Blade of the Immortal
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 10 of
Blade of the Immortal (TV 2019) ?
Content Warning: Due to the nature of this week's episode of Blade of the Immortal, this review will discuss sensitive subject matter, including rape.
It's fairly obvious by now that Blade of the Immortal is a bit of a mess. It's best episodes, which are the ones that take a single thread of conflict and see it through to an inevitable (and often bloody) conclusion, have been thrilling and even poignant affairs - but too often, the show's desperate bid to cram in as much plot as possible each week leaves the story feeling at odds with itself, unsure of which character or narrative to focus on as it moves through its increasingly chaotic cycles of lurid violence and sex. The lack of cohesion takes what has the potential to be a haunting and evocative piece of violent period drama and transforms it into, well, a rushed and scattershot manga adaptation that feels like it is getting across the gist of the source material, but at a cost that might be too great for the show to bear.
There are three threads to follow this week, and two of them can't even be said to go anywhere substantial. The least of these are the check-ins with Rin, and I have to take a moment here to emphasize how irritating I find sequences that feel like nothing more than scraps of a manga chapter that needed to be tossed into the episode sporadically to fill out time, which is exactly what these Rin scenes feel like. I'm all in favor of keeping tabs on Rin's story, on paper, but that would require that there be any kind of story to follow - but this most threadbare of beginning-middle-end setups simply isn't enough. These scenes only serve to remind us of things we already know: Rin is searching for Kagehisa alone, and she's low on resources. She starts the episode hungry, goes scavenging for some crayfish in a river, and then eats one. It isn't very interesting, and the way the bits are randomly edited into just the first half of the episode makes them feel that much more jarring and meaningless.
Then we have Manji's reunion with Souri, the painter, which also coincidentally brings Magatsu back into the picture. This B-plot works better than Rin's C-plot, in that it begins Manji's journey to get across the checkpoint and find Rin, though it falls short in that the one-sentence description I gave of the plot tells you almost everything there is know about it. Manji learns about Magatsu's dead lover, they commiserate a bit, and that's it. It isn't a story in itself, or even a satisfying portion of a story. “Act Ten - Animal” simply has to lay out the most functional expository details in order for the plot to be coherent. Once that is done, the episode moves on, bringing us to a story that has barely anything to do with the parts that came before it.
This is Hyakurin's story, easily the most substantial aspect of the entirety of “Act Ten”, though this ends up being a bit of a Monkey's Paw scenario. I naively expressed interest in seeing more involvement from Hyakurin when she was introduced, and Blade of the Immortal naturally uses this opportunity to develop the show's only other decent and still-living female character to laugh in my face for expecting a different outcome. This will shock literally nobody who has kept up with Blade of the Immortal so far, but the first episode to focus primarily Hyakurin is all about how she gets - wait for it - brutally beaten and raped by the bad guys, until another guy manages to save her. There is doubtlessly a weird, off-putting alternate universe in which a version of me - let's call him NegaJames - is out there going on about how much better Blade of the Immortal would be if it was just a skosh more rapey, but in this here timeline of ours, I am at a loss.
Granted, Hyakurin at least survives the encounter with the lecherous band of rival swordsmen, which is more than most of the women in this show can say, and “Act Ten” is at least decent enough not to linger on the assault itself. That said, I'm not sure how much of an improvement leaving it to the imagination is when Hyakurin still spends the episode beaten, bloody, and naked, not to mention covered in the fluids of her rapists. The camera's preoccupation with semen stains, coupled with the way Hyakurin's naked body is made to twist and writhe as she struggles to escape her bindings, covers the whole episode a sleazy, fetishistic film that made me want to wash my hands after watching it.
Traditionally, whenever a critic like me takes a story to task for indulging in acts of sexual violence of its female characters, some Smart Alec tries to chime in with some trumped up defense of the choice that often boils down to lame grandstanding about historical accuracy, or a defense of “gritty” realism and the purity of the author's vision. It should go without saying that this argument completely ignores how every single element of a story represents a choice by its creator or creators, a deliberate artifact of intent that is beholden neither to history, nor accuracy, nor whatever the hell “realism” is in a story whose entire premise is rooted in the fantasy of magical bloodworms that let you get chopped up into little pieces without dying. This is not a biopic or piece of historical fiction, wherein Hyakurin getting assaulted - or anyone else, for that matter - is somehow a crucial detail to the plot that simply could not be removed. Her rape adds nothing to the story, and offers no new insights on the story's setting, characters, or themes. Realistically, the only purposes that the many shots of a battered stripped-bare Hyakurin could realistically serve are to either shock the audience, to titillate them, or both. No matter the case, it makes for hacky, lazy, and regressive writing.
Beyond the rape, does Hyakurin's story have anything to offer? Kind of. In the present day, we learn that Hyakurin's companion, Shinjiri, has his eyes on her both as a love interest and as a psychological replacement for his dead mother, who was of mixed-ethnicity and also had blonde hair. Shinjiri actually confesses to this in the episode, which is about as clear a death flag as there ever could be, so it is hardly surprising when he gets immediately murdered before Hyakurin's capture. The episode tries to play up this doomed romance as more fuel for Hyakurin's tragedy fire, but it is too silly to hold any water - I straight up laughed when the closing shot of “Act Ten” was of the pile of hair Hyakurin left at this goofball's grave.
The flashbacks to Hyakurin's origins are better, though they also reinforce Hyakurin's inherent helplessness in a way that doesn't sit well for me. Sure, she stabs the crap out of her abusive husband, and who could blame her? The guy murdered their infant daughter, so he already had it coming, and his obsession with training an heir to his swordsman leads to him literally exploding their young son through sheer force of strength and toxic masculinity. So, having Hyakurin flex her matricidal muscles is all well and good, and I like the detail of how her blonde hair being the product of her having to bleach out the stains of her son's blood, but the air gets let out of the scene when it shows how she only survived her execution when Glasses Guy rescued her, mirroring his slaughter of her captors in the present day. Her final slicing of of the last surviving enemy notwithstanding, Hyakurin spends the entire episode being victimized and brutalized, which is how her journey started. If the flashback went exactly the same way, but Hyakurin was allowed more agency and dignity in her fight and escape, the story might hold up to more scrutiny.
Shocking, gratuitous violence and sex can be used effectively and responsibly, even when the goal is just to produce some shchlocky entertainment. Nothing about “Act Ten” felt ethical or responsible, and, as it stands, the whole affair leaves a bad taste in my mouth, both for the episode and for Blade of the Immortal as a whole. I'm looking forward to next week's chapter not because I'm excited about the show, but because I just want Blade of the Immortal to move on and focus on anything else.
Odds and Ends
• Lest anyone thinks of accusing me of crying “Censorship!” or whatever, I can name any number of works that take this kind of material and make something worthwhile of it. I teach Toni Morrison's landmark novel The Bluest Eye, for instance, and that book contains some of the most graphic and disturbing scenes of assault I've ever read. It is also a painfully empathetic portrait of victimhood and abuse that asks its readers to empathize with rape survivors, and to understand the cycles of violence, manipulation, and misogyny that allow such things to occur. Blade of the Immortal is, um, not doing that.
• The episode isn't completely devoid of merit: I did like the gleefully-overwrought shot of Hyakurin creating a mythic looking arc of viscera out of that guy she kills. The show in no way earns the catharsis it's going for with that moment, but what can I say? I'm a sucker for a good blood-geyser.
• While I don't like what Glasses Guy represents as far as storytelling tropes go, he seems like an alright dude. He makes Hyakurin breakfast as she recovers, and that's nice. The show could use more small, nice moments like that, and less...well, you know.
Blade of the Immortal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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