See It Instead: Blade of the Immortal.
Before sharpening your blade for Takashi Miike’s latest samurai story, check out these classics.
Blade of the Immortal is the latest blood soaked hack and slash film from one of my favorite Japanese directors. Miike is famous for his visceral depictions of violence and aggression blended with minimalist story telling and reality bending visuals. His films explore the darker themes of traditional samurai films such as lust, revenge, betrayal and blind devotion. Much like how Quentin Tarantino pushes the western to its limits, or how Robert Rodriguez mines the veins of the pulp flick, Takashi Miike stylizes and plays with classic genre tropes as a reflection on the very types of films he makes.
To prepare for his latest outing, I looked at other films in his catalogue and celebrated samurai films that explore similar themes to Blade of the Immortal. We also covered another Miike film in our See It Instead for 47 Ronin. If you find yourself with a hankering for flashing blades and taiko drums, these picks will satisfy your blood lust!
Blade of the Immortal (2017)
Manji is a former samurai who is on the run with his younger sister. Incensed by a perceived injustice committed by his superiors, he murdered them all. Unfortunately his keen blade also inadvertently killed his sister’s betrothed. The loss fractured her mind, causing her to act like a child. Manji’s luck runs out when a group of a hundred hired killers catch up with him and cut down his sister. Imbued with a demonic rage, he murders them all before succumbing to his wounds. A mysterious stranger grants him a cursed immortality until he can cleanse his soul by killing the wicked.
Enter Rin, the daughter of a swordsman who is slaughtered by a rival school. She sets out to hire Manji, directed by the same stranger who cursed him. Seeing a resemblance to his dead sister in Rin, Manji agrees to champion her cause, no matter how many bodies he needs to stack up to accomplish it.
The Stylish Pick: Goyokin (1969).
Magobei is a dutiful samurai for a corrupt lord. When he witnesses helpless peasants being cut down in order to hide his lord’s crimes, he leaves. Years later his old boss tracks him down and attempts to have him assassinated. Magobei convinces his would-be assassin of the justice in his cause, and they both head north to exact revenge upon the greedy tyrant.
Director Hideo Gosha earned a reputation for his excellent chambara films – samurai epics that dealt in heroics and morality. Goyokin was the first film to use the Panavision technique, and Gosha jumped in with both feet by making a massive production filled with action that seemed decades ahead of its time. It’s hard to believe it came out in the same decade as Yojimbo and 7 Samurai. While it embraces many of the tropes of the chambara (including excellent fight sequences) it has a very modern sensibility. If you want a great sword fighting flick but are put off by Kurosawa’s stately pace, Goyokin is for you.
The Bloody Pick: 13 Assassins (2010).
An aging samurai is called out of retirement by an old friend with a dire proposition: kill the half brother of the Shogun. The Shogun’s wayward brother is a murderer and rapist who flouts the law because of his status, and he is about to be granted even more power. Seeking justice, the samurai recruits 11 of his loyal soldiers plus a local hunter to guide them. These 13 devise a clever trap to ensnare the Shogun’s brother as he leaves the capital, dooming themselves to dishonor but saving the locals from his tyranny
13 Assassins is Takashi Miike’s most mainstream film (at least of those available to a western audience). A remake of a classic from 1963, the film has the tone and themes of other great righteous revenge stories like 7 Samurai, Chusingura and Sanjuro. The film still has Miike’s stamp of wilting amounts of violence and bloodshed, and the final 45 minutes is one long orgy of sword-fighting and devious traps. You really get two movies for the price of one: a political intrigue period drama and a 13 versus 1000 absolute gonzo bloodletting. Win-win!
The Dark Pick: The Sword of Doom (1966)
Ryunosuke is a completely amoral man and master swordsman. He kills without hesitation or remorse, ultimately getting himself into a lot of trouble. To escape a vendetta incurred by killing another swordsman in a sparring match, he joins an extra-legal hit squad working in the shadows for the Shogun. Eventually, his ruthless ways catch up with him as the ghosts of his victims begin to appear in his waking visions.
Unlike or other protagonists, Ryunosuke is no gallant hero fighting for bloody justice. Actually, he’s a complete asshole. Genre legend Tatsuya Nakadai plays him with such ruthless vigor that you can’t look away from his scowling mug for even an instant. You also can’t blink if you want to see his deft sword hand. Our man cleaves through opponent after opponent, reaching a crescendo in the final sequence where he loses his mind and starts murdering his fellow assassins, a frozen scream on his face as he takes one final swing of the sword before the screen goes black. It’s one of the best scenes in the genre, right up there with Sanjuro’s final sword fight or Toshiro Mifune screaming in real rage as Akira Kurosawa shoots real arrows at him in The Throne of Blood.