Blade of the Immortal
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Blade of the Immortal (TV 2019) ?
Ever since he was reintroduced with Renzo in tow as his wayward new apprentice, Shira's final confrontation with Manji and Rin has been inevitable. That said, I wasn't exactly expecting for it to be so soon, nor did I think the fight would be resolved so quickly. We only get a couple of minutes worth of bare-bones setup in “Act 20 – Unending”, and then it's off to the races. Rin has been kidnapped (again) and left to freeze half-submerged in the waters of an icy lake, and Manji has come to meet Shira at the snowy battleground just beyond it to put the murderous monster down once and for all. The catch? Shira's got a bit of the old bloodworm magic in him now as well, thanks to Manji's arm, which means it will take more than a few puny stabs and gashes to keep him at bay now.
Ironically, the thing that works the least in this episode is Shira himself, whose effectiveness as a villain has been mixed at best, even at this point in the story. His lust for wanton slaighter and abuse felt tired by the end of his first episode, and though he became a little more threatening once defeat at Manji's hands drove him insane enough to fashion his arm bones into makeshift blades, Shira has only ever had the thinnest of characterization to back up his bluster. Habaki and Kagehisa have both made for much more interesting antagonists, leaving Shira to fill out the role of “stubborn goon”, and this his last bid at victory here is ever so slightly stunted by that fact. Of course, there is satisfaction in watching him get sliced apart and eventually destroyed by our heroes, but it's the same kind of satisfaction that comes from beating a particularly aggravated mini-boss in the late stages of an RPG. You know he's merely the stepping stone to the true climax, so the stakes have to be adjusted accordingly.
That said, Blade of the Immortal knows that some kind of reckoning needs to be had, and the results are delightfully bloody, and entertaining as hell. The show has never quite been able to meet its own ambitions towards cinematic spectacle, but it gets pretty darn close here, and that counts for something. The emotions run as red as the blood in the snow, too, as you can tell that Manji is truly desperate to keep Rin away from Shira's clutches, and he even totally abandons the fight at one point to focus on rescuing her from the lake's icy depths. This gives Magatsu an opportunity to put in some work defending Manji, Rin, and Kagehisa, and we even get to see Meguro and Tanpopo contribute to the action. Tanpopo is mostly there to help with rescuing Rin, but Meguro shows how deadly competent she really is, at least when she and her bestie aren't serving as comedic relief. I was especially happy to see that she didn' get assaulted and murdered by Shira – the way her wailing for Master Sori completely threw Shira off guard is the episodes sole moment of levity amidst the brutality, and was sorely needed.
Eiko Ishibashi's music warrants special mention here, as well. From the lack of opening credits to the more stark and somber visual palette, it's clear from the beginning that “Unending” is setting the stage for an epic confrontation, and that it nearly gets there is thanks in large part to Ishibashi's score. The sequence where Manji tries and seemingly fails to save Rin from drowning is honestly heartbreaking, even though I know there's no chance she's actually dead. The full weight of the journey the two have been on together is felt then, and you understand how much Rin has affected and changed Manji, and not just the other way around. The music even manages to make Renzo's role as complicit bystander to Shira's actions work, with his uncertainty and pain coming through much more in the music than any dialogue or animation.
It ends as we knew it would from the moment Shira stepped into our heroes' lives. The inferior application of the bloodworms isn't enough to put Shira at Manji's level, and he's eviscerated and torn asunder in what might be the goriest death in Blade of the Immortal to date. He gets the death that's coming for him, too, as it isn't the battle wounds that do him in, but a pack of ravenous, almost demonic looking wolves. They tear every last bit of meat from his bones, and he's laughing until the very end. It's a fitting exit for the man who was introduced to us when he cruelly murdered and ate Rin's adopted pet dog. He always lived like an animal, masking himself in the ill-fitting flesh of a man, and so he died like an animal too. I'm sure Manji, Rin, and Magatsu would agree that their world is all the better off for it.
Blade of the Immortal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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