Bringing Samura’s Vision To The Big Screen
♦ Takashi Miike’s adaptation of manga series Blade of The Immortal is out in UK cinemas on 8 December and here’s a look at the genesis of it…
Origin Of The Project
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 artwork and colourful, compelling characters in a human drama of dramatic conflict, swordfighting, 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.
The Presence of Takuya Kimura
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 swordfights 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 Passion Of Han Sugisaki
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.
Character Action Beyond Swordfighting
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 Climax
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.