Based on Hiroaki Samura’s long-running (1993-2012) manga, the samurai swashbuckler “Blade of the Immortal” promises the sort of fun, over-the-top action that has long been a trademark of its director, Takashi Miike.
However, it labors to deliver, including during the 300-against-1 fight scene shown in the trailer. Those praying this film would be a return to form for Miike after the disaster of “Terraformars” (2016) — an over-stuffed sci-fi epic that sank without a trace last year — will have to keep praying: “Blade of the Immortal” is more of the dreary same, only this time the cast is in topknots instead of space suits.
Scripted by Tetsuya Oishi and produced by a consortium headed by Warner Bros. Pictures Japan, the film suffers from the elephantiasis endemic to big-budget manga adaptations. Fans want to see their favorite characters and stories, producers oblige, and the result is a two-hour-plus running time packed with self-indulgent bloat. Miike has added a few familiar signature touches, such as shots of gruesomely dissected victims on the wrong end of the hero’s sword, but otherwise the film is hard to distinguish from other “production consortium” product.
Many viewers will see the film not for Miike but Takuya Kimura, who stars as the unkillable title hero. This former SMAP star is now 44 — not a prime age for the film’s many grueling action scenes, but hey, Tom Cruise is 54. Kimura delivers a solid performance physically and otherwise, though, channeling the scruffy, sneering, untamable swordfighters of Toshiro Mifune’s repertoire.
He plays Manji, who is notorious for having killed 100 men with his sword, but who was unable to prevent the death of his beloved sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki). On the brink himself after his epic battle, he is healed by an 800-year-old nun (Yoko Yamamoto), but her cure makes him immortal, which he comes to regard as a curse.
Cut to 50 years later. A teenage girl, Rin (Sugisaki again), watches in horror as her swordmaster father is cut down and his dojo destroyed one dark night by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) and his men. A feared swordsman, Anotsu has the mad ambition to unite all sword-fighting schools under his command, with only the strongest — or rather most deadly — styles surviving. A dandyish type with hair that could have been cut at a trendy Harajuku salon, Anotsu has few scruples about means or methods.
Rin wants revenge and, at the advice of the nun, asks Manji to be her yojinbo, which in this case basically means “hired assassin.” Seeing in Rin the spitting image of Machi, Manji reluctantly agrees.
This simple story is complicated by the comic’s many subplots, imported in talky, static form to the screen, interrupted by bursts of action as Manji battles this or that manga-esque opponent. Taken in isolation, these scenes by action choreographers Keiji Tsujii and Masayoshi Deguchi are stylish swashbuckling, but they are also filmed in similar ways — and eventually begin to blur.
Meanwhile, Manji sustains wound after fatal wound but quickly bounces back for more, which seems unfair to his opponents, as nefarious as they are. And Rin turns out to be something of a dud as a fighter, despite all the sword-swinging at her dad’s dojo. She is, however, a great shouter, un-bottling her rage at maximum volume, over and over.
Some films require a bathroom break; this one needs an aspirin interval.