strange and deadly characters they encounter on their journey of vengeance. It ends up being a far more complex and compelling story than just them fighting their way through Anotsu’s men, as it also delves into the politics of the time between martial-arts schools.

Kimura is sensational at bringing Manji to life, but it never feels like Sugisaki is up to the task of carrying the emotional weight necessary to her character. She does grow on you as she does on Manji, mainly because the two actors play off each other better as the film goes along.

The supernatural elements greatly help separate Blade of the Immortal from more traditional samurai films, although the swordfights are choreographed like a gorgeous ballet of blades and blood that shows off the skills inherent in a director with Miike’s experience.

Overall, the film looks fantastic—Miike’s team does an amazing job fulfilling his vision with elaborate costumes and the weapons of Manji’s adversaries. Blade is clearly better than some of the more throwaway manga adaptations he’s done in recent years.

The film does drag during some of the expository dialogue scenes—sometimes even in the middle of a swordfight—and it also feels somewhat episodic as we watch Manji and Rin face different enemies as if they might in an issue of the comic. All of that adds up to a very long movie at over two hours; those unfamiliar with the comic might not have that kind of patience.

Blade of the Immortal might not be the best example of Miike creating a traditional samurai story, as was the case with 13 Assassins, but it’s a compelling film that combines a lot of the elements that makes the director’s filmography so robust and varied.

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