Blade of the Immortal
Wednesday 18th April 2018
Spanning two worlds, a manga called Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura ran in Gekkan Afternoon magazine for nearly 20 years, from 1993 to 2012. It featured a unique universe beyond a traditional period drama, with intense action art-work and colourful, compelling characters in a human drama of dramatic conflict, sword fighting, and tricks. Selling more than 7.5 million copies, it attracted international attention and won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award, the most prestigious comic prize in the U.S. (prize-winners have included Akira). But Blade of the Immortal, while it had worldwide interest, appeared to be a very difficult manga to film.
Hiroyoshi Koiwai, producer at Warner Bros Japan, fresh from the success of his Ruroni Kenshin film franchise, hit on master filmmaker Takashi Miike, one of the world's most audacious and prolific directors, as someone who could overcome the challenges of this vast project. Miike then made the unexpected suggestion of superstar Takuya Kimura for the lead role of Manji.
Manji is a samurai who is unexpectedly granted an immortal body, and 50 years later remains just as he was. Is this actually living? Or is it merely being kept alive? If so, for what? The story grapples with the question of what it is to be immortal. Coincidentally, Koiwai had worked with Kimura on other projects. When he heard Miike's idea, Koiwai said, 'It was like the scales fell from my eyes. To have an actor who has been at the top for several decades playing an immortal samurai adds to the character's 'unfading' quality, and Kimura is the only one with the physical ability to make the action and philosophy of the piece real, with sex appeal.'
International producer Jeremy Thomas joined this combination of Takashi Miike, whose magic brings to life the impossible, and the star power of Takuya Kimura, and an ambitious project was now under way.
Shooting began November 2nd, 2015, and finished the following January 17th during the cold winter of Kyoto. Most of Manji's scenes were shot outdoors, with Kimura wearing nothing but a thin kimono, barefoot except for straw sandals, a costume he continued to wear even when his full body was not in the scene. The entire crew, as well as the writer of the original story visiting the set, were astonished, but Kimura seemed to take this as a matter of course.
Kimura also made a point of following the original story in his action sequences, as Manji is blind in his right eye. Miike originally conceived of Kimura performing these shots with his eye made up to look blind, but with the actor actually able to see from both. Then, as Kimura is right-handed, Miike suggested that the left eye would be the blind one. But Kimura insisted on following the visual plan of the original manga.
'That's who Manji is,' he said. His uncompromising attitude as an actor continued unflinchingly on the set.
The many different sword fights were performed without stunt doubles, and Kimura accepted all the demands made on him. Manji fights with many unusual weapons against many distinctive opponents, requiring acrobatics in more than a few scenes. He managed to pull these off despite being able to use only one eye, on the uncertain footing of straw sandals, and in the freezing cold of winter. Kimura brought cast and crew together with his dedication, winning the respect of all involved.
The chemistry between Hana Sugisaki, playing the female lead of Rin, and Kimura was perfect from the very first day, when they shot the scene in which she asks him to serve as her bodyguard. Her resemblance to his dead sister Machi, and the quest for revenge that made him a killer leads him to refuse at first, but the strength of her resolve leads to a curious meeting of minds and he accepts, in an emotional connection only possible between two actors like Kimura and Sugisaki.
Miike's direction also inspired passion: 'Rin hears her dead mother calling her!' he said. Miike may be known as a man's director, but this is an unusual example of his finely tuned direction bringing him close to the spirit of a female character. Sugisaki carefully took in his every word to make her character shine all the more, very much as a sponge absorbs water. Kimura was also very supportive throughout, and the two exchanged high-fives upon completion of the first day's shoot. 'It's fate,' he said. From that time on there was a mood of close cooperation and smiles as they set off on Rin's quest for vengeance. It was as if they were indeed brother and sister.
Taking instruction from the Action Director, Kimura used the action scenes as a way to flesh out the character of Manji. This was more than simply remembering the moves to a swordfight. Kimura didn't like using the words 'swordfight' or 'fight', as he didn't want these scenes to be a simple process of choreography, or a star turn. Kimura spoke with Miike and the action team, and added elements to give a greater human drama to his performance, serving to deepen Manji as a character. While Manji is immortal, he feels pain, and he is not invincible. He faces powerful opponents to which he sometimes loses. 'Undying' simply means 'unable to die', and we see him injured with swords and badly beaten. This puts the audience on his side, and it is the fine details of Kimura's performance that makes him real to us.
The supporting actors are also excellent in their unique action scenes. Hayato Ichihara as Shira, loses a hand, but adapts this into a new weapon. The demonic energy he shows as he attacks Manji, licking his lips, is a thing to behold. Erika Toda as Makie, performs wild acrobatic feats in the narrow confines of her battle with Manji. Her use of the long sword, difficult to swing in this space, is an effect that Hiroaki Samura planned for when he wrote the original manga.
The scene establishes Makie's brilliance as a sword-fighter, and the destruction of everything around her is dynamic. With support from Kimura, Toda makes this exacting sequence her own in an astonishing way for her first action film, and shows both the character's charm and the sadness beneath it.
The final battle involves some 300 extras in a massive spectacle, on a scale that is the same as the destruction of an entire town. With characters falling from horses and tumbling down stairs, Manji and Anotsu gradually battle their way to a final showdown. Having Anotsu on the bridge and Manji below plays off their personas, and heightens the anticipation for their climactic encounter.
Sota Fukushi, playing Anotsu, watched Kimura's action sequences closely even when he was not in the shot, mimicking his own movements to Manji's in an unconscious warm-up to the fight that was to come.
Thus the battle between Manji and Anotsu is the greatest spectacle of Blade of the Immortal. It is a collaboration between Kimura and Fukushi in which two men pit their pride against each other in a vivid and deeply textured performance.
- Weird Weapons - The unusual weapons that the characters wield add to their individuality. As he defeats his opponents, Manji takes their weapons for his own. In the original manga, he ended up with 38 of them
- Vivid Costumes - In contrast to the drab kimono that Manji wears, Rin is dressed in bright red, and Hyakurin in a violet mini-skirt. The colors of the characters' clothing help establish their identity, and are faithful to the world of the original manga
- Elaborate Storyboards For Action Sequences - There is a contrast between the sword fights in this film and those of traditional period drama. Detailed manga-like storyboards for each shot helped the actors take these action scenes into new cinematic territory
- Open Set - The large set, complete to the finest details of the houses, was built over two months in the hills outside Kyoto. The set materials were then aged to create a greater sense of realism
- Wire Action - Wire action was used in important sequences, allowing both male and female cast members to perform their own action stunts without doubles.
Takuya Kimura as Manji. Born in Tokyo in 1972, Kimura is regarded as a Japanese icon after achieving unprecedented success as an actor and influencing Japanese language and culture. His major film titles include Fly Boys, Fly! (1995), Howl's Moving Castle (voice, 2004), Wong Kar-wai's 2046, Yoji Yamada's Love and Honour (2006), and the live-action version of the anime hit Space Battleship Yamato (2010). He is also known for many successful TV series, including Hero (2007-15), Long Vacation (1997), Love Generation (1997), Beautiful Life (2000), Good Luck!! (2003), Pride (2004), Engine (2005), The Family (2007), Change (2008), Mr. Brain (2009), The Antarctic Continent (2011), A.I. knows Love? (2013), Miyamoto Musashi (2014), and I'm Home (2015).
Originally a 'hatamoto', a samurai in the direct service of the Shogun, Manji now has a bounty on his head, having killed both a superior who was oppressing the common people to fatten his own wallet, and six of his fellow bodyguards. One of these, however, was the husband of his younger sister Machi. The shock of his death made her lose her mind, and the two siblings fled. After Machi is killed by bounty hunters, the furious Manji kills a hundred of them. Wounded, he lays dying, but a mysterious old lady appears, Yaobikuni. She puts 'bloodworms' into his system, which heal his wounds and grant him immortality. His battle with the bounty hunters becomes legendary, and he is now known as 'Hundred Killer'. Fifty years later, a girl appears asking him to serve as her bodyguard. 'Pain in the ass', thinks Manji, but underneath his rough exterior, he in fact has a powerful sense of justice.
"At the end of the first day of shooting, without really intending to, Ms Sugisaki and I high-fived each other. Certainly by the time shooting finished I think Rin, the character she plays, had become what Manji was living for, but it was probably because we both felt, without any words being said, that we'd established the basic feeling behind that. I think that's the bond between Manji and Rin, and the bond between Ms Sugisaki and myself.
When Manji encounters Rin, he finds a definite purpose in being alive. Since he's immortal, the expression doesn't really apply, but he his attitude towards her is 'do or die'. The Japanese title uses the word 'infinity', and I think this refers to 'depth of emotion' rather than 'time' or 'space', although I suppose you can think of it as 'permanent'.
With the Miike crew, it feels like I'm taking part in a foreign movie. I don't like the words 'sword fight' or 'fight' very much, but before we shot a big scene, Mr Miike would always say, 'Everyone, the scene we're about to take now is a battle to the death.' It was exciting to have someone who felt the same way as I did about a scene watching as we filmed it, and I was very happy doing that." - Takuya Kimura
Hana Sugisaki as Rin Asano / Machi. Born in Tokyo in 1997, Hana came to attention in Ferris Wheel at Night (2013), and continued to star in TV, motion pictures, and commercials. Her award-winning performance in Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016) has made her one of Japan's leading young actresses. Other credits include In the Hero (2014), A Stitch of Life (2015), and MOZU (2015). She was also featured in the NHK drama series Toto Nechan (2016).
Rin is the only child of Tadayoshi Asano, whose 'Mutenichi-ryu' school of fencing is said to be the most powerful dojo in Edo. Hating to lose, she is not at all 'feminine' as she trains with the objective of succeeding her father as head of the school. However, Kagehisa Anotsu and his men break into the dojo one night and kill her father. While she is training alone in order to take revenge, Yaobikuni appears and tells her about Manji. She asks him to serve as her bodyguard. He refuses at first, but she begs him, and he finally accepts. 'Machi' (also played by Hana Sugisaki) is Manji's younger sister, cut down by a bounty hunter before his very eyes.
"The thing I was most worried about was how to express the depth of resolution that Rin has. But worrying is the worst thing you can do when you're acting, so I read the original story over and over to lose that worry as best I could. I was afraid that Mr. Miike would be intimidating, but when I first met him at the costume fitting, he was completely different from what I had expected, with a twinkle in his eye that communicated to me. Once I was on the set, all my worries disappeared; that's how convincing the set where we were going to film was. The first scene I filmed with Mr. Kimura, where Rin first confronts Manji, was big, too. I was able to get that very important trust in Manji, and in Mr. Kimura." - Hana Sugisaki
Sota Fukishi as Kagehisa Anotsu. Born in Tokyo in 1993, Fukushi came to attention with his debut in Kamen Ride Fourze (2011), and became a household name with the NHK drama series Amachan (2013). In 2014, he won the Newcomer of the Year Award of the Japan Academy for In the Hero, As the Gods Will and Say I Love You. Other credits include Library Wars (2013), Strobe Edge (2015), and Tomorrow I will Date with Yesterday's You (2016). Chotto imakara shig-oto yametekuru, Laughing under the Clouds (both 2017) and Bleach (2018) await release.
Leader of the Itto-ryu school of fencing, which does not limit itself to a certain technique or recognize any qualifications, but uses any and every style and weapon at its disposal with the sole mission of victory. Anotsu himself fights with an ancient style of battle axe. Determined to unite all the swordsmen of Tokyo under his leadership, he attacks and destroys every dojo in the city. His placid exterior conceals a raging ambition, and, when a messenger from the Shogunate brings a request that he serve as an fencing instructor to their officials, Anotsu demands that the government establish a school with him as its head.
"This is the first time I've played a villain, so I'm looking forward to how audiences will react. Asano has a strong sense of himself as leader of the Itto-ryu, and he is very dedicated to this. As far as he is concerned, he is the hero of the piece, so I played him as someone who thinks he is on the side of good. This is the second film I've done for Mr. Miike, and this one is completely different from the first. Anotsu is a very strong character, so I played him with a sense of challenge. The director emphasized 'violent, and beautiful,' and I was especially aware of the word 'violent'. I was very tense for the one-scene, one-shot takes, and when they were OK I was especially happy. It's been a valuable experience. Just seeing Mr. Kimura on the set made me tighten up. As an actor and as a person, he's someone I can learn a lot from." - Sota Fukushi
Blade of the Immortal is the Japanese master's 100th film! From Osaka, born in 1960, Miike is known as a provocative director who works in all manner of genres. He is known throughout the world, with his Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and Shield of Straw (2013) premiering In Competition at Cannes, and 13 Assassins (2010) premiering In Competition at the Venice Film Festival. Other major titles include Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), Crows Zero (2007) and its 2009 sequel, Lesson of the Evil (2012), and the Mole Song films (2014, 2016). Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable - Chapter 1 (2017) awaits release.
"Takuya Kimura and Manji are like each other. Here I see something meant to be. They are born in entirely different times and spaces, but they breathe the same air, and as a result I think they're linked. When you meet Takuya Kimura and Manji, you feel their strength. Without that strength, Takuya Kimura would never have become Japan's greatest superstar, and Manji could never have lived as he does in a dark world that no one knows about. Because it was such an unusual story, I filmed it sensing the real Takuya Kimura.
But it's not just great. It's not just beautiful. Takuya Kimura, and only Takuya Kimura, has for the rest of the performers a kind of animal strength, a living force, that is a big help to all of us.
We can't let this movie just come to a pointless end. Surely if we're serious we can make something that will astonish the world. I believe that, and I want to believe that. Before we can entertain an audience, we have to entertain ourselves. We have to do what we want to do in the way we want to do it. Something that we've totally lost ourselves in should result in a Japanese story made in the way that only Japanese can make it, and be something with a value for audiences all over the world that they've never seen before." - Takashi Miike