At this point in the history of the Samurai Fantasy sub-genre, projects that uniquely situate themselves in a fantastical grey area, suspended between grounded reality and exaggerated surrealism, are the ones that find true success and legacy. Takashi Miike’s adaptation of Blade of the Immortal ambitiously attempts to teeter between these genre elements. As it often is with chambara (Samurai period dramas), the story follows a familiar narrative, and visuals are accompanied to a style often akin to Akira Kurosawa’s, as he is the general rubric. With these essential facets to the sub-genre becoming so commonplace, they often begin to feel muddled and redundant, which is how I largely felt with 13 Assassins.
As a long time fan of wuxia, chambara, and martial arts, I’ve always looked to register a character’s respective movements in an action sequence as equally essential to characterization as a line of dialogue. It’s a unique language of visual storytelling that can be accompanied with subtextual cinematography. This visual relationship can work to brilliant effect, where even if the elements of a story aren’t made explicitly clear through dialogue, as a viewer, you can piece certain plot elements together from the concurrent visual storytelling. Especially if you’re working with an otherwise familiar narrative, and are looking to give a fresh spin on your film. This method functioned particularly well in another recent, and very successful Jidaigeki (Costume Drama), manga adapted trilogy, Rurouni Kenshin (2012-2014). Even still, no action film in recent memory has matched the complexity and high-speed choreography of that trilogy, and Gareth Evan’s The Raid films. In regards to manga adaptations, fans often declare their success largely has to do with “Hollywood Vs. Japanese Film Industry”, in that many believe Japan makes better manga adaptations than Hollywood does, altogether. However, while Hollywood has produced notorious flops, Japan has produced just as many failures, several of which, arguably, by director Takashi Miike.
Character development through action is an engaging and underutilized form of characterization. When observing their body language, viewers begin to consider a character’s’ state of consciousness. However, in most contemporary “action” films, particularly in Hollywood’s hollow and overzealous CGI smack-downs, there is a typical lack of vulnerability with the characters, thus a lack of urgency and credibility in motivation, therefore a lack of sympathy and investment as a viewer. This is where my issues emerge with Takashi Miike’s 100th film, Blade of the Immortal.
The films cold open features the main character, Manji, played by Takuya Kimura, earning his namesake as the Hundred Man Killer when his sister is kidnapped by bandits who kill her in cold blood upon her brother’s arrival, enraging him to fight until he can no longer stand. He is then given everlasting life by a witch who puts blood-worms into his body, turning him into a ronin with regenerative power equivalent to the X-Men’s Wolverine.
50 years in the future, a young girl named Rin suffers the same kind of loss of her own family and home, and she seeks the aid of the wandering Hundred Man Killer (sound familiar?) on a quest for vengeance against Anotsu Kagehisa and the Itto-Ryu bandits.
The film begins to have a serious identity problem once the proper quest begins, swinging from vibrant action madness to grounded, expositional musings that feel pulled from another one of Miike’s Jidaigeki projects, all interwoven by encounters with characters that come and go at the drop of a hat after a fight sequence, and the stakes don’t measure up when a character like Manji, despite Kimura’s acting ability conveying immense pain, is never truly at risk, in addition to never being allowed to emote apart from grieving and melancholy. It feels like two different films. Some of the characters have simply not translated well onto the screen from the source. While the lead performances are solid, particularly the actress who plays Rin here, nothing about the characters or their stories are methodological or weighty. The female performances tie this entire movie together, giving it an emotional core, and yet, the film grows exhausting after a while of hearing exclusively Sugisaki Hana as Rin deliver on emotion. As I kept hoping for more from Erika Toda’s character displaying a show stopping sense of remorse, and from Rin’s vengeful encounter, both felt abbreviated to showcase more of Manji bleeding on the ground.
The members of the Itto-Ryu, specifically, are distinguished solely through colorfully elaborate costume designs, and jarringly contrast with the gritty environments, set pieces and overall tone of the film. These characters types could provide a much needed levity to this aforementioned sub-genre, but their portrayal in Blade of the Immortal with limited, specialized screen time for each, feels shallow and reminiscent of serialized storytelling, which distracts from the film’s core concepts. Omitting more of these characters to instead pull a focus on only the few, very important ones, or even better, strengthen the characterization and further distinguish the fighting style of Manji and Rin, would have been a wiser decision. The end result feels like a two and a half hour summary of an anime, as opposed to a cinematic feature.
Weapons constantly appear out of nowhere throughout the film’s action set pieces, and perhaps this is an element from the manga, but it struggles to give the action any grounding sense of urgency, and while it gives a fantastical charge to the film’s energy, removes the focus from why the characters are fighting in the first place, in addition to the lack of mortality to Manji’s character, for obvious reasons. As a result the film’s main character doesn’t give any sense of vulnerability, desire or motivation other than the girl he is questing with kind of reminds him of his deceased sister.
Though the dynamic is established effectively in a single moment between Manji and Rin, I found Manji’s agreeance inorganic and rushed. The two of them assume a position of trust that feels like it was never developed. The bizarre sequence in which they encounter Kuroi Sabato feels jarring and off beat from the film up until that point, as it’s meant to introduce Manji’s immortality to Rin, but her reaction to him healing is as if it’s something she’s seen before.
The film is loosely structured in the order of walk, talk, boss fight and repeat, without any real deliberation as to why, other than there were a lot of bad guys to fight along the way. Scene after scene, it feels extremely tangential, as Manji encounters more or less the same faceless Itto-Ryu member, proceeds to be stabbed, bleeds out, and then Rin intervenes in some way. The cycle continues for the duration of the film in a less than concise manner all around, and is bookended by an impressive, albeit drawn out monochromatic introduction, and a decently choreographed, blood bathed climax. It’s a shame that the direction in that climax wasn’t applied to the rest of the film, because it could have proven to be a real contender for the race of “best manga adaptation” with as big of a name as Takashi Miike behind it. The film’s faults come down to the inconcise nature of its action choreography and overall editing. This results in an adaptation that should be an exciting film of revenge and redemption, but feels like a quirky slog of a chambara film that we’ve seen before, but with extra blood.