As lengthy filmographies go, Takashi Miike‘s 100+ directorial credits since 1991 offers one that stands as a giant among giants. The director has dabbled in virtually every imaginable genre, redefining the world cinema community’s understanding of ultra-violence while achieving occasional moments of transcendent beauty. He stuck needles in eyes in Audition, severed nipples in Ichi the Killer, and destroyed the human body in every other imaginable way (and then some) for the sake of his art. Gore is not simply grotesque in a Miike film; it is a path to salvation, ruin, and a higher understanding of the human condition alike.
It’s appropriate, then, that Blade of the Immortal (billed as his 100th feature, depending on how you want to parse short films and straight-to-video offerings and the like) exists well within the Miike tradition. It’s a bloodbath with lessons to impart, a story of vengeance told from two divergent perspectives that come together to speak to the need for salvation and bloodshed within us all. And if 13 Assassins was the filmmaker’s riff on Seven Samurai, consider Blade his warped interpretation of Yojimbo, another Kurosawa ode through the director’s unique prism of violence. It’s a redemption tale, but one where forgiveness and vengeance and understanding alike are achieved via the edges of so many sharpened swords. Its body count is staggering, but its heart is true in a way that few Miike films can match, even in a pantheon so storied as his.
In this instance, the embattled antihero of Miike’s tale is Manji (Takuya Kimura), a master samurai whose zeal for revenge reaches a head when his sister is murdered, right in front of him, during an attempt to lay claim to his head. In the first of numerous bloody, long-form fight sequences, Manji slays the killer and a legion of men. This won’t bring his sister back to him, but it satisfies his endless need for equivalence. But just when it seems that Manji will accept his death, having apparently slain every single man there is to slay, an ancient being known as Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto) infects Manji with supernatural worms. They reattach his hand, if not his slashed face or his decimated left eye, and sentence him to an involuntary life of immortality. Manji is doomed to live forever, starting at the exact moment in which he wishes for death above all else.
Fifty years later, Manji lives in seclusion, until an equal thirst for revenge finds its way to him. Rin (Hana Sugisaki), a young girl, is forced from her home when the Itto-ryu kills her father and does worse still to her mother. Under the cruel tutelage of the affectless Master Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi), the Itto-ryu set out to upset the long traditions of various schools of martial arts. Determined to reject the old notions of one style per school, the Itto-ryu win battles by any means necessary, through weaponry or dirty tactics or any other means they can find. Their methods fly directly in the face of decency and the established order alike. Rin, determined to avenge her family, sets out to kill Anotsu and the rest of the Itto-ryu, but finds herself woefully outmatched. That is, until she finds Manji, now with an overgrown head of hair, scars all over his body, and an unwillingness to engage with the larger world. But soon, given her overwhelming resemblance to his dead sister (Sugisaki plays both characters), Manji is dragged into her newly declared war on the Itto-ryu, one involving a number of colorful assassins, the Shogun’s army, and the devils of Manji’s past alike.
Early in their relationship, Manji observes to Rin that “If I kill just because you ask, I’m nothing but a murderer,” and this ethic passes through the whole of Blade of the Immortal. Miike’s thoughts are squarely situated within the chasms between bloodlust and a righteous evening of the scales throughout, and each of Manji and Rin’s encounters only further this sensibility of atonement through slaughter. At times, this comes at the expense of the film’s moral underpinnings; before the film is over, Rin is threatened with rape several different times, and Miike’s reliance on this ugly device (coupled with Sugisaki’s wholly convincing performance) sometimes threatens to turn Blade into a more lurid kind of thriller. But on the other side of that particular coin, he also situates Rin as a ferociously powerful individual, and although Manji may be her protector, Rin is established as wholly capable of fighting her own battles. At least until the greatest of the swordsmiths make their presence felt.
At times, the 142-minute length of the film can be felt. Miike spends extensive time on a subplot involving Anotsu’s need to be recognized for his many gifts through a partnership with the Shogun, and the various political machinations happening beyond the periphery of the onscreen action. Yet Blade is at its very best when it hones in on Meiji and Rin’s endless duels. Miike finds staggering moments of power in these sequences, from Manji’s fighting style being largely built around his inability to die, to Rin’s escalating reluctance to enter the world of brutal one-upsmanship she seems to desire most. (Miike’s signature knack for pitch-black comedy is also present, particularly in a scene in which Manji has to locate his own hand in order for the worms to do their work. He frequently discards limbs throughout the film.) This is a story with a message, and perhaps an overlong one, but the triumphant staging of the film’s action sequences often tends to erase any lingering doubts of its purpose before long.
Sugisaki and Kimura make for a formidable pair, the former offering a moving, of-her-age counterpoint to the latter’s wanton disregard for his body and infinite life. If the film does occasionally lapse onto familiar paths in its story of a relative innocent and her grizzled bodyguard, Blade nevertheless carries an immense gravity throughout. Miike’s focus here is precise, and frequently jaw-dropping in its brutality, an opera of slit throats and chests that hones in on the need to make sense of a chaotic world. And even if not all of its pieces always fit together, Blade of the Immortal is nevertheless a consistently engaging, visually dazzling exercise in bloody revenge. At one point, a character observes that “I’m afraid you’re not the only hero of a sad story,” and Manji is not. Nor is Rin. They’re just two more lost souls, seeking purpose in a savage world. But it exists, if achieved at a gruesome cost.