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Blade of the Immortal
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by Jay Seaver

"All the blood and rage you'd want from an undying samurai."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Blade of the Immortal" is being advertised as Takashi Miike's hundredth movie (looking at the IMDB, the numbers don't quite seem to align, but, hey, close enough), and I suspect that his biggest hit outside of his native Japan is his remake of "13 Assassins", which demonstrated that while he may be known as the guy who does the weird stuff, he's one of the best action filmmakers out there when you strip that away. He returns to big samurai action with "Blade", which gets to be even bigger and bloodier.

Fifty years ago, samurai constable Manji (Takuya Kimura) was declared an outlaw for actions which may or may not have been justified, but more importantly, was given immortality when 800-year-old nun Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto) placed "sacred bloodworms" in his body, allowing him to heal from nearly any injury and even reattach recently severed limbs. He's lived a life of seclusion, but Yaobikuni seems to have found a way to entice him back into the world, advising Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki), a teenaged tomboy, to seek him out as a bodyguard on her quest for revenge against Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), the man who killed her father. Anotsu has been attacking dojos all through Edo, insisting they join his "Itto-ryu" clan or perish, which not only indicates that he is a formidable opponent, but that he has surrounded himself with other lethal swordsmen - and now the government has taken notice, extending an offer of legitimacy where he would train their warriors.

Screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi seems to have streamlined Hiroaki Samura's manga in order to fit thirty volumes of comics into 140 minutes, and it's a fair job of compression - as much as some threads occasionally seem to be running behind others, it never has the feeling of having to get this, that, and the other in with no time left over to show what effect this all has on Rin and Manji. Miike and Oishi are good at showing just enough to get the important things moving - we don't need the full story of how Manji's actions not only branded him a criminal but emotionally devastated his sister Machi, just enough to see how that would hang over him for decades, and the quick glimpse of Rin's happy home life before Anotsu destroyed it is enough (while his eventual explanation of his own motivations is satisfying without realigning everything). That other things are fleshed out a bit less in order to give Manji, Rin, and Anotsu more people to fight in the end is perfectly okay.

Similarly, both fans of the comics and newcomers should appreciate the look of the film; the filmmakers capture the distinctive looks of the comic characters without pushing too far past what one would believe as part of something in the real world, and there's a distinctive, solid look to every building and item; these characters live in a feudal Japan that viewers can believe in but nevertheless seems distinctive For all of Miike's often well-earned reputation for going over the top or fully embracing the absurdity of hs material, he actually lets some effects work be understated here - the bloodworms repairing Manji don't get a lot of zooms and splash scenes, but they do establish a world that is just heightened enough that the audience is ready for blows that send people flying when they come.

And some of that comes early; the opening black-and-white prologue climaxes with a rampage that leaves dozens of samurai dead, and it's only a preview of what's coming at the end. Miike is great at that sort of action and the ones that bookend Blade of the Immortal are a couple of his best, featuring a lot of shots that run long enough to show Manji is doing a lot, using the widescreen frame so that the audience has a good look at what he's doing but he still has room to move through a throng. The big fights are shot to get across that Manji is fighting with abandon, whether because he doesn't care if he survives or because he knows he can't die, and there's enough emotion poured into them that even the one-on-ones where Rin isn't used as a hostage and Manji hasn't been dosed with a poison that negates his healing abilities have stakes to them rather than being a foregone conclusion.

When it comes to that, of course, Rin makes a very useful hostage from the audience's point of view; Hana Sugisaki translates the spunky tomboy first seen sparring in her father's classes into a girl who is still as headstrong and willing to believe in personal honor as she is devastated by how she's been orphaned. She's the sort of character that causes into a lot of trouble by running into situations she can't handle, but Sugisaki makes sure the audience doesn't hold it against her. It lets Takuya Kimura play Manji with occasional comical frustration along with brooding darkness and resentment, making for a good take on the anti-hero who isn't so anti as he thinks. Sota Fukushi isn't quite so memorable as Anotsu, but he does a fair job, and the colorful array of mercenaries that serve as secondary villains, from Erika Today's Makie to Hayato Ichihara's Shira, establish their personae quickly before doing good work in their fight scenes.

"Blade of the Immortal" is getting a bigger international release than most Japanese comic adaptations, and it probably deserves one. It's got a fantastic premise but is fairly accessible (heck, you can call it a great Wolverine-and-Kitty Pryde movie and not be far off), and once again, Miike is bringing the quality samurai action without too much screwiness to distract from how great it is.

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originally posted: 08/02/17 03:35:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2017 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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  DVD: 13-Feb-2018


  DVD: 13-Feb-2018

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