Review for Blade Of The Immortal
Blade of the Immortal was an infuriating experience when I reviewed the UK anime release back in 2010. After all, the show’s premise was brilliant, a sort of Japanese Highlander. A Samurai kills a hundred men and is cursed with immortality, but has the chance at redemption when he’s hired as a bodyguard by a young girl looking to avenge her family. It was a rich story with strong characters, and with high quality animation from studio BEETRAIN. And it was dull, tiresome, and unsatisfying. The story might have been good, but the episode writing never did that story justice, the quality animation was a little too sanitised for a gritty and bloody story, and obviously the action was left wanting. So you can bet that my interest was piqued when I heard that there was a live action Blade of the Immortal movie, and it was piqued even further when it turned out that Takashi Miike was the director. It was 13 Assassins that belatedly introduced me to Miike’s talent, another period action movie, so I was expecting good things from Blade of the Immortal.
Manji’s life was cursed before he became immortal. His superior was corrupt, and expected Manji to go along with the corruption. He didn’t, turning on his superior instead, and failing to give his own life in repentance, he slew the six men sent to capture him, including his sister’s husband, an act that drove her insane. She was killed by the bounty hunters who came looking for his head, and in his last act, he slew the bounty hunters, a hundred of them. Only for an ancient crone named Yaobikuni to infect him with the bloodworms that healed his mortal wounds and left him immortal.
50 years later, a young girl named Rin has an incongruous ambition to succeed in her family’s sword dojo. Not that she has the chance, as the wind of change is passing through the nation. The Itto-Ryu group led by Kagehisa Anotsu wants to be the definitive sword-style in the country, and is assimilating or destroying all other sword dojos. They murder Rin’s father, take her mother and destroy the dojo completely. Rin wants revenge, and when Yaobikuni suggests the immortal Manji as her bodyguard, it looks like Rin will have her chance.
For the purposes of this review, I’m looking at the DVD, but Arrow Video are also releasing the film on Blu-ray.
Blade of the Immortal gets a 2.35:1 anamorphic NTSC transfer on this disc, progressively encoded. The image is clear and sharp, detail levels are strong, and compression is minimal. That helps the transfer make the most of the sets and locations, the natural lighting, as well as some quality costume design which reflect the manga origins while working in the ‘real’ world.
The main soundtrack on the disc is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Japanese track, somewhat disappointingly encoded at 320 kbps. The surround is adequate, bringing across the action and ambience well, while keeping the dialogue clear throughout. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos, and you have the choice between translated subtitles or HOH translated subtitles (sound effects). You also have a DD 2.0 Audio Descriptive track, which as well as describing the onscreen action, also translates the dialogue. That’s one step short of just dubbing the film in English, which might have been preferable.
The disc presents its content with an animated menu.
As well as a 2 hour plus movie, you also get extra features, which might explain the lower audio bitrate on the film. From what I sampled, the audio commentary by Tom Mes focuses on Takashi Miike’s career, which is fair enough, but I wanted to hear more about the movie, and the story it’s adapted from.
There is a 25:36 interview with Takashi Miike about the film, recorded in 2017 for Arrow.
You get a Stills Gallery slideshow which runs to 4:25, and there is the theatrical trailer (1:59).
Now this is what I wanted from that anime series all those years ago! The Blade of the Immortal movie has the same strong story, the same interesting characters, but the writing is sharper and less self-indulgent, building on the relationships between the characters, and the story flows much better too, really filling the 2 hour 20 minute runtime. It also goes without saying that the action is stupendous, brilliantly choreographed and executed.
The story unfolds the same way, up to a point. There’s no mention at all of the 1000 deaths required for Manji’s redemption, which was far beyond the scope of a 13 episode adaption of an ongoing manga, and quite clearly can’t be resolved in a feature film runtime. But in all other respects, the film unfolds in the same way, showing Manji’s back-story, as well as the destruction of Rin’s family. The first few encounters with the Itto-Ryu also unfold the same way, the ‘three headed’ Sabato, the ninja Taito Magatsu, the monk Eiku Shizuma, and Makie, but from that point Miike constructs an original conclusion worthy of the storyline, but which can be told in the film’s runtime.
At the heart of the film is the relationship that develops between Manji and Rin. When Rin first meets Manji, he’s been immortal for 50 years, and hating every minute of it, burdened by the guilt of what he had done, and what subsequently happened to his sister Machi. It’s Rin’s resemblance to Machi that gets him to re-engage with the world, and despite himself he develops an affection for Rin. Rin on the other hand has nothing but revenge on her mind, to find and kill the murderers of her father, and Manji is just a means to an end. As he’s immortal, his limbs re-attachable, he’s a more useful means to an end than anyone else, but as she gets to know him, learn from him, she begins to see him as a surrogate father, and illogically even becomes protective of him.
While Rin’s vengeance is small-scale and personal, she and Manji find herself in a bigger situation, as national politics threaten to overwhelm them. The whole point of the Itto-Ryu rampage through the sword dojos has been to reshape the country, to assume a position of power and influence. The Itto-Ryu’s ambition has been to be the official sword instructors to the shogunate, and it turns out that there are factions who oppose this ambition with lethal intent. Rin and Manji aren’t the only ones looking to kill Anotsu Kagehisa, and they wind up caught in the middle of a bigger battle.
When Rin does confront Kagehisa, she also learns an important lesson that revenge begets revenge, that his actions against her father were partly motivated by a slight that her ancestors inflicted on his generations back. In what could be a simple hack and slash Samurai movie, the depth and complexity of the story makes it far more compelling.
Blade of the Immortal is a splendid, blood-drenched action movie, but there is enough going on under the surface in terms of character and story, that make it a potential future classic of the genre. The DVD is strong, but you’ll want the film on Blu-ray.