Another Decade with Takashi Miike is a series of essays on the 2010 films of the Japanese maverick, following Notebook's earlier survey of Miike's first decade of the 21st century.
Takashi Miike could have become the idea of himself held by many Americans (that is, he could have delivered nothing but shockers) and gotten rich doing it, but his career was always his own. After he indulged one last time in the uncomplicated thrill of homicide-as-spectacle in 13 Assassins (2010), he’d never spill blood the same way. In Miike’s films of the last decade, violence became the director’s way of working through feelings about a world ruled by a rotting morality. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), Lesson of the Evil (2012), As the Gods Will (2014), and Terra Formars (2016) all reckon with the problems of believing in some greater power or logic, and their findings are bleak. If teachers, gods, governments, and alien life aren’t looking out for us, then what is? Miike even brought these conclusions to bear on old work. He made a depressive sequel to Zebraman in 2010 about the way images can be used for ill. The boundlessly depraved antiheroes of Ichi the Killer (2001) gave way to the benevolent but tortured doctors of The Lion Standing in The Wind (2015), who tried to heal the wounds left by unseen villains. Blade of the Immortal (2017) returned to themes of his gargantuan time-traveling odyssey Izo (2004), Japan’s answer to Slaughterhouse-Five.
Izo focused on the intractable forces of violence throughout history, as if violence were an intrinsic or parallel value of time, a mathematical constant. In that film, an immortal samurai leaps through time to different horrendous chapters in Japanese history and invariably makes things worse. Blade of the Immortal, the slightly cuddlier version of that story, follows another samurai cursed with unending life (after a witch feeds him sacred blood worms) who must decide whether he believes there’s anything worth living for. Though he can’t die, he can still feel pain, and the wounds he incurs include stabs to the gut and limbs getting sawed off. Manji (Takuya Kimura) now does odd jobs at the witch’s beckoning. When someone calls out for justice that neither law nor nature will provide them, Manji steps into the fray.
Based, like so much late Miike, on a popular manga series (which, in this case, also inspired an anime series and novels), Blade of the Immortal begins in black and white to depict the vendetta that first put Manji in harm’s way. Manji kills his master along with a coterie of bodyguards, one of whom was married to his sister (Hana Sugisaki). When another group of the master’s retainers show up to enact vengeance, they kill her first. Miike doesn’t normally shoot in black and white, so seeing his elegant images in murky monochrome is a thrill in and of itself. Blood doesn’t look as good in black and white, but it does attain a certain seriousness here; Miike creates something sturdy and classical to impart artistic life into every time a sword enters flesh. It’s as though the director were getting old and tired and looking back on life, even if his yen for creative dismemberment hasn’t dulled. Combat lessons from a powerful opponent double as lessons in blocking and camera movement. The cartoon-inspired hairpieces and costumes (frequent attributes of Miike’s cinema) are loud enough that the camera needn’t do anything showy to hold the viewer’s attention, but the self-reflexive vibe is plenty compelling on its own: Blade of the Immortal can be read as a film about the evolution of the director’s career.
Manji ultimately finds someone who needs the help of his sword, a girl named Rin Asano (also played by Sugisaki). Her family was attacked by a warrior clan over a longstanding blood feud. She now wants satisfaction, but she can barely lift her sword, let alone wield it. As in Izo, theme and variation are the name of the game. Miike presents Manji’s life as a series of grim episodes of deja vu. Meeting someone who looks like his sister, he must relive his past. To protect her, he must kill lots of people and receive the same wounds over and over. Yet the thrill of watching the righteous slaughter the wicked, which was so pronounced in a film like 13 Assassins, isn’t here anymore. There’s a certain joy to the combat sequences at first, but the violence comes to feel exhausting and monotonous, and that’s the point. “I find it pretty disgusting myself,” says Manji as the blood worms heal his wounds for the nth time. It brings to mind something Jean Renoir once said about filmmaking: You make one movie, then you cut it to pieces and make it again. (Blade of the Immortal was advertised as Miike’s 100th movie, though the director himself confessed to me that he had no idea if he had in fact made that many until the ads started telling him he had.)
Manji must also see himself and his old desires reflected in the opponents he faces. He meets a rogue’s gallery of creatively sadistic and surprisingly empathetic villains. There’s the woman capable of cutting his arms off without breaking a sweat clad in purple and animated by hatred. In a saner world Manji might fall in love with her. There’s the warrior who heads the outlaw clan whose principles make it impossible for him to live. He’ll always be assailed and hunted, and he won’t rest until someone better finally kills him. There’s the assassin who was also “gifted” blood worms and brings with him something fascinating to fight Manji: poison that will kill them. If Manji takes the poison, he can be rid of the worms and finally die. He considers it, especially after he sees the look of deranged glee and satisfaction on the face of the poor fellow when his worms finally pass from his system and his own limbs go flying off of him from years of wounds incurred and supernaturally healed. You can feel Miike reckoning with the idea and one wonders if now, with production shut down for the foreseeable future because of the plague and no film of his slated for release this year, he’ll consider retiring. We can only hope the pause is good for his creativity. The collective effect of all these people on Manji, after all, is the realization that he would rather stand side by side with outcasts in combat than quit them.
Blade of the Immortal is full to bursting with moments that suggest life rewritten in blood, and Miike doesn’t drop the story until he’s wrung out every drop of blood to be found in it, until everyone but the central duo is dead. The film is replete with Rembrandt-esque images of crowds both living and dead, and these feel like Miike were taking stock of his cinematic efforts. His love of the Yakuza (or at least Yakuza stories) has resulted in dozens of films about throngs of men working in tandem towards a common end. Blade of the Immortal casts as the hero a lonely, vulnerable man spitting venom at foes who have no style, allegiance, or discipline. His immortality, his fecundity, seem like a curse as much as they allow him to get up and keep going. He still finds his sadness easier to carry than his sword. “If it were that easy, I never would have lost anybody,” Manji says to explain why he can’t give his immortality to someone else. Time takes away most of what we know to be true, with violence tangled in its inexorable flow. Miike, it seems, is done making movies the old way. Every wound must mean something now.