You Only Live Once (But For A Really, Really Long Time)
It's the time of year when cinemas are usually packed to overflowing with happy crowds settling down to watch epic sword-swinging fantasy adventures with a distinctly Japanese influence. This sort of thing is a licence to print money, apparently, and so I was somewhat surprised to find myself entirely alone in a theatre watching Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal, which is surely the highest-profile film currently fitting that description.
(Well, not entirely alone, as I had taken along my Japanese cultural advisor, who is currently interning as part of this column's staff. Probably just as well she's not actually on the payroll, as her contributions to the evening mainly consisted of shouting 'This is ridiculous!' at regular intervals and claiming that Ken Watanabe is in Blade of the Immortal when he is in truth completely absent from proceedings.)
Although it is actually based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal clearly owes rather a lot to the long tradition of Japanese samurai movies, rather in the same vein as Miike's 2010 film Thirteen Assassins. And if I say that this is a vein which has most likely been recently slashed open and is currently spraying blood everywhere, you may get an inkling of the general tone and content of the new movie.
Hana Sugisaka plays Rin, the plucky daughter of Asano, a noted fencing teacher, in Shogunate-period Japan. However, her parents are killed by Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), leader of the ruthlessly ambitious Ikko-ryu society. Being a dutiful daughter, she swears vengeance on Anotsu and his men, which is a fairly big thing to take on given they are all highly-trained killers and she is only a teenage girl. She encounters the ancient crone Yaobikuni, who advises her to hire a bodyguard, and recommends a man in the area who, she is told, will never die...
This turns out to be Manji (J-pop idol Takuya Kimura), once a noble samurai warrior, now an aimless drifter, thanks to having life-preserving 'bloodworms' implanted in him by Yaobikuni fifty years earlier. In addition to stopping him from ageing, the worms also give him the kind of regenerative powers only usually possessed by Hugh Jackman. Tired of his eternal existence and deeply cynical about the world, can Rin persuade Manji to help her in her quest for vengeance? And can even Manji's supernatural combat prowess help them overcome the many enemies standing in their way?
Well, Blade of the Immortal may not be the biggest or most original movie of the year, but it's in with a very good chance of being the most protractedly and colossally violent. This is made very clear from the absolute start of the film – the very first sound you hear is that of a sword going through someone, and this is followed by a lengthy sequence in which Manji slaughters a vast mob of deserving opponents, getting royally carved up and losing an eye and an arm in the process (the subtitles helpfully provide 'Ouch' at this point).
As I say, it sets the tone, and much of the rest of the film consists of either intricately-choregraphed duels between Manji and the various elite swordsmen of the Ikko-ryu (conveniently, their code of honour means they refuse to all gang up on him), or equally intricately-choreographed massed battles in which Manji and one or two other characters take on literal armies single-handed (the enemy commander is a little slow off the mark, waiting for the first two or three hundred guys to be hacked down before bringing up the muskets). If you're looking for a film which tension in the climactic duel partly comes from wondering whether anyone involved will be able to keep their footing in the lake of gore where it's taking place, Blade of the Immortal is the one for you.
There is actually quite a clever and inventive script in the middle of all this, which does all sorts of interesting things – there are some musings as to the meaning of existence, a meditation on the futility of revenge, and the way in which the relationship between Manji and Rin is developed is also impeccable. The various references to classic Japanese action movies are also nicely done – it almost goes without saying that Kimura is giving us his take on the classic Toshiro Mifune 'scruffy samurai' character. However, I have to say that all this is just really very high quality dressing on a film which is primarily about people trying to chop each other up with swords, axes, pole-arms, knives on chains, and so on, and so on.
And I can't help thinking that, as such, there's a fundamental problem with the film: it's established early on that Manji is almost literally invincible, due to his immortality, and the question is one of how you make the film interesting and dramatically viable when your main protagonist can only ever be inconvenienced, not actually threatened. The film has a decent go at tackling this, including various grotesque fighters with supernatural abilities of their own amongst the Ikko-ryu, and this makes things interesting for a bit – there's a battle between Manji and another immortal which is more like an update on the sequence with the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail than anything from Highlander – but I'm not sure they ever quite solve the problem.
In the end, I did enjoy Blade of the Immortal, even though it is much more thoroughly absurd and superficial than any of the Kurosawa movies which it clearly owes a debt to. But I enjoyed it much more as a spectacle, for its lavish and extravagant bizarreness and violence, than as an actual drama or action movie. It is well-made, well-directed, mostly well-acted and a lot of fun to watch – but, it would appear, just a little bit too way out there for the more refined audiences in my neck of the woods. Fair enough: this is one of those movies that's either going to be your cup of tea or not, but if it is, you're going to have a really good time with it.