Let’s run the numbers on this one. By his count, this is Takashi Miike’s 100th film. Our anti-hero, Manji, is known as the “Killer of 100,” for reasons that need no belaboring, but he has pledged to kill 1,000 bad guys to redeem himself. It looks like he easily reaches the millennium mark judging from Miike’s live-action adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s popular manga series, maybe by a factor of two or three. The body count is higher than an October’s worth of horror films, but each hack-and-slash death is executed with Miike’s incomparable artistry in Blade of the Immortal, which opens today in New York.
Ill-fated Manji was caught up in a Shogunate power struggle and forced to kill his own brother-in-law. He tried to care for his younger sister Machi after grief drove her mad, despite their fugitive status. Tragically, the smugly confident leader of a small army of bounty-hunters kills her before his very eyes, but that turns out extraordinarily badly for them. Of course, he kills every last one of them, but it nearly costs him his life, which would have been fine with Manji. Instead, the supernaturally old nun Yaobikuni slips mystically healing bloodworms into body, rendering him immortal.
After Rin Asano’s sensei father is killed by Kagehisa Anotsu’s Ittō-ryū martial arts cult, Yaobikuni appears before her, recommending she seek out Manji to serve as her bodyguard. The immortal swordsman is not inclined to be helpful, but he cannot help feeling protective towards Asano, because she is the spitting image of Machi. And away we go.
Frankly, Manji is a perfect Chanbara hero for Miike’s sensibilities. Think of him as one part Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, one part Wolverine, and a third part Larry Talbott from the Universal Wolfman movies. The relationship that develops between him and Asano is deeply compelling so it is easy to understand why the manga has lasted for over a trillion volumes.
Playing against type, Takuya Kimura (a.k.a. Kimutaku of the j-pop band SMAP) is suitably grizzled and embittered as Manji, while Hana Sugisaki is endearingly naïve as Asano. Arguably their relationship dynamics and characters arcs are the only ones that mean anything in a wildly cinematic beat-down movie like this, but Erika Toda still steals all her scenes as the lethal geisha Makie Otonotachibana, who is a better ally than the clammy Anotsu deserves.
Character, performance, and all the rest of that blah-blah-blah are all very nice, but the bloody, massively over-the-top fight sequences are what this film is really all about. It opens with some spectacular payback and ends with an epic, large-scale, all-hands-on-deck, slice-and-dice battle. Let’s put it this way, Miike does not surpass third act battle royale of 13 Assassins, but he comes close to equaling it, which is saying something.
There is no question the final battle is utterly nuts, in multiple ways, but boy, is it ever fun to immerse yourself in. For his 100th film, Miike was not taking any prisoners or offering any quarter. It is the kind of full-scale chanbara blow-out that is good for what ails you, like 13 Assassins and the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. Very highly recommended, Blade of the Immortal opens today (11/3) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.