Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)
Director: Takashi Miike
Runtime: 141 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R
When skimming through the extensive filmography of Japan’s rebel export Takashi Miike, it’s interesting to note how he as an artist has acclimated his style to genre filmmaking. When it came to Jidai-Geki, his country’s most cherished and used genre dressing for its cinematic output, the madman director always seemed to take his material a tad more serious than with other work.
Whereas Yakuza films allowed him to indulge his black comic side – and J-horror his gritty surreal side – his samurai films (such as 13 Assassins and the Hara-kiri remake) were comparably traditionalist and carried a respectably grandiose quality that gave the impression Miike was suppressing that manic spark that first put him on the international radar.
Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s interesting to note when considering his latest in the genre, Blade of the Immortal, practically oozes his distinct brand of over-the-top violence and stylized action. Adapted from the popular manga of the same name, Blade of the Immortal‘s strong points are not in its plot, which follows a rudimentary bodyguard hired to enact revenge on evil gang dynamic. Where the journey of the immortal Manji and his vengeance-consumed ward, Rin, truly shines is when Miike sets them up against a rogue gallery of memorable assassins, each with a weapon, fighting style and bizarre trait unique to each, in a bloody series of gruelling fight scenes.
Watching its hero hack and slash ever closer to the evil Itto-Ryu’s leader, it is almost as if you can see the exact arcs and chapter points from the Manga Miike draws from, as the film’s narrative has an episodic quality to it. At these moments, Blade of the Immortal breaks from Miike’s genre tropes and becomes the fun, midnight movie its source material lent itself to be.
Not that the film has no substance to it beyond its blood-soaked chambara action, it’s more that it comes in peaks and valleys – with the peaks far more engaging cinematically. Outside of the frenetic clashes of outlandish weapons, Blade of the Immortal becomes a sobering morality tale of the supposed sacredness of life. Manji, whose immortality has long given his life little purpose, draws humanity from the weakened Rin and knows her path of revenge will consume the life he swears to protect.
Paired with that, in a rather uneven way, is the side story of Anotsu, the tradition-defying master swordsman whose trail of massacred dojos has led Rin and Manji on his pursuit. These moments are defined by a subdued shooting style, which – while appropriate to underline the severity of its morals – leaves Blade of the Immortal caught between two identities that struggle to coexist. The tonal jumps between the anime-esque bloodbaths of Manji and the quiet deliberations of Anotsu can be significantly jarring at times.
What certainly does nothing to help is Miike’s indulgent runtime of nearly two and a half hours, where the content comes nowhere close to justifying such a decision. Granted, 40 minutes of that time is spent on an efficiently jaw-dropping conclusion that sees Anotsu and Manji cut down hundreds of samurai in a wonderfully choreographed feat of excessive violence, but still there just isn’t enough plot here to fill that much time.
Those valleys I mentioned are where the film loses all sense of momentum, and Miike grinds his film to a halt, again interrupting the more exciting action film hiding beneath Blade of the Immortals veneer of seriousness. What I was expecting was a repeat of the director’s brilliant genre riff with Sukiyaki Western Django, but by this point I should really stop expecting anything of Takashi Miike, whose filmography allows Audition and Ninja Kids!!! to appear next to one another.
That said, I don’t know what I want from Miike because, as a journeyman director with a deep-cut personal style, he could seemingly do anything and practically already has. Here I felt his work was caught between two impressions of what a Blade of the Immortal film could be and that he just ran with both into a bloated action epic, but that very well could have been by design for all I know.
It may not be perfect, but Miike’s latest still entertains in the way only one of his films can. While confused on what it wants to be, it never directly disappoints either. It’s long and it’s bloody, but as the latest from a 30-plus-year career, it shows Miike is still the same weird guy he’s always been; and that enough for me.