Review: Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

Takashi Miike celebrates his 100th, yes 100th, film with the live action adaptation of the beloved manga Blade of the Immortal. The result is a masterful cinematic experience and one that captures the very essence of its source. Bloody, funny and fabulous!

He’s easily the most prolific genre hopping film maker in Japan and with a roster of films that feature some of the most internationally revered cult titles ever made. Ichi The Killer, Citizen Q, 13 Assassins, Three… Extremes, The Lesson of the Evil, and Audition are just some of the gems Miike has made in his 26 years as a director (he has 102 film credits to his name so far). And, for this, his centennial title, Miike turns to Hiroaki Samura‘s epic manga Mugen no jûnin (Blade of the Immortal).

It’s a case of time has not wearied him as Miike is in full throttle form with this live action adaptation. Working with screen writer Tetsuya Oishi (Death Note), the pair have managed to illicit all the key elements that make the manga such a revered work and translate it to the screen. This is no easy feat as this year’s disastrous Ghost in the Shell and last year’s misfire Attack on Titan Pts 1 & 2 both proved. Blade of the Immortal hits an absolute home run.

It’s 1700s Feudal Japan and Tokugawa Shogunate governs the land. Manji (Takuya Kimura), is a constable in the police force who exacts a brutal and punishing attack on a slew of senior officials, slaughtering them mercilessly. A bounty is placed on the renegade samurai’s head as he wanders the land with a grief ridden widow of a victim in his charge. When Manji is confronted by a gang of bandits who murder the girl in front of him, a brutal battle ensues in which Manji is all but left for dead amidst a sea of corpses and dismembered limbs. Enter 800 year old Yaobikuni (Yôko Yamamoto) who bestows upon him some magical bloodworms that great him immortality.

50 years on, in the waning days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a vicious band of samurai are decimating Japanese Dojos to despatch with the old ways and bring in the new. Led by the brutal yet angelic Anotsu Kagehisa (Sôta Fukushi), the Ichii-Ryu lay waste to the Asano family and leave their young 12 year old daughter Rin orphaned. She sets about getting revenge and hires Manji as her bodyguard.

Blade of the Immortal works on so many levels for the simple fact there is some much dedication on show here. From the tireless cinematic form Miike and his production team deliver, this is a big screen experience from start to finish, to ensuring the wonderful quirks and comedy of the manga are kept fully in tact, the film never skips a beat from start to finish.

All characters in play are clearly defined and given equal time on screen to give their back stories. Kimura’s grizzled and weary Manji carries the weight of his magical burden heavily, Fukushi’s glorious turn as the villainous Kagehisa is the perfect live action incarnation of manga baddies – he’s angelic to the point of feminine yet an brutal opponent in battle. As one of Kagehisa’s lieutenants Shinnosuke Mitsushima’s Magatsu is sublime as a gravity defying assassin suffering from an ideological crises.

The world building itself, firmly cemented in a reality of 1700s Japan, further accentuates proceedings with the fight sequences scrappy and frenetic. These people stumble, they hurt, they tire, and they die (most of them brutally). It’s reminiscent of Miike’s aforementioned 13 Assassins. There is a root of historical authenticity amidst the fantasy at play.

The sheer scope of some of these battles are eye popping with the closing arena a breathtaking spectacle. Made all the more impressive that this is all in-camera work, there are no digital effects on display here, and supported by some outstanding sound effects and sound editing to make it all land with a thumping visceral punch.

It’s all in here. Political intrigue. Betrayal. Action. Ambition. Revenge. Dismemberment. Magic. Martial Arts. Drama. Comedy. Fantasy. And it’s all masterfully woven by one of cinema’s most prolific titans – Takashi Miike. Don’t walk to see this movie – run! It’s an absolute riot!

★★★★★

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL releases on THURSDAY in SELECTED CINEMAS through ICON FILM DISTRIBUTION

A version of this review ran during the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival