If splattering blood in film is an art form, the Japanese director Takashi Miike is Jackson Pollock — and his 100th movie as director, the samurai movie “Blade of the Immortal,” is one of the most viscerally energetic action flicks around.
A 9-minute black-and-white opening segment, with a higher body count than both “Kill Bill” movies put together, sets the stage. In medieval Japan, the fugitive samurai Manji (played by Japanese star Takuya Kimura) is on the run after killing a village’s police chief and six of his officers. His companion is his sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki), driven mad when she saw Manji kill her husband, one of the officers. They are cornered by a gang of bounty hunters who kill Machi, forcing Manji to slaughter the lot of them.
Manji is severely injured in the battle, losing an eye and a hand. But then an 800-year-old nun, Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto), feeds him a bag of “sacred bloodworms.” These infest Manji’s body, causing his wounds to heal — even reattaching his severed hand — and giving him the gift, or curse, of immortality.
The movie, adapted from Hiroaki Samura’s manga by screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi, flashes forward 50 years to upheaval among the dojos in the shogun’s realm. A group of assassins, the Itto-ryu, is rampaging from town to town, delivering a deadly message to every dojo master: Join with us or die.
When one master vows not to bow down to the Itto-ryu’s leader, the powerful fighter Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) kills him and takes his wife hostage. But the master’s daughter, Rin (also played by Sugisaki), gets away. She seeks out Manji to hire him to help her get revenge on Anotsu and his gang — and Manji, seeing a resemblance between Rin and his fallen sister, reluctantly agrees to be her protector and champion.
Miike, best known to American audiences for his samurai drama “13 Assassins” (2010) or the disturbing suspense thriller “Audition” (1999), shows the ensuing journey as a series of battles between Manji and Anotsu’s fiercest warriors. The battles are fiercely staged and often quite bloody, and Manji’s healing powers make the fights a tad one-sided. (If his hand gets caught, he can easily cut it off, then come back for it later to let the worms reattach it again.)
But Samura’s manga provides Miike and Oishi added layers of story. While Anotsu’s men battle Manji, the renegade leader is also working behind the scenes to negotiate with the shogun’s government — a bit of back-alley intrigue that provides some depth to Manji’s revenge-and-redemption story. Miike recognizes the parallels between the samurai drama and Hollywood Westerns, and there are strains of “The Searchers” and “True Grit” running through the dynamic between Rin and Manji.
Miike can stage one heck of a fight scene and has plenty of opportunities to do so. The grand finale is a 25-minute spectacle in which Manji runs through the Itto-ryu like a windshield through a bug convention — and gives “Blade of the Immortal” the breathless excitement this brilliant, bloody masterpiece deserves.
* * * 1/2
Blade of the Immortal
A rogue samurai, cursed with immortality, helps a teen girl seeking revenge for her father’s murder in this spectacularly violent action thriller from Japan’s Takashi Miike.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 3.
Rating • R for bloody violence and carnage throughout.
Running time • 140 minutes; in Japanese with subtitles.