“As limbs get scattered and blood flows, one comes to realize that there might be only one Japanese director who can compose these massacres with such stylish precision.”
Six years after the melodramatic and narratively layered Hara-kiri: death of a Samurai (2011) and seven after the epic universally acclaimed remake 13 Assassins (2010), Takashi Miike finally returns to the samurai genre with Blade of The Immortal.
During those 6/7 years, Miike did a little bit of everything. He tried his hand at the thriller genre with Shield of Straw (2013), made another musical narrative with For Love’s Sake (2012), and even enjoyed himself – and entertained others – with framing the gruesome mass-murder in 2012’s Lesson of the Evil. But now, with Miike’s adaptation of Hiroaki Samura’s fantasy-historical manga of the same name, the violence Miike is known for finds its narrative space once again in Japanese history. So without further ado, sharpen your blades, because violent Miike is back.
When Manji’s sister Machi (Hana Sugisaka) is killed by bounty-hunters, Manji (Takuya Kimura) takes revenge, unleashing his wrath, on her murderers. While he killed every last one of them, he is also mortally injured. Manji asks the mysterious nun, Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto), who appeared next to him to finish him off, but instead she puts blood worms in his body, giving him immortality.
50 years later, in mid-edo period, the daughter of Kendo Master Asano, Rin (also played by Hana Sugisaka), stand helpless as her father and the students of his Dojo are killed by the swordsmen of the Ikki-ryu school, a school led by led by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Determined to exact revenge, Yaobikuni, who appears in front of her, gives her the advice to find Manji and ask him to be her Yojimbo (i.e. bodyguard).
While the narrative of Blade of the Immortal doesn’t focus on diving deeply into various philosophical themes concerning life, death, sin and redemption – themes the manga does explore, these themes nevertheless remain present at the surface of the narrative, giving the narrative and the development of Rin and Manji’s relationship enough depth to keep the spectator engaged. Manji’s desire to die is touched upon and the ‘blessing’ of being immortal (e.g. staying alive, while every loved one around you dies) is underlined at various instances. Additionally – and this is a very strong narrative moment – the concept of vengeance itself is put into question.
While the fantasy aspect is central to the narrative, we do get an insight, as it is set in the Edo-period, into how Japan must have looked liked at that time. How tea-houses along the road provided a rest-place for travelers, how women in brothels were clothed and put on show before they were chosen, how dojo’s and towns looked like, … etc., all these aspects help to paint a historically believable narrative space. In this respect, it is interesting to note, that despite being weak and remaining weak, Rin goes against gender expectations, while never being able to escape her position as a girl (Narra-note 1). Furthermore, the emotion present in Blade of the Immortal has to largely attributed to the various female characters (Narra-note 2, acting-note 1).
Blade of The Immortal frames sword-action, by using a mixture of lengthier moving shots and successions of quick shots, in a exciting and exhilarating way (cine-note 1, cine-note 2, cine-note 3). This way of framing, in combination with more fixed cinematography that often precedes it but also creates moments otden strikes of the blade are truly felt – a feeling further empowered by the crystal clear sounds of the swords clashing. Non-action scenes are framed with a combination of fixed shots and composed moving shots, offering a change of pace, a resting moment to further the plot, before the stylish composed action takes over (Cine-note 4). Nevertheless, for the truly exciting and stylish sword-fights, the spectator has to wait, after the impressive black-and-white framed massacre in the beginning, until the second half of the narrative.
While Blade of the Immortal never attains the heights of Miike’s other samurai narratives, it does provide the thrills we’ve come to except from Miike in this genre. As limbs get scattered and blood flows, one comes to realize that there might be only one Japanese director who can compose these massacres with such stylish precision. Besides the satisfyingly framed action, the narrative, albeit somewhat thin on plot, provides enough depth and drama, to keep one engaged from sword-fight to sword-fight.
Cine-note 1: There are also fixed shots that frame samurai action in Blade of the Immortal. These fixed shots can be flash-backs, action not happening in the current narrative chronology, or shots to underline the effect of the aggression of the sword. Furthermore, the fixed framing of action, when framed with very wide shots – also is able to give the spectator an overview of the environment and the situation the Manji is in.
Cine-note 2: The cinematography of action focuses most of the time on Manji and his arsenal of swords. As such, shots that follow the main character are often used.
Cine-note 3: Miike also changes his cinematography somewhat to adjust to the enemy Manji is confronted with. While fighting against Makie (Erika Toda) slow-motion is used for example.
Cine-note 3: The cinematography is objective most of the time. Nevertheless, one time, when Rin finds Manji, a subjective POV shot is used.
Narra-note 1: Rin tries to be brave and often tries to pick fights that she cannot win.
Narra-note 2: One can say that Blade of the narrative does not break any gender-roles and provides a very predictable difference between male characters and female characters.
Acting-note 1: Even though Takuya Kimura gives a great performance as Manji, it is the chemistry between Hana Sugisaka and Takuya Kimura that really pulls the spectator in the narrative.