By Matthew Fullerton.
Takashi Miike isn’t one to shy away from pushing the boundaries of existing genres and teasing his audiences while promoting and screening his films. Take his horror masterpiece Audition (1999). Its narrative meanders along with a gentle story of loss, loneliness, and a search for love before plummeting into creepiness and then an unsettling climax notorious for its extreme gore. I lived in Japan four years after its release and I remember people talking even then about how Audition had been promoted like a romance and how some viewers had ultimately left theatres in disgust. Miike’s toying with sensibilities and blending even the most incongruent genres has brought him both success and notoriety throughout his prolific twenty-six-year career.
Since Audition, Miike has directed upwards of sixty-five films, music videos, and TV episodes, bringing us to his latest movie, Blade of the Immortal (2017). Based on a long-running manga series and promoted as Miike’s 100th film, Blade of the Immortal stars Takuya Kimura as Manji, a disillusioned and battle-scarred samurai. Kimura is an interesting choice, as he is recognizable to most Japanese as a heartthrob and former member of SMAP, one of the best-selling boy bands in Asia. A poster promoting the film in Japan shows a pouty-faced Kimura; take away the scars, and it’s the actor still in boy band mode. Is this the director banking on a heartthrob’s popularity, or him breaking with the conventions of the swordfight subgenre of jidaigeki? Likely both.
Blade of the Immortal is Miike’s third samurai film in the last seven years, his previous being the highly-praised Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), a remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 classic. Miike’s latest begins conventionally enough, in black-and-white with Manji on the run for killing his master and six constables. Among the dead: the husband of his sister Machi, who has been rendered childlike from the shock of witnessing the violent episode. Manji has sworn to protect her and just minutes into the story, he is confronted by an army of bounty hunters led by Hishiyasu Shido, the first of many colourful antagonists Manji will meet in Blade of the Immortal. Shido speaks and gestures like a modern Japanese punk and he doesn’t look samurai: his weapon is unconventional, and he sports a mohawk and some face-paint, like a native-American bad guy in a spaghetti-western. An anachronistic character, Shido foreshadows both visually and aurally that Blade of the Immortal is not a samurai film in the traditional sense.
After Shido kills Machi, the scene explodes into a battle that is a wonderful blend of the seriousness and meticulousness of sixties samurai films, in which a lone-wolf character takes on an army of enemies, and the whimsicality of 21st-century action-films. An overhead shot of Manji surrounded by corpses is a visual reminder of classic jidaigeki, a shot that Miike himself had already mastered in his previous period films, including 13 Assassins (2010). Miike’s battle aftermaths, however, are littered with more bodies, which gives the impression that his heroes, regardless of their ultimate fates, are not mere mortals, but samurai super-heroes.
Mortally wounded, Manji thirsts for his own end. A witch that Manji had met earlier emerges and, counter to his commands to kill him, produces “sacred worms”. These infest Manji’s body before reattaching his hand and healing his wounds. As the creatures work their magic, Manji screams in pain. It is at this moment that the film transitions to colour, and consequently, into the supernatural: unconventional territory in the jidaigeki repertoire. Other than this paranormality, narratively the movie still often reads like both a traditional samurai film and a spaghetti-western, two genres, though separated by continents, often mutually influential in the realm of cinematic narrative. This is no surprise seeing how Miike had already combined them in 2007’s Sukiyaki Western Django, essentially a western set in Japan.
Fast-forward fifty years and Manji is living alone, bitter and yearning for death. Peacetime Edo is threatened by the Itto-ryu, a band of young misfit warriors intent on shattering established dojos and uniting them into one. Manji’s depressing and solitary life is disturbed when the young Rin (Hana Sugisaki) appears seeking help avenging her father, a dojo-master recently murdered by Anotsu Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi), the gang’s leader. Although Rin is his sister’s doppelganger, Manji is the reluctant, down-and-out hero so common in both samurai and western films. What transpires outside his shack is somewhat evocative of True Grit, when Mattie Ross pleads her case with Rooster Cogburn, except Rin is not quite as tough, determined and street-smart. She is set up as a tomboy at the film’s start, having trained extensively at her father’s dojo, but rarely does it play out that way. She is more a victim needing protection and, consequently, Manji finds purpose in helping her. Rin, regardless of her vulnerability, ultimately saves Manji by giving him a reason to live: Having no purpose is, after all, a burden for any samurai, let alone an immortal one. Wandering or destitute heroes taking up a cause to protect people with whom they have no blood-relation, again, transcends both the Western and jidaigeki traditions: Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai automatically comes to mind.
Kuroi Sabato (Kazuki Kitamura), the first henchman the duo encounters, turns out to be the creepiest and most mystical of the Itto-ryu. He has the countenance of an evil yokai, those supernatural monsters and spirits that Shigeru Mizuki made famous through his manga (Coincidentally, Miike’s The Great Yokai War  is a Mizuki-inspired movie). Manji emerges the victor after a vicious back-and-forth, but with the help of those healing worms. At this juncture, a viewer will likely question having a samurai whose injuries simply heal after swordfights. Indeed, there aren’t many instances in Blade of the Immortal where you feel Manji is completely vulnerable, despite the many slashes and stabs he suffers. Manji experiences the pain of his injuries and recovers, but never absolutely: after each fight, he seems to become less tolerant of the pain, to the point where he appears to suffer incessantly from back-aches and grumpiness, making for some light comedy. A later spin addresses potential faults in the narrative: The worms eventually turn on Manji, impeding his and Rin’s efforts at completing their task.
But, it’s largely Manji’s conflicts with the eclectic cast of the Itto-ryu and their unconventional weapons, which seem more appropriate for a movie set in Medieval Europe than feudal Japan, and not the narrative that make Blade of the Immortal charming and swashbuckling. Anotsu is an untraditional and cold swordsman challenging the status-quo in the ancient art of the sword, like Tatsuya Nakadai’s character in Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom (1966), yet not quite as cruel and sadistic. Interestingly, Miike alludes to this classic when Anotsu confronts Rin’s father and surprises him with his unconventional style. The focus on the father’s foot moving into position is a shot that is very distinct in Sword of Doom, and other sixties samurai movies, to indicate how the father’s traditional and meticulous manner of sword-fighting is counter to Anotsu’s unpredictability.
Anotsu is also slightly androgynous and could pass easily for a heartthrob in modern Japanese pop-culture if you replaced his kimono with the latest street-fashion. But, looks can be deceiving: he and his mutinous gang’s foreignness and heterogeneity are as much a threat to the status-quo as their methods and their mantra of destroying the dojo-system and replacing it with something altogether different. Sword-fighting schools that stand in their way, like Rin’s father’s (the Mutenichi-ryu, which looks and sounds suspiciously like the English word mutiny), will be destroyed. They are a dojo wrecking-crew, a foreign scourge on Japanese soil and a threat to tradition and purity. They’re not unadulterated evil, however. There is purpose, reason, and logic to their schemes, as well as some nobility, and the Itto-ryu’s anti-establishment tone, fed by the likes of the masked, spiky-haired Magatsu Taito (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), gives the gang some modern-day legitimacy. His peasant upbringing was marked by cruelties ingrained in the status quo of the feudal system, much like Manji’s own tragic past. Therefore, the line between good and evil is effectively blurred in Blade of the Immortal, and while the Itto-ryu jockey and conspire to become the Shogunate’s fencing-school, Manji and Rin inadvertently become the unofficial protectors of tradition. On several occasions, Manji tells Rin that she needs to train more, as if they have become some wandering two-person dojo.
For fans of classic jidaigeki, Blade of the Immortal will satisfy in the precision of many scenes, including some very Kobayashi-esque balanced ones. Despite such scenes, however, the film does display some choppiness: day often runs into night. But to attribute the passage-of-time-in-a-single-cut to laziness could ultimately be unfounded. Day and night likely mean nothing to an immortal samurai, after all, and this “flaw” perhaps reflects the episodic nature of the manga on which the film is based. The narrative, too, is abrupt at times: for instance, we learn rather brusquely how Kuroi Sabato had been stalking Rin with letters following her father’s murder and had literally burned in the interim with the desire to kill her.
Regardless, Blade of the Immortal is ultimately an interesting hybrid of the traditional and the modern. It captures effectively the collision of jidaigeki and twenty-first century manga. Miike’s ode to both genres, the old and the new, is likely to please purists and those seeking something new. Miike achieves this through the effective use of visual and aural juxtapositions and anachronisms, which indicate his desire to push jidaigeki to new levels while at the same time honouring the genre and what came before.
Matthew Fullerton (MA, BEd, BA) is interested in the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked, and studied before becoming an Educator and Instructor in Canada. His essay, “Folktales, Female Martyrs, and Flaubert in Tunisian Films,” was published as a feature article in Film International 13.4 (2015).