Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 5th 2010
Blade of the Immortal
DVD 3 - No Virtue in Forgiveness
Faith in her quest for vengeance shaken, Rin goes into a funk. Manji, in his rough, pull-no-punches way tries to un-funk her, but to no avail. When Rin meets and helps the son of one of the men who raped and killed her mother, she allows herself to be invited to his domicile. To all outward appearances completely reformed, Kawakami Araya proves to be Rin's toughest opponent to date as he embodies not only her hatred, but also her doubts and fears about the savage path she has chosen to tread. After the meeting goes south, Rin throws herself into her training with Manji, but finds no solace there either. That is, until she stumbles across Anotsu Kagehisa, the master of the Itto-ryu himself, training in the very same wood.
While this is the end of the Blade of the Immortal television series, it in no way feels like it. There's no climax here, no closure. It runs right up to its last minute as if blessed with a glut of future episodes. Not even the manga's first story arc has been resolved, to say nothing of the threads of later story arcs that screenwriter Hiroyuki Kawasaki unnecessarily interweaves with the first. Rin and Manji's quest simply leaves off, not even allowed the meager dignity of resolving Rin's doubts about it. Her relationship with Manji is condemned in its celluloid form to hover forever in limbo, and there's precious little satisfaction to be had from her confrontation with Anotsu. Then there's the issue of Manji's immortality and that creepy old woman with the zombie worms. As well as mysterious mustachioed government agent Habaki's machinations. And the fates of his part-evil group of henchmen. And Anotsu's date with a dojo of like-minded swordsmen. All are paraded out in the last episode or so, and all are left flapping fruitlessly in the wind of the series' passing. This is less a self-contained series than it is a mega-sized version of one of those one-off OAVs from the 80s and 90s that were made as primers for their infinitely more comprehensive print versions.
Had the series ended with episode eleven it might have been able to avoid that—to an extent. The Araya story is one of the series' best, an ugly little parable about evil, violence and redemption that relies more on impossible life questions and suspense than on action for its climactic rush. End the series there and it would have at least appeared artfully incomplete. There's a sort of fatality to the story, a bleak acceptance of the impossibility of finality that would have made for a nice, ambiguous ending for the series. Conclude like that and you have something akin to a flawed but compelling independent film—only four hours long, animated and chockablock with dead samurai. Instead the series opts to drag on for two more episodes, which, along with all those superfluous threads of later arcs, muddies the series until it's a murky, saggy and arbitrarily terminated tribute to a much better work.
That said, it's a very pretty tribute. Bee Train has always excelled at background art, and they outdo themselves here. The forests and buildings of medieval Japan drip with comely gloom, and in enough smoky detail to belie the series' television budget. Character designer Yoshimitsu Yamashita also does his level best to preserve the long-jawed, down-to-earth beauty of Hiroaki Samura's characters and succeeds as well as any animator could be expected to (Samura's art is impossible to replicate with any traditional form of animation). Director Kōichi Mashimo keeps the color palette grim and narrow, lending even his more operatic touches a gritty realism. He also averages about one completely unforgettable image per episode: a framing shot of Manji against the full moon, Rin's bare skin decorated in elaborate runes of blood, a murdered prostitute transformed into an elaborate expressionistic tableau.
The action sequences are kept surprisingly simple, but with just the right touch of subtle CGI showboating and slow-motion choreography. As a rule Mashimo focuses on art and atmosphere over movement (check out the play of water-reflected moonlight on Rin and Manji in episode 13), so outside of combat there's little to comment on animation-wise. What is shown is more functional than impressive, but there are no major mistakes, technical or artistic, made.
The same cannot be said of Kô Ôtani's score. As it is Kô Ôtani, the piano work is fantastic and the slow tension-building and introspective themes are fine, but elsewhere the score self-destructs with ham-handed regularity. The action themes are a particular embarrassment, as are the melodramatic flare-ups during the "frightening" compositions. It's a highly uneven work from an otherwise talented composer.
Media Blasters' dub has a blunted, toned-down feel that fits well with the series' washed-out look and unforgiving content. Rarely do the actors indulge in the kind of overacting that marks many another English dub, and even more rarely do they seriously emote. For the most part the script ignores the mix of archaic and modern language that marked the original (replicating it in English while matching lip-flaps would have been nigh-on impossible anyway), resulting in a rather colorless dub that, curiously, ends up being appropriate rather than dull. It isn't exactly riveting, but then again, neither was the dialed-in all-star Japanese dub.
Two interviews, one with Mashimo and the other with Kawasaki, both conducted by Samura, are the only on-disc extras. Be forewarned; these are long (long, long, long) interviews that meander all over the place. They provide a wealth of information, not only about the interviewees, but also Samura and can get pretty personal (Mashimo's description of the effect being an animator has on your home life being a highlight), but will test the patience of anyone who isn't an interview junkie.
Attractive and possessed of a not inconsiderable portion of the original manga's ruthless power, Blade of the Immortal is also poorly paced and even more poorly constructed. Do not watch it expecting to come away satisfied. The only way to ensure that is to segue right into Samura's gorgeously gory manga. Which is, in all likelihood, exactly what the animators intended you to do.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : C+
+ Araya arc illuminates both leads while introducing a heretofore unknown level of pure unpleasantness; superb visuals.
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