I never believed anyone other than Takashi Miike deserved to adapt Hiroaki Samura's raucous, blood-drenched manga Blade Of The Immortal into a live-action film, but I didn't believe for a minute it was ever actually going to happen. Then it happened, and I have rarely been happier for having been proved wrong. The film itself, as it turns out, is a great manga-to-screen adaptation, a good-to-great Takashi Miike picture, and a slightly overlong and ragged samurai flick, in roughly that order. But it's hard to be overly critical of something that's a near-textbook example of what to shoot for with a manga-to-live-action adaptation.
Undead man walking
Miike's film opens with events that Samura's manga hinted at but didn't dramatize. Samurai Manji (Takuya Kimura, who was Howl in Howl's Moving Castle, among many other things) is a hunted man, having murdered his lord and bodyguards for their corrupt ways. One of those men, though, was the husband of Manji's sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki), who went mad upon seeing Manij's sword tearing open her beloved. When Manji's cornered by a gang of bandits who murder Machi for the sake of sport, he slaughters all of them single-handedly, but not without sustaining mortal injuries. Then along comes Yaobikuni (Yōko Yamamoto), a witch who infuses Manji with the kessen-chu, the parasitic "bloodworms" that infest his body. They restore all his injuries (even his chopped-off arm), keep him alive for decades to come, and allow him to regenerate from just about any wound. But they can't do anything about his scarred face or his missing eye; those are for keeps.
Immortals tend to avoid calling attention to themselves, and Manji's no exception. He's spent most of his time since lying low and living in a rude, lashed-together hut on the banks of a river. Then one day Rin (Hana Sugisaki, again) shows up, a teenaged girl who's heard about Manji's skillset and wants to hire him for a revenge mission. A motley gang of swordsmen, the Ittō-ryū, led by the unassuming but deadly Anotsu Kagehisa (Sōta Fukushi), appeared at her father's dojo one day, slaughtered him, and stole away Rin's mother. Naturally she wants them all dead, especially Anotsu, but Manji is not so quick to indulge her. Not just because he doesn't want word of his secret getting out, but he knows in his gut how anyone can be motivated to do any kind of wrong, and believe the whole time they are entirely right.
But Manji changes his mind, not least of all because Rin reminds him far too much of his sister. Not just her looks, but her helplessness, her fundamental innocence (despite wanting to glove her hands in the blood of her enemies). He knows there's no way someone like Rin can take on the Ittō-ryū and not be filleted alive — no, not even if she trains all day with those throwing knives that she still can't hit the broad side of a farmhouse with. And so he goes toe-to-toe, sword-to-sword — and sometimes sword-to-spleen, his spleen — with the Ittō-ryū, even as they come to know Anotsu's true motives and realize, just as Manji feared, that they may have less of a moral upper hand than they thought they did. Or, for that matter, a martial one.
Make mine Miike
I never worried about a live-action Blade Of The Immortal not looking right. I was worried about it looking goofy. Some of that comes from, as strange as this may sound, Miike being the right man for the job, but for the wrong reasons.
When Miike adapted Ichi The Killer — not a favorite of mine; more on that in another essay — he went over the top in a way that clearly complemented the preposterousness of the material. But in many other projects, he showed he knew better than to only go over the top to achieve desired effects, as with Sabu or the Black Society Trilogy. When he remade 13 Assassins, he balanced all its screaming blood and thunder violence with strong and sympathetic characterization, and made even the most preposterous of the movie's action beats credible. (How about a stampede of burning bulls?)
But with Immortal, I was concerned. When you have a story that has enough of an element of the fantastic in it, there's the temptation to decouple entirely from reality, to treat it all like total fantasy, to push it as far over the top as Miike pushed his Yatterman and Phoenix Wright live-action adaptations. And while there are moments in Immortal where Miike does that, they don't constitute the absolute fabric of the film. When lady assassin Makie Otono-Tachibana (Erika Toda) steps out (in high-heeled platform sandals, no less) and whips about around a three-segment staff with blades on it, it works because Miike also puts it in sensible contrast with other things. At one point Manji and Rin have a touchy, start-and-stop conversation that's shot at a distance, with each of them on either side of the frame, and with Miike panning slowly to follow them. Without quieter moments like that, the noisy ones wouldn't register as completely.
The actual look of the film is beyond reproach. Japan has a whole cottage industry devoted to samurai-era film- and TV-making, which is part of why stuff like the live-action Rurouni Kenshin film also looked thoroughly up to snuff. Immortal's budget is nowhere nearly as big — it's only one film to that title's three, after all — but it never looks dismayingly cheap, and it hews close to the design of the original comic consistently throughout.
A two-edged Blade
Then there are the places where Blade does fall short, but they stand apart from how well the movie adapts its source material. This is what I meant by the movie being a great adaptation, but being only okay when it tries to function as a samurai picture. It's not that the movie doesn't know how to do justice to its origins, but that in doing so, it sometimes loses sight of what's best for it as a movie, generally, than what's best for it as an adaptation.
Some of the blame for this can be laid on the film's pacing towards the end. The climax is meant to mirror the opening: a massive, protracted battle where Manji & Co. execute (pun intended) a Dynasty Warriors-style one-against-all battle with a whole army of Shōgunate forces. It goes on and on and on, and maybe the point is that it's meant to be as exhausting for us as it is for them; there's shot after shot of them tottering around, bleeding out of uncountable cuts, mustering up enough strength for just one more blow. But the point isn't conveyed as elegantly as it ought to be, and with less of the ferociously outlandish visual flair I was expecting. I felt like the movie could have ended fifteen minutes earlier and lost nothing. Of all the things I want to say about a movie I've been hoping would be made for the better part of two decades, I didn't want one of them to be that it comes perilously close to wearing out its welcome.
There are many other ways Blade gets it right, though. Many adaptations assemble their storyline from bits and pieces of the source material, and this one's no exception. Miike and screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi chose elements that work to advance two agendas that are both valuable to this story — the Anotsu subplot, and the larger problems of Manji's immortality. At one point, for instance, Manji is challenged by a wandering priest who turns out to also have been dosed with Yaobikuni's worms. The implication is clear: it's not just that Manji is not the only one who is like this, but that there is no one right or wrong way to deal with it, and that in Manji's case it has prevented him from ever really confronting his conflicted feelings about whether he wants to live or die. To my mind, it's stuff like this that the movie reproduces most properly from the manga — not its visuals, but its gray morality, and also its thoroughly black sense of humor. (One of the vicious little running gags reproduced faithfully here is the way Manji has to cobble himself back together after every fight.)
I sometimes think the single hardest thing about adapting a manga or an anime to a live-action production is not any technical aspect of the production, but just the act of choosing the right thing to adapt in the first place. Some things just don't translate correctly at all: the live-action Assassination Classroom, for instance, was a bad idea gone wrong. And some things can be translated, but only if the resources are there to make it happen: the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist did the best it could on its relatively tiny budget, but it was like cramming a Beethoven symphony into a music box; it just couldn't be executed properly on that scale. Blade Of The Immortal was highly adaptable to begin with, and was adapted by one of the absolute best people for the job. If it falls short in any way, it's for far more mundane reasons, not because they shouldn't have tried.