Review: Takashi Miike's 'Blade Of The Immortal' Is A Samurai Slash 'n Burn Thrill

It's only fitting that uber-prolific director Takashi Miike's 100th film be an ultra violent samurai epic. The director behind numerous chanbara flicks, including the recent 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri, embraces and at times elevates the genre with Blade of the Immortal, a gruesome, 2 1/2 hour slash 'n burn thrill that is like Wolverine if he were born in ancient Japan.

Japanese superstar Takuya Kimura is Manji, a lethal samurai warrior nicknamed the "Hundred Killer", for reasons that will become obvious soon enough. Black & white footage introduces us to the very-mortal Manji as he watches his helpless sister butchered by assassins. When Manji slices through dozens of them to get revenge, he's left fatally wounded. That's when the mysterious priestess Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) arrives and heals him using bloodworms, turning him immortal. 

Has there ever been a movie with an immortal who is happy with eternal life? Because a switch to full color transports us decades into the future, and Manji is still very much alive; more grizzled, more haggard, more nihilistic, and scarred both inside and out. Left to wander the earth as an immortal swordsman, he only finds reason to live through Rin (Hana Sugisaki, who also played Manji's sister), a young woman seeking vengeance against Master Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) for killing her father and everyone in his dojo. The young but fearless Anotsu leads the Itto-Ryu, who live to destroy all schools and their rigid codes. While Rin is annoying and Manji wishes to dismiss her, he's taken by her resemblance to his sister and agrees to help. Of course, there is also a little bit of encouragement by the ever-meddling Yaobikuni, who shows up when something can be twisted for her amusement.

Unfolding like a live-action Ninja Scroll, the film is basically a series of fight scene vignettes, with Manji cutting his way through the Itto-Ryu. With such a lengthy runtime it does get a little repetitive and meandering, and it's never quite clear if there's a point beyond basic ruminations on life and death. Probably not. The better way to adapt Tetsua Oishii's long-running manga may have been as a TV series, but it's to Miike's credit that he's able to capture the manga's complicated web of political intrigue and vast array of brutal wariors, each more memorable than the last. Manji's adversaries range from the enthusiastically violent Makie (Erika toda), a prostitute whose thirst for blood is unquenchable, until the fighting stops and she must look back on what she's done. There are a few twists and turns, such as the arrival of Eiku Shizuma (Ebizo Ichikawa), a seemingly unstoppable warrior who shares more in common with Manji than it would appear. And always welcome is an appearance by Battle Royale and Kill Bill standout, Chiaki Kuriyama, sadly without her spiked mace and sadly without more screen time.

Unlike the silly over-the-top violence he employed in the awesome Yakuza Apocalypse (no kung-fu frogs!), Miike strikes a gory chord that contrasts with the supernatural landscape. Miike relishes every cut, every slash, every deep, festering wound and it can be pretty disgusting to watch, but that's also what sets the film apart from other samurai movies with similar settings. Miike's deftness with different genres is on full display, using the story's fantastical qualities to break free from classical swordsmanship.

Basically, this film is a blast. Performances in these movies tend to be serviceable at best, and Kimura's is no different. He handles the fighting well but lacks the enigmatic qualities to make Manji truly stand out.  As usual it's Miike who own the movie, and he ends Blade of the Immortal exactly the way his fans would want him to, with a tornado of brutality so thick it leaves behind a literal river of blood.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5