This is apparently Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film, and as such was the Gala presentation of the ‘Thrill’ Strand of the London Film Festival yesterday. It’s an epic swordsman movie, with supernatural overtones, and like most of Miike’s work, based on other sources, in this case a manga series by Hiroaki Samura. It’s very different from Miike’s last LFF entry, Yakuza Apocalypse, in 2015. Like that film, which I discussed on our late, lamented Americarnage podcast, but about which I didn’t write, there’s a serious theme behind the over the top treatment of violence. Apocalypse was somewhat derivative of blaxploitation and early vampire tropes, everything from Solomon Kane to Kolchak. But the basic theme, equating the Yakuza with vampires, was a thread that tried to hold the whole thing together, at least until the face of the ultimate apocalypse, a giant soft frog, appeared. To music that sounded like Ennio Morricone scoring the Teletubbies. I found my screening notes, and I’d actually scrawled ‘some weird shit coming out of nowhere’, which is a good description of Miike’s work.
For someone who works so quickly, Miike can make some incredibly artful cinema. Blade Of The Immortal opens in black and white, a homage of sorts to the 50s. Manji (the name echoes Clint Eastwood’s ‘Joe Manco’, The Man With No Name’) is a samurai who is tracking down his sister, who’s lost her senses after seeing her husband killed by Manji, under orders from his master. The kidnappers kill her, in a scene echoing The Wild Bunch, before Manji literally disposes of the entire bunch, somewhere between 70-100 (I lost count). He is dying, but a witch feeds him ‘bloodworms’ which heal his wounds, rejoin his severed hand to his body, and basically render him immortal.
Fifty years later, and in a fine, cold-toned colour, he meets a young girl whose parents (her father is a samurai sensei) have been murdered by a group of swordsmen, the Itto-ryu, who eschew the honourable tactics of samurai, insisting on winning at all costs. He eventually agrees to avenge them on her behalf.
What follows is interesting, but to be honest it’s a bit boring. I wrote that after yet another one man against dozens fight. Despite the set-up, which would augur some internal, as well as external battling, Blade Of The Immortal really becomes a kind of Kill Bill, or Kill Lots More Bill. The presence of Kazuki Kitamura here does little to avoid one making that connection. But seriously, there doesn’t seem to be any substantial difference between the Itto-ryu and other fighters, particularly those from the government, and there is no real examination of the samurai code. Nor, despite the strains of facing an immortal life thanks to witchy worms, does Manji appear to try to figure much out. It’s superficial compared to some of the work of Beat Takeshi, where existential questions of samurai loyalty and life’s meaning often haunt the story, or even to Miike’s own 13 Assassins or Yakuza Apocalypse.
Takuya Kimura is fine as Manji, but the show is mostly stolen by Hana Sugisaka as the young girl he eventually equates with his long-gone sister. The villains are all impressive, especially Sota Fukushi as the head of the Itto-ryu, particularly when he gets the tables turned on him by sneaky Imperial bureaucrats. Miike presents the Tarantino-like anachronistic costumes, and there is a good bit of his trademark dark humour. There is a lot of admire here, but one wishes Miike would have done more to condense the story into its main lines: graphic novels are told quickly, although series do meander. But I get the feeling that for number 100, Miike was looking to go full Tarantino.
NOTE THIS REVIEW FIRST APPEARED AT MICHAEL CARLSON’S IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS: http://irresistib