The hero of "Blade of the Immortal" carries a curse that some samurai might consider a blessing: He can't die. Yet Manji (actor/pop star Takuya Kimura) can be hurt — and suffer excruciating pain — as he hacks his way along a blackly comic course of slashings, stabbings and severed limbs.
"Blade" is the 100th film directed by the wildly prolific (and just plain wild) Takashi Miike. His two previous samurai pictures, "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai" and "13 Assassins," were much more restrained than his gory cult faves. But "Blade" goes for the carotid while offering a classic look and a comic-book story. It's part Kurosawa, part "X-Men," part "Ichi the Killer."
In a black-and-white prologue, Manji slays dozens of men in an attempt to save his grief-addled little sister (Hana Sugisaki). He fails, and is ready to die. Then an 800-year-old nun (Yoko Yamamoto) saves him with "sacred" bloodworms that will repair all but the most grievous wounds.
After 50 years — and a transition to color — the badly scarred Manji meets Rin, a girl who looks just like his dead sibling. (It's Sugisaki again.) Rin is the daughter of a sword fighting instructor who was murdered by the Itto-ryu, a band of young fighters who have declared war on all the traditional martial-arts schools. The group is led by the epicene Anotsu (Sota Fukushi), who could be a glam-rock star. Anotsu's followers look as though they just hopped off the catwalk at a goth fashion show, brandishing weapons that are both fantastical and unhistorical.
Rin needs protection and wants vengeance. Manji offers both in several battles with Anotsu's gang and another faction that opposes the Itto-ryu but is just as bizarre in appearance (and as brutal in tactics). Standing by for the final bloodbath are a few hundred of the shogun's warriors.
In its rare quiet moments, "Blade" shows Miike's style at its most refined. The movie was filmed on sets built in the hills near Kyoto, and shot beautifully in widescreen by Nobuyasu Kita. Light from sun, moon and flame filters elegantly through the shadow-rich compositions, and Koji Endo's score is a model of East-West eclecticism.
"Death Note" veteran Tetsuya Oishi adapted the script from a manga that ran for 20 years, which gave it more time to be philosophical. (There's no blade in the comic's original title, "Dweller in the Infinite.") The name Manji, in Japanese, refers to the Buddhist swastika, which symbolizes the cycle of life. In the manga, the back of Manji's kimono sports such an insignia, but in the movie that's been replaced by the Japanese character for 10,000.
Perhaps that represents the body count of this bloody-minded exercise. The fight scenes, although artfully staged, become numbingly repetitious. That's probably because of Miike's enthusiasm for excess, but just may be meant to evoke Manji's weariness. When "Blade" finally ends, both the eternal samurai and his audience have seen too many people die.
R. At Landmark's Atlantic Plumbing Cinema. Contains extreme violence. In Japanese with subtitles. 140 minutes.