When I learned that Blade of the Immortal is the 100th movie directed by Japanese maestro Takashi Miike, I naturally pictured this white-haired guy, a wizened auteur à la Hayao Miyazaki. Nope. The dude is 57. I'm having a little trouble with that math. But not the movie. To the contrary, 140 minutes have rarely added up to this much insanely wacked-out fun.
Miike's a mad genius, research reveals. One with an almost scandalous reputation stemming from the violence, gore and nutty naughtiness in his work. He rose to prominence in the '90s with films such as Ichi the Killer and Audition. Yet he's distinguished by his ability to shape-shift into a creator of crowd-pleasing mainstream fare, even family films, something as improbable as, say, Quentin Tarantino working for Disney.
If his latest is a gauge of the creative fuel remaining in his tank, Miike appears good for another hundred. Set in the Shogunate era, the film stars Takuya Kimura as a samurai named Manji. A warrior of nearly superhuman skill, he's dedicated his life to looking after his sister, Machi, a defenseless, seemingly autistic girl. A gang of thugs crosses their path early on and, while he manages to slice and dice his way through the throng, Manji's worst fear is realized. He fails to save his sister. The tragedy leaves his existence without purpose or meaning.
Just as the injured ronin readies for death, though, the darndest thing happens: An 800-year-old demigoddess pops by, slits open his gut and drops in a handful of slithering something-or-others. They're sacred bloodworms of the Holy Lama, it turns out. Just like that, Manji is immortal. You can tell because his fist, lopped off in the street fight, reattaches itself to his arm. Handy.
The movie then jumps ahead half a century, and we find our hero living in solitary sadness. At least until Rin (Hana Sugisaki) seeks him out, hoping to avenge the death of her parents. Manji is so lost in sorrow, it takes him a while to notice the girl's resemblance to his sister. Still, he refuses, until she cagily begins calling him "Brother." "Big Brother," he corrects her. And the deal is sealed.
Given this second chance, the swordsman resolves to protect Rin with literally undying devotion, and the pair sets off across the Japanese countryside to find their man. The journey functions as a device for facilitating contests between Manji and a succession of ever stranger, more stylized opponents. Think The Canterbury Tales with nunchucks. Adapted by Tetsuya Oishi from the manga series by Hiroaki Samura, the picture succeeds as a phantasmagoric blend of mixed martial arts and moments of surprising psychological depth. Some of these are poignant, others borderline pervy — another hallmark of the Miike oeuvre.
This is epic-level, visionary stuff, so space doesn't permit an inventory of the subplots and story lines tendrilling from its central relationship like so many bloodworms. The bottom line is, the picture is an over-the-top gas. The filmmaker infuses it with a cheeky sensibility, putting 21st-century dialogue in the mouths of period characters and arraying them in costumes of spectacular invention. Most delightfully of all, he arms them with an arsenal of the most outlandishly fantastic axes, spears, shurikens and freaky swords this side of a flipped-out video game (a form in which Miike also works). Immortal Kombat, you might say.
I say you owe it to yourself to catch this on a streaming service near you. Getting medieval just got raised to an art form.