In the opening moments of Blade of the Immortal. a samurai slices through a horde of opponents, killing a hundred, but losing a hand and an eye in the process.
And he had such good hand-eye coordination!
Fortunately, Manji (Takuya Kimura) still has one eye, and his hand grows back — an old sorceress grants him eternal life, in the form of special restorative properties that allow severed appendages to reattach and mortal wounds to heal.
Manji becomes a sort of undead samurai, and like a character in a high-toned vampire movie, has ambivalent feelings about his immortality. As another zombie swordsman puts it: I'm tired of being alive.
It's a fitting subject for Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, known for the operatic violence of his pulpy movies, here making his 100th film, with the indulgent gusto that is his style.
The zombie angle allows Miike to stage some of his goriest scenes yet — disemboweled and dismembered Manji, staggering through ultra-violent skirmishes, wearily gathering up his limbs after another hard days work.
The source of these conflicts? The cynical and world weary Manji, as a rule, sticks his neck out for no one, but he's moved by the story of an orphaned girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) who parents have been murdered by power-mad samurai master Anotsu (Sota Fukushi).
Anotsu, in fact, has killed so many people in his mad bid to consolidate all Japan's samurai that multiple vendettas are launched against him. Manji and Rin find themselves competing with other colorful assassins, who can't kill Anotsu's men fast (or luridly) enough.
Sounds like great fun, and sometimes it is. Manji tangles with female assassins in some amusing scenes, and the bond between Manji and his young friend makes Blade of the Immortal feel, at times, like an Eastern re-imagining of True Grit (it's real source material is a manga comic).
Yet, the movie also runs 2 hours, 20 minutes, which is a lot of dead samurai. The violence is often numbing, and the translations — the movie is subtitled — are sometimes as deadly as the swordsmanship.
On the other hand, Blade of the Immortal is flat-out gorgeous. Widescreen, lush, beautiful. It's Takashi's nod to the samurai movies of the last century.