“What are you, a monster?” asks a man with a completely red-scarred skull who carries two human heads withered and shrouded on his shoulders. He asks this of Manji, a ronin who absorbs a mortal blow but rises from what should be certain death to then strike down his attacker. Takashi Miike, who in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga into Blade of the Immortal, knows this kind of material and this genre from front to back, blindfolded and, no doubt, even if one hand were cut off—but doesn't prevent him from having great fun making it.
Manji (Japanese star Takuya Kimura) is cursed to immortality after allowing a woman (Hana Sugisaka) he had driven mad—by killing her husband—to be struck down before him. His curse turns into a gift when another wronged young woman, Rin (also Sugisaka), seeks him to avenge the destruction of her family and her dojo. The culprits are a renegade group of swordsmen who have no set fighting style and accept “any weapon.” They seek to absorb or obliterate all other schools of fighting, this being the long period in Japan between wars where the samurai class had to turn inward to prove martial skill and release their energy. Their leader, Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), like so many of the swordsman Manji must face and fight, is stylized straight from a comic or anime, often with singular hair, weapons, and utterances. To get to Kagehisa, Manji, with Rin tagging along, must kill numerous distinct “monsters” and countless scores of faceless fighters. Introduced as a tomboy training to be a great fighter, Rin is sidelined (unfairely) as her immortal “monster” takes over the proxy task of killing her way to vengeance.
At an expansive but unvaried two hours and twenty minutes, Blade of the Immortal is a by turns thrilling and exhausting paean to the arduous task of killing and the numbing of the soul when one is so capable of death. Cutting down foe after foe—in a series of some singular but mostly indistinguishable action sequences—is shown as fierce but hard work, draining, repetitive, and potentially endless. Occasionally Manji expresses a desire to die, and indeed meets a similar immortal, much older, who longs for death. “When I fight, I forget,” says a striking woman (Erika Toda), a fighter who works by day as a geisha, “my sword only brings grief.” Like Miike’s masterpiece Izo (2004) before it, Blade of the Immortal both celebrates the perspicacity of and bows its head in mourning shame over this existential state of forever-killing.
The picaresque tale—clearly collapsing several different duels from a sprawling original source—can be beautiful when Miike so chooses it: an origin story prologue in inky black and white, the symmetrical compositions and candle light of aristocratic interiors, and sun streaks through green forests. But just as often the sets look like they’ve been used frequently for TV productions or not dissimilar movies, the weapons cast the night before by the prop man. Kimura, as Manji, fights with vigor but holds his weapons without commitment. It is difficult to tell when the director is phoning it in or working with genre artifice. An entire army waits to kill our hero and heroine and watches as they have a spat in front of them, a stage of onlookers waiting for the cue to be anonymously cut down. Miike is unafraid of the ridiculous, and honors the humble pleasures of cinematic bloodshed.
The best of the ridiculous comes with the outrageous hairdos and personal stylings of many of the characters. “I’ll kill him for what he did to my hand and my hair,” says one villain in a winking self-acknowledgement. Best of all is Sota Fukushi as Kagehisa Anotsu, the dark mastermind of the killer dojo. An alabaster god of feminine features lanky and long, with a dark glare of vacuous menace, his couture is completed with a periwinkle blue kimono. “You are a heretic just like me,” Kagehisa tells Rin, and with this statement Blade of the Immortal performs its final blow, casting orphaned heroine, immortal hero and rebel villain all in the same status of the aggrieved, the outcasts. All three, Manji, Rin and Kagehisa, desire to attain satisfaction by bloodshed—some kind of relief. What remains though, after all who can be killed are dead, is only sorrow. As Kagehisa predicts in the final fight, “fear of the warrior’s sword will revive in these lands.”