How bad has my addiction to Japanese cinema gotten, you ask? Tonight, I ventured all the way out to Yonkers to catch an 11:00 p.m. screening of Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal at the Alamo Drafthouse. Was it worth the expense of the journey, the distracting mid-movie meal service, and the discomfort of the 25-degree weather?
Of course it was! Blade of the Immortal contains absolutely everything I adore about classic chanbara, plus a little more gore and a lot more body horror—in other words, exactly what you’d expect from the twisted mind behind Ichi the Killer and Audition. Our hero, Manji, is the quintessential jidai-geki leading man: ruggedly masculine (all the better to set him apart from the comparatively effeminate villains), frequently plastered, and carrying more exotic weaponry up his sleeves than Ogami Itto could fit in his son’s baby cart.
And, like many of his ilk (including Sanjuro, Zatoichi, and Max Rockatansky), he’s not actually the protagonist; rather, this cynical warrior, cursed with literal immortality and embittered by devastating personal losses, reluctantly becomes a supporting character in the story of Rin, the Mattie Ross to his Rooster Cogburn. As he accompanies the girl on a quest to wreak bloody vengeance upon the deranged swordsmen that murdered her father, her dogged determination, youthful innocence, and deeply-buried vulnerability gradually thaw his hardened heart and reawaken his desire to live—that is, to enjoy life, and not just survive dismemberment.
A few of my fellow audience members didn’t seem to appreciate the film’s campier elements, but I loved that it so thoroughly embraced the absurdity of its comic book origins, from the gravity-defying hairstyles to the lengthy mid-battle monologues (which test even Manji’s patience). Blade of the Immortal might not feel as weighty, prestigious, or thematically ambitious as Miike’s remake of 13 Assassins, but it’s certainly every bit as audacious, spectacular, and—most importantly—fun. I’m glad that the director is doing his part to keep samurai fiction on the silver screen, where it belongs; here’s to a hundred more!
[Originally written November 11, 2017.]