First published in 1993, Blade of the Immortal is a highly engrossing manga that had some success in the West thanks to translations published by Dark Horse. Its tale is one of a samurai named Manji, who is cursed by a magical nun to live forever, unless he kills one thousand evil men. The manga and the film adaptation by Takashi Miike treat this situation as exactly that, a curse.
Living forever might sound appealing, until everyone around you starts dying and the sheer boredom of eternity begins to set it. Manji – here played by Takuya Kimura – is kept alive by ‘magical bloodworms’ that heal his body whenever he is injured. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be harmed. Another samurai can open a huge gash across his chest and it will hurt. And even when the blood worms set about healing the wound, that will hurt too. This all leads to a very world weary lead character who is angry, acerbic and prone to philosophising about the nature of existence.
In the manga this all made for a fascinating character that ran across a huge number of issues without ceasing to be interesting and engaging. For the most part Miike’s live action adaptation, working from a script by Death Note writer Tetsuya Oishi, keeps these elements to the character, whilst making minor changes to his back story, and this character depth adds a fascinating layer to what could have otherwise been a rather familiar, albeit a superbly well realised, modern hack and slash chanbara.
Blade of the Immortal opens with a black and white sequence in which Manji is already infamous but not yet immortal, and following the murder of his sister goes on a killing spree and takes out a huge swath of men. It’s violent and gory, but only a sample of what is to come by the time the film reaches it’s very, very bloody climax.
Miike shoots the action with some deference to earlier chanbara – there are a smattering of overhead shots that recall the approach favoured in the sixties and some of the frantic in-the-thick-of-it chaos that came to define a lot of seventies Japanese genre filmmaking, largely thanks to the success of Kinji Fukasaku. But there are some more modern tricks and Miike signatures in there too, including an impressive approach to very quickly tracking framing to the movements of a character in a way that makes the action feel incredibly urgent and alive but also relatively easy to keep up with. The editing is similarly fast paced but discernible. Miike knows how to make it look like bloody chaos, but actually ensure you can follow what’s going on.
The bulk of Blade of the Immortal follows the hiring of Manji by a young girl – Miike has a great talent for directing children in roles in which they are strong but still children – who seeks his help after her parents are murdered by a gang set on conquering all the dojos in Japan. The relationship between the two plays out beautifully, in part down to the set up between them – Manji is surly and reluctant, and the young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), is over eager and tenacious – but the two leads are excellent in their respective roles and bring a great deal emotion to their performances.
There’s a bit of a mid-film slump, as too often seems to be the case in a number of Miike’s more recent films, but the bloody climax is a phenomenally gripping and action-packed way to pull you out of that sagging middle. A finale to possibly even rival Miike’s own Thirteen Assassins. Blade of the Immortal is a thrilling action film, with just enough beneath the surface to make it more than just a bloody good time.