Blade of the Immortal (Japan 2017)

Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal is an adaptation of the long-running (30 volumes) and extremely popular supernatural samurai manga about an immortal ronin named Manji. I never made it past the first volume of the series, but it’s easy to see how difficult a task it was to take the convoluted and drawn-out events of that series and compresses them into a dense two and a half hours. While coherent for those not familiar with the manga (unlike, say the Attack on Titan films), the film is littered with shorthand political machinations and the stubs of characters whose importance is undercut by limited screen time. Despite those limitations, Miike manages to seed striking images and themes into his ultraviolence, turning the source material into a vehicle for his filmic obsessions.

Pop icon Takuya Kimura is fine as Manji, leaning hard on world-weary affect, though he never seem to be having as much fun as the other characters resulting in something of a charisma vacuum at the center of the story. Frustratingly, he’s saddled with an incredibly annoying young sidekick, played by the high-pitched Hana Sugisaki. Sugisaki’s Rin Asano is introduced as a strong fighter and kickstarts the plot by engaging Manji to seek revenge for her murdered parents, but then spends most of the film moping around and making bad decisions. At least the film seems to recognize what a liability she is, when she tries to help during a battle she only succeeds in making things comically worse.

Fortunately, the villains provide more flavor, as Rin pits Manji against the ascendant Itto-ryu swordsmanship school led by the model-pretty Anotsu (Sota Fukushi – Kamen Rider) and his assorted gang of murderers and weirdos (like the Black Sabbath-inspired Sabato Kuroi or the pompadoured Magatsu Taito), as well as government agents and bounty hunters. Despite the disappointingly fleeting presence of Chiaki Kuriyama, Erika Toda (of Death Note) gets the juiciest part as a conflicted courtesan whose fight scene with Manji was easily the film’s highlight for me.

Much has been made about how this is Miike’s 100th film (depending on what you count). Miike is infamously prolific – this is not Miike’s only film of the last year, it is not even my favorite Miike film of the last year (that would be the gonzo Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, review here, an altogether more lightfooted affair). Hell, it is not the only film Miike has made based on a long-running manga; in the past year he has also directed a films based on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (now THAT I am looking forward to) and Terraformars.

As with Steven Soderbergh, Miike’s films are sometimes studio paycheck jobs, sometimes personal pet projects, but his preoccupations and foibles often show through even in the work for hire. While Blade is undoubtedly a studio project, in many ways Miike has crafted a more enjoyable, mainstream version of his own earlier Izo, a statement on repetitive violence that is as intriguing as it is notoriously unwatchable. Both concern themselves with the cyclical, unsatisfying, unending nature of violence – a theme that Miike has visited over and over again, even going back to his early Dead or Alive.

Unlike Izo, the comic book trappings of the Blade of the Immortal source material allow him to insert a little fun and pizzazz. This is particularly the case in the individual duels, though the large-scale fights in Blade are a more brutal slogs than dazzling displays to entertain. That approach carries over to the visuals. On its surface, the film is intentionally drab, grey and muddy. But Miike uses that drabness in creative ways – for example, in the stunning aftermath of a battle, as dozens of corpses lie strewn about a village, their similar tones creating a widescreen composition that Geof Darrow might applaud. And Miike contrasts his medieval color palette by dressing the female cast in colorful outfits that stand out like cartoons among the greys, browns and blacks.

My favorite Miike will always be the Miike who undercuts his violence with absurdity and dark humor – the guy who will show ramen noodles spurting out when someone gets shot in the stomach. That Miike is occasionally on display in Blade, though he feels somehow muted. But even in a big budget tentpole film like this, Miike is going to Miike.

2 ½ out 4 stars (Good). Blade of the Immortal opens in US theaters on Friday, November 3.

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