The body count in the opening five minutes is enough to make Tarantino blush as samurai Manji fails to save his little sister from being sliced to death at the hands of a gaggle of wrong'uns. That's not to say Manji doesn't make them all pay for their crimes, leaving the ground strewn with corpses not for the last time in the film. However, Manji is mortally wounded and saved by a witch with sacred bloodworms that render Manji immortal and unable to die even after decapitations.
Of which there are many. Leaping forward 50 years and switching from black and white to colour as Manji is given his next lease of life, Blade of the Immortal sees Manji become the protector to a little girl who has recently lost her parents at the hands of a cruel school of master swordsman, the Itto-ryu. Slashing his way through the evil henchman one by one, the scarred but indestructible Manji finds redemption in keeping the girl safe as he trains her to fight.
With scrap after bloody scrap for well over two hours, Miike's film could be accused of outstaying its welcome by all but the most dedicated of samurai fans. Luckily, each new nemesis brings something new to the table, whether it is a different location to fight in (quicksand!), a new choice of weapon, or a new limb to be decapitated. With so many swords flying, and the bloodworm's flowing through Manji's veins, there's a tendency for some fights to become a little like John Cleese's black knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail (‘Tis but a scratch!). When Manji continues to fight even as he loses a hand or two, try not to think of Cleese hopping on one foot and shouting 'chicken' at his opponent.
But Miike has his own wicked sense of humour and while there is plenty of stunning fight choreography; the real draw is Manji's relationship with the little girl. Both Takuya Kimura as the scarred samurai and particularly the fierce Hana Sugisaki as the defiant little girl at the story’s bloody heart are brilliant.
Blade of the Immortal’s biggest problem is right there in the title. It’s hard to get too invested in an indestructible character, and it’s only when one of his opponents manages to weaken the bloodworms that the film has some real threat. Still, watching Manji hacking his way through half of Shogunate-era Japan is mostly fun, if not for quite the length of time that Miike offers. Perhaps he can be a little more brutal in the editing room and make a few more cuts of his own to his 101st feature.
BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE / SCREENPLAY: TETSUYA OISHI / STARRING: TAKUYA KIMURA, HANA SUGISAKI, SOTA FUKUSHI / RELEASE DATE: 8TH DECEMBER
Expected Rating: 8