Blade of the Immortal review – anticlimactic thriller is as sharp as a butter knife

by Alistair Ryder

Over the course of 100 films, director Takashi Miike has proved hard to pigeonhole. He may have found international success as a director of surreal horror, that was as likely to leave you baffled as it was likely to leave you terrified, yet the “extreme” films in his back catalogue (such as Audition and Ichi the Killer) are only part of the story. He’s experimented with everything from black comic musicals to video game adaptations and even children’s films- he just makes them at such a rapid rate, the vast majority never see the light of day outside of Japan, making it seem highly likely that not even Miike himself has seen his entire filmography.

Blade of the Immortal; dir. Takeshi Miike; Japan 2017, 140 minutes. Our Rating: ★★½/5

In recent years, Miike’s boundless experimentation has taken a back burner in favour of more straightforward action efforts. The unique, oddball personality that characterised his most well known films is all but absent, and the trademark violent set pieces all feeling devoid of the same individualistic character that so clearly defines his best work. In Blade of the Immortal, Miike celebrates his 100th film by falling back in to this highly uninteresting filmmaking mode. Here, even the action sequences that feel energetic can’t help but look like they were crafted by a workmanlike filmmaker, and not a highly distinct director in his own right.

Based on a two-decades spanning manga, Blade of the Immortal follows Manji (Takuya Kimura), a samurai who has been cursed to immortality for over half a century, and has to kill 1,000 men before returning to his prior mortal state. He is soon approached by a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) who demands his help as her bodyguard while she tracks down the men who killed her father. Unfortunately, this simple vengeance mission doesn’t go exactly to plan; the circumstances of her father’s death are revealed in greater detail, and the pair find themselves facing off against larger numbers of rival samurai than they initially envisaged.

The plot is a lot more convoluted than stated here, frequently distracting from what should be a simplistic action adventure. Stripped to its bare bones, the only similarities between Blade of the Immortal and a hitman thriller like Leon: The Professional are the differences in setting. In an attempt to please fans of the manga, Miike’s film appears to condense as much of the long-running narrative in to the space of one film; instead of giving well needed context for newcomers, it just winds up feeling exhausting long before the action sequences have begun.

The action sequences can’t help but feel anticlimactic either. Although competently staged, they feel largely indistinct from several other films within this genre- even the characteristically Miike moments (such as the blasé reactions whenever characters get hands chopped off) feel oddly sanitised, lacking a distinct personality that would give this film an edge. It isn’t that the action itself is watered down, because Miike always commits to chaotic bloodshed and Blade of the Immortal is no exception. Instead, the problem is the uninspired staging of different sword battles; it’s hard to comprehend that the man behind a whole string of unhinged Yakuza sagas could suddenly lose his weirder, darker edges when faced with crafting set pieces within a different genre. He doesn’t compromise on the violence- but there was always more to his filmmaking style than a mere eye for carnage, and here, that extra character seems lost.

Of course, as a director with 100 movies (the vast majority of which haven’t seen the light of day on these shores), there is every chance that Blade of the Immortal is more representative of Miike’s filmography as a whole, and that surrealist nightmares like Audition are just anomalies in his back catalogue. Either way, its dispiriting to see a film so devoid of character coming from a man who has never been known to shy away from depicting unflinching hellscapes onscreen. The film is overlong, overly complicated and far more boring than a gleefully violent samurai revenge thriller ought to be- with a distinct lack of personality that frequently detracts from the amiable performances and the surprisingly stunning cinematography. It’s quite ironic that a film about immortality will prove to have very little longevity in the minds of cinema goers.

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