Blade of the Immortal (2017)

Takashi Miike’s previous forays into the samurai genre, in the shape of “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri” show a reverence for the genre which is also evidenced here in “Blade of the Immortal”. The film is based on a manga by Hiroaki Samura and follows the story of a man cursed with eternal life. In the opening scenes we are introduced to Manji, played by Takuya Kimura. He is on the run from the law after killing several constables and taking care of his sister, Machi. Manji’s immortality comes from a bloodworm given to him by a witch and it also gives him the power to recover from any injury. He also gains the less heralded ability to produce any number of weapons at will from beneath his robes. Later he comes across a young girl, Rin, played by Hana Sugisaka, who reminds him of his sister. Her own parents have been killed and Manji agrees to take on her mission of revenge.

Miike clearly has a love of samurai and swordplay and there are some beautifully choreographed fight-sequences. Both large scale battles and one-on-one duels between the protagonist and the swordsmen of the Itto clan. The cinematography is as good as any classic samurai film. The opening sequences use the chiaroscuro to great effect and the use of shadows throughout evokes an atmosphere of the clash between right and wrong. There is also great use of colour, in the vibrant red of Rin’s kimono and purple of Makie’s gown (another of the Itto clan) contrasting with the black and white of Manji’s robes. Everything about the film shows a quality and attention to detail, with excellent set-design and costumes. The tone of the film flits between serious drama but also includes flashes of Miike’s black humour. In large part these are off-hand remarks, or unbelievable moments such as when a character is impaled on a number of weapons at once. The film is long and perhaps suffers a little from an attempt to replicate a manga structure. The screenplay by Tetsuya Oishi does a good job of getting a lot of information across, but could have done with a less loyal adaptation of the source material. It becomes a little formulaic when Manji is taking on the third or fourth villain to appear. However, the final triumphant fight sequence, itself an incredible feat running to almost half an hour of uninterrupted action, brings the film to a thrilling close. The fights are bloodsoaked and brutal and there is enough variety in the opponents, locations or impetus of the sequences to keep you interested, but it is clear that they are attempting to rush through several important characters without giving too much time to develop any one in particular. The relationship between Rin and Manji is poignant and enjoyable to watch, with both giving exceptional performances.

The film discusses the rights and wrongs of revenge as well as the idea of the cycle of violence. In many ways Manji is the embodiment of this notion. He is trapped in life that is never ending, forced not only to relive his own mistakes, but in taking on Rin’s mission he is possibly beginning the same pattern again. He yearns for death, having grown tired of living, but is unable to achieve it. In his determination we also see his character go through a change of heart as he moves from being apathetic and wishing to end his life, to rediscovering a meaning to fight. This cyclical nature of violence is something that the film is somewhat ambivalent about. Later in the film the villain tells Rin that whether he lives or dies men like him will return, time and again. Humanity can never walk away from its fundamentally violent nature. But there is the hope that there will always be heroes who rise up to fight on the side of justice. An enjoyable swordplay epic with a heartwarming central relationship and exceptional action sequences.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

Two assassins meet unexpectedly when they are both contracted to kill the same man. After realising that they were actually childhood friends, they decide to escape from the city and return to the island where they were brought up, visiting a third friend who is now living there with his pregnant wife. After their respite the two decide to return to the metropolis and use their skills as professional killers to benefit orphans in the third world, by sending the money they make overseas. This soon brings them back into contact with the violent gangs they had previously escaped.

After the grotesque comedy of the first Dead or Alive film, this is a much more sedate affair. There is still puerile humour, sex, violence, and quirky storytelling with bizarre plot twists, but throughout is a strong central theme helped along by fantastic performances by Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. The two actors this time play the assassins returning to their hometown, reliving former traumas and triumphs along with their old friend. Both are charismatic and it is good to see them getting more screen time together. The story meanders its way through their reminiscences and may not appeal to those fond of the more frenetic pace of the earlier film, but it does a much better job of creating likeable characters. Takashi Miike brings a visual flair and intelligence to the directing that keep things interesting. There are moments of pure cinema, such as when the characters sprout wings, one black, one white, or when we see feathers falling from nowhere after a murder, or when the characters transform into their childhood selves.

It may seem out of place to have a school play half-way through a film about hit-men, especially one that is juxtaposed with a sex scene and gangland murders in another part of the country, but it typifies what makes this movie great. By creating a powerful contrast between the placid life of the small island community with the horrors of inner-city crime we get a picture of divided characters, contract killers who still retain their basic humanity. The film is essentially about a loss of innocence as we see what these young boys have become, and their attempt to regain that through travelling back to their old town. The plot involving the two killers helping young children out with money through the proceeds of murder is a fairly pointed commentary on what is wrong with society, and done in a way that makes it seem like common sense (why not kill bad guys and give the money to helpless orphans?). It is great to see a film that has the confidence to tell its audience uncomfortable truths, while at the same time not being overly moralistic.

Crows Zero 2 (2009)

With the same cast and director as Crows Zero the style is consistent with the first film. This film introduces the Houzan gang, whom the Crows, following the murder of Houzan’s boss by an ex-student 2 years prior, are unwittingly drawn into war with. This time Selizawa and Genji must fight together against this new rival. There are also a few interesting new characters introduced.

The style is identical to the first, with the comedy and action set pieces expanded on. There is little to say about this film that couldn’t be said of the first. The new dynamic of a rival gang is exciting and the first half is fast paced with the usual blend of violence and humour. The second half is largely a single assault on the rival gang’s building. While the direction is fantastic and it’s broken up with memorable moments, it feels overdone at times.

Definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the first film as it rounds off the story with the boy’s graduating. A highly enjoyable comedy action film.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.

 

Crows Zero (2007)

Suzuran High School, violent and out of control, is occupied by factions formed among the students. New student Genji, backed by his uncle in the Yakuza, attempts to wrest control from the most powerful faction leader: Selizawa. the film has many comedic moments and a stylized design make it feel like a live-action manga should.

From the opening scene of a Yakuza gangster shooting a man, to the final rain drenched battle, the director strings together a number of powerful set pieces. The fight scenes are well-done, though gleefully cartoonish in the levels of violence. The rock soundtrack also gives the film drive. While it might easily have been a meaningless array of fights, the scenes between the two leads and Genji and his uncle help give an emotional edge to the film.

The characters are largely arrogant, impetuous high-school kids and the film to some extent glorifies fighting. The pugilistic lifestyle does however allow for reflections on the power of family, loyalty and honour. An exhausting but ultimately fulfilling experience.

Based on a manga by Hiroshi Takahashi.