For his 100th film, prolific Japanese gore auteur Takashi Miike ('Ichi the Killer', 'Audition', 'Sukiyaki Western Django') returns to the jidaigeki (historical) action movie territory of his superlative '13 Assassins' (2010) and 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' (2011), with 'Blade of the Immortal', based on Hiroaki Samura's eponymous manga series.
Set during Japan's mid-Edo period, the opening prologue, filmed in black and white, features a long, gruesome fight between the lone Manji (a gruff turn by SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura, 'Love & Honour', 'Space Battleship Yamato', '2046') and at least three hundred well-armed mercenaries. On the verge of death, he's sliced open by an old crone, who deposits "sacred bloodworms" in his belly, which can heal any wound. Unchanged 50 years later, Manji is living in in a hut outside a small village when he's approached by the prepubescent Rin (a luminous Hanna Sugisaki, 'Pieta in the Toilet', 'Her Love Boils Bath Water') after her parents are brutally murdered. Their killer is Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi, 'As the God's Will'), the semi-androgynous head of a cadre of swordsmen called the Ittō-ryū, who is trying to unite all the schools of swordsmanship under his banner.
Comparisons with James Mangold's fantastic 'Logan' abound. Just like Wolverine, thanks to the "sacred bloodworms" coursing through his veins, Manji can heal any wound and ages in slow motion. Living in self-imposed exile, he is covered in scars and weary of his immortality. The film also hinges on the relationship between the older sell-sword and young girl he's paid to protect. There's even a fight scene where Manji and another immortal swordsman, Eiku Shizuma (Ichikawa Ebizō XI), hack away at each other, both incapable of dying.
This is a gloriously violent film. The one-against-one-hundred fight scenes, just like '13 Assassins', are shot in tight close-ups and medium shots by Nobuyasu Kita, with some brutal choreography by Keiji Tsuji and Masayoshi Deguchi. 'Blade of the Immortal' is also darkly comical - Takashi Miike, as always, has a wicked sense of humour to accompany his gory action set pieces. At a packed screening for the Sydney Film Festival, the audience laughed regularly at things like the loser of a duel being reduced to a chatty, Monty Python-esque living torso and the camera pulling back to reveal Manji standing amidst a small mountain of his dead assailants.
Takashi Miike, as always, has a wicked sense of humour to accompany his gory action set pieces.
'Blade of the Immortal' is impressively adapted from the manga by screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi, whose previous credits include the live-action adaptation of the manga series 'Death Note'. Oishi manages to hammer a sprawling storyline and myriad of characters into the plot of a 2 hour 20 minute film, the script treating various issues in the long-running series as if they were chapters in a book.
A surprisingly dense plot springs a few surprises, including a political conspiracy and a double-cross between swordplay schools. Not unlike Ten Shimoyama's 'Shinobi: Heart Under Blade' (based on Futaro Yamada's novel 'The Kouga Ninja Scrolls'), the film is bullet-pointed by the particularities of each Ittō-ryū assassin - all whom have crazy costumes, personalities and fighting styles. Gradually, Manji and Rin carve their way towards a battle with the big boss. Does this get repetitive? Yes. Repetitively awesome? YES!
The downside of a film that compresses the storyline of a 30-volume manga series published over 19 years is that several characters are given short shrift. Fan favourite Taito Magatsu (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the Mugai-ryū gang have much smaller roles, with iconic actress Chiaki Kuriyama ('Battle Royale', 'Kill Bill') in a tiny cameo.
In a nutshell, 'Blade of the Immortal' is a thrilling, complex and hugely fun action film. If this is the standard of Takashi Miike's cinematic output, 100 films into his career as a director, I hope he gets to make 100 more of them.