Blade of the Immortal film review: blood, gore and mayhem in balls to the wall samurai fest

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The latest film from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike contemplates everyday occurrences and common grievances – such as opponents who cover their swords with bloodworm poison for a bit of extra kick, and a sorceress who transforms ordinary men into supernatural warriors. There is also a man who has carved the bones of his missing arm into claws (as you do) and enough blood-stained kimonos to consume a generation of dry cleaners.

Chocked to the gills with swordplay and severed body parts, Blade of the Immortal – based on a manga series of the same name – is a hardboiled samurai fest with a bang-for-buck running time of nearly two and a half hours. It is tempting to describe it as an old school slice and dice movie, bringing a degree of contemporary sensibility to moth-eaten genre tropes. But really, samurai pics have rarely offered this much grunt and gore, the action intertwined with inevitable plotlines involving power grabs and long-held grievances.

I doubt anybody will come out of The Great Wall, or Blade of the Immortal, complaining that there is too little action.

It is a solid choice for action movie enthusiasts, constructed with the sort of measured, patiently paced style largely abandoned by western action filmmakers. This is one of the reasons Yimou Zhang’s The Great Wall, the vertiginous candy-coloured epic starring Matt Damon as a lone warrior in a far away land, is under-rated: with scale and spectacle to spare, Zhang also understands the virtues in allowing big images to linger and complex sequences to breathe.

I doubt anybody will come out of The Great Wall, or Blade of the Immortal, complaining that there is too little action. The latter is more a case of too much, or perhaps too often. Miike’s obvious love of the genre (also exhibited in previous films including 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai) manifests into a repetitiveness that eventually gets the better of him. His wash-dry-repeat turns the experience into a looped timeline of déjà vu-inducing moments.

Miike opens in eye-watering black and white, for an introductory battle stuffed (and there will be more where this came from) full of sword clanging and flesh chopping. Protagonist Manji (Takuya Kimura) attempts – and fails – to save his young sister (Hana Sugisaki) from barbarous hordes. The violent brouhaha results in Manji, slain, lying on the ground minus one severed hand. When it magically reconnects to his body the film transforms into colour. The hero has been healed by a centuries-old biddy (Yôko Yamamoto) who ‘curses’ him with immortality.

Perhaps Hollywood can hire the director to helm a superhero movie for Marvel or DC.

The death-cheating envisioned by screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi is strange for two reasons: 1) the protagonists of samurai films tend to be nigh-on impossible to kill anyway, so one might question the point of it, and 2) “immortal” is a somewhat fraudulent description, given Manji does hurt (slowly) and can potentially die. But in broader narrative terms there is nothing out of the ordinary about it. The filmmakers reiterate the philosophy of most vampire stories: that death is merciless but immortality (or thereabouts) is even worse. And in Manji’s case, that physical wounds heal but emotional ones may not.

Blade of the Immortal wears its bleeding heart on its kimono sleeve, obvious in both its messages and the fondness Miike has for his genre antecedents. Perhaps Hollywood can hire the director to helm a superhero movie for Marvel or DC. Why not? This is the 57-year-old filmmaker’s 100th movie; his work ethic is indisputable. Miike would also likely bring the material a style and poise light years away from the ugly sound and fury of Batman V Superman, and the thinly disguised, off-the-assembly-line sameness of Wonder Woman.

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