Blade of the Immortal

4 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike’s 100th film! and based on the classic manga! I think had us setting our expectations a certain way, leading to a lot of “it’s too looonnng” criticisms and reviews generally speaking of underwhelment.  I know, I’m just another opinion, but I feel like a lot of these Hot Takes lost sight of the correct Hot Take, i.e. mine, which is that this was a fantastic movie, and maybe the most solid of the three high profile samurai flicks – this, 13 Assassins, and Hara Kiri – that Takashi delivered in the new era.

Delivered, mind you, amidst a slew of other films that didn’t merit the same type of US theater release, which is what brings me back to questioning those reviews: you’re forgetting your Miike qualifiers, people: the eyes that view a movie through the prism of that very effortful thing you’ve praised: 100 flicks strong and still going.  Now, I’d be the first to say that you shouldn’t have to qualify a review with outside knowledge, but that’s, like, triple exactly my point: you go into it expecting Miike the auteur, and you get Miike the entertainer; viewed as a film separate from such expectations, I found it damned successful: perhaps the first 2+ hour big budgeter in years that I not only didn’t fidget during, but that I was loving enough to be happy for it to continue beyond its runtime.

Combined with my love for Miike, there was a whole extra layer to savor: his juxtaposition of Koji Endo’s brilliant minimalist score with the action; his casual mish-mash of familial themes – alienation; dedication – already supported by the source text, but rendered very effectively onscreen by some amazingly elicited performances (especially Rin, as played by Hana Sugisaki, displaying so much through facial expressions); the casually – but purposefully – woven together scene sequencing; and undeniably the most insane choreography Miike’s yet captured, amped up to perfection with his steady, confident camera and uncanny ability to “know” what can be left offscreen to achieve the best visual impact.

The action was more satisfying than 13 Assassins, and I found the emotional content – though not as deep – better effected than in Hara Kiri.

Which isn’t to say I wholly disagree with some of the other criticisms leveled at the flick.  Most notably, the story – though essentially just about an immortal samurai acting as bodyguard for a revenge-driven girl – is hyper-compressed, with the background and “rules” on lead Manji’s (Takuya Kimura) immortality never clearly defined, which undermines the stakes of the battles quite a bit, and the film’s cycling through opponents rather clearly an attempt to bring in manga characters, as opposed to delivering story-justified characters on screen.  However, I feel like Miike manages to counter this by making the various cuts and scrapes inflicted upon Manji in the sequence of battles incredibly painful seeming, and we furthermore skirt thinking about the lack of plotting justification by the way the film keeps its head above water: it doesn’t over-glorify (slo mo, Zimmer strings) any given moment or try to fake us out with various world-ending baddies – the movie just jeeps moving, very deliberately, not fast or slow, but determined.

One oddity I didn’t see called out, though, is the editing during the downbeats.  The most important bits – conversations, battles – are perfect, but I have to wonder if Miike and crew weren’t trying to save some runtime by cutting in other areas.  So moments where a character walks from one place to another in a single scene, for example, will have a cut so that they magically go from point a to point b, while the dialogue continues uninterrupted.  This is odd for Miike, often a master of visual space, and it was, admittedly, disruptive.  But again, this only seemed to be employed for those moments in between moments, so if it was a runtime consideration, I guess that was an okay way to go about it.

So I’m a happy camper.  I went into this steeled for being dragged through an underwhelming two plus hours, but I ended up being floored by how much fun it was, and how much absolute ass – from a composition perspective – those battles scenes kicked, far outclassing the CG-stitched swarms the Marvel movies have inured us to.  Blade of The Immortal is one of the best comic book films of the past decade, and a gold star in Miike’s oeuvre.