Comics Are Serious Business / Japanese Adaptations of Comics – Part 1: Blade of the Immortal

London Graphic Novel Network

Japanese Adaptations of Comics – Part 1: Blade of the Immortal / Comics are Serious Business

Premiering at the London Film Festival on Sunday 8th October 2017 is Blade of the Immortal. The latest live-action adaptation of a popular manga to be released this year, and it won’t be the last. But how does it compare to Hollywood’s usual adaptation of comics for Western audiences?

Manji, a highly skilled samurai, becomes cursed with immortality after a legendary battle. Haunted by the brutal murder of his sister, Manji knows that only fighting evil will regain his soul. He promises to help a young girl named Rin avenge her parents, who were killed by a group of master swordsmen led by ruthless warrior Anotsu. The mission will change Manji in ways he could never imagine…

Hollywood’s approach to live-action adaptations of comic books appear to begin by distilling the recognisable iconography of the comic book series, before grounding it in reality with a believable sheen to it. This usually works to varying degrees of critical or commercial success for Hollywood.

“This is cool, but how would it work in real life?”

While on the other-hand, Japan seems to take the opposite approach entirely when it comes to adapting their own comic book series, whether for in live-action or animation. The focus being solely on drawing you in to a world beyond reality, while being accented by the recognisable iconography of the comic book series.

“You’ll believe a man could fly.”

This was the tagline for 1978’s ‘Superman The Movie’ and to this day it still seems serve as somewhat of a guideline for many comic book adaptations. You need to believe in what you’re watching, but the way that phrase is interpreted worldwide seems to differ.

When it comes to Japanese live-action adaptations of their comic book series, they too do want to make sure the iconography is visible onscreen. Although what is perhaps more important to them is that they preserve the original spirit of the series on screen, even when rendered in live-action. To achieve this in their own way, there is significantly less emphasis on rendering the property in any sort of superficially believable manner. They translate things exactly how they appear on the page, no matter how ‘out-there’ the characters may look or act when rendered via illustration.

Japan is world renowned for their anime and their manga. They are the world leaders in the art of illustrated and animated storytelling, and they make it for people of all ages and all walks of life. I think a big part of why they’re so successful in this regard is exactly because of their disregard for depicting reality literally. It’s more about exploring the limits of genre to convey the feeling and heart of human stories.  That is perhaps closer to their interpretation of ‘believing in their stories’.

They don’t obsess over whether or not their stories could feasibly work in real life. They visually exaggerate actions and characters to better incite the emotions you should be feeling from what you are experiencing. The spirit of the story is what drives you to watch, and that in turn influences what you resonate with. And that spirit is encapsulated through an image.

In the case of Blade of the Immortal, with the visceral and highly expressive artwork of Hiroaki Samura used for the original manga, director Takeshi Miike had no choice but capture that same intensity and absurdity in his adaptation of the original work.

We follow Manji – an immortal samurai cursed with a body filled with mystical worms, almost comically detached from his own reality after his greatest failure in life. Each time he draws his sword we are gifted with the most absurdly brilliant fight choreography, with battle-after-battle in a drawn-out quest for revenge and redemption. Pitting him against impossible hordes of hundreds of heavily armed samurai that he’s either forced to battle all at once, or in non-stop, successive one-on-one duels. Usually against an outlandish warrior steeped in a recognisable archetype still found in various Japanese literature to this day.

When it comes to how to present the action, another element which seems to differ between Eastern and Western live-action adaptations is their respective approaches to the use of visual effects and special effects. Yes all productions at this point use CGI and green screen, but the post production process of Hollywood’s comic book adaptations seem to desperately rely on it in order to create a atmosphere that the Japanese adaptations just don’t seem to keen on trying to follow.

The visual effects of Hollywood comic adaptations are almost a necessity at this point to make them believable. They create a sheen of an almost video game-like 3D action sequence that allows them to push the limits of their grounded reality in specific instances.

Whereas the abundant use of in-camera special effects, wire-work, elaborate costume design and prosthetics largely used in Japanese adaptations are not to emulate a sense of reality, but instead to showcase elements of the original stories exactly how they appear on the illustrated page. They are constantly pushing the limits of reality in every action they can throughout the film, not just in time for a third-act action sequence.

Granted this may in part be a budgetary restraint, as the Japanese film industry cannot rely on the amount of funding Hollywood usually employs for their productions. And yet when watching a Japanese production, you understand that you are never once expected to believe if what what you are seeing is plausible. Instead you’re expected to believe in the dedication to the original work and understanding the heart of the world you’re being drawn in to.

For Blade of the Immortal, between just the costume and production design, we get a vivid look into the spirit of the original manga. While there is an attempt to dress the world in an appropriate period setting, the vibrancy and intricacies of the costumes and weapons paint a very clear picture that this isn’t the Japan as we knew it to be.

Not the mention the action choreography for the battles scenes that sends characters soaring over rooftops and across vast distances, with delayed reactions after attacks too fast for the eye to follow, and arcs of blood gushing from severed limbs – this all instantly throws any notion out of the window that this is expected to be grounded in reality.

The tone set by Takeshi Miike for the original world created by Hiroaki Samura in Blade of the Immortal is firmly established from the opening of the film, and is consistently explored until the very end. It’s a passionate spectacle steeped in the love and appreciation for Japanese storytelling employed by the original creator of the manga.

Blade of the Immortal (2017 Film)


Next up, I’ll be talking about the French produced, Japanese animated, adaptation of the French Comic Strip “Mutafukaz” by Studio 4°C also premiering at this year’s London Film Festival 2017.

Comics Are Serious Business / Japanese Adaptations of Comics – Part 2: Mutafukaz [Coming soon]

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