‘Blade of the Immortal’ proves to be a bloody mess

Manga-based samurai flick relays difficulty of artistic adaptation at Virginia Film Festival

ae-BladeofImmortal-CourtesyWikimedia

Takashi Miike's “Blade of the Immortal” made a fascinating contribution to the Virginia Film Festival.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Blade of the Immortal” (“Mugen no Jūnin”) — directed by the venerable and eccentric filmmaker Takashi Miike — is a Japanese film adaptation of a manga series of the same name which first serialized in 1993. Miike has been directing for over 26 years, and though his filmography includes some light-hearted fare like farcical musical comedy and kids’ shows, he is most well known for his penchant for extreme violence and his ceaseless output. Both of these themes are apparent in “Blade of the Immortal,” which has been proudly advertised as his 100th film.

Perhaps this statistic leads Miike to feel some sort of kinship with the protagonist of the story, a samurai named Manji (Takuya Kimura) who earns the nickname “Hundred Killer” for his grisly skill with blades. Following the death of his sister, Manji loses all reason to live, but he is then ironically cursed with immortality. He decides to use his unkillable body to help a young girl named Asano Rin (Hana Sugisaki) avenge the death of her father at the hands of a cadre of master swordsmen. What follows is a meandering journey of bloody violence and philosophical quandary through mid-Tokugawa Shogunate era Japan.

The source material contains two major barriers to adaptation. The first is that the story is loosely structured, with many exposition breaks, side characters of varying relevance and plot details hinging on coincidence and happenstance. Although all of these elements are acceptable in a long-form manga series stretching over 30 print volumes, they don’t fully fit in a 151 minute film.

The film at the beginning appears to be a fairly direct adaptation of the original story. However, from its middle section onwards, it takes a more pick-and-mix approach to try and cobble together a self-contained story from the most relevant elements of the main storyline. In this manner, the film manages to capture a lot of the appeal of the original work. But, the approach does cause problems. The story is abbreviated enough to warp the film’s pacing, as events jump around in time and space without particular rhyme or reason. At the same time, however, the story is not abbreviated enough to sharpen its focus, as many characters still feel extraneous or underdeveloped. Though the film likes to wax poetic on the sacred duality of life and death, it simply does not have space for the drama required for its themes to register — leaving the excessive violence feeling rather empty.

On that note, the other major barrier to adaptation in the source material is the action. Though drawn in a realistic style, the manga version of “Blade of the Immortal” often disregards realism in its action in favor of physics-defying combat involving absurd fictional weaponry. In fact, the author Hiroaki Samura once confessed that he would occasionally design weapons without any practical use in mind. The film attempts to capture the spirit of the source material in concept and scale rather than content, with savvy editing around the impossible movements and expertly choreographed battles against impossible odds. The result is often visceral and exciting but at times somewhat tedious. Certainly memorable, but Miike’s films usually find a better balance between concept and content.

The film should be praised for its commitment to preserving the character designs of the source material and even directly mimicking specific panels in a number of scenes. The contrast of the the outlandish character designs and visuals against the realistic setting is just as often impressive as it is silly, but it is rarely lame. This does lead to some tonal dissonance, and some scenes are so ridiculous as to elicit laughter, but overall it’s bold approach lends the film a charming quality which mitigates some of its glaring problems.

Commenting on the film’s acting is difficult given the steep language and cultural barriers, but it’s probably fair to say that the performances in “Blade of the Immortal” are somewhat wooden — perhaps reflecting a desperate attempt to resemble the source material. Some actors do not seem to have a middle ground between slow mumbling and frantic screaming, and their physical mannerisms can be confused or out of place. This probably isn’t helped by how much of the plot is progressed through raw dialogue.

Many of the flaws in “Blade of the Immortal” are the growing pains of a difficult adaptation — the fact that Miike wanted to undertake such a difficult project at all is honestly rather admirable. For all the film’s flaws, it successfully carries over enough of the excitement and character of the original work to merit checking out, which is more than can be said of a lot of live action manga adaptations. With its visceral action set-pieces and bizarre tale of life and death, “Blade of the Immortal” made a fascinating contribution to the Virginia Film Festival.

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