ANIME REVIEW: SWORD OF THE STRANGER
Genre: action, adventure, historical, drama, shonen
Year of release: 2007
Director: Masahiro Ando
Writer: Fumihiko Takayama
Runtime: 102 mins
If you’ve read any of my earlier pieces or took a look at my picks for the top ten anime of 2016 you’ve probably gleaned that I’m very much a concept over execution kind of guy. An anime with a wholly original concept but flawed execution is probably still going to score some high points with me whereas an anime with a clichéd story but decent execution is most likely not going to get much praise from me. On the other hand, what do you do with an anime that has a story that’s far from original, but executes that story to perfection? Well…let’s find out.
The plot of this film is set in the late Edo Period and features a nameless Ronin who was once a famed Samurai warrior in the service of a Daimyo (local lord) until a certain incident forced him to rethink his ways. Ever since that day he has wandered the countryside as a Ronin having sworn to keep his sword sheathed at all times.
That is until one day he happens upon a young boy named Kotaro who is being hunted by a group of warriors working for the Chinese Ming dynasty. Kotaro offers to hire No-name’s services as a body guard, for a price of course. Thus, No-name sets out on a journey to escort Kotaro to safety. But what at first seemed like a simple job quickly turns into an epic quest that for No-name might very well be his last chance of finding redemption.
Now if you’ve seen a decent amount of anime, you’ve most likely come across this premise before and probably on more than one occasion. From Rurouni Kenshin to Moribito and quite a few others, the concept of a lone warrior with a troubled past trying to protect a person he/she cares for is really nothing new. Of course, as I've mentioned it’s not the story that makes this film good, it’s the way it executes that story.
The first half of the film is relatively slow paced and mostly serves to introduce all the characters and slowly, bit by bit, reveal the backstory of our nameless Ronin, as well as to develop the slowly emerging bond between No-name and the young Kotaro. The second half really ramps up the action to eleven as the Ming Warriors begin to take center stage, in particular one fearsome individual with blonde hair who acts as the chief antagonist for most of the film. From there on it’s pretty much a non-stop thrill ride with increasingly spectacular and grand scale fight scenes, ending in one of the single most impressive, edge of your seat sword fights ever put to screen.
The thing is…it works! The first half, despite being more heavy on character drama, still has a good number of action sequences sprinkled throughout. Therefor you'll never get the idea that this is a slice of life anime or that it’s just gonna be smooth sailing throughout. Since the first half sets up the two leads and their bond so very well it makes the audience involved in all the fights scenes in the second half. This isn’t just some cool eye-candy, these are fights to the death with real stakes on the line. Sword of the Stranger isn’t content with just entertaining its audience, it wants them fully engrossed and holding onto their seats as it’s main characters duke it out in ever more spectacular battles. Something at which, it wholly succeeds.
While admittedly not being the most unique of protagonists in anime, No-name still makes for a terrific lead. The movie takes it’s time fleshing out this character's backstory. so the viewer gets a chance to really care for him. Seeing him develop as the interactions he has with Kotaro makes him re-evaluate his way of life. What he truly wants out of his existence. And it is a wonderful thing to behold and makes you as the viewer really root for the guy despite his gruff exterior.
The antagonist is no less impressive though. The blonde haired Luo-lang makes for a formidable presence from the moment he steps into frame. With his towering height and lightning quick sword fighting he truly makes for a worthy adversary to our nameless protagonist. However he’s not just some cliché’d evil-doer and is not driven by the search for wealth and power. His one true goal in life is to find someone as strong as he is and experience an actual battle of life and death.
Hell even a lot of the minor characters in this film are compelling to watch. Like the constantly bickering couple in the Ming-army you just know are actually deeply infatuated with one-another, or the charismatic but treacherous general of the Japanese Daimyo. Despite it’s brief run time, this film is littered with interesting and multi-faceted characters.
The only real disappointment I found was Kotaro. He never really develops beyond just being an innocent kid, constantly in need of rescuing. It feels very much like he’s just there so that No-name can have his character arc, which is a real missed opportunity at creating a genuinely likeable and interesting child character. Something that’s in very short supply not just in anime but any medium.
ART AND ANIMATION
Unlike TV-series, anime films tend to have a relatively high budget and in the case of Sword of the Stranger this really shows. The amount of detail put to each frame is nothing short of mind-blowing and the background animation blows everything produced in TV-anime clean out of the water. There are tons of crowd scenes and towards the end of the film even a large scale battle between two opposing armies. Where other anime, even other anime films would cheap out by using CG, Sword of the Stranger sticks to its guns with traditional animation even for the climactic battle which takes up a whopping twenty minutes of screen time. Leading to a battle of epic proportions that is simply breathtaking to behold.
That’s not to say the film is entirely devoid of CG though as a couple of the location panning shots towards the end of the film are clearly CG and they are kind of jarring. However the sheer beauty of the rest of the climax more than makes up for it.
The music for this film was composed by Naoki Sato, who’s probably best known for his work on Eureka Seven and more recently the Rurouni Kenshin film series. Honestly, I don't think they could've picked a better composer because his soundtrack for this film matches it perfectly and even elevates it to something greater than it already is. Fast paced drumbeats and traditional Japanese instruments build tension to an epic crescendo as you hold onto the edge of your seat while the big action spectacle washes over you. This, in turn, is interspersed with beautiful violin orchestrations that bring to mind the best work of Joe Hisaishi. The result is a soundtrack that's as vibrant, emotional and engrossing as the film itself.
For this film, I’ve only listened to the Japanese dub and I don’t intend to check out the English dub either. I feel a work of fiction that’s actually set in historic Japan needs to be watched in Japanese to get a real feel for the time and place. Although I will say this film has quite a few jarring moments of Japanese people trying their hardest to sound Chinese and it goes about as well as when they try to speak English. I have no idea if the English dub is any better in that regard but if you really can’t stand this sort of thing, that might be worth checking out.
Now as you’ve probably already managed to figure out by now, I absolutely love this film. I went into it expecting lots of eye-candy and not much else and came out wanting to immediately see it again. What I really appreciate about this film is that it understands the kind of film it is. It doesn’t over stuff its story with all kinds of disparate elements like fanservice, slap stick comedy or social commentary. All it wants to be is an action adventure blockbuster and at that it succeeds brilliantly. It’s a film made by people who know what they are doing and managed to tell a fairly simple story expertly without ever losing sight of the kind of film they wanted to make.
It’s a beautiful story populated by rich characters and backed up with truly impressive fight scenes and one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. And no amount of iffy cg or wasted child characters can change the sheer joy I felt watching this film. It’s not for the squeamish, and those who don’t like sword fights in general might want to stay away as well. But this is a top notch film that I would recommend anyone to check out. If you have about two hours to spare and want a film that’ll thoroughly entertain you from start to finish then get off your seat, find the nearest outlet that has this film and enjoy an amazing ride you won’t soon forget.
Sword of the Stranger was licensed only last year by Funimation Entertainment and can be picked up on Blu-ray. The UK Blu-ray release won't happen until June unfortunately, which is when Anime Ltd will release a special edition Blu-ray set of the film. However if you can find it, there is also a very rare special edition DVD set of the film that Beez Entertainment released back in 2009. As one of the lucky few who own it, I can assure you, it is worth every penny.
Age recommendation: This film contains lots and lots of extremely graphic and gory violence. I am not exaggerating when I say some of the scenes in this film would make Quentin Tarantino blush. That being said, given it's fairly simple story any teenager who's okay with violence and gore should be fine. As well as adults of course. Kids should definitely stay away though.
Despite it’s not so original premise I really can’t think of any anime that’s like this film in terms of tone or just the feeling you get from it so instead I’m going to recommend some things from other media.
Starting with the aforementioned Rurouni Kenshin films. Like Sword of the Stranger, these are grand scale action spectacles that fully embrace the kind of movies they are. Though admittedly these are a bit more over the top, compared to Sword of the Stranger’s slightly more grounded fight scenes. Still if you enjoy the kind of film that Sword of the Stranger is you are doubtlessly going to enjoy these as well.
The other recommendation goes to Blade of the Immortal which in terms of premise and feeling is quite similar though with a lot more ATTITUDE. If you want a really cool samurai action series with lots and lots of style, awesome dialogues and tons of gory violence and don’t care too much about historical accuracy this one’s for you.
Until next time…
Anime Review: Sword of the Stranger
A review of the critically acclaimed 2007 historical action/adventure film animated by Studio Bones: SWORD OF THE STRANGER.
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