There will be bloodworms.
There’s nothing quite like a samurai movie where one guy carves their way through a literal army of anonymous (but probably evil) enemies. It’s a tradition that extends through films like the iconic Lone Wolf & Cub films, the classic Sword of Doom, the totally awesome Azumi, and now Takashi Miike’s blood-splattered and emotionally ripping Blade of the Immortal.
Based on a manga series by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal tells the story of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a samurai who killed 100 men for his master, destroyed his sister’s life in the process, and then watched her get slaughtered before he could atone for his sins. Manji takes his bloody revenge but is denied his own death by an 800-year-old sorceress named Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto), who fills his body with disgusting bloodworms which close every one of his wounds and make him immortal.
Fifty years later a whole new movie basically begins, and a girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki), who looks exactly like Manji’s sister, is orphaned by a brutal gang of expert swordsmen. Rin thoroughly intends to avenge her family by her lonesome, but she only has one trick up her sleeves – specifically, knives literally hidden up her sleeves – and she’s not very good with them.
Rin hires Manji to be her bodyguard. Or at least, she tries. Blade of the Immortal may be a wall-to-wall action epic but it’s not gung ho about murder. Manji knows vengeance when he sees it, and knows that Rin may be a part of a larger story. To their victims, she will be a villain. But dang it, she looks so much like his sister that Manji can’t help but get involved, right to the bitter end.
Blade of the Immortal is Takashi Miike’s hundredth film behind the camera. After 100 films he’d better have his craft down pat, and rest assured, he does. This is an emotionally and physically brutal film, beautifully filmed and excitingly crafted. Whether it’s your first samurai movie or your thousandth, you’re going to appreciate how effective Blade of the Immortal can be at combining action, pathos and moral complexity.
But it is also a long and episodic film that primarily consists of Manji and Rin walking down a road and fighting various people along that road. Their opponents are mostly memorable characters with unique fighting skills which challenge even an immortal samurai, but lots of repetition can make even the best filmmaking seem slow at times.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in Blade of the Immortal’s path is another film, Logan, which is also about an aging nearly-immortal warrior who gets roped into a difficult journey while protecting a young and violent girl from a small army of skilled mercenaries. Of course, it’s not a particularly new story idea. There’s plenty of room for films like Blade of the Immortal, Logan, True Grit, the other True Grit and so on and so forth, especially since all those films are either great or very close to it.
The point is, Blade of the Immortal only has an air of familiarity about it because it fits very neatly into a genre, and a genre with a certain amount of repetition already built into its DNA. It’s a story about a loner who learns to connect with another human being, a warrior called back to action, a series of villains who must each be dispatched, growing up the hard way, and yes, fighting off literal armies of bad guys with only your sword and your righteousness. Those are the selling points, not the problems.