Blade of the Immortal
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 23 of
Blade of the Immortal (TV 2019) ?
If “Act Twenty Three – 100 Spectacular Dances” is any indication, then Blade of the Immortal is really going to be cutting things down to the wire as it wraps up its story (pun absolutely intended). It is an episode that is just as visceral, just as crammed-full of stuff, and just as sloppy as previous entries in the saga of Rin and Manji, yet somehow I was hoping for more than that. This is, after all, the battle to end all battles: Kagehisa vs. Habaki, and whoever wins…well, I don't think anyone is getting out of this battle in once piece, but the victor will presumably be in fewer individual pieces than the loser. The point is, this is the no-foolin' for-reals-this-time climax of Blade of the Immortal. All the cards are on the table, every death is permanent, and our emotions should be brimming with anticipation and excitement. Why, then, do I not feel much differently about this collection of incredibly gory fights as I did about last week's collection of incredibly gory fights? Why did I walk away from what should have been Blade of the Immortal's crowning achievement in badassery with little more on my mind than “That sure was another episode of Blade of the Immortal”?
I am certain some of my muted reaction is due to the wonky balance of the story's stakes, especially so far as Rin and Manji are concerned. Manji has barely had a character arc of his own – he's more or less the same exact murderin' fool he was in episode one – but his relationship with Rin has changed quite a bit, and her growth was the emotional anchor that held most of Blade of the Immortal together. The problem is, the culmination of Rin and Manji's growing affection for each other came when Rin rescued Manji from Habaki's fortress; you could maybe even argue that it was properly resolved during the final fight with Shira, when Manji made it clear that his concern for Rin prioritized the battle with his old foe. Everything after that natural climax has concerned the mutual death throes of the Rokki-dan and the Itto-ryu, and Rin and Manji have felt secondary to that conflict, with their personal investment in the fate of Kagehisa being of lesser importance than the collapse of the Itto-ryu school. In a lot of ways, I can't help but get the impression that Blade of the Immortal is too busy tying up all of its lose threads to give its finale the focus and attention it deserves.
Take Kagehisa's final fight with Habaki, for instance. It is presented within the narrative as the be-all-end-all showdown between two masters of the craft, but the actual result on screen is not especially distinct or climactic (it doesn't even reach a proper conclusion, thanks to one final shocking cliffhanger that sees Makie getting gunned down by Habaki's musketeers). Sure, the two men are technically skilled, and we get some excellently nasty cuts like Kagehisa slicing Habaki's eyeball in half, but the editing and pace of the fight is as all-over-the-place as any battle between Manji and one of the early villains of the week. This sort of action sequence should be as drawn out and relished as possible, free from distraction, and framed as carefully as possible, so we don't miss a single swing of the blade. As presented in “100 Specular Dances”, it becomes just another gory battle in a show chock full of them, which is a real shame.
If anything, Manji's battle with the brutish Shiyasha Arashino is more satisfying as spectacle, but then you have the inverse problem that the Kagehisa/Habaki fight has. I don't know or care about who Shiyasha is aside from being the mini-boss standing in between our heroes and the men they're really after, so it ends up being just another opportunity for Manji to show off his immortality while Rin helps out in what limited ways she can. Right before completely vivisecting the man (in what is an admittedly glorious display of ultra-violence), Manji tosses of some line about how Rin is really the one defeating Shiyasha, because she bought time for him to regenerate from being cut in half (why wouldn't Habaki inform literally everyone working for him that Manji is immortal, again?). It's a last-minute attempt on Blade of the Immortal's part to make this fight mean more than it does, but it already used that beat when Rin rescued Manji, and it was a hundred times more impactful then than here.
This is not an utter failure of an episode – Makie's final, merciful interaction with Giichi and Hyakurin was nice, and the action was a sight to behold once, at least once you could parse through the choppy editing. It was good for Ryo to enter into the fray again. Kagehisa saving Rin was another beat I enjoyed, even if it suffered from Kagehisa's notable absence in the back-half of the series, because it showed, rather than told, how far all of the characters have come. Blade of the Immortal has always shined it its little individual moments, and such is the case here. As a complete narrative, however, it's as much of a shambling mess as its hero is, and the seams holding all of the bloody bits together have never healed up as good as Manji's are able to. They say that any number of shortcomings can be overcome by a killer ending, though, so we'll just have to see what final trick Blade of the Immortal has to pull out of its sleeve when it leads Rin and Manji, at long last, to the end of their journey.
Blade of the Immortal is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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