Strange how a show that can seem to get everything outwardly right somehow also falls short. And I had half-expected Blade of the Immortal, the animated version of Hiroaki Samura’s manga, to fall short in some way. Here we had arguably one of the best manga running right now, perhaps one of the best ever made — not least of all because it sported art that started off on a level most other manga never attain. If the anime were to fall short anywhere, reasoned I, it would be in the visuals.
I reasoned wrong. Immortal manages to preserve the look of the manga, and even a great deal of its story beats — but never quite gives us the same emotional rush of the original. And that’s a shame, because the emotion in the story — and the life force of the characters in it, too — was the biggest part of what made Immortal special. Take those away and what you have is just a vehicle for a bunch of creative kills, which any seinen manga can do with one hand tied behind its back and one eye poked out.
Samura’s story, set late in the samurai era, gave us one of manga’s most memorable and pungent anti-heroes: Manji, the unkillable ronin. As a form of atonement for the life he once led, he’s been infected with a symbiotic parasite that heals him from just about any wound. His new life’s mission is to hunt down and slay a thousand evil men, after which the sorceress crone Yaobikuni will lift the curse of the bloodworms from him and allow him to die a natural death. His indifference to physical harm brings to mind Robert de Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull: it’s not about what you can dish out, but what you can suck up. He’s a walking incarnation of the old saw about how if you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.
What Manji doesn’t expect is to acquire a sidekick: Rin, a teenaged girl with a vendetta. She’s the daughter of the head of a dojo, now dead after being betrayed and murdered by rivals. She wants revenge, of course, although there is a big difference between talking revenge and actually sticking the knife into someone and feeling them die. It takes someone of Manji’s caliber to make her understand that, especially in the context of a story that understands how Manji’s immortality may in fact cause at least as many problems as it might seem to solve. It doesn’t protect her, for one, and that’s why she forces herself to stay with Manji and take hard-knocks lessons from him.
Manji's browbeating helps Rin's meager skills develop, although Manji's
fighting style depends at least as much on taking a beating as dishing it out.
This is where the show, and the manga before it, shine best: by giving everyone, from Manji and Rin on down to their antagonists, intelligence and perspective. These are fascinating characters, and we linger in suspense to see what they will do. Rin’s chief archenemy, Anotsu Kagehisa, is a superbly-delineated villain in that we know exactly what he wants and how he plans to get it, and we hate him all the more for it. Late in the show, he has Rin at his mercy, and sees to his dismay that she simply doesn’t have the skill yet to be dangerous. What’s the challenge in killing someone who isn’t even a threat to you? In another show such a point of view would seem like a gratuitous screenwriter’s invention. Here it has weight, because we’ve seen him be like that and we know why, too.
What doesn’t work is again not anything within the show itself, but rather how its tone seems unlike the source material in one crucial way. Something about it is strangely reserved, corrected, bloodless. Even in its moments of wild battle, it always seems to be holding something back. The manga (and especially Manji himself) possesses a roaring, devil-may-care black humor that we barely see ten percent of here, and that hurts. I was bothered more by that than how the show only adapts about four books out of twenty-plus from the series, or that it ends rather abruptly albeit on an open-ended note. Those misdemeanors, I could live with as part of the price of adaptation. Losing the tone of the original, and almost without trying — that’s a flat-out felony.
Again, if there’s one place where Immortal does not fall short, it’s in the visuals. The animation studio was Bee Train, with some aid from Production I.G, the latter being same crew that gave us other zeniths of anime like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Otogi-Zoshi. Their collective work does justice to Samura’s designs, and they even reproduce some of his striking stylistic trademarks — e.g., the freeze-frame tableaux of violence that often spread across multiple pages. On the page, these things dropped like hammers. Here, they still batter at the senses — but they somehow don’t carry the same furious extremes of emotion as the original.
In the end, I’m inclined not to linger on this problem but to push it aside and celebrate the show for what it is. Here we have one of the finest comics in any language, adapted with consummate technical skill by an animation studio that’s more than a match for the job. For most people, those things by themselves will push any complaints I could have right out the window.