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Manji, a highly skilled samurai, becomes cursed with immortality after a legendary battle. Haunted by the brutal murder of his sister, Manji knows that only fighting evil will regain his soul. He promises to help a young girl named Rin avenge her parents, who were killed by a group of master swordsmen led by ruthless warrior Anotsu. The mission will change Manji in ways he could never imagine. (From Magnet’s official synopsis)

 Blade of the Immortal
Blade of the Immortal is being toted by US distributor Magnet as ‘The 100th Film from Takashi Miike.’ Given Miike’s penchant for working endlessly without concern for his legacy, it seems doubtful that he made any kind of specific plans for a 100th movie. That said, Blade of the Immortal is close to the perfect summation of his career up until this point. Being based on an established franchise, it might lack the personal touch of some of his pseudo-autobiographical crime dramas, but it features elements of his three most common types of movies – nonsensically violent yakuza movies (i.e. Dead or Alive [1999], Ichi the Killer [2001]), zany and oddly literal adaptations of cartoon/comic book/video game (i.e. The Great Yokai War [2005], Ninja Kids!!! [2011], Ace Attorney [2012]), and prestigious, award-winning samurai films (i.e. 13 Assassins [2010], Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai [2011]). It also appears to be his most expensive film to date and it’s always nice to see the famously frugal director working with a moderate budget.

Hiroaki Samura’s original manga series was based on historical and fictional samurai literature, and in the vein of Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub (originally published: 1970). It’s known for Samura’s gorgeous cross-hatched art, complete with multi-page splashes of epic violence. It was, as most popular manga are, adapted into an anime series in 2008, before Miike and screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi (who also wrote Shûsuke Kaneko’s two-part Death Note film, 2006) got their hands on the material. I’ll admit right now that I’m only sort of familiar with the source material, having read only a single manga collection, but, from what I know, this is a relatively loyal adaptation. Sometimes, this can be a detriment, because there’s just so much plot to cover and Miike isn’t interested in speeding past the long standoffs and protracted battles that have defined samurai cinema since the ‘40s. The 141-minute runtime (including credits) feels excessive, but, for the most part, Miike and Tetsuya try to tell their admittedly boilerplate story through images instead of dialogue whenever possible. Its inherently episodic qualities aren’t distracting, either.

 Blade of the Immortal
As for filmmaking, Miike takes a sort of ‘mixed-media’ approach to adaptation. Instead of slavishly recreating the vibe of a comic book or cartoon in live-action, as he did for movies like Ace Attorney and Ninja Kids!!!, he grounds living duplicates of the manga’s colourful characters in a slightly heightened version of the same world seen in 13 Assassins. I confess that I kept expecting the film to shift into momentary absurdity, à la Dead or Alive, but Miike holds respectfully fast to the sombre, surprisingly delicate tone he establishes early on (the closest we get are some creative kills and hammy bad guys). While the ludicrously graphic gore of Ichi the Killer would’ve certainly fit the material, he takes a pretty old-fashioned approach to the fight scenes, opting for wide-angle shots, handheld cameras, pseudo-realistic fight choreography, and a minimum of slow motion and wire work. The footage is still loaded with splashing blood and severed limbs – it’s just not all that more extreme than some of the violent samurai films of the 1960s. I personally was looking forward to seeing Miike cut loose with stylish special effects that recreated the manga’s outrageous splash pages, but can’t deny how dramatically impactful this more pragmatic method is.

Video


Miike tends to shoot his movies on 35mm, so that’s what I assume he has done here, despite having no tech specs at my disposal. At the very least, this 2.40:1, 1080p transfer has the texture and tonal qualities of a film-based production (and you can see that they’re using magazines in the behind-the-scenes). That said, Blade of the Immortal was very clearly digitally graded in post-production. In fact, colour grading defines the look of the entire movie. The opening act is contrasty black & white, nighttime scenes are similarly desaturated with delicate little details and highlights, and the overcast daylight scenes have a richer, but still very limited palette. While the darker sequences are relatively impressive, the transfer shines where the daylight scenes are concerned. Cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita’s broad, deep focus reveals loads of texture while the vivid costume hues pop against the gritty natural backdrops. The film-based grain creates some posterisation effects, but the only artefact really worth worrying about is the occasional Bayer-like effects that shimmer between the edges of the richest colours. I’m not sure if these are a compression problem or an issue with the grading software.

 Blade of the Immortal

Audio


Magnet has included Japanese and English dub 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options. For this review, I only bothered to listen to the original Japanese language track. Much of the film is driven by dialogue or straight silence, so it probably won’t be your next choice for a demo disc, but it comes to life when it needs to, namely during the big action sequences. Most of the clanging swords and splattering blood is held in the stereo channels, leaving soft, basic ambience to the rear speakers. There are a few brief moments where the dialogue has a muffled quality. These tend to coincide with specific locations, so I think the issue is environmentally based. Kôji Endô, who has worked semi-regularly with Miike since 1997’s Rainy Dog, supplies a mostly traditional, flute, string, and percussion-based score that underlines the action without overwhelming it. The deep strings and taiko drums give the LFE channel plenty to do as well.

Extras


  • Manji vs. 300 (18:24, HD) – Raw behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews (with subtitles, fortunately) from the making-of the two biggest fight sequences.
  • EPK interviews and more behind-the-scenes with Miike and cast members Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, and Ichikawa Ebizō (56:10, HD)
  • Takuya Kimura interview (28:44, HD) – The star gets a separate interview segment, complete with even more on-set footage.
  • Poster gallery
  • Trailers and trailers for other Magnolia/Magnet releases


 Blade of the Immortal

Overall


Blade of the Immortal is a surprisingly subdued comic book adaptation for Takashi Miike, but that’s not a bad thing. As I said many times throughout this review, it occupies a satisfying middle-ground between the director’s prestige and cartoonish work, and has solid dramatic impact, despite a slightly overzealous feature runtime. Don’t get me wrong, though, there’s still more than enough swordplay action and bloody violence to go around (it’s worth the wait for the nearly half-hour-long climax). Magnet’s Blu-ray has a few minor format-based artefacts, but nothing really worth worrying about. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack represents the dynamic mix well and the extras are more extensive than the average Magnolia/Magnet Japanese release.

 Blade of the Immortal
 Blade of the Immortal
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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