Writer: Tetsuya Oishi (screenplay), Hiroaki Samura (manga)
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Yoko Yamamoto, Chiaki Kuriyama
Running time: 141mins
What’s the story: Unkillable samurai Manji is hired by plucky young girl Rin to avenge her parents’ murders at the hands of a lethal fighting school.
What’s the verdict: One of Japan’s most remarkable directors, Takashi Miike has quietly produced one hundred movies in just over a quarter of a decade. In a nice twist of coincidence, Takuya Kimura’s unkillable killer Manji is known as “Hundred Killer”.
It is unlikely we shall see Miike return to his astonishing heyday, when he produced such five-star movies as Audition, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Visitor Q and Dead or Alive 2.
But, Blade of the Immortal is a welcome improvement on his last film to receive wide UK distribution, the deadening Yakuza Apocalypse. Based on a long-running manga (29 volumes from 1993 – 2002), Miike and screenwriter Oishi ambitiously attempt to condense the story into 141 blood-soaked minutes.
Swiftly put, Manji (Kimura) is a ronin protecting his sister (Sugisaki), who has gone insane since her husband was murdered (unwittingly as Manji’s hand).
When a renegade gang kills his sister, Manji fights them literally to the death. But, a passing witch (Yamamoto) infects him with bloodworms, parasites that grant him immortality and reattach severed limbs (a frequent occupational hazard).
Fifty years later, after the ruthless fighting school Itto-ryu murders her parents and destroys her father’s dojo, plucky tomboy Rin (also Sugisaki) seeks Manji as her avenging angel.
Top of Rin’s list is the foppish but lethal Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi), leader of the Itto-ryu, who plans to unite all fighting schools under his banner.
Before they can get to Anotsu, Manji will have to duel assorted freakish assassins.
Okay, not so swift, but Blade of the Immortal packs a lot of plot. While it’s never dull, there is the impression fan favourite plot lines are given short shrift. Uninitiated viewers may sometimes scratch their heads over numerous subplots of governmental intrigue.
But, the bad guys receive a touch more shading than is typical, the Itto-ryu being a scourge the class-based feudal Japan has brought on itself.
Miike lends the whole thing a melancholic, contemplative atmosphere, except during the action set-pieces. Here the director and his action choreographers Keiji Tsujii and Masayoshi Deguchi unleash well-staged fury, often incorporating dozens of extras for a visceral hack and slash.
It’s more Lone Wolf and Cub than Ichi the Killer, with a generous dollop of insane 1966 samurai movie Sword of Doom also added to the mix. Action fans should leave smiling.
The 44-year old Kimura, a one-time member of Japan’s Take That-alike pop group SMAP, acquits himself well with the frenetic sword play. There’s a touch of Logan to his antagonistic relationship with Sugisaki (although she’s not permitted any action, but is a spirited presence throughout).
Chiaki Kuriyama, Kill Bill’s Go-Go Yubari herself, has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo as a blonde assassin, sadly given nothing to do.
Never less than enjoyable, and good to see a film not eyeing a franchise. But, this is one of those times when a trilogy may have better suited the source material.