Not often do you encounter a movie about slicing, dicing samurai vivisecting each other into gory chunks that is also a thing of beauty. The exceptionally bloody yet lively, darkly humorous and gorgeous “Blade of the Immortal” achieves that rare status. It transforms a timeworn genre piece into an original, stylish, adrenaline-infused 140-minute thrill ride that drills its way right to your brain.
This is the 100th film made by wildly prolific Japanese cult idol Takashi Miike in 29 years. He’s a subversive, ambitious filmmaker with parallel gifts tor technical finesse and solid storytelling. His viewer-mugging genre benders range from viscerally violent (“Ichi the Killer”) to genuinely disturbing (the infamous “Audition”), to wacky horror musical (“The Happiness of the Katakuris”). While he’s generally focused on modern times, in 2011 he took us back to feudal Japan for “13 Assassins.” A serious, polished sword-swinging epic with as much carnage as inhumanly possible, it built itself up to a finale for the ages, a 40-minute battle scene that redefined the term “showstopper.”
He takes a lighter approach in “Blade of the Immortal,” working in threads of loony humor. When we meet the title character, he’s just a run of the mill samurai warrior. But we’re barely out of the prologue on a lovely, sensuously photographed mountainside when Miike hits us with one of his trademark provocations. In his world, “little kid” is often synonymous with “psycho’s victim,” and “protective adult older brother” is almost equally tragic. Before the central story starts, our hero Manji (Takuya Kimura, a tapestry of nuanced facial expressions) is proved a not very effective human shield. He has a lot of personal loss to mourn right from the start, including a hand lopped off at the forearm.
The silver lining comes in the form of a spirit woman who feeds him what she alleges to be “bloodworms.” They help him recover by infesting his circulatory system, which is not the sort of image that squeamish viewers will enjoy. The creepy crawlies reattach his arm and turn him into a sort of invulnerable Wolverine, all but impossible to kill. Or maybe he’s a zombie.
Anyway, when preteen sword student Rin (Hana Sugisaki) recruits him to help her seek vengeance on the clan that killed her father, Manji signs on, even when that means facing armies of henchmen and getting slashed and stabbed endlessly (which still hurts, by the way). A virtual manga comic book series of graphic demises follows.
On the page, this may seem like a downer, but “Blade of the Immortal” is fun to watch, with a playfulness and upbeat spirit that’s delightfully perverse. Implausible as it all is, the film follows a cracked logic all its own and continues adding plot twists and surprises to keep boredom at bay. Though it’s a film form that will strike some Western eyes as odd, Miike has a strong sense of the artistic potential in twisting swords and blood splattering in crimson plumes, and a deft sense of how to use severed body parts as comedic punch lines.
The coolest thing about this nutzo movie is that Miike is only 57, which means he has decades more of these delights in him. Would I be happy to hear that he got a job directing a Marvel or Star Wars movie? You bet your bloodworms.