The Fall 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Blade of the Immortal
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Blade of the Immortal (TV 2019) ?
Community score: 4.1
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How was the first episode?
Hiroaki Samura's revenge tale is a modern manga classic, and I was unsure how well his minutely detailed and realistic art style would translate into anime for this latest adaptation. Concerns on that front turned out to be largely unfounded, and while I've never been a fan of the actual story (and this first episode didn't do anything to convert me on that front), the artistry of the anime is difficult to deny. Filmed primarily in dark tones so that it mostly feels as if the color scheme is black, white, and red (even though after the opening sequence it is technically full color), there's an impressive grittiness that is reminiscent of the feel of Samura's original.
Of course, “grittiness” can be code for “unrelenting violence,” and Blade of the Immortal comes pretty close to that. While it certainly isn't as gruesome as I had been anticipating (or been led to believe by Amazon's 18+ rating), it does feature plenty of chopped bodies, shredded heads, and grim imagery, the most striking of which is when it's revealed that the bad guy is not, in fact, wearing 1980s-style shoulder pads but instead has the severed heads of his ex-wife and Rin's mother sewn to his actual shoulders. It's a little too ridiculous for true horror, but it's still really awful to see. Likewise him shoving his fingers into Rin's mouth is horrible for its symbolism rather than its reality; knowing that he raped her mother and that he's been sending the girl creepy love poems for two years makes it very clear that this is a forceful sexual act, no less disturbing for the fact that the penetration is oral rather than genital. If you thought Babylon wasn't for the kiddies, this makes it look much tamer.
I do admit to being relieved at one distinct change made to Samura's original art, which is that the design on the back of Manji's kimono has been simplified and modified to make it look less like a swastika. While the meaning of the symbol pre-WWII has exactly nothing to do with the horrors of the Holocaust, today the two are inextricably linked for many people on an emotional level, which makes this seem like a very sound decision. It means that there's less to distract from the actual story, which is doubtless a plus.
While I'm not a fan of the story itself, it's hard to deny that this is an intriguingly dark premier that makes good use of the original manga's artistry. It can feel a little bit like it's trying too hard to be artsy at times, but for the most part, I think fans of the manga should be pleased.
To quote a man who's perhaps suffered more critical disappointment than any other, “finally, some good CENSORED food.” Based on an acclaimed manga and handled by an impressive core team, Blade of the Immortal was one of my top prospects coming into this season, and it absolutely does not disappoint. We have arrived at our first must-watch of the season.
Blade of the Immortal's premiere unfolds like a familiar nightmare, all harsh splashes of angry color and half-witnessed violence. Its very first scene employs a striking grayscale-and-red color scheme, contrasting a scene of terrible violence against the steady knocking of a turning water wheel. Rapid, discordant cuts create a sense of unreality and memory, as if we're watching a scene we've suffered through many times before. Heavy saturation pervades this episode, enhancing the sense of just having woken, or perhaps still living in a dream. And always, that persistent water wheel, a dull yet inevitable percussion, emphasizing how no violent cycle ever ends.
This episode's narrative is sparse and efficient, as we're introduced to the vengeance-seeking Rin and her immortal bodyguard, Manji. Rin seeks revenge for the death of her parents, and though Manji knows revenge won't bring peace, he agrees to help. It's a story that's been told many times, but which through Blade of the Immortal's deft, ethereal execution rises to the level of fairy tale or myth. These characters feel chained to their destinies from the start, a sentence that one immortal playfully frames as “it's our dreams that keep us alive, after all.” Rin's dreams might be all that are keeping her alive, but like all of this story's actors, I imagine she'd prefer a soundless sleep.
Hiroshi Hamasaki's direction is masterful, and his combination of staccato cuts, alienating angles, and saturated lighting ably convey the atmosphere of a waking nightmare. Hamasaki's consistently desaturated style works perfectly for this material, though this episode also embraces a greater diversity of colors to tremendous effect. The script is minimalist and iconic, with only the violence feeling perhaps a bit too indulgent. In spite of this episode's evocative artistry and creativity of framing, it also establishes meaty narrative hooks, and the promise of battle with a long chain of terrible monsters. And at the end of that chain, the chain begins anew.
Blade of the Immortal's first episode is far and away the best premiere of the season so far, and an easy recommendation for anyone with a tolerance for extreme violence. Don't miss this show.
Though I have at times been a fan of ultra-graphic fare, Blade of the Immortal is one of those franchises that I always seemed to miss, whether in manga or earlier anime or live-action form. Hence this is my first actual experience with it. My first impression is that the title is pretty much what I expected to be: an exercise in gory grotesqueness, but with a bit better writing and characterization backing it than the norm for such titles.
In fact, the latter two points are what make this title stand out. Many of the ultra graphic titles out there go thin on things like characterizations and storytelling in order to emphasize the visuals and/or rely heavily on stock personality types. Both lead characters shown here show more potential than that. Rin is a young woman who seems thoroughly consumed by revenge, but by the end of the episode she starts to give more the impression that it's not so much revenge that drives her as that she just can't live with what she's experienced and sees no other way to release that frustration. Manji, meanwhile, is not the hothead or thoughtless killer that might be expected. He's very clearly pondered the whole process of killing people and what it means and is determined not to get involved for empty motives. He's a man who can't die and she's a woman who can't live. That offers a lot of juicy potential for character and relationship development.
I was less impressed with the bloodier components to the episode. That it would be intensely visually graphic was a given; this is the same director behind Shigurui: Death Frenzy, one of the most hyper-graphic anime series ever released, after all. However, something about the graphic content just wasn't quite clicking for me. One early scene is awash in blood as severed heads and limbs fly about in bloody splatters, and depicting it in black-and-white with only the blood being colored bright red was an interesting but not original visual choice. Neither that scene nor the later one involving the guy with the taxidermied heads attached to his shoulders quite achieved the impact or shock value of similarly-graphic scenes in other titles. Granted, it doesn't have to since it actually has other merits to fall back on, but it's clearly trying to draw its audience in with this content and I could see that eventually being a problem.
In all, the first episode does enough things well enough for me to give it positive marks, but this is more of an “appreciate the quality” grade than an “I liked it” grade.
This new adaptation of the Blade of the Immortal manga brings back memories of a time when anime wasn't nearly as ubiquitous and accessible as it is today, when the weird allure of the medium was bolstered for kids like me by its scarcity, and its reputation for being “edgy” and “hardcore” compared to Western Animation. When I was a teen, the only way to watch anime was to either scrounge up absurd amounts of cash for DVD sets or to hope that my local library was stocking new titles for borrowing. Back then, the dubs were hammier, the pickings were slimmer, and a lot of what I personally had available dealt squarely in the realm of grimdark OVAs and other titles that my librarians apparently thought were the most appealing for the weird kids that always asked about the Japanese cartoons. I cut my teeth on the likes of Vampire Hunter D, Samurai X, Ninja Scroll, and Afro Samurai, and while my tastes have broadened and evolved quite a lot since then, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a certain nostalgia for anime whose style and substance were mostly defined by how many different, creative, and badass ways a guy with a sword could dismember other, weirder guys with swords.
So yeah, this Blade of the Immortal series scratches a certain kind of itch, and it does so very well. Is there a whole lot that is fresh or subversive in this story of the vengeful young Rin and Manji, her immortal killer of a bodyguard? Not at all – like the classic movies and OVAs of yesteryear, Blade of the Immortal has always seemed to me to be the kind of joint where the plot is more-or-less an excuse to get some crazy bloodletting done, and boy howdy does the blood ever flow in this premiere. LIDEN FILMS is clearly adding in the requisite sweat and tears to make this show look as cool as humanly possible, but the blood takes center stage here. This is an anime where heads are sliced, bodies are diced, organs are punctured, and every other means of bodily harm is glorified somehow or another, and if that pure catharsis of animated mutilation doesn't do anything for you, then Blade of the Immortal's otherwise stellar aesthetics will likely leave you feeling cold.
Unfortunately, Blade of the Immortals' dated source material also trades in one of the medium's less savory pastimes, which is using women as objects of abuse and suffering so as to thoroughly shock the audience. Rin isn't just the survivor of her family's horrific massacre: Beyond having to watch her mom be raped by a gang of inhuman psychopaths, she also has to endure one of her father's killers shoving his fingers down her throat while he flaunts how he used her mother's stuffed head as a macabre piece of body art. To say it is over the top would be a massive understatement, and its tastelessness can't be reveled in the same way as all the well-deserved slicing and dicing. Rin at least seems like a somewhat nuanced female protagonist for this type of anime, and I can only hope that director Hiroshi Hamasaki and the other folks at Liden can take advantage of thirty years of social progress, and give her more to do than wait around for Manji to save her every week. Still, this season has been sorely lacking in straightforward action epics, and I definitely plan on sticking with Blade of the Immortal to the bitter, bloody end.
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