Taskeshi Miike made a rare London appearance today at the festival to introduce his 100th film, though he attests that he didn’t realise it was his 100th film until someone pointed it out to him. The film is an adaptation of the long running Japanese manga by Hiroaki Samura.
The plot is relatively conventional. A young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) seeks revenge against the villains who murdered her family. The villains in question are a band dedicated to destroying every swordfighting dojo in Edo. They are led by the expert axe fighter Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi) who is the main object of her quest. So far, so revenge thriller. She enlists the aid of an immortal warrior named Manji (Takuya Kimura), who cannot die because a witch infested him with restorative parasitic worms. Less conventional.
The film’s greatest strengths I believe are inherited from the manga. The characters are fabulous and played well throughout. The over-the-top production design which sees J-Pop looking ninjas do battle with absurd looking weapons is truly to be relished. The performances are all perfect. The antagonists of the film are given just enough time to shine before they are cut down.
Rin herself becomes a very assertive figure later in the film, it’s a shame therefore that the plot tends to continue to punish her for it. Almost all of her decisions are poor ones that endanger others. She also spends the whole film training but never becomes any more physically competent. This is fairly frustrating, but fortunately Sugisaki is able to bring an undeniable charm to the role that prevents her from getting too annoying.
We do have some badass fighting ladies elsewhere in the plot, particularly Makie Otono-Tachibana, played by Erika Toda. She is a brightly coloured mandolin playing assassin who comes close to taking down our hero, before her pesky emotions get in the way. This may not be the most progressive story ever told.
Unfortunately, I believe that the manga was also a stumbling block for the film. Miike mentioned that the series ran for nine years in Japan and that he has attempted to condense the entire story down to a two and a half hour film. The film never feels rushed but it is very episodic. The pair encounter a foe, they discuss some pertinent issues and then they fight. This is a good format for a regularly released manga, and you can feel that all of these characters are much deeper than their screen-time allows. It may have been better to cut some of these episodes to focus on the main characters and their relationship. This may also have meant, mercifully, cutting some of the fight scenes.
I’ve always had an issue with the way Miike shoots action. We get lots of fun gory close ups of things being hacked off, but the actual fighting tends to be too close, too shaky and too choppy. It’s rare to see more than a few moves in succession. Consequently watching Manji slice his way through an endless parade of faceless goons is never as satisfying as seeing Ogami Itto (protagonist from the classic samurai series Lone Wolf and Cub) do the same. Miike described the thrill of seeing the men actually fight for long periods of time. It would be nice to see that skill translated to screen if he could just pull his camera back and do a few more long setups. This is particularly frustrating as there are a huge number of fight scenes in the film. Once you’ve seen Manji cut down an entire army twice, the third time is just bound to feel less special.
This is Miike’s 100th film and, although he did realise it whilst he was shooting it, it would be nice if this had felt a little more representative of his work overall. Before he became the samurai guy after the immensely entertaining 13 Assassins, Miike used to known for his bizarre and shocking thrillers.
He tackled incestuous family comedy in Family Q, needle obsessed sadists in Ichi the Killer AND audition, murderous musicals in the Happiness of the Katakuris his crime dramas like Shinjuku Triad Society, Dead or Alive and Gozu are just fucking weird. But he always brought a sophistication, and even a great deal of humanity to his freakshows. He always had sympathy for his devils.
Perhaps that’s all that’s disappointing about Blade of the Immortal. That in spite of its super violence, it is just so conventional. But with its eccentric characters, extreme violence and big heart, it is undoubtedly a Miike film. It’s also an exciting samurai action movie.
3.5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.