Revisionist samurai films are one of Takashi Miike’s many talents, with this most prolific of contemporary Japanese directors always manging to renew the glow and gloom of the Edo Period from a fresh angle. This time he does so with the aid of Hiroaki Samura’s iconic manga Blade of the Immortal, which details the travails of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a samurai who is infected with supernatural bloodworms that destine – and doom – him to be immortal, after he commits revenge on a corrupt lord for assaulting and killing his sister. Fifty years after wandering the earth in this new incarnation, Manji encounters Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki), a young martial arts expert who requests his assistance as bodyguard to help avenge her father’s murder at the hands of the Itto-ryu, an emerging military outfit. Initially, the Itto-ryu – led by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) – started out as a cult movement aiming to consolidate every fighting school, including the samurai, into a new, syncretic military organisation, but they’re quickly incorporated into the Shogunate on the condition that they can retain some autonomy, and the pride of their name. That produces a particularly bleak vision of the world in which both the renegades and central authorities are pervaded by the same evil, and in which the only source of moral authority is the wry, wandering, world-wearing immortal. Indeed, for great stretches of the film, morality – especially masculine morality, and codes of honour – almost has to be framed comically, or bathetically, so precarious is its position in this world, and so enormous the odds against it.
As with Miike’s two previous films, then – 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai – there’s a sense in which the ruling Tokugawa powers are presented as ancestors of the Japanese multinational corporation, cannibalising and consuming any potential opposition into yet another mouthpiece for their power and sway. Against that guarantor of corporate longevity, it’s only the presence of the various immortals in the film that can provide any real point of contrast, many of whom long precede the Shogunate, and all of whom are destined , at least initially, to outlive it. As a result, the film’s period cues are gradiallydisplaced from the samurai context and ethos and instead set against a more diffuse and drifting historical space that often reminded me of some of the mistier corners of Mizoguchi, while producing a certain wry scepticism about the peculiarities of the Edo present as well. A series of magical and science-fiction touches, combined with periodic bursts of modern, funky vernacular, just increase this sense of displacement, in what often feels like a samurai film shot from the vantage point of a broader and more expansive sense of history, sometimes sombre and sometimes picaresque in the way it textures the action.
Of course, that sense of mono no aware – the impermanence of all things – is a common feature of samurai films, which often embed their specific period details in a more existential awareness of historical contingency. Yet whereas typical samurai long for immortality above all else – the longevity of their deeds, name and reputation – the immortals here are peculiarly aware that reputation fades after a couple of centuries, and that in many ways death is the greatest relief, privilege and achievement. For the most part, samurais are largely defined by how they die, and whether they choose to die, meaning that even if they aspire to be samurai, the immortality of the immortals would prevent them ever inhabiting that role in a total or satisfying manner. As might be expected, that throws the entire metaphysic of the samurai universe somewhat off-balance, as Manji uses each escalating spectacle of carnage to vicariously enjoy and experience the relief of death himself. While his disposal of the Itto-ryu grows more violent and brutal with each kill, the film never really feels violent, or even gory, just because of how dissociated Manji himself is from death. Instead, Miike intensifies these encounters by adding more textural detail, dynamic ingenuity and – above all – linear inflection to each, until his mise-en-scene gradually and seamlessly converges with the style and address peculiar to the manga page.
For all that Blade of the Immortal might be a revisionst samurai film, then, that dialogue between immortality and violence imbues the fight scenes with all the gravity and dignity – perhaps more – of a classicist samurai exercise, culminating with the extraordinary final confrontation. Just when it seems as if balance has been restored, and the Shogunate has rallied to expel the Itto-ryu from their ranks, Asano calls out their complicity in admitting the Itto-ryu entry in the first place. In response, Mangi now turns on the Tokugawa leaders in the most substantial scene of slaughter since his opening revenge sequence – the sequence that preceded his immortality – as if nothing less than a total bloodbath will restore order to this corrupted corporate ethos. In an sustained piece of crowd choreography, Miike cuts between meditative stasis and kinetic intensity, with the most brutal encounters drawing out incidental sounds and textures – wind in the trees, distant river, the fleeting cry of a bird – in beautiful and surprising ways. That combination of exquisite lyricism and ultra-violence has always been one of Miike’s strengths, and it’s never been better than it is here, as every moment of bloodshed brings the underlying stillness and immortality of the world itself into burnished relief. In its dialogue between permanence and impermanence, and mortality and immortality, violence finally becomes a kind of calligraphic gesture in both Manji and Miike’s hands, a symbol of everything that has confined Manji to the off-Samurai space of the film, but also everything that can make that space so liberating if seen in the right way.