Thursday, September 27, 2018

"Blade of the Immortal": review

Director Takashi Miike, who made "13 Assassins," is at it again in 2017's "Blade of the Immortal," a samurai movie in which a warrior who cannot die helps a girl bent on revenge. Manji (Takuya Kimura) kills his own lord and the lord's bodyguards when he discovers their corruption, but one of the bodyguards is the husband of Manji's sister, Machi. Machi is driven insane by the loss of her husband, and Manji feel obliged to care for her since she now has no one. On the run from bounty hunters for having killed his own lord, Manji remains in hiding but is found out by one bounty hunter in particular. In the ensuing struggle, Machi is killed, and while Manji takes out the bounty hunter and his entire crew, he is mortally wounded. With nothing more to live for, Manji wishes for death, but a strange Buddhist nun blesses or curses him with immortality when she pours eldritch "bloodworms" into his wounds. The bloodworms give Manji a Wolverine-like healing factor: should his limbs ever be amputated, the bloodworms would immediately stitch themselves, and him, right back together. Fast-forward fifty-two years, and Manji, now an immortal hermit, receives a visit from a little girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) who looks uncannily like his long-dead sister. Rin's family has been destroyed by the Itto-ryu, a clan that uses integrated martial arts to defeat opponents in a bid to unify all of Japan under the Itto-ryu banner. The head of the Itto-ryu is the young, arrogant, and highly skilled Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), whose weapon of choice is a large, mean-looking axe. Rin persuades Manji to help her in her quest for revenge, and the rest of the movie unfolds from there.

While the visuals for "Blade of the Immortal" were often lush and gorgeous, I had trouble relating to the characters. Rin's motivations seem perfectly clear at the beginning, but after she has a chance to talk with Kagehisa and discover his own sad story, Rin seems, at one point, to become unsure of what she wants. This results in some plot twists in which enemies suddenly end up fighting side by side—something I can understand in, say, "Game of Thrones," but which makes much less sense in this movie, which is apparently adapted from a manga series of the same name. In the manga, Manji is tasked with slaying one thousand evil men in order to regain his mortality; the movie completely dispenses with this mythology in favor of a smaller-scale story that can fit into a two-hour time frame. In the movie, Manji is essentially the Rooster Cogburn analogue in a Japanese version of "True Grit." The movie made me think of other movies, too, such as any number of X-Men films involving Wolverine.

Takashi Miike seems to like plucking veterans from "Tampopo" to act in his films. In "13 Assassins," Yakusho Koji played the samurai protagonist; he was originally the sexy gangster in "Tampopo." In "Blade of the Immortal," Tsutomu Yamazaki plays clan head Kensui Ibane; Yamazaki was the cowboy-like lead in "Tampopo." "Immortal" contains other intertextual echoes as well: the story in this film takes place in the same era as "13 Assassins," i.e., an era of peace in which the samurai are becoming less relevant to daily life and society at large. In "Immortal," it's the Itto-ryu who sense that the warrior spirit is draining out of Japan, but their solution to the problem is to bring in all sorts of foreign influences (in terms of weapons and fighting techniques) that fly in the face of Japanese tradition. Kagehisa's axe is one example of this; one of Kagehisa's female cohorts dresses like a Chinese warrior and carries a Chinese-style three-sectioned staff.

The film is filled with fight scenes that some reviewers have described as "balletic violence," which puts me in mind of the choreography of John Woo's films or the fights crafted by Yuen Wo Ping. I didn't find anything "balletic" about the fights: Manji is a great warrior whenever he's facing normal opponents, but every time he runs up against a superpowered opponent, he usually ends up getting chopped up. Otherwise, Manji tends to fight until he's exhausted, so he often appears not to be using brilliant techniques so much as just flailing around extravagantly. This is something I've seen in plenty of Korean historical dramas; I didn't expect to see that here.

All in all, I couldn't really connect with the characters. The movie version of Manji doesn't seem to have the explicit project of regaining his mortality, nor is the pain of his immortality explored in any depth. (There's another character, also immortal, who does give us a bit of a speech about witnessing the passing of the ages, but that's about all we hear regarding the burden of living forever. I think "Highlander," that cult classic, may have done a better job of showing what it's like to be saddled with the inability to die.) With "13 Assassins," Takashi Miike gave us the story of a samurai who had rediscovered his purpose in life once he realized there was still evil to be dealt with. Manji, by contrast, lives the life of a bored hermit who's just looking for something to do to punctuate the tedium. He helps Rin because she looks like his lost sister Machi, which amounts to a "Save Martha!" moment for me. With Rin's own intentions taking a turn for the doubtful, and with Kagehisa's helpers sometimes turning away from killing for no apparent reason, it's safe to say that character motivations are not this movie's strong point. I can't say I came away liking "Immortal" all that much, partly because of the movie's own failings, and partly because of how the movie stacks up to the far superior "13 Assassins." Watch at your own risk.

(Oh, and the bloodworm CGI wasn't all that good. And the bloodworms themselves made little sense in how they acted and in what they could do.)

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