Life is exhausting and painful, and only in living with purpose does the pain make any sense. It’s those fleeting moments where that purpose makes life enjoyable where everything becomes worthwhile, and the gaps between are bearable because it’s assumed another moment of purpose will arise soon enough.
The problem is that your purpose in life often clashes with someone else’s purpose in life, and that clash can lead to someone else’s purpose being destroyed. Your meaning in life means someone else’s meaning must end, literally or metaphorically, and are you OK with knowing you’re responsible for denying someone the very thing that makes life worthwhile? Who’s happiness means more? Is it even a matter of mattering? Even when you make a decision and follow it through, what exactly are you gaining other than justification for your misdeeds? Is it meaning that’s found, or just excuses for a lack of meaning? Thinking it through is even more exhausting, and refusing to think about it brings about the pain of having no purpose.
Blade of the Immortal is every bit as exhausting and perplexing as this train of thought, and that’s what makes it fascinating.
Manji achieves his immortal state of being through this very series of choices. He’s commanded to kill a man accused of plotting against his master. He does what he believes is the right thing in serving a higher power, but in turn learns that his target was not only innocent, but he was also going to turn evidence in of his master’s own corruption. In turn, seeking to right his wrong, Manji strikes out against his master, cutting him down along with his bodyguards in righteous retribution. Righting this wrong in turn drives his sister mad, who is married to one of his master’s bodyguards and sees the act of vengeance. In penitence for his actions, Manji runs away with his sister, vowing to lay down his life to protect her. This results in her being murdered by a band of bounty hunters looking to collect on Manji’s head. Manji slaughters the entire band of killers, and as he lays dying, an ancient mystic woman imparts upon him his immortality.
Is it a curse? A blessing? A way to teach him a lesson? Is she just screwing with him? We never really know. What we do know is that every noble, purposeful action Manji takes leads to someone else being robbed of their purpose in life. An innocent man dies at his hands as Manji blindly obeys his master, following the code of the samurai. His retribution for being deceived and for killing an unjust man kills his brother-in-law and destroys his sister’s mind. Protecting his sister and shielding her from being cast into the streets leads to her violent end, and the resulting vengeance kills dozens of men looking to make ends meet for bringing in a criminal. Yes, unrighteous men are vanquished and wrongful acts are punished, but it’s also a downward spiral where seeking out meaning does nothing but kill. At the same time, had Manji not cared about purpose and simply carried out his initial act without any thought given to morality, an immoral man may have hurt even more people.
Every major character in this movie goes through a similar cycle. Rin, the young girl with whom Manji finds renewed purpose in protecting, is seeking vengeance for the death of her father and abduction of her mother at the hands of a band of renegade swordsmen. Said swordsmen are led by Kagehisa, who is seeking to bring order to what he sees as a chaotic, unjust system that ruined his grandfather despite his grandfather being a loyal subject who protected his master, not unlike Manji. Everyone’s sense of justice brings them meaning in a world that wants nothing to do with them, but their quest for purpose leads to the death of hundreds of people, many of whom are likely just as guiltless as the men Manji slayed at the beginning of his quest.
What can you do when faced with no truly moral choice? Can a moral choice even exist when your sense of right ultimately does wrong to those caught in the crossfire?
I think Rin says it best early in the movie when she says there’s no logic to her mission. She knows killing is wrong, but she wants to see Kagehisa and his men die because they destroyed everything she held dear. It’s in accepting the contradictions and hypocrisy that real sense of purpose can arise. It’s not about following the strings from A to B to C and seeing how it all interconnects– it’s about knowing why you’re winding down that path and accepting that this is all personal.
Then again, that leads to the final moment of the movie. It looks as if Manji has finally found his cause to die for, but despite taking the killing blow for Rin and allowing her to get her vengeance on Kagehisa, he’s still alive. The music that plays is triumphant, but is his lack of release something to cheer? Will he and Rin be able to live life after participating in slaughtering scores of government soldiers? They’ve fulfilled Rin’s quest, and Manji’s found some solace in protecting the girl who reminds him of his sister, but won’t the cycle continue once those in power catch wind of their actions? Is this just another one of those moments of reprieve– that moment of happiness that allows the pain and exhaustion to be worthwhile?
It’s exhausting asking these questions. That’s life, I guess– no answers, only a mass of questions writhing in your body, keeping you going while making that existence all the more agonizing.
It won’t find you any purpose in life, but it’d be rad if you checked out my Patreon. I’m still looking for someone to kick it off, so if you dig what I do and got the green to give, check it out, maybe.