Prolific Japanese director Takashki Miike has awed audiences around the world with rapturous samurai dramas like 13 Assassins, the bonkers Yakuza caper Ichi The Killer, and the haunting horror thriller Audition. But he wowed this critic earlier this year with his wild and delightful adaption of the outrageous anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable. So, as I dove into Fantastic Fest, I was eagerly anticipating Miike’s 100th film, a live-action adaption of the samurai-centered Manga Blade of the Immortal. Unfortunately, this epic is a case of too too much, in the bad way.
Takuya Kimura stars as Manji, a samurai haunted by the blood on his hands, but barred from death by magic that heals his wounds and keeps his heart pumping on eternally. Living in isolation, he’s left battles behind him. That is until a young girl named Rina (Hana Sugisaki) turns up at his door with a heartbreaking story and a thirst for vengeance. Rina entreats Manji to help her kill the gang that murdered her parents. Compelled by the regrets of his past, the eternal samurai rises once more to swing his sword in service of building fields of corpses and rivers of blood.
For Western audiences, the plot plays like Logan meets True Grit. And like Wolverine and Rooster Cogburn, Manji is a gruff customer, who initially rebuffs the doe-eyed but determined girl who offers him a chance at redemption and maybe death. His face and torso lashed with scars, his head hanging heavy with harried exhaustion, Kimura is instantly a tragic figure we recognize and warm to in spite of his hollering and scowls. Lightness and hope to his darkness and despair is Sugisaki, a vision of youth who wields a hurt expression more capably than Rina does fistfuls of daggers. But perhaps because this odd couple archetype is so familiar, Blade of the Immortal gets old fast. Its emotional beats are predictable and repeated with Rina acting impulsively, demanding Manji rush to the rescue. Beyond diminishing returns, this recurring beat made me grow annoyed with Rina, who has no growth, always racing thoughtlessly into the fray, but never evolving as a swordsman or character. Instead, she shrieks for Manji, she screams about vengeance, she hollers at her enemies. And in response, I just want to turn down the volume.
With the central relationship stagnant, I looked to the supporting characters for excitement. Miike dedicatedly recreates the distinctive costumes, weapons, and hairstyles from the Manga, and breathes life into every intro with wistful shots and winding monologues that are awkwardly wedged into violent showdowns. Years alone has apparently left Manji rusty. The warrior who in an opening lays waste to an armed mob is seriously sliced in every battle, and often left stunned or stuck long enough for his opponent to unfold a sob story. There’s no elegance here. All action stops for baleful back story, then characters vanish with an abruptness that signals they will of course return, contrived as it might be.
A simple plot made elaborate with these flourishes is deadly to the pace. In an effort to reinvigorate my enthusiasm, I tried to ignore it and lean into the visual mayhem of Miike’s lengthy fight scenes, of which there are many. But their editing can be jarring, jumping the line of action, jumbling reads of dismembering and vital blows. And at two hours and twenty minutes, Miike doesn’t seem to know when enough is plenty. Instead, fight scenes drag on and on. There’s plenty of blood spilled and bodies piling up, but as Manji cuts through one line of sword-swinging fools after another, it became a crass routine. Instead of concerned, I grew impatient watching another blade run through his chest, another grunt from the pain, another close-up of the wound healing, albeit with less and less efficiency. Then comes more warriors wailing before being swiftly cut down. Again Rini tries to help, but recklessly, and so inevitably fails again. Again she will be rescued. Again she will moon mournfully at her hired bodyguard as he gushes blood and looks weary of this world.
Having not read the Manga, I wonder if Miike felt bound to its plot points as he did to its costumes. Perhaps this is why the film feels like a dedicated but dogged recounting. While beautiful and spiked with scenes of stylish action accented colorful costumes and slick slow motion, Blade of the Immortal is bloated and indulgent. Maybe its generous slathering of monologues, rescues, and battles will appeal to fans of the source material, or even those who can’t get enough of samurais and Miike. But personally, I went from intrigued, to bored, to feeling as beleaguered and hungry for escape as the eternal warrior Manji.