Blade of the Immortal
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Blade of the Immortal (TV 2019) ?
It makes sense that Blade of the Immortal would be giving us an episode all about Habaki, since he's quickly emerged as the key antagonistic force of the story, while Kagehisa and the Itto-ryu have taken on a much more ambiguous role. What ended up surprising me was how invested I ended up being in the story, since the most recent arc had me convinced that Habaki would make for a more straightforwardly effective villain. Manji's time in Dr. Burando's torture prison proved Habaki was cold and calculating, but “Act Eighteen - Banshee's Cries” makes the very smart choice of imbuing him with much a much more human quality: Raw, seething desperation. It's one thing to have a villain that you love to hate – it's a harder and more meaningful task altogether to give you even the tiniest reason to root for him (even if he's still a proper bastard).
This episode really is Habaki's show, so much so that we only get a single check-in with our erstwhile heroes Manji and Rin, who are currently staying with Sori, the swordsman-cum-painter from awhile back. This is fine by me; the pair deserve a break, and their one scene together emphasizes their relief to ben not only, but with each other. Rin even calls back specifically to their heartfelt reunion after Manji's breakout, and Manji is as affectionate as he is likely capable of being when he admits that he no longer sees Rin as an analogue to his little sister, while also making it clear that she is a woman that he cares for that he doesn't want to get murdered horribly. The show has done a decent job of not sexualizing Rin, too – or at least, it hasn't done so in a way that overemphasizes her youth. The deepening feelings between Rin and Manji don't feel fetishized, and they're not outside the norms of the time, and their dynamic is such that I can believe the two would be so close to each other, which is just about all I can ask of a story like this.
The rest of “Banshee's Cries” is a heavy, portentous affair, though, and all the better for it. The plot still struggles with jumping around too much and choosing to tell about what it really ought to be showing, but the pieces of the ever expanding war between the warrior clans make enough sense in the big picture. Following his failure with the immortality experiments, Habaki has lost both his eye and any clout he may once have held with the powers that be. We also are introduced to the Rokki-dan, the warriors that call Habaki their leader, and they've been put in quite the pickle: If the Itto-ryu are not hunted down and killed within the next thirty days, the government will putt the Rokki-dan to death. This included Ryo, a skilled fighter and concubine's daughter who also happens to be Habaki's illegitimate child. Habaki's wife and son are also all too aware of the fragility that has come upon their way of life. In a too-brief catch up with Kagehisa, we see that the Itto-ryu are themselves prepared to vacate Edo within seven days, which suddenly ratchets up the stakes in the Rokki-dan's assault. The one treasure keeping Habaki and his cohorts alive is about to slip out of their grasp forever, and instead of getting a month to hunt down the most imposing fighters in Japan, they've got a week.
You can imagine how well this goes. Habaki isn't just good; he's fueled with an obsession that would rival Ahab himself, but he's also got enough followers walking around in anonymous oni masks that you just know they're going to get offed en masse. The way “Banshee's Cries” plods along through its plot points can be too procedural for its own good, but then you have crackerjack sequences like the Rokki-dan's trip to a burnt out Itto-ryu dojo, which ends with half the Rokki-dan grunts getting drowned in a basement flood, and the other half being shot down in an ambush led by Magatsu. This is a tense, powerful sequence that lets us see how formidable the Itto-ryu still are, while putting us in the shoes of the Rokki-dan. We feel for Ryo a little bit when Magatsu so easily brushes her aside, and having just a tiny bit of empathy for the bad guys goes a long way, especially when most of the show's cast technically count as the “bad guys”.
This leads us to Habaki's downfall, which is one of the most genuinely shocking scenes we've seen from Blade of the Immortal, period. Forget Dr. Burando – watching Habaki's wife kill their son and then herself was brutal to watch, even as the episode belabored the foreshadowing. Blade of the Immortal has always been about wrestling with the dire consequences of following a bloody code of honor through to its logical conclusion – Rin has largely chosen to avoid letting her grudge against Kagehisa consume her, while Habaki's family are willing to take their honor and legacy with them to the bitter end, even as Habaki screams in futile protest. I think what really got me was the way his son so clearly and unquestioningly acknowledged his imminent death, which even Habaki was blinding himself to. It's almost enough to make you want Habaki to succeed. He isn't broken by this experience, either, not exactly. His purpose is shattered, yes, but it merely reshapes his will into something more focused, deadlier. He tells his whimpering successor, Ugen, that if the Rokki-dan don't finish off the Itto-ryu within the time limit, he'll slaughter his pupils himself, his own daughter included. No matter how things conclude, though, he'll be coming back with one more body to offer – his own.
Kagehisa may have been the driving force of Rin and Manji's quest for a long time, but he was hardly ever a villain, and even the Itto-ryu have become much more sympathetic. Habaki, though, is exactly the kind of antagonist this story needed, now more so than ever. He was dangerous before, but now he's got literally nothing to lose, not even his own life. The one trick Manji ever had up his sleeve was that he couldn't die, and thus did not care how much danger he was in. All of his opponents, in some way or another, wanted to keep on living, and that was their disadvantage. Habaki may have sought the source of Manji's immortality before, but his mission now is simpler and deadlier by far. His death is inevitable, his targets are on the move, and the only thing he has to lose is time.
Odds and Ends
Blade of the Immortal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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