There came a point about an hour-and-twenty-minutes in to Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal when I started checking my watch every three or four minutes. At first, this impulse came from an honest-to-god curiosity about the time, and soon I was looking at it to remind myself that I only had so much more time before I could escape into the bright Austin sunlight. It’s a deeply disappointing film from a Japanese master who’s now proving to be more miss than hit, and its 2:20 runtime should be enough to scare you away from setting foot into this theater. Seriously, what meager delights that this film offers (a fun cast and occasionally excellent production design) aren’t nearly enough to sustain any sort of interest, and it’ll probably only appeal to devotees of the manga and anime on which it is based. You’ll be so bummed you might actually fall asleep.
Machi (Takuya Kimura), a disgraced swordsman who went on a killing spree, has only one thing in the world that he wants to protect: His little sister, who’s a bit unaware of her surroundings and carefree. They’re stalked from all corners by bounty hunters and bandits, until the unthinkable happens: A mob descends upon them and murders the girl. Machi then proceeds to kill each member of the 100-man mob, losing his hand and quite a bit of blood in the process from the various chest wounds he gets over the course of the battle. Before he’s allowed to take his last breath, a mysterious woman clothed in white appears over him and grants him immortal life, through the implantation of parasites known as “bloodworms,” which will, say, reach out and reattach his hand to his body if it’s cut off. Fifty years later, after witnessing her father and mother killed at the hands of a rogue clan of swordsman (who are forcing all of the dojos over Edo to adopt their style), a young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki) is contacted by the same woman, and told to find an invincible swordsman (also known as our boy Machi) who may be able to help her in her quest for vengeance. The two will make an unlikely pair, and they’ll cut their way across the countryside in order to find the bastards who did this to her. It’s like Logan, I guess, minus all of the charisma and pathos.
Sure, his cast does a fine job, and the production design matches so much of the text’s weirdness, but it’s odd how much I missed gore-hound Miike and the go-for-broke insanity that might have accompanied such a premise — you’ve got a man who can literally reattach limbs after they’re sliced off in a variety of means, and you’re only going to show motherfuckers getting slashed in the back? His action filmmaking is a rare mixture of both rote (large group fights full of empty blood and bodies) and terrible (he decides, for some reason, to film the majority of his fights with a shaky camera, meaning we lose even further sight of who the hell is doing the slashing when and where), and it had me missing his other “respectable” samurai film, 13 Assassins, which at least had the decency to try and avoid the inevitable Seven Samurai comparisons by having an unrestrained finale that Kurosawa would never have tried. Add to that the perpetual issues involved in telling a story about an immortal, in that we’re only interested in two things when it comes to these tales: How they’re made and how they die; and the lack of satisfaction on both fronts, and you wind up with a curiously empty film. I honestly wish Miike had chosen some wacky genre exercise for his 100th film, because at least then he would have had something closer to his specific skills as a filmmaker.
My greatest hope is that some amateur editor out there on the ‘net does a for-the-dub cut, not unlike how studios used to do with films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (all of which are significantly excellent in their own right, but still) and give us the Miike equivalent of Shogun Assassin, where all of the heightened genre elements are brought to the forefront, and some of the mediocre development is left on the cutting room floor. There is a fascinating and fun 80 minutes buried somewhere in this monstrosity, and it’s actually kind of easy to see how you’d get to that point. But Blade of the Immortal is only concerned with its own languid slog, with the kind of self-satisfied awareness that an audience familiar with the text will show up for it no matter what, and it’s just such a bore.