It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner reviews Takashi Miike’s impressive 100th film.
A samurai stands against a vast horde of mercenaries, his young charge their last victim. The image is a beautiful monochrome; the odds insurmountable. Nonetheless, Manji (Takuya Kimura), our hero, enters the fray filled with reckless vengeance. The ensuing ultraviolence is equal parts intense and ludicrous, combining the climatic combat of Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion with Kill Bill’s battle in the House of Blue Leaves. If proceedings so far leave a viewer incredulous, or seeking something of more substance, the opening credits to follow might as well be the closing. But for those who could imagine little better than this spectacle of bloody samurai action, there is much to look forward to.
The titles soon appear, now in blood-splattered colour. This is Blade of the Immortal, Taskashi Miike’s 100th film over a 26 year career. His astonishing productivity, of course, has led to a marked contrast in quality for some of his work, from the depths of the ridiculous to the heights of the sublime, and sometimes both at once. Blade of the Immortal, while uneven, happily finds itself on the better end of the spectrum, and offers the exact kind of feudal ferocity one might hope for. This isn’t the first time Miike has strayed into samurai territory, with his recent remakes of Kudo’s 13 Assassins and Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri stamping his mark on the genre. However, this venture has less in common in those original films of the 60s than it does with a later series of samurai films –Lone Wolf and Cub (perhaps better known in its truncated US edition as Shogun Assassin). Like Lone Wolf, Blade of the Immortal is adapted from a manga, they also both shrug off any sense of history for supernatural and anachronistic elements of plot and design. The feudal setting is more a blank canvas than a reality the stories might inhabit. In Lone Wolf this can be seen in the finale of its sixth entry, featuring skiing samurai (a sight to behold), while Blade of the Immortal is not short on platinum blonde hair or any amount of fictional (referred to in the film as ‘foreign’) weaponry.
The central conceit, however ridiculous, could easily have existed within a more ‘authentic’ world, but that would be missing the point. That conceit is essentially spelt out in the title – after his initial battle Manji is all but slain, yet before death a mystic curses him with immortality. This takes physical form as ‘bloodworms’, which heal any wound he might sustain. The story itself takes place some years after this, with the young daughter of a sensei at a particular dojo finding herself orphaned by the plight of a nefarious warrior, Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi). This outcast plans to destroy all the separate schools of martial arts so as to coalesce them into one, under him. His exact reasoning for this is somewhat vague, his main motivation being a general rejection of specific martial forms after his father was reprimanded for fighting ‘improperly’ while a student of one. Perhaps not compelling enough an argument to undertake a mission of mass murder, but this is not a film of complex reasoning. In fact its one real theme of any depth, that of vengeance, is itself a little murky. It is often made clear how many people must suffer and die for the sake of, often needless, revenge – in fact it is for this reason Manji is first cursed with immortality. Despite this, the film still revels in it, and does not offer any sort of redemption arc for the characters in that regard. It wouldn’t be unlike Miike for this to be some kind of meta-narrative targeted at the audience – this is ultimately what we want to see, and what we enjoy seeing, despite its immorality – but it still makes for a less-than-compelling thematic basis for the film.
The young daughter, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), seeks out Manji on the word of the very mystic who first cursed him. First encapsulating the reluctant hero trope, Manji eventually agrees to help Rin, and so just like Lone Wolf a man and a child find themselves on ‘The Road to Hell’ – a journey of vengeance. Yet unlike Lone Wolf, where Itto is consistently surprising in his incredible ability, Manji is not quite the swordsman he once was. In fact, in almost all of his armed encounters he is first defeated, only achieving ultimate victory through his being deathless. This is sometimes entertaining, as in a moment where he severs his own arm to free himself from a trap, but the low stakes do strip the film of some drama in earlier scenes. This isn’t a film to be taken seriously, Miike is well aware of this, but jeopardy is still necessary in some sense. Luckily the film introduces a predictable but welcome beat, a poison that weakens his bloodworms, threatening his immortality. This also introduces a moral problem – his wish for restful death against his obligation to his new ward. It isn’t explored in much detail, but allows some smouldering tension.
Less smouldering is the action, which instead periodically sets the film alight. Unlike some western-style samurai films, emulating many of their influences by backloading the action after a slow simmering build, Blade of the Immortal offers consistent conflict across its runlength. Its set pieces are engaging and impressively captured; its body count would make John Wick wince. None quite match the incredible opening, but some come close enough. There is also a lack of the terrible CGI that has haunted many modern Japanese films, including some of Miike’s own. A similar film crippled by this was Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, with its awful effects sinking what is otherwise a solid comedy-action samurai flick, not so unlike Blade of the Immortal in tone. There are still some questionable moments, such as a computer-generated gravestone (a true mystery of cinema); but otherwise it isn’t distracting, especially and essentially regarding the (vast quantities of) blood.
As the film progresses various subplots and secondary characters appear, but most are not developed adequately. The reason for this is likely the source material – in adapting the extensive first arc of the manga screenwriter Tesuya Oishi had to maintain as many elements of the story as could fit in 150 minutes without disappointing its core audience, or indeed alienating newcomers. As such some inclusions appear more to be references than essential elements of the film, and fall by the wayside when the main drive of the narrative returns. This might also explain the underdeveloped themes – Hiroaki Samura’s original writing was praised for its sympathetic antagonists, especially in Anotsu. In the film this is hinted at, but is not built enough to ever take effect, though its tone perhaps suits this less ambiguous presentation. But ultimately this isn’t essential – Miike has created a piece of entertainment that overcomes these narrative shortcomings through sheer energy and visual flair. It’s exactly what one might expect from a film called Blade of the Immortal, and there’s little more that could be asked than that.
Blade of the Immortal had its UK premiere on the 8th of October at London Film Festival. Check out the trailer below: