Blade of the Immortal

Takashi Miike (director), Nobuyasu Kita (cinematographer), Kenji Yamashita (editor), Tetsuya Oishi (writer)
Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sōta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ichikawa Ebizō XI, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki (cast)
Adapted from Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura
Released April 23, 2017 (Japan), November 3, 2017 (USA)

Live action film adaptations of manga and anime often put me on guard. After so many terrible attempts—Dragonball Z, Ghost in the Shell, Netflix’s Death Note, to name a few—can you blame me? On the other hand, I know it’s possible. The very first Rurouni Kenshin live action film was a wonderful adaptation of a beloved manga. Which category would Hiroaki Samura’s sprawling samurai manga Blade of the Immortal fall into?

At first glance, the pairing of Takashi Miike as director and Blade of the Immortal as source material seems like a good match. Miike’s films have found a cult following among fans of extreme cinema; Audition and Ichi the Killer immediately spring to mind. Delving into Samura’s original manga reveals a wealth of material to work with: bloody swordfights, memorable and outright weird character designs, and outlandish weapons.

blad of the immortal poster

But therein lies the problem: the amount of material. Blade of the Immortal is 30+ volumes long and boasts an enormous cast of characters who glide in and out of one girl’s quest to avenge her parents’ deaths and the destruction of her family’s dojo. The length of the original series also presents a lesser-acknowledged problem endemic to the serialized manga format. Early chapters of such manga tend to be episodic and smaller in scope, as the publishers wait to see if the series finds readers. If the answer is yes, then longer, more plot-heavy story arcs begin to form. Such was the case with Blade of the Immortal.

The shift in tone and structure of the manga presents a challenge for adaptations. Do filmmakers stick with the bad guy of the week format and close with an open ending? Or do they attempt to capture Blade of the Immortal from start to finish, aware that most of the source material will be left by the wayside? Miike’s adaptation chose the latter option and while every directorial choice makes sense, they reveal the weaknesses of such heavy streamlining.

First, let’s look at the cast. Certain characters are necessary: Rin, the girl who seeks revenge; Manji, her immortal bodyguard; and Anotsu, the man ultimately responsible for Rin’s family tragedy. This trio forms the core of the story. But other supporting characters play important roles such Makie, the deadliest fighter in Anotsu’s Itto-ryu renegade sword school or the members of the Mugai-ryu, who strive to assassinate Anotsu’s loyal followers.

The problem with condensing the story to fit within a single film is that the development needed to give these characters depth is lost. Gone is the complicated history between Anotsu and Makie and why she feels such a weight of debt to him. Gone are the influence of Mugai-ryu members, Hyakurin and Giichi, upon the plot. As someone in my screening said, “based on their character design, those two are important to the story. Why did they vanish like that?” As it was, Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame was tragically underutilized as femme fatale Hyakurin.

Given the source material and Miike’s filmography, I expected fantastic fight scenes. Blade of the Immortal is bloody and gruesome. Sad to say, the film’s action sequences were serviceable at best. On one hand, I appreciated that they didn’t skim over the brutality of drawn-out sword fights—especially when one of the combatants is immortal. On other hand, given the unusual fighting styles and weapons used by these characters, the reality fell well short of the potential. Why leave out the nesting swords wielded by Itto-ryu member Magatsu? Why in the world would Miike not feature Giichi’s decapitating chain scythe? If there’s a weapon made for a Takashi Miike film, it’s that one.

While Takuya Kimura gave a solid performance as immortal samurai Manji, I was less enamored by Hana Sugisaki’s Rin. In the original manga, Rin is young and inexperienced; her desire for vengeance outstrips her ability to realize that goal. In the live action film, she borders on childish and sulky. Even though the portrayal eliminates the ambiguous, and somewhat uncomfortable, elements of the relationship between Manji and Rin, it lessens Rin’s coming of age story which threads throughout the story.

Where the film suffers most, however, is the pacing. The first half of the movie follows a bad guy of the week format while the second half uses a more cohesive plot that slowly unfolds. Neither choice is wrong but combining them in the same film drags the pacing down as we approach the climax. But that brings us back to the cutting choices: enough material was cut to short-change characterization but not enough was cut to fix the pacing.

Perhaps Blade of the Immortal is one of those source materials that is impossible to adapt properly into moving pictures. The 2008 anime adaptation was surprisingly faithful to the manga while simultaneously painfully boring. The live action film attempts to capture the entire series—and again remains mostly true to the source material despite aggressive streamlining—but falls prey to pacing issues. The reality is that despite appearing like a hack and slash samurai story, Blade of the Immortal is a philosophical and character-driven story, and that is lost here.