Blade of the Immortal May 14, 2018
2 Hrs., 20 Mins.
lade of the Immortal (2017), drawn-out and fitful, is more of a remarkable accomplishment than it is a remarkable film. Released last April to rave reviews, it was widely celebrated – mostly in Japan – for being the 100th film of its productive director, Takashi Miike. In the 25 years since he made his moviemaking debut, Miike has proven himself a capable cameleon – a modern-day Howard Hawks or Stanley Kubrick, if you will. Though he’s best known in the states for his work in the horror genre (1999’s Audition and 2001’s Ichi the Killer have become some of the genre’s most notoriously
stomach-churning outings), Miike can impressively helm anything pretty effectively. Children’s films, yakuza features, wuxia pictures, ambitious sci-fi spectacles, and more prominently color his filmography.
Blade of the Immortal, a swordfight-heavy and euphorically bloody adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s samurai manga of the same name, is very clearly the work of an experienced director. Brawls are expertly staged and choreographed; character-handling is clear-eyed and convincing; locale-ogling is plentiful but tasteful, with any additional eye candy-baiting design, from the sets to the costumes, vivid without being garish. It is so shiny and intelligently crafted, and so riddled with moments of genuine inspiration, that there are moments when the movie is undoubtedly accomplished and lucid.
But, being so tediously plotted and pointlessly protracted, it proves itself something of a lost cause – the smartly directed and performed would-be popcorn movie weighed down by its marriage of muchness and artistic verbosity. Not bad per se, but far too elongated to keep our hair raised for all its sprawling 141 minutes.
The characters who drive the action, though, are engaging figureheads of which pulp dreams are made. And sometimes the thoughtful screenwriter who develops them, Tetsuya Oishi, convinces us that their multidimensionality is enough to make up for the bounteous instances of tedium.
The movie circles around the immortal samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his decision to help a traumatized teenager named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) avenge the death of her father. And we care about both these people: Manji is just as tormented by his tragic past as he is by his fantastical inability to die; Rin is an optimist who had to grow up too early who wants to make even. These people need each other – and Miike and co. know it.
The film supporting them does more than it needs to in order to provide them with satisfying arcs. Following their happenstantial meeting some 52 years after Manji finds himself ineradicable, they embark upon something of an expedition seasoned by long-winded skirmishes with villains aplenty. It resembles a video game, in a way – two anti-heroes journey to look for a big bad, but must defeat a series of little bads before getting the opportunity to get their paws on Lady Snowblood-style revenge.
If Blade of the Immortal were 40 minutes shorter, we’d be in the presence of one of the best samurai features of the noughties – perhaps even besting a great, similarly designed example of Asian pulp cinema, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011), which remains a little-seen, astoundingly thrilling coup. But the 40 minutes with which it’s saddled are fattening, and what starts an electrifying offering starts sagging, at least until the galvanizing climax.
We have so many movies like Blade of the Immortal: impeccably made actioners that manage to get lost in their plotlines and their fury. Much about it is excellent, namely its characterizations and its battle sequences. But there’s too much uninteresting sauntering. Kudos to Miike on the milestone, though. C+