Takashi Miike’s films alternate between genre classicism and punk anarchism, collectively hinting at the director’s conflicted desire to belong to the mainstream world while detonating it. Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q are the work of someone who embraces feverish tonal discord as a gateway to unpretentious and unhinged art. Meanwhile, Audition and 13 Assassins are psychologically astute and formally rigorous in a manner which suggests that Miike’s ready to ascend to the stage of globally revered master—a status that often begets formal conservatism. But Miike’s never chosen one side in this duality of fringe and prestige cinema, as he continues to alternate between films as free associative as Yakuza Apocalypse and as funereal and elegant as Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. Ironically, it’s this very openness and flexibility that have cemented Miike as a mainstay in global cinema.
Blade of the Immortal is an implicitly autobiographical film on Miike’s part, as it concerns the cultural tensions existing between those who exist both inside and outside the feudal Japanese government. During the film’s opening, a samurai, Manji (Takuya Kimura), is said to have killed his masters, which yields an insane bloodbath that ends with the murder of Manji’s sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki). Sliced to ribbons and dying, Manji is cursed with immortality, possessed by “blood worms” that allow him to heal from all wounds, even enabling him to reattach severed limbs. Having turned on the establishment, Manji must now live forever as an outcast, until he’s recruited by a little girl, Rin (also Sugisaki), to help her avenge the death of her father by killing a group of rogue samurai led by Anotsu Kagehisa (Sōta Fukushi), himself a rebel who actually longs for respectability as a trainer of the shogun.
The plot’s intentionally circular, then, offering a prism of interlocking revenge stories in which all the characters exist as heroes in the narratives of their respective minds. Distinctions of “good” and “bad” are exposed by Blade of the Immortal as the banalities that mature adults understand them to be, and it’s this lesson that Rin must learn on her path to freeing herself from a labyrinth of endless vengeance sparked by feelings of class inferiority. The samurais of this film, particularly Anotsu, can’t decide whether they wish to destroy Japan or belong to it, and this theme resonantly parallels Miike’s own oxymoronic status as a revered master of predominantly disreputable genres.
Though concerned with the pain of the obscurity of the professional who must live outside of the government, essentially as a freelancer, Blade of the Immortal is one of Miike’s classical productions. Though hyperbolically violent, the film is still rather restrained by the director’s standards; tonally, it strikes a consistently rueful chord that’s more or less conventional to the American western and the Japanese samurai production. And while the film understands vengeance as a desire that begets catastrophic and contemptibly pointless destruction, it fulfills the visceral demands of the action genre without the distinctive grotesquerie on which Miike built his reputation. Ichi the Killer is far bitterer brew than Blade of the Immortal.
Which is to say that Blade of the Immortal is a work of robust genre craftsmanship that’s informed with a sly sense of self-interrogation. No living filmmaker can stage a duel like Miike, as he underlines the aggression of the combatants, emphasizing the emotional spikes that drive each slash of a sword or ax. Miike’s one of the few action filmmakers who can justify the sacrifice of spatial coherence in film editing, as he replaces it with an opera of swords clanging amid faces that are clenched in nearly comical fear and fury, with the splatter of blood as an occasional ejaculatory punchline.
The chaos of the film’s plot, with its ever-shifting loyalties and growing cast of vengeful characters, complements the poetic cacophonies of the action sequences, forging a quasi-satirical vision of futility. This satire is intensified by the superb performances of Kimura, Sugisaki, and Fukushi, providing Miike’s gloriously beautiful compositions with aching human earnestness. Sugisaki is especially striking, as she informs a familiar role—of the child who becomes acquainted with the true absurdity of violence—with a haunting aura of dwarfed duty. Duty is a ludicrous construct in most war, which is a contrivance of powerful and spiteful men who’re enthralled with diseased notions of honor, though such honor holds us in such thrall as to prove nearly impossible to subvert, even by an artist as talented and ambitious as Miike.