Film Review: Blade of the Immortal (Japan, 2017) shows that excess and overkill are good things

Takashi Miike, back in the V-cinema (straight-to-video) era, was a complete madman. Not in a human state (or maybe he is, who the hell knows?), but in his creative state, as the images and ideas he comes up with can only come from a man who is completely bonkers.

This is the man who directed a film which had to have barf bags in some of the cinema screenings of Audition. This is the man who filmed a TV episode for a horror anthology that had been banned for being too disturbing in Imprint in Masters of Horror. This is the man who filmed two giant animal robots having sex…in a children’s movie called Yatterman! This is the man who filmed the most amazing cockfight ever seen on screen inThe City of Lost Souls.

Okay, the last one is debatable but the point is, this is a man whose filmography cannot be seen without one thinking with befuddlement and interest. With a man who has made so many gonzo works (including Fudoh: The Next Generation, Audition, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q etc.), where does his 100th film to date, Blade of the Immortal rank in the gonzo meter?

The film starts off with a ultra-violent prologue, shown in black-and-white, where we first witness Manji (Takuya Kimura), a skilled samurai who is caught between a rock and a hard place when his sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) is captured by bandits.

Due to tragic circumstances, Manji goes into a fit of rage and slaughters all of the bandits, which leads him to be involuntarily treated by a mysterious nun, Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto), who uses blood worms to magically realign his veins and tissues, cursing him with immortality.

In the present day, we follow the story Rin (also played by Hana Sugisaki), the daughter of Kendo master, Asano. One night, the swordsmen of Ikki-ryu school, led by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) storm into her father’s dojo and slaughter all of the students as well as Asano, leaving Rin helpless.

Swearing vengeance, she is led by Yaobikuni to hire Manji as a yojimbo (bodyguard or protector). Although his first impression of leaves Manji more than just annoyed, her striking resemblance to his sister motivates him otherwise on an adventure that will surely leave blood, gore and limbs in its path.

Does this film rank up with Miike’s best? Not really, but it is still wildly entertaining nonetheless due to Miike’s ability to still surprise and entertain with his vivid direction, an enthusiastic cast and ample source material that provides tons of fun opportunities to exploit on screen.

Based on a manga that spans across 20 years worth of volumes, screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi thankfully distills it to a plot that that involves many mano-a-mano duels, wrapped in a classic tale of revenge that is quite reminiscent of films like True Grit, Logan and unsurprisingly the cult-classic anime film Ninja Scroll, due to its wide variety of bizarre adversaries the leads face.

With characters like the monk Eiku Shizuma (Ebizo Ichikawa), the prostitute Makie (Erika Toda), Anotsu’s nemesis, Shira (Hayato Ichihara) and many more, the actors have plenty of material and characterisation to sink their teeth into and they make the most of it.

Takuya Kimura does well as Manji, as he conveys the world-weariness of his character convincingly and is capable of handling his action scenes well. The extensive facial makeup certainly helps with his performance, obscuring his baby-faced appearance.

Hana Sugisaki, who is incredibly talented for such a young age, thanks to films like Pieta in the Toilet and Her Love Boils Bathwater, doesn’t have a role that is as solid as in those films, but she displays much-needed verve and spirit into the part of Rin, that she makes her strong-willed character more substantial more than the script allows, especially when her character is written that she is threatened with assault many times throughout the film.

The supporting cast, which include many of Miike alums like Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko are all great in their various scene-chewing parts, but the standouts are Sota Fukushi, Erika Toda and Hayato Ichihara.

Erika Toda, who has gone a long way from her cutesy performances in her early days, is both surprisingly sympathetic and enjoyably campy as Makie, a bipolar killing machine of a prostitute, who often sheds tears of remorse of her actions and even the sight of blood.

Hayato Ichihara, whose acting method can be as hammy as Netflix’s Okja, is put to great use as the unhinged and unruly Shira while Ebizo Ichikawa is compelling as the eerily understated monk Eiku Shizuma, who actually has a surprising character reveal that adds to the story and has a sadistically funny fight scene with Kimura.

And of course there’s Sota Fukushi as Kagehisa Anotsu, the main antagonist. Unlike the entertainingly over-the-top caricatures, Fukushi plays his character with a moral conscience that is very effective and makes Anotsu more than just a one-dimensional villain, in that we can actually empathise with him.

With that many adversaries, that’s a hell of a lot of fights to witness. Fortunately, the fight scenes differ just enough from each other in various ways to avoid tedium, thanks to Keiji Tsuji and Masayoshi Deguchi‘s stunt work.

While it may not be as garish as the fight choreography in the Rurouni Kenshin films or as cartoonish like Miike’s prior work (although it has plenty of gallows humour), it compensates for its more graphic and overstated approach to violence with copious amounts of stabbing, slicing, dicing, impaling and other ways that no human should ever go through.

And all of this is captured to its full-bore glory thanks to regular cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who pulls back so we can witness the many mutilated corpses. It certainly helps that the source material hints supernatural elements that allow Miike to break chanbara (Japanese term for “sword fighting”) conventions. Special credit must go to Akira Sakamoto, who is credited as the special weapons master and the props he comes up with on-screen are delightfully insane.

As for its flaws, like all of Miike’s recent work, the 150 minute runtime could use some trimming, but with the amount of characters on display and the simple yet dense plot that has many interesting threads (like a political conspiracy and double-crossings between kendo schools), it’s hard to be bored by it all.

Overall, Blade of the Immortal is a wildly entertaining entry from Takashi Miike that proves that he can put his stamp on terms such as “excess” and “overkill”. With a fantastic cast, crazy fight scenes, an engaging if overlong plot and gonzo characters, you’ll get red on you but you won’t give a damn… it’s just that much fun.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL will screen in select cinemas from 16th November.