All words: Alan Pyke
There’s nothing wrong with Blade of the Immortal. There’s in fact plenty right with it, on the levels of craftsmanship that go into taking an idea from brain to storyboard to cineplex. There just isn’t any weight. There’s nothing pinning this thing down. That can often be a good thing at the movies, leaving space for bag-in-the-wind effervescence that tumbles loose (i.e. The Big Lebowski), or even the queasy, vertiginous kind that propels your Gaspar Noé spectacles.
But there’s little of either joy or debauch to Takashi Miike’s latest, in the end. It feels aimless – or worse, trite, especially in the several moments where the obligations or honorifics of the jidaigeki genre stab through Miike’s would-be cerebral take on violence, order, and mortality.
Quick primer: We’re in the Edo period of medieval Japan. Everybody’s got swords, or everybody who matters at least. The old way – where dojos dot the land and fencing is as widely practiced a deadly art, but all is broadly peaceful and stable under a central shogunate – is under attack. A group of modernist warriors called the Itto-Ryu are come a-calling on various old-school dojo masters, bearing the standard conquistador’s bargain: convert or die.
Through these historically semi-accurate mists stride the titular Immortal (carrying many blades, honestly, not just the titular one). Killed some 50 years prior trying to avenge his kid sister’s death, Manju was resurrected by a mysterious witchy woman in white for reasons she didn’t care to share.
There lies much of the ultimate problem. Woeful, beautifully costumed and scarred, an abruptly faux-cynical antihero practically begging to be labeled “Japanese Rust Cohl” in the english-language press simply is not very interesting. As neither especially an impressive fighter or a particularly compelling tortured-hero, he simply is. Nobody can kill him, he’s pretty sure after half a century, so doing just-ok in the first round of an escalating series of 1v1 battles with Itto-Ryu underbosses ends up working out. Sure, he gets killed, but of course he doesn’t.
Miike doesn’t sit idly on that formula, to be fair. Not every underboss catches death. Each fight plays out differently, bookended by quite different types of interaction meant to suggest that Itto-Ryu overlord Anotsu has cultivated especial minions through particular means. This is no gang of putties getting invariably face-kicked by a Power Ranger.
But Miike doesn’t seem to know how to shoot a duel all that well. There is gore. Hell yes, there is gore. But actual combat? But the work of filming sword battles – feline, acrobatic, mechanically complex, balletic in its gives and takes? “Eh, seems like a lot of work capturing all that to be quite honest,” he seems to have decided. He pushes the lens nice and close, like the American boys are doing it these days, and figures we’ll get the drift.
Blade of the Immortal locks you into the viewing lens of its title character. That sucks because the world he’s confronting is much more interesting as fodder for the romantic ideals and generational strifes traditional to the genre. The barely-explored politics of the Itto-Ryu’s slow-but-hard coup, reflected here and there in snippets of monologue from Anotsu or a henchman, would be much more interesting than Manju’s tale. These speeches and half-speeches about class, feudalism, honor, pragmatism, and repression give a fascinating sketch of the life cycles from which Manju’s immortality has fundamentally removed him.
Stacking these moments up, you can see perhaps what Miike was going for: A bait-switch play where the audience is lured into the lush, perfectly lit, immaculately framed historical Japan he’s chosen as setting, whose upheavals and conflicts offer a certain kind of funhouse mirror to the present age.
This is the same technically polished Miike production fans will by now be used to, only done at scale and fully budgeted. The final edit pings gently, but insistently around the several different angles of any given scene which the auteur selected ahead of time. The costume work is astonishing as fabric art, and evocatively clever as visual design.
It just never quite adds up. Like Manju getting sloppy in a fight, trusting that when his hand gets lopped off his magical blood-worms will stitch him instantly back together, Miike seems to have decided he didn’t need to nail the footwork. You’ll be dazzled either way.