Confucius famously said, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Had he seen Blade of the Immortal, he might have suggested closer to 200.
Hell, our cursed hero dispatches half that number in the opening altercation alone, a not-so-subtle nod to the 100 films director Takashi Miike had helmed upon completion of this samurai epic. But Blade of the Immortal is unrepentantly bloody and entirely unsentimental. Miike flips the conventional retribution narrative by framing its titular fighter, Manji (Takuyu Kimura), as a man who has killed for so long he no longer derives any meaning from it – that is, until his humanity is rediscovered by young Rin (Hana Sugisaki), who wants revenge for her father’s murder and reminds him of the sister he lost decades before. He promises to avenge both of their loved ones.
And that’s pretty much the entire plot. What the viewer is left with is 141 minutes of lengthy swordplay, gushing wounds, and odds of survival that would make Akira Kurosawa’s famous seven samurai blush. More than maybe any movie I’ve encountered, Blade of the Immortal conveys just how exhausting it would be to dispatch hundreds of enemy combatants one after the other: Manji’s movements become exaggerated and desperate as his battles wear on; his strikes less precise. His stance devolves into something almost animalistic as blood stains the ground on which he stands. Miike seems interested in putting his protagonists (or anti-heroes) through as much physical and emotional pain as possible, whether through deliberate torture in Audition or here in Blade of the Immortal’s relentless onslaught of would-be assassins. There’s a mean streak at the heart of a number of his films, and its the driving force behind efforts like Immortal.
But are vicious sword fights and blind fury enough to carry a whole narrative feature? Miike seems to believe so. I’m not sure I share such a sentiment entirely, but there’s plenty here to suggest to fans of the genre. Bad CGI, especially the depictions of Manji’s regenerative powers, are almost certainly the weakest part of the movie. But if you can look past a few questionable computer generated shots of magical worms reattaching severed limbs, you’re in for a brutal, sweaty treat. This might have been just my second Miike film experience but it won’t be my last.