Tuesday 10 October 2017

Blade Of The Immortal

Chanbara Sauce

Blade Of The Immortal
2017 Japan/UK Directed by Takashi Miike
London Film Festival - Sunday 8th October 2017

Okay, so quickly onto the second of the films I’m seeing in this years festival. I always find Takashi Miike one of those directors who makes movies that you will either love or hate but, whichever polar opposite of that kind of Marmite spectrum you are sitting on with one of his movies, they are always, at the very least, extremely interesting. And, it has to be said, almost always interestingly extreme too.

At the grand old age of 57, Takashi seems to be somehow directing and financing between 2 - 6 films a year and this one, Blade Of The Immortal, based on the series of Manga strips by Hiroaki Samura, is his 100th movie. Does this guy ever sleep? Miike was actually at the festival for this premiere and, although I couldn’t stay to see his Q&A after the movie (alas, I was suffering from ‘last train home syndrome’), I was at least able to see his introduction where he told us that the series of manga this is based on spans a 15 year, serialised period and that this movie, although clocking in at an impressive 2 hours and 20 mins, was his attempt to encapsulate and compress the themes and ideas of the entire ‘decade and half story arc’ into one feature film. Well that’s a pretty tall order but I have to say that, for me at least, the film didn’t jump around or seem too episodic in light of this revelation and it never once seemed to me to be anything other than a coherent whole (albeit with a lot of new characters being introduced at various points in the story).

The film starts off in the way in which a typical chanbara (which, to be fair, this is) might finish.

 Opening in black and white, which reminded me a lot of those old Kurosawa samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s, we meet the main protagonist, Manji (played by Takuya Kimura) and his sister (played by Hana Sugisaki). They are on the run due to  a misdeed of Manji’s recent past but, rather than commit ritual suicide over his indiscretions, he has to stay alive to look after his kid sister. And then we get that typical 1970s chanbara ending where he alone has to fight a group of 50 - 70 men, the leader of whom gives him some motivation by cruelly slaying Manji's sister. So it's ‘Crazy 88 massacre time’ for this lot and Manji does the usual lone wolf samurai act of cutting down every opponent and leaving nobody else standing. However, unlike a lot of the classic chanbara I've seen, Manji actually gets quite badly damaged during the melee and is about to die of his wounds (which includes his right eye being stabbed out and his left hand parting company with his arm). However, a mysterious and unexplained sorceress woman drops blood worms into Manji’s wounds and he becomes immortal. His nearby hand is, kind of, organically knitted back on by the blood worms although, for some reason, his eye isn’t ever regenerated (yeah... it’s okay to have a scientific system for your film which regenerates your life etc but... oh no... don’t let it mess with the look of the character, right?). Finally, the title of the movie comes up and we jump into colour for the remaining running time.

Jump fifty years later and the rest of the plot is then set up as a young girl sees her father killed by a bunch of villains and her mother taken to suffer a fate worse than death. In the best traditions of movies like True Grit, she goes to find someone who can revenge her father as a salve for her grief and the wandering sorceress (for want of a better term) tells her about Manji... so off she goes. Of course, we have the usual, stand offish reluctance of the hero to take up the quest but the young girl, called Rin, reminds Manji of his long dead sister... which would make sense since she’s played by the same actress.

Once he’s got over his ‘it’s not my fight’ problems, the rest of the film involves, strangely, very little travelling (the two seemed to be based in the same place with the villains often just happening to be in the vicinity, for some strange reason... or at least within walking distance) but lots of swordplay and also, I’m glad to say, some time spent on giving little character sketches of other important characters (many of them villainous) and working them and their background into the plot. It’s refreshing that Miike takes time to do this when a lot of modern directors might not have approached the material in this way and the pay off is that certain characters have an emotional resonance on the story at key times during the course of the film (often when they die, as it happens).

The swordplay is ferocious and lively and is very much the kind of ‘one against many’ that you see in some of the later Zatoichi films, not to mention the fairly typical exploits of both Lone Wolf and Cub and Sleepy Eyes Of Death. Indeed, the first pre-credits fight I mentioned earlier is more or less a template for the various skirmishes throughout the movie but, of course, as the story builds to a climax, so does the number of opponents increase so you eventually have one man against whole armies, etc. There are two things which made these kinds of scenes a little different. Other than being shot by Miike with a nice attention to the way elements of the battles are framed and the incredible sense of the way the various shots are edited together, so you don’t lose your place in the combat scenes...

The first of these is that the fights seem a whole lot less bloody than I am used to seeing in a Japanese film and, of course, this goes doubly so considering that it’s Miike, the man behind such extremely, violently ostentatious movies such as Ichi The Killer (if you’re going to see that one, get a Dutch copy as they’re definitely uncut). Sure, there are lots of body parts flying and there is literally a small, almost river of blood formed in the middle of the battleground at one point... but you don’t get the huge gouts of blood and arterial spray that I tend to typically associate with any Japanese movies since Kurosawa first started that trend in the very last scene of his excellent Yojimbo follow up, Sanjuro. Instead, the brutality of the violence is somehow less comic book in its depiction here... although I’m really not sure whether I preferred this choice from the director or not.

The other thing about the various fights involving Manji is that he does tend to get cut up quite a lot in each and every fight he’s in and, too be honest. I was getting kinda tired of watching him being sliced n’ diced and then, slowly and painfully, regenerating each and every time he gets in trouble. I kind of felt like yelling... “He’s immortal, we get it!”... at various points because, it struck me that compared to many of the great swordsmen in Japanese cinema, he’s wasn’t that skillful that he couldn’t come away unscathed on occasion.

However, that’s a minor grumble and, in all honesty, I really enjoyed Blade Of The Immortal and it’s reminded me that, in terms of Takashi Miike, I’ve barely scratched the surface of his work and I need to see more of it. This is a nice slice of chanbara goodness which, perhaps, isn’t as unique or unusual as you might at first think but certainly pays homage to the genre and it should satisfy fans of this type of cinema. I’ll certainly be picking this one up on Blu Ray if this gets a UK release and look forward to seeing it again. A solid swordplay movie from one of Japan’s modern, master directors. Not to be missed.

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