Sadly, with this film (his hundredth) Takashi Miike has not done it again, fumbling the precise balance of gonzo action and serious-minded meditation on violence that made 13 Assassins such a thrill. Blade of the Immortal continually strains after thoughtfulness to ... wait, that's not quite right. It's more accurate to say that it strains after thoughtfulness in some moments and then walks back that thematic work in others, when it's time for the bloodletting. Miike's use of violence in this film is profoundly disingenuous, reveling in dismemberment and impalings and then tacking on some navel-gazing, as if that transforms a blood-soaked romp into something Adult and Meaningful.
Not that blood-soaked romps are bad movies by definition. But a responsible exploitation picture has to be honest about itself above all else, confronting viewers with its content and forcing them to answer some pretty basic questions about what level of depravity they are comfortable with in the name of entertainment. If you're selling me a Big Mac, don't waste time trying to convince me that it's as healthy as a kale salad. It insults my intelligence, highlights the Big Mac's shortcomings, and reveals you as a liar.
Everything wrong with Blade of the Immortal is present in microcosm within the character of Rin, the young girl who contracts out the eponymous samurai to mete out vengeance on the evil swordsmen who slaughtered her family. Rin is the plot's catalyst, thirsting for righteous payback against the bad guys and pulling the immortal Manji back into the stab-happy life he forsook after it cost him his sister. Rin is also the audience surrogate—in more ways than one. She is the one egging Manji on to fight, fight, fight. Hers is the voice that commands him to kill "anyone who wants to kill me," which is the moment that kicks off the climactic (and numbing) 1,000-person bloodbath. She is never required to get her hands dirty; all the unsavory slaughter is handled by Manji while she hides behind him. She gets what she wants, and all the while she is safe from culpability and consequences.
(Rin is also sexualized and infantilized in ways that are suggestive of the film's larger issues surrounding women, but that's a whole separate essay.)
Miike keeps telling us that the violence perpetrated onscreen really, really matters, yet everything about his action sequences emphasizes that it really, really doesn't. He hands us all the mutilation we could want with one hand, and with the other he provides a fig leaf so we can convince ourselves that we're chin-stroking aesthetes instead of a raucous midnight-movie crowd. All the screenplay's speeches about the enormity of slaughter, about the monstrosity of an unkillable killer, about social injustice and the sins of the father and the soul-coarsening effects of vengeance—all these are morally useless and cinematically boring.
Even Miike's camera gives him away. At the climax, he gives us a shot of the villainous Anotsu—the man who murdered Rin's father, who condoned the gang-rape of her mother—hacking his way through a crowd of soldiers. Then the camera pans down to center on Manji hacking his way through another crowd. In this unbroken shot the two men are united in purpose and action. If Miike were using this moment to suggest that the villain and the hero were linked through their amorality, that would be one thing. But the music and flashy choreography reveal his true enthusiasms. Anotsu and Manji are united not in savagery but in heroism. Anotsu's monstrousness—and Manji's too, for that matter—has ceased to exist in the thrill of the action, and it resurfaces only when it is convenient for us that it does so.