There is probably only a handful of people (I’m certainly not one of them) around the globe who can boast the title of “Miike completist” given the Japanese director’s gargantuan filmography increases by two or three titles per year and some of those only arrive on western shores with little fanfare. Surveying the past few years and we’ve had a few highlights (Yakuza Apocalypse, 2015, Over Your Dead Body, 2014) and lowlights (Terra Formars, 2016) but nothing to match the balls-to-the-wall fun of 2017’s Blade of the Immortal.
Adapted from Hiroaki Samura’s manga series of the same name (which incidentally does have an English-translated version released by Dark Horse Comics), Blade is a smart fusion of samurai myth and supernatural pulp bound to please both genre fanboys and those keen to see the formal elegance of Miike’s recent samurai flicks Hara-Kiri and 13 Assassins.
The starting point - a samurai ends up with powers of immortality only a rare poison can stop thanks to a mysterious nun - may be reasonably straight-forward but the ensuing plotlines involving familial revenge, warring political factions and the protagonist’s path to spiritual redemption help give a sturdy-enough framework for what could have been just an onslaught of show-down set-pieces more suited to a videogame than a two-and-half-hour movie.
The violence is relentless and graphic (although nothing to reach the level of sadistic glee of Ichi the Killer, from 2001) but after about the one and a half hour mark rather hypnotic (some might say numbing) as limb after limb gets sliced and the puncture wounds bank up - one can only wonder whether the production had a gas tanker’s worth of fake blood on hand.
Truth be told, the action choreography is nothing special for a chanbara film but with so much of the running time taken up with fight-after-fight involving a wide array of weapons (everything from battle axes to darts, swords to even guns by the climax) the real pleasures come from guessing what new bone-crunching, blood-gushing way someone will be dispatched (or in the case of the unkillable protagonist, how much pain can one man take as he imitates a pin cushion). The dazzling climax involving hundreds of extras is a strong testament to Miike’s craftsmanship and sense of visual rhythm.
Japanese pop culture icon Takuya Kimura (of SMAP fame, he also had a support role in 2046) takes a starring role and does his best to transform from boy band idol to mangy warrior but he’s less of a fully-fleshed character and more a cipher for the fullness of pain to the flesh. One blonde-haired assassin may be familiar to Tarantino fans: Chiaki Kuriyama who played the schoolgirl killer Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill makes a cameo as a member of gang of hired guns.
Blade of the Immortal screened as part of this year’s Cannes Film Festival and had a couple of screenings at this year’s rebooted Brisbane Film Festival (the session I attended had a healthy crowd show up). Although one would normally think it would be a film Madman Entertainment would be licking their lips to obtain for Aussie distribution, apparently Icon has snapped up theatrical rights (not too sure about VOD or home-vid) so who knows whether it will get a limited release aside from festival play. In any event, given the obvious commercial prospects of the film you can expect an import bluray release to be available sooner-or-later.
Cannes Photocall, Takashi Miike and actor Hana Sugisaki