My traditional strategy with Let's Film This has been to deal with Western live-action adaptations of anime and manga properties. This time out, I'm flipping the script, and speculating about what it would be like to have a Japanese live-action adaptation of a Japanese property — one so long-lived, well-respected, and fan-favorited that I'm amazed it hasn't already made the leap: Hiroaki Samura's manga Blade of the Immortal.
Japan has had profoundly mixed results with the live-action adaptations produced from its own material. Sometimes all the stars line up at once, and the resulting work does both justice to the original material and audiences walking in cold (Rurouni Kenshin). Sometimes the results deviate enough from the original to split both fans and newcomers (Attack on Titan, Casshern). And sometimes, you just get a mess (Gantz) or a humdrum walkthrough (Space Battleship Yamato). Blade of the Immortal stands a better than average chance of being done well, in big part because it's right in line with a kind of production the Japanese film industry already executes excellently with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind its back: ultraviolent historical fantasy.
Get busy killing or get busy dying
The simpler the premise, the greater the possibilities in the right hands. Blade of the Immortal deals with a ronin, Manji (replete with a jacket sporting his namesake swastika), whose evil deeds led to the deaths of a hundred other men. His punishment for this was not death, but rather eternal life — a dose of "bloodworms" that keep him alive no matter how much physical punishment he takes. For atonement, he's out to claim the lives of a thousand evil men ... although it's a toss-up whether the crafty old nun responsible for his condition will in fact allow him to die, or if he'll end up on an even greater and more dangerous mission.
Manji's path is set at the opening the series when he picks up a sidekick of sorts — a girl named Rin, whose mother and dōjō-master father were massacred at the hands of master swordsman Kagehisa Anotsu and his gang of ninja-like warriors. But Anotsu has more than murder on his mind; he's attempting, in however horrible a fashion, to remake the society they live in. In fact, over time he seems like far less of a villain than people like the horrific Shira, a monster who delights in torture ... and for whom someone like the unkillable Manji would constitute the perfect victim.
On the face of it, the main attraction of the story is the stylized violence — sometimes to the point where Samura will stop the clock and fill a double-page spread with a freeze-frame tableau of carnage. But like Black Lagoon, another adult-themed story with a long-running, long-standing fandom in many territories, the real subject of the story is not how many grotesquely creative kills Manji can rack up (and Samura can thus depict). Both stories aim further upmarket: the nature of good and evil; the validity of questing for revenge; the problems of sin and redemption.
Keeping the roots
For a series with such longevity and audience fidelity (it was one of the first manga to be published as a monthly comic in the U.S., by Dark Horse), it might come as a surprise Blade didn't end up being adapted to other media all the sooner — specifically, anime. Part of that might well have been a technical issue: Samura's art is so detailed and meticulous, most any animated adaptation that didn't come with an exorbitant production pricetag was bound to fail. But Production I.G and Bee Train gave it their best back in 2008, and gave us a thirteen-episode series, condensed down from the first few volumes of the manga. It's a noble try, but its biggest failure isn't that it doesn't look like the original series — rather, it doesn't feel much like it. The biting, black humor of the original didn't make the translation somehow, and so the show lacks the exhilarating, transgressive power of the manga.
So why not a live-action version? Specifically, one made in Japan for a Japanese audience — and not only because of how the story and its setting are so tightly bound to each other, but because Japan has production teams at the ready to produce something like this on a moment's notice. The vast majority of what's needed to realize the movie is available out of the box there; even the gore effects (e.g., Manji reattaching his severed limbs) are standard-issue stuff now, well within the realm of what even a modestly budgeted production could handle. After all, products far more outré than this make it to the screen regularly in Japan, from mini-epics like Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins to the low-budget neo-grindhouse projects under the Sushi Typhoon label.
Another advantage to adapting Blade at this point in time: it's a finished product. Any adaptation from this point on would have the freedom to survey the work as a single continuity and adapt from it as needed. This isn't to say that adaptations that diverge out of necessity because of the incompleteness of the source are a bad idea — people have good standing to defend Fullmetal Alchemist apart from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood — but being able to survey the whole gives any adapter a better sense of what the flavor of the entire work is meant to be like, and the freedom to pick or condense storylines from across the whole (as per Rurouni Kenshin's live-action adaptation).
What matters most, though, is that Blade should remain a product of its setting, and not be tinkered with or relocalized out of some foolish need to broaden its appeal. Keep the budget lean, make it primarily for the audience that cares about it, export it to the West for the audience that cares about it there, and leave it at that. Not everything that matters has to reach everyone. It just has to reach the right people. Isn't that the larger lesson of anime (and manga) in the West, anyway?