Film review | Blade of the Immortal

Your film critic is currently in Rome... where even Netflix offers a richer selection of treats than what’s available locally. Alas... • 3/5 

Lone Wolf and Cub...ish: Takuya Kimura as Manji and Hana Sugisaki as Rin Asano in Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film
Lone Wolf and Cub...ish: Takuya Kimura as Manji and Hana Sugisaki as Rin Asano in Takashi Miike’s 100th feature film

Every culture has both its trash and its treasure, and it’s at the meeting point of both those extremes where we tend to get the most revealing examples of what we’re all about. So the current superhero movie craze serves as a showcase for both the long, long (long) and convoluted history of the genre in the field of American comic books, as well as the high-powered tentpole studio industry that pumps their adaptations up with big-bucks (despite complaining about constantly being in crisis).

And then there’s that other major league American pop culture touchstone, of which we’ve only recently been reminded of: Star Wars. Space pulp culled from the pulpiest of the lot, but with such a consistently energetic dose of nostalgia and mass-media love on its side to remain a powerful, quasi-religious experience for all involved. (A religious experience which, as we were reminded by backlash to The Last Jedi, also invokes the terms ‘canon’ and ‘schism’ with an alarmingly appropriate level of heft).

In all of this pomp, circumstance and general atmosphere of mass media collusion and confusion, it becomes easy to forget – particularly during the post-holiday comedown, when everything is a blur anyway – that the Eastern side of the globe has a rich tradition of popular entertainments that are actually ten times as bright, vibrant, violent and lurid as their Occidental counterparts.

Just over the course of these last couple of weeks spent in Rome, I’ve had a chance to see iconic prints by Hokusai, and to experience ‘Mangasia’ – an expansive (and at certain points even interactive) history of ‘manga’ and all its related offshoots, which not only included China and Japan in its purview but Filipino, Indian and Indonesian practitioners in an exhibition curated by Paul Gavett.

Then, settling in back home, I logged on to Italian Netflix to check out Takashi Miike’s 100th film – yes, you read that right – which was in turn adapted from a manga originally printed in Japan in 1993 but which gained international popularity when it was taken up by Dark Horse Comics in America in 1996.

Evil mastermind: Sōta Fukushi is Kagehisa Anotsu
Evil mastermind: Sōta Fukushi is Kagehisa Anotsu

Set in Edo period Japan, Blade of the Immortal sees disgraced samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) reluctantly take on the role of erstwhile bodyguard for the pre-teen girl Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki) after her parents were murdered by the renegade ronin group Ittō-ryū – whose aim is to assimilate all of the samurai dojos of the land into their terrorist organisation – on pain of death.

The key reason that Rin picks Manji above all others is his unique reputation as an effective assassin, having landed the monicker of the “Hundred Killer”. This, however, is down to a strange trick of fate. With a bounty already on his head after he was tricked into murdering public officials, Manji’s sister dies in a skirmish with a band of assassins keen to collect. But instead of letting him die at the tail end of a brutal fight, an old crone infests his body with healing ‘blood-worms’, which effectively render him immortal.

Though Manji’s only motivation in life is to end his own (somehow) Rin’s sad story triggers memories of his sister, and his failure to save her life. So Manji reluctantly agrees to help Rin exterminate the Ittō-ryū once and for all... starting with their leader Kagehisa Anotsu (Sōta Fukushi).

With both melodrama and general goofiness as something of an accepted given from the source material onwards, Miike is allowed to let rip (!) in every sense of the word, getting the most out of each outlandish skirmish that greets our protagonists on their journey for picaresque revenge. The characters are two-dimensional but the roving camera work and dynamic choreography keeps you glued to the screen – with some inventive violent flourishes that will remind you of just how vanilla Western experiments like Kill Bill were, when confronted with ‘the real thing’.

Blade of the Immortal is an assured slice – pun decidedly intended – of pure-grade samurai pulp; with a veteran director delivering his 100th picture with the same merciless energy and technical finesse that has become his stock-in-trade over the decades. A true international blockbuster destined to appeal to all save for the squeamish, this is an entertaining ride to tide over the January blues – if only by injecting a generous dash of red to your evening’s entertainment.

 

This review was based on a viewing of Blade of the Immortal on Netflix – Italy

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