At its core, Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal is a straightforward samurai revenge flick. However, built around that is the platonic, primal ideal of what a samurai movie can be. It’s non-stop symphony of murder and steel filled with unbelievable weapons, gruesome amputations, rivers of blood, and charismatic warriors. Its two-hour, 20-minute runtime feels like it’s filled with as little talking and story as possible, just to fit in more swordfighting. And it’s great.
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Blade of the Immortal’s over-the-top emphasis on action may sound like there’s no story or character, but that’s simply not the case. Miike makes every single moment of his movie count, and much of the story and character comes from those action sequences. A wildly over-the-top prologue that introduces the immortal warrior at the heart of the story. A brutal murder explains why a young girl seeks revenge. And when there’s no action, the human moments develop both the relationship between the immortal samurai and young girl, as well as the motivations of the villain.
Without those emotional strands, Blade of the Immortal would have felt unnaturally excessive. However, with them solidly in place, the excess is able to shine because there’s just enough personal investment to make it all interesting. The film is basically structured like a video game or comic books (which makes sense because the film is based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura) with our heroes continually accomplishing smaller goals on their way to the main one. Most of those goals are represented by boss battles and each is different, violent, and comes with an increased level of difficulty.
Could one or two of these battles have been cut out without losing a lot? Sure. But much of the movie deals with the difficulties of being immortal, and Miike tries to convey that through his relentless action. There’s so much fighting in Blade of the Immortal that, at times, it feels like bit of an endurance test, like it’s never going to end, which is itself the point. With his non-stop barrage of battles and blood, Miike makes us feel the weight of time, resulting in a more direct connection to the characters and the film itself.
Blade of the Immortal is basically a samurai movie greatest hits album. With that comes a certain level of familiarity, but the movie works its butt off to not only meet those expectations but exceed them. Miike proves that even a simple story, in the hands of a master, can become a rousing samurai success.