Miike Takashi delivers a faithful adaptation that will delight fans, even though it has some pacing issues.
There are very few directors who are as much loved as Miike Takashi for audiences in Sitges, that’s a fact. His movies have earned a very well-deserved place in genre fans’ hearts all over the world, so every new film by Miike screened at Sitges is a guaranteed sell-out.
Which is quite something, as there are very few directors as prolific as Miike. Well, actually “prolific” may be underselling it: Blade of the Immortal is the 100th film directed by him. Yup. And he only started directing in the early 90’s.
So if bearing this mark wasn’t enough, Blade of the Immortal is also the adaptation of a hugely popular and successful manga by Samura Hiroaki. It tells the story of Manji (played by Kimura Takuya), a samurai who fell out of grace when he killed his superior and his guards, including his sister’s husband. After the incident he’s forced to flee and take care of his sister, who lost her mind out of grief.
One day they fall into an ambush by a band of bounty hunters that kill her sister, and Manji becomes mortally wounded even though he manages to kill all 100 of them. But just as he’s about to die, a strange old lady who claims to have lived for more than 800 years appears and injects Manji with bloodworms, creatures that live inside the body and are able to heal up even the most gruesome of wounds, making their carrier effectively immortal.
Fifty years later, a group of strange people that calls themselves Itto-Ryu, lead by the mysterious Anotsu Kagehisa (Fukushi Sôta), starts killing the masters of fencing schools all over Edo. On one of this attacks, young Rin (Sugisaki Hana) has to witness the murder of her parents and afterwards she decides to go looking for a rumoured immortal samurai to employ him as bodyguard to help her in her quest for revenge.
Trying to condense 30 volumes of manga into a 140-minute movie is a daunting task. Despite having a powerful initial scene when Manji fights against a hundred opponents, the pacing of the film seriously suffers after that. Things slow to a crawl as we’re introduced to one colorful character after the other, and suddenly the film starts to feel more like a sequence of thinly connected one on one battles as Manji fights his way to the top of the Itto-Ryu.
Being a fan of the original manga, I appreciate trying to be faithful to the source, but I cannot shake the feeling that the film sometimes is trying too hard to fill a checklist of characters and situations to keep the fans of the manga happy. Some of the characters and plotlines feel unnecessary for the overall plot, and it would probably have been better to get rid of them altogether. Newcomers to the material may have a difficult time as they try to wrap their heads around who's who.
Having said that, the movie manages to remain engaging and entertaining. Fight scenes are thrilling, and of course having a character who can withstand all kind of wounds without dying gives Miike a perfect opportunity to deliver a generous amount of blood and dismembering onscreen. After a slow second act, things pick up again as things start building up right until the satisfying final battle. Production values look solid all around, and the character looks manage to satisfactorily walk the line between faithfulness to the original characters’ design without looking like people straight out of a cosplay convention (which sadly is the case on some film adaptations).
So even though Blade of the Immortal never reaches the highs of Miike’s previous works like 13 Assassins, and even though it’s not as memorable as it should have been for his 100th film, it still is a quite enjoyable ride. Fans will be satisfied with the results, and people unfamiliar with the original source should also get a good thrill out of it. Congratulations Miike-san, we’ll be expecting the next 100 to come.