It ain’t easy being immortal, as Blade of the Immortal’s Manji (Takuya Kimura) can tell you. For one thing, you’ve gotta die to get to that point, and die in such a way that a magic old crone deems you worthy of immortality. Then, you need an infusion of bloodworms, which live in your circulatory system and literally pull closed any wounds you might suffer. Even after all that, you’re stuck with the whole “living forever” situation, with all the lost loved ones and endless tormenting boredom that comes along with it. Which sucks, especially if you’re doomed to forever mourn the sister you lost just before your initial death.
When you’re immortal, you also inevitably get asked along on revenge missions, like the one Manji gets caught up in. Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki), daughter of a famous swordsman and doppelganger of Manji's dead sister, seeks revenge on a new clan of warriors that adhere to no individual style or school of fighting, for having slain her parents. That’s fair, and it’s also fair that she goes to the nearest unkillable samurai for help. After all, there’s a whole clan to exterminate, and they’re within star-throwing distance of conquering the entire got-dang shogunate with their dishonourable, win-at-all-costs philosophy.
That’s the mission, and that’s how Blade of the Immortal plays out: a list-crossing revenge narrative, dipped in Edo-era supernatural samurai flick and sprinkled with kid/cop buddy movie. With Rin in tow, Manji plows through a lengthy roster of enemies, each with a signature weapon or style of fighting. This somewhat episodic, fighting-game-like structure, likely inherited from its manga source material, makes for weird pacing, but it’s worthwhile just for the variety of combat on show.
Blade of the Immortal’s impressive range of death-dealing equipment ranges from basic katanas to shurikens, spears, polearms, double-bladed swords, an unspeakably nasty spike-axe, chains, and more. One combat master styles himself after Japanese demons. Another is an immortal like Manji who just wants to die. Chiaki Kuriyama (of Kill Bill and Battle Royale fame) makes an appearance. In one insane twist, a character gets his hand severed only to sharpen his protruding arm-bones into makeshift knives (!). In another, two opponents jointly ambushed by government troops decide they’ll massacre literally everyone else in the vicinity before starting in on each other. It’s nuts.
Even more nuts is Manji’s own fighting technique, which thanks to his bloodworm-powered healing factor often consists of simply tanking hit after hit until his opponents wear themselves down, before crawling up and delivering a killing blow. Poor Manji is put through the wringer in this movie, using his Wolveriney samurai-superhero powers in the most painful ways possible; I cannot stress how much he just really gets the shit kicked (and slashed, stabbed, and chopped) out of him in every scene. You’ve never seen a single character’s hands get cut off this many times in a single film.
I’m not going to mince words: a fucking ton of people get killed in Blade of the Immortal. We’re talking hundreds of onscreen kills here, most of which come in the massive brawls (one in black and white, one in BLOOD RED) that bookend the slightly overlong two and a half hour running time. This is the kind of samurai movie where characters slip around in spilled blood because there’s simply no surface not coated in it, and where the camera pulls back at the end of fight scenes to illustrate just how many people have been chopped to pieces. But it’s never dour: director Takashi Miike’s wry sense of humour constantly pokes in at the edges, and the film even finishes on on the payoff of a running gag.
Blade of the Immortal lacks the constantly escalating cleverness of action that defined 13 Assassins’ final act, and its characters aren’t quite as much fun, but it still delivers sustained bloodletting and a solid-enough story to serve as its canvas. There’s even the odd bit of thematic pondering over the nature of mortality, the futility of revenge, and the meaning of honour in a kill-or-be-killed world. If you want to find it, that is. You don't need to.
Is it a coincidence that Takashi Miike’s hundredth film features a character dubbed “The Hundred-Killer”? It’s possible. Given his wildly prolific output, it’s even probable. Miike will no doubt have released five more features before this review gets published, so it’s hard to say “Miike’s back, baby,” but Blade of the Immortal is easily his strongest since its genre cousin 13 Assassins. And more importantly, it's just a badass, joyously sanguine time at the movies.