The films of Japanese director Takeshi Miike have never been for the faint hearted. From his early Yakuza flicks, to iconic horror movies like Audition and Ichi the Killer, through to action fare like the slash-em-up 13 Assassins, squelchy blood and gore, and unsettling violence have always been part of the deal. Fans know what they are getting themselves into, and with Blade of the Immortal – his 100th film – the prolific filmmaker delivers in spades.
We open in black and white, as Manji, a skilled samurai, who, after killing his corrupt lord and bodyguards, is forced to flee with his sister. A run-in with bounty hunters proves deadly for Manji’s young sister, but sees the samurai despatch a hundred foes – a feat that so impresses an onlooking 800-year-old-nun that she grants him the curse of immortality by implanting sacred, rejuvenating bloodworms into his body. This pulpy premise, taken from an eponymous manga series by Hiroaki Samura, sets us up for two hours of swordplay, dismemberment and general bloody carnage.
From the impressively staged prelude, Miike fast-forwards fifty years and adds some colour. Manji is now a weary, wandering immortal but the myriad injuries inflicted on him have dented his ability with a sword – sacred bloodworms can only do so much apparently. Meanwhile, a new, ruthless school of samurai, known as the Ittō-ryū have ravaged the lands, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Perhaps predictably, Manji finds himself drawn into the conflict – and gains a shot at redemption – when he encounters a young girl seeking vengeance following the brutal deaths of her family at the hands of the newly minted samurai school.
From there, Miike structures the thing like a video game, with increasingly difficult waves of opponents and various Ittō-ryū bosses for Manji to dispatch. Some viewers might find Blade of the Immortal‘s bloodletting repetitive – especially given the distinct lack of peril that arises from our hero’s immortality – but genre-junkies will get off on the inventive choreography and gracefully lurid violence. Amongst the rivers of red stuff, Miike takes his outlandish premise just seriously enough to make a urgent point about the ways in which violence inevitably begets more violence. Just look at his career: one hundred films in and the body count is higher than ever.