Takashi Miike is not only one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers—he’s also one of its most extreme.
A kamikaze director comfortable operating in any genre, from drama, romance and family adventure to yakuza and samurai sagas (his favorites), the 57-year-old Miike has a flair for the fantastically over-the-top, drenching his work in insane violence and deviant passions. There’s a fetishistic quality to his radicalism; a sense of joy derived from the idea that more is always better, and that pushing boundaries is an exhilarating end to itself. For evidence of that excess, one need look no further than 2006, when his Imprint, a contribution to the anthology series Masters of Horror (whose line-up included horror auteurs John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, John Landis, Joe Dante and more), was deemed too intense for Showtime.
Thus, it’s only fitting that, for his 100th feature, he’s opted to stage the slaughter of hundreds—all via a story that champions wanton bloodshed and selfless sacrifice as life’s highest virtues.
Best known stateside for the gangster tale Ichi the Killer and the horrorshow Audition—not to mention Dead or Alive, One Missed Call, 13 Assassins, and the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed Visitor Q—Miike revels in gonzo intemperance, and his latest, Blade of the Immortal, finds the director operating in familiar unrestrained fashion.
In theaters on November 1 and on VOD on November 8, and based on Hiroaki Samura’s popular manga series, the film concerns Manji (Takuya Kimura), a Shogun-era samurai who, during a black-and-white prologue, assassinates his duplicitous master as well as six other constables. When he discovers that one of his victims’ wives, his sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki), has gone insane from witnessing her spouse’s murder, he’s wracked with guilt and takes her under his wing. At a nearby river, he’s taunted by an ancient spectral nun named Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) for his crime, after which he’s confronted by an enormous gang of mercenaries who murder Machi before his eyes. And then, the real massacre begins.
In this opening barrage, wild-eyed Manji slashes his way through at least fifty adversaries, his dual blades twirling with a ferocity that’s matched by Miike’s aesthetics—a combination of frenzied close-ups and sharp master shots that capture Manji’s rampage in all its lethal glory. After losing a hand and one eye, his face disfigured by two long cuts across his brow and nose, Manji gets his vengeance, and lays down to die beside Machi. Yaobikuni, however, won’t permit his escape from damnation. Instead, she carves a hole in Manji’s chest and pours inside enchanted bloodworms that cause his hand to reattach, his chest to heave, and color to engulf the frame.
He’s now reborn, cursed with immortality.
Like The Villainess, Blade of the Immortal’s extravagant introductory assault sets the tone for the rest of the material. Miike, though, rarely employs CGI trickery to amplify his carnage; his style here is of an old school, wirework, slice-and-dice variety (think Seven Samurai on a mescaline-death-rage trip). It’s an approach that helps ground the rest of his material, which jumps ahead fifty years to focus on Rin (also Hana Sugisaki), whose samurai-teacher father and mother are slaughtered by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), the master of a group of peerless swordsman. Anotsu wants to unite all samurai schools under his leadership—or eliminate those who stand in his way—and Rin seeks out Manji to be her bodyguard as she seeks revenge against him. Despite enjoying his solitude, and craving death as a sweet release from his sorrow, Manji sees in Rin a chance to atone for his failure to protect Machi, and agrees to help her.
With unblemished skin, delicate features, and a barely upturned smile on his face, the robotically ruthless Anotsu resembles a computer-generated character from a video game cutscene, thus making him the placid, amoral yin to Manji’s disheveled, noble yang. Their dynamic is one of many dichotomies found in Blade of the Immortal, which subsequently follows Manji and Rin as they set out on their payback mission, along the way fighting various Anotsu henchmen who boast colorful appearances and decidedly outrageous weapons. One assassin carries what appears to be Rin’s mother on his back, and wears an animal mask that hides scars around his eyes. Another, Makie (Erika Toda), is a homicidal beauty who uses a long, flexible spear with blades on either end. Rin throws knives (however clumsily) held between her knuckles. Manji handles two different varieties of double-bladed sword. And Anotsu carries a giant anvil-like axe that sits heavily on his shoulder, and whose origin is related to his own vindictive motivations.
Anotsu’s scheme runs into trouble thanks to the ruling Shogunate, which isn’t exactly thrilled with his plans. Yet Blade of the Immortal never bogs down in double-dealing political intrigue. Rather, even with a 141-minute runtime, Miike maintains a fleet pace by orchestrating numerous inventive battles, each of which involves Manji using his immortality to his tactical advantage, as well as suffering extreme wounds that, as the story progresses, fail to heal as quickly as before. Moreover, the director never lets his supernatural-tinged action become burdened by self-seriousness. Buoyed by a fantastic lead performance by Takuya Kimura (whose mania is always rooted in regret and a desire for redemption), the film is enlivened by a sarcastic sense of humor, both via Manji’s wisecracking retorts as well as set pieces involving amputated limbs and carved-up bodies that turn the proceedings into a comic grotesquerie.
Things culminate with a two-against-hundreds battle that’s awe-inspiring for its sheer scale, as well as the technical dexterity and intensity of Miike’s staging, his camera panning back and forth between his protagonists as they cut through hordes of enemies on their way to their final showdown. Still, what makes the filmmaker’s latest work, ultimately, isn’t just its crazed mayhem, but also its heart. In Manji’s pursuit of penance, Miike captures the cyclical futility of vengeance, the enduring pull of memory, and the redeeming power of self-sacrificing love. Blade of the Immortal is a lament for killing that delights in spectacular violence, a portrait of the pain and grace of mortality, and a superhero fantasy about a man who cannot die. It’s thrilling and touching and absurd, sprawling and intimate and severe, and never less than uninhibited. In short: it’s a mad Miike film through and through.