Takashi Miike makes a lot of movies. Now 57, the Japanese director has 100 features to his credit, but that could change between the time this review publishes. For some perspective, Steven Spielberg’s The Post will be the relatively prolific 70-year-old director’s 31st feature. That alone would be a story, but Miike would just be a novelty if so many of his movies weren’t worth talking about. And the films worth talking about vary wildly, too. Miike seems equally at home directing a wacky, macabre musical like The Happiness of the Katakuris as the slow-boiling horror film Audition or the elegant samurai movie 13 Assassins. It’s not always clear what defines a Miike film beyond a shared go-for-broke spirit, but they’re seldom boring.
Miike’s pace has slowed a bit in recent years, which have seen him turning out an average of two films a year. That his productions have gotten more elaborate partly explains that. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, the new Blade of the Immortal is a sweeping story of samurai, revenge, and supernatural bloodworms (more on those in a moment) that adapts the long-running manga and anime series to live action in a film that plays partly as a stately epic, partly as an over-the-top spectacle of blood and clanging swords.
Actor and pop singer Takuya Kimura (2046) stars as Manji, a samurai who, in the film’s black-and-white opening, kills his sister’s husband in the course of administering justice, driving her mad. This, however, is mere prologue. After a bounty hunter kills Manji’s sister, he’s gifted with some bloodworms by a crone. These heal all wounds, making him effectively immortal and giving him all eternity to contemplate the mistakes he’s made.
He’s still at this decades later when, after a switch to color, the story resumes when Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), the head of a fencing school, takes out a rival dojo, leaving the headmaster’s daughter, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), as the only survivor. The massacre is part of what might be charitably described as an aggressive marketing plan, and it eventually draws in Manji, who sees in Rin a chance to redeem himself — or at least help another innocent girl from falling victim to the world’s cruelty.
From this, Miike spins an episodic story that takes Rin and Manji on a journey of revenge in which they encounter a series of colorful characters, most of whom they end up fighting. Along the way, Blade of the Immortal raises some compelling questions: What does it mean to be virtuous in a world that doesn’t value virtue? Is there any way to shuffle off the burden of past sins? When does immortality become a curse? (On this last point, it would make a fine double feature with Logan, with which it shares several elements, including an underlying debt to the Lone Wolf and Cub series.)
But, above all, each new encounter offers another chance for Miike to stage an insane battle sequence designed to outdo the insane battle sequence that precedes it. Between battles, Miike keeps to a stately, reserved style of filmmaking, making skilled use of his widescreen frame as characters confront one another with words and debate approaches to how to deal with a common enemy. Once the battles begin, the rules go out the window. Limbs fly. Blood spurts. Bizarre weapons come into play.
It’s these scenes that give the film its reason for existing more than the philosophical handwringing, but the two elements live nicely side by side. Beneath scars and a weary expression, Kimura’s quite convincing in the lead, with each new confrontation seeming to confirm his darkest view of humanity. Sugisaki’s good, too, though it’s Fukushi who ends up stealing scenes, in part because he’s such an eerie, otherworldly presence. Anyone looking to cast the part of a beautiful alien who can just pass has human should give his agent a call.
The film climaxes in a seemingly endless battle royale that makes the showdown from Kill Bill Vol. 1 seem restrained. But it also feels earned, the culmination of a slow build-up that outdoes all the action the proceeds it, then just keeps going. As the capper to his 100th film, it confirms Miike hasn’t run out of tricks or ways to surprise even the most jaded viewer. Why stop now when there’s clearly so many other films to be made?