BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL ****
BLU-RAY REVIEW - Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi. Japan / UK / South Korea 2017 140 Mins Certificate : 18
Released on Blu-Ray, Limited Edition Steelbook and DVD by Arrow Video on April 2nd 2018.
Veteran British producer Jeremy Thomas -whose career has encompassed pivotal works from Bertolucci, Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam – collaborated with Takashi Miike on two earlier Samurai movies: the relatively overlooked HARA-KIRI : DEATH OF A SAMURAI and the popular 13 ASSASSINS. Thomas was a key driving force in getting this long-gestating adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s 30-volume Manga series to the big-screen, complete with a career departure for iconic Japanese TV and pop star Takuya Kimura in the lead role.
BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, like 13 ASSASSINS, afforded Miike the luxury of a relatively expansive worldwide theatrical release – something of a novelty for a filmmaker whose career has largely consisted of movies lazily dubbed “cult” and usually released straight to DVD in most territories. It also coasted on the gimmicky selling point of being Miike’s 100th movie – an accolade that Tom Mes (on the accompanying audio commentary) cites as “clever marketing” originating from the Internet Movie Database despite its loose connection to reality. Countless reviews of the movie took it as gospel, while it formed a significant part of Arrow’s publicity for its UK theatrical and home video release. By the time he reaches old age, Miike’s filmography will probably be as hard to quantify as that of the late, lamented Jess Franco, though his reputation as an enduring enfant terrible will not be exacerbated by this often eccentric, but never shocking epic.
Surprisingly, given its vast bodycount, extended battle scenes and outlandish, gruesome central conceit, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is pretty muted in terms of on-screen splatter. Absent are the great geysers of arterial spray erupting from freshly opened wounds that punctuated certain major early Miike works. Those expecting anything approaching the skin-crawling dread of AUDITION, the comically awkward necrophilia of VISITOR Q, the gruelling skin-stretching torture of ICHI THE KILLER or the Lynchian spoon-based violations of GOZU will perhaps be a tad disappointed by a film that mostly behaves itself despite its arresting opening moment of monochrome blood splashing across the screen.
It is, nonetheless, a distinctive and highly atmospheric piece of work confirming Miike’s career-spanning diversity rather than fulfilling expectations of a sexually perverse gore fest based on the infamy of a handful of turn of the century genre-bending movies. Kimura is charismatic as the title character Manji, afforded the gift / curse of immortality from an 800-year-old nun that enables him, via blood worms, to regenerate hacked off limbs and the like. A grim backstory involves his role in the untimely demise of his brother in law, which led in turn to his sister’s descent into madness before she was killed by bounty hunters on his trail.
The heart of the movie is the evolution of Manji’s friendship with 12-year-old orphan Rin (Hana Sugisaki) – a dead ringer for his late sibling – who seeks vengeance for the murder of her parents courtesy of a ruthless crowd of warriors known as “Itto-ryo” and led by the striking, sadistic Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Their charming double act has been compared to the unforgettable partnership between Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in LEON, and brings winning humour to this often sombre, sometimes ponderous film: Rin’s martial arts training involves occasional faux-pas like the moment in which she inadvertently stabs Manji in the back while learning the art of throwing multiple knives.
“Death is merciless, but not dying is far worse…”
Shot largely on location in natural light with sparse music, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL admittedly feels cluttered and choppy, as certain characters appear and disappear and their motivations become cloudy. The action set pieces are mostly depicted via close-ups and rapid-fire cuts that tends to rob them of scale and excitement, leaving the interactions between the ensemble cast of peculiar characters to be its chief pleasure. The Itto-ryo henchmen and women are particularly disarming, notably a scene-stealing iron-masked savage. It’s not nearly as much fun as Miike’s most bizarre movies, and is arguably not his greatest Samurai picture, but this filmmaker doesn’t make uninteresting films, and this, in spite of vast overlength, is frequently thoughtful, beautiful and amusing.
Soft-spoken Mes’ feature commentary on Arrow’s disc offers a typically insightful tour through Miike’s career, while placing the film in the context of the Samurai sub-genre. The most enjoyable extra is the 25-minute interview with the charming director, who refers to it as “not quite an action movie” and discusses the challenges of adapting the characters, the costumes and the elaborate fight scenes, all while dealing with the pressures of a characteristically speedy shooting schedule. Listening to Miike, you start to understand just how he has managed to oversee so many distinctive movies in such a short time frame with often meagre resources. “We don’t complain because of a lack of funds”, he notes with understated enthusiasm, “You might find something fun in that limitation…”
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