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Fans of the inimitable gore-hound Takashi Miike will lap up his latest, which sees the Japanese helmer return to the swords-and-topknots territory of Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, which played in competition in 2011, with the story of an immortal samurai enlisted by a small girl to avenge her family’s murder. The out-of-competition Blade of the Immortal has already been picked up for North American release by Magnet, which distributed Miike’s 13 Assassins stateside in 2010. The new film is more irreverent than either of those earlier ones, and less memorable, though there are still pleasures to be had, particularly for those fond of long but expertly choreographed sword fights with regular, and bloody, dismemberments.
Adapted from the manga series that began in 1993, Blade begins in black and white, with samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura) cutting a swathe through a horde of bounty hunters after the murder of his sister. On the verge of death, he’s sliced open by an old crone, who deposits “sacred bloodworms” in his belly, granting him restorative powers. Unchanged 50 years later, Manji is living in in a hut outside a small village when he’s approached by the prepubescent Rin (Hanna Sugisaki) after her parents are brutally murdered by a group of master swordsmen, the Itto-ryu. They’re led by the androgynous Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), who wants to show up the other dojos as hidebound and out-of-date. By killing them, of course.
The director’s 100th feature, Blade of the Immortal shows Miike to have lost none of the madcap energy and wit that characterize his best work. And while this is not that, it’s still got more style to burn than almost any recent Hollywood actioner. Which makes it ironic that this one is preceded by what might be the only studio logo – in this case Warner Bros., or its Japanese arm – on the Croisette this year. There’s nothing of the factory product about this enjoyably outrageous splatter-fest, of course; one can only dream of the battered Burbank execs taking the lead from their Japanese counterparts and handing Miike the reins to, say, Suicide Squad 2.
Miike’s facility for the sharply sketched portrait, in between bouts of bladed mayhem, remains as shrewd as ever. In the film’s early scenes, we see Rin devoted to her swordplay, determined to become a great warrior. Her advice to her mother, who’s worried she’s neglecting more womanly pursuits, is to “just write me off as a failure.” That sense of humor goes missing quick, and Sugisaki spends most of the rest of the film in tears. She enlists Manji, who sees his murdered sister in the girl, as her bodyguard, and the pair set about picking off the swordsmen of the Itto-ryu.
Cue half a dozen duels, executed with typical flair by Miike – and typical (lack of) restraint. Most gleeful of all is the encounter between Manji and another immortal. The two slash each other to bits, rolling around in their own blood, in agony but unable to shuffle off. There’s a characteristic gag when the filmmaker cuts to a wide shot, and one of the men looks like a pincushion. That punch line recurs, as when Miike pulls back at the end of the film’s various melees to take in the body count.
Then there’s Shira, a mercenary hired by the government to kill the acolytes of the ruthless Anotsu, who has been promised the leadership of the Shogun’s school, but whose methods – using an axe, not just the sword – are considered heretical. Though he’s nominally on the side of our heroes, Shira is a sadist and the government he serves corrupt, and Miike and his screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi cleverly complicate their revenge story by positioning Rin and Anotsu, the murderer of her parents, on the same side in the final showdown. Side by side, Anotsu and Manji carve their way through hundreds of the Shogun’s soldiers after Rin declares, to her protector’s bemusement, that it’s not fair for one man to have to face an army, even one who presided over the rape of her mother by his guards.
The two samurai are back trying to kill each other soon enough, but it feels almost surprising, a testament to the way in which Miike has gradually humanized the ethereal Anotsu – who we learn is motivated by an old family grievance, as Rin is – while voicing a growing skepticism about his heroine’s vendetta. “How many have died on your quest for revenge?” Rin’s asked. Leave it to Miike to skewer the hypocrisy of revenge in a film that gets off on its enactment.
Sales: HanWay Films
Production companies: Warner Bros. Japan, Recorded Picture Company
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Hanna Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Ebizo Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Yamazaki Tsutomu
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Tetsuya Oishi
Producers: ?Shigeji Maeda, Misako Saka, Jeremy Thomas
Executive producers: Hiroyoshi Koiwai, Peter Watson
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita
Production designer: Toshiyuki Matsumiya
Costume designer: Yûya Maeda
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Composer: Kôji Endô
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