There’s a sly undercurrent of humor native to Takashi Miike’s films. It’s a dark humor often laced with gore and entrails, and it tends to at least soften his particular brand of cruelty, which runs from the subtle to the outright shocking. His 100th feature film, Blade of the Immortal, is rife with this kind of ying-yang pairing, featuring a story just as outlandish as its visuals.
Once again, Miike sprays us with a bombast of blood and dismemberment, an easy feat when the film’s main character is rendered immortal in the early goings. However, it’s not a constant bombardment, with some confrontations being largely tame, considering his track record. Blade of the Immortal finds Miike picking his spots well, with his brutality supporting the story rather than it becoming the story.
But a violent tale it is. After all, it’s kind of hard to be safe in a world of feudal Japan where roving gangsters slash their enemies apart on a whim and without compunction. Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi) and his followers, the Ittō-ryū are the impassive, dispassionate army seeking to join the government as enforcers and security personnel. To this end, they’re systematically eliminating the students and masters of every fighting school in their path, leaving no witnesses or family members alive.
Except for one: Rin (Hana Sugisaki), the teenage daughter of the latest master to fall under Anotsu’s blade. As stories of this ilk go, attempts at avenging murdered family members aren’t just flights of fancy; they are mandatory, and who better to help Rin than an immortal assassin? We meet Manji (Takuya Kimura) just after the film’s opening logos, thrust into caring for his sister Machi (Sugisaki in a dual role) after her mind takes a walk off the deep end. Not only is he tasked with this, he’s on the run with a price on his head; he can’t do both, which is made painfully clear in the first minutes.
Adding to the pain is the mysterious white witch Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto), who takes the opportunity to give a dying Manji a shot at immortality by dropping mystical bloodworms into his body. So when Rin seeks this scarred and limping mercenary to exact vengeance, he’s a beaten, solitary man who lives with the guilt of losing his sister and the actions leading to the turning point of his life. As you’d expect, the trail Manji takes to find Anotsu takes many twists and turns, with all manner of characters – honorable, unsavory, and otherwise – dotting the path. Often with their own blood.
Miike’s energetic, yet pensive take on the masterless samurai tale is an exciting tale of consequences. There are no actions without reactions, and the payback’s a hell of a thing. Manji wears this toll like an anchor around his neck; living with what he’s seen and done is, in itself, a struggle which belabors every step he takes. Sure, the cast of thousands fritters in and out of his purview like dancers in a ballet, but our focus is on how he sees his redemption in carrying out Rin’s quest for revenge.
The world Miike sets up for us is sparse and threadbare. Toshiyuki Matsumiya’s production design doesn’t speak of opulence or generosity; save for one set piece, most of what we see are functional structures, just like the people inhabiting these spaces. Each member of the Ittō-ryū brings their own skill or cross to bear, be it fanatical madness or a weary heart, not only giving Manji different fighting styles to combat, but interesting considerations to chew on before swords clash and the arterial blood goes gushing.
Grounding the film with believable inner conflict is Takuya Kimura, who imbues Manji with an exhausted soul, but with daggers in his eyes. He’s written as someone who – through his immortality – can get the job done, but that doesn’t mean he likes doing it. Even when Rin first approaches him, he tries to send her away and disgust her, but what good would this movie be if he said no outright? Of course he’s going to show what he’s capable of doing, even if limbs have to roll because of it. And when Miike gets down to doing what he does best – thrilling fight scenes and curiously intimate interpersonal exchanges – that’s when you’ll find Blade of the Immortal firing on all thrusters.