Takashi Miike has directed some of the most well-known Japanese genre films to ever reach our shores, including his turn-of-the-century gems such as Ichi the Killer, Audition, and the Dead or Alive trilogy, as well as his more recent samurai hit, 13 Assassins. For his 100th film, he has helmed the film adaptation of the classic manga series, Blade of the Immortal.
Manji (Takuya Kimura) is an adept samurai who suffers mortal injuries and the murder of his sister in a massive battle against 100 enemies. Just as he’s about to bleed out, an ancient witch appears and dumps “sacred bloodworms” into his wounds, magically healing him and reattaching his severed hand, with the tradeoff that he is essentially immortal. When he encounters a girl named Rin Asano (Hana Sugisaki) who bears a striking similarity to his deceased sister, he agrees to be her bodyguard as she embarks on a quest to strike down the evil clan of master swordsmen who killed her parents.
While the basic samurai revenge tale is nothing new, the addition of the supernatural worms makes for an intriguing take on the timeworn genre. Manji no longer needs to be an especially careful fighter, since his immortal advantage means he can afford to get hacked to pieces with little concern, although the later introduction of a bloodworm poison and another immortal warrior forces him to stay on guard. Miike reins in the gore, avoiding geysers of blood and tons of severed body parts in favor of mostly realistic samurai battles, smartly grounding the work in realism instead of fantasy to give it some added weight.
The cinematography by Nobuyasu Kita is well above average for the genre, with frequent artful gallery-quality scenes that help the project feel like an important, lasting work. Special effects aren’t the greatest, with some especially rubbery looking fake limbs and makeup, so it’s fortunate that the great practical stuntwork does most of the heavy lifting for the effects department. Miike’s direction is excellent, moving the lengthy tale along without much drag in spite of its nearly 2 ½ hour runtime. Kimura is fantastic in the lead role, bringing realistic gravitas and samurai skills to his grueling performance.
The Blu-ray includes 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in both Japanese and English, along with English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitle options. The image quality is mostly stellar throughout the film, with only minor graininess issues with some dimly-lit night scenes. Bonus features are surprisingly extensive, headlined by an hour-long set of interviews with the film’s co-stars, as well as a half-hour feature dedicated solely to interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Kimura. The most interesting feature is a half-hour look at the production of the film’s two most impressive fight scenes: the 100-person fight in the opening act, and a 300-person melee to close the film. Much of the extra footage makes it quite clear that the veteran Kimura knows his way around fight choreography, and also goes out of his way to help his co-stars, especially newbie Sagasuki, contribute their most convincing stunt work.