Ever since Hollywood Kung Fu stars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan burst onto the scene in the 1970s, East Asian martial arts has been a novel source of the super-heroism celebrated by contemporary action films. While these films popularize the significance of physical forms in traditional martial arts, their focus on visual gratification leaves room for only superficial presentations of martial arts’ ideological roots in humility and order. The upcoming Japanese film “Blade of the Immortal” (2017) makes references to the selfless and disciplined spirits of bushido — a code of ethics for samurai — yet the film’s unnatural plot development fails to give meaning to these traditional virtues.
“Blade of the Immortal” is directed by Takashi Miike, who is known for his interest in dark humor and violence. The film is adapted from a Japanese manga with the same name, which has also inspired an anime production. Set in the Tokugawa Shogunate period, the film is an odyssey of revenge and redemption.
The protagonist, Manji (Takuya Kimura), is a samurai made immortal through an imaginary species of insects called “bloodworms.” Under orders, Manji kills six people, including his brother-in-law. Later, a gang seeking to avenge the people killed by Manji murders his sister, Machi. Fifty years later, Manji encounters Rin (Hana Sugisaki), a girl who looks like Machi, and helps her avenge her parents, who were murdered by the samurai of fighting school Itto-ryu.
Throughout the film, the samurai’s veneration of order is referenced. Manji murders his brother-in-law acting upon the tradition of unquestioning obedience to his overlords. Later in the film, Kensui (Tsutomo Yamazaki), the leader of Shinkeito ryu, cuts his abdomen in seppuku, a ritual performed by samurai who have been dishonorable, after deceiving the leader of Itto-ryu Kagehisa (Sota Fukushi) into an ambush.
Kensui faces an unresolvable dilemma. Tricking Kagehisa is shameful, yet sparing him would be catastrophic given that Itto-ryu threatens all other ryus to succumb to its authority by extermination. Kensui chooses the former for the benefit of society; he accepts the consequences upon his belief in bushido. Both options demand the sacrifice of the individual for the existence of the collective, be it a population or a system of laws. This ascetic, bushido pursuit of honor penetrates so deeply into Japanese culture that some WWII Japanese soldiers went on suicidal charges at the enemy, formally called “Banzai attacks,” rather than face defeat — seven decades after the legal abolishment of the samurai class.
That being said, these fragmented references to bushido remain, at most, stylish elements with empty meaning due to the film’s lack of a natural narrative. The two sides of the story both appear to be motivated solely by revenge. Rin is driven to kill Kagehisa to avenge her parents, and Kagehisa wants to avenge his grandfather, a low-born fighter unfairly executed by Rin’s elite grandfather. Neither side fights for a concrete ideological purpose; rather, both are merely driven by a simple mechanical logic, a cause that seems insufficient for the hundreds of deaths in the film.
The relationship between Rin and Manji is also contrived. It is unclear why Manji helps Rin other than that he sees helping Rin as a surrogate for his failure to protect Machi. Yet Manji willingly risks being stabbed and dismembered for Rin the day after they meet, which feels forced. The characters’ lack of meaningful motivations and strong relationships leave the flow of the story to coincidence and magic. Manji is made immortal by a witch for no clear reason; the same witch tells Rin about Manji; Manji and Rin run into all the antagonists by chance. Fate replaces cause and effect as the dominating law of the universe in the film. Therefore, the bushido virtues are neither incorporated into the development of the characters and the story, nor do they effectively guide them in any way, thus remaining almost irrelevant concepts.
“Blade of the Immortal” allows the audience to revisit the virtues upheld by traditional Japanese samurai. However, its uncritical presentation of these virtues confuses the audience about what to make of these traditional values within the context of the film.