Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
Sword of the Stranger
Kotarou, a boy on the run from the royal army of China's Ming dynasty, happens upon a wandering samurai with no name. Kotarou doesn't particularly want No-Name's help, but when his trusty dog Tobimaru is injured in an assault, he's left with little choice but to hire him as a bodyguard. The two form an uneasy friendship (the kid is a total brat!), and the Chinese army joins with the local feudal lord to pursue the boy, with the intent of using his blood to create a medicine that would grant eternal life. The battle heats up when No-Name has to battle some of China's strongest warriors, and in the process, tries to overcome the guilt of a past he's left behind.
Sword of the Stranger is, if nothing else, a crowd pleaser. Exciting, hair-raising, action-packed and ultimately satisfying, it's the sort of anime that, had it been released a decade ago, would have become a best-selling mainstay of every anime section of every Blockbuster Video store in the country, like Ninja Scroll before it. If marketed correctly, it could have genuine mainstream appeal.
That said, it's a film that also shoots wide. Inspired partially by Kurosawa and other directors who made Japanese sword play something of an international phenomenon, but likely more by the likes of Spielberg and Cameron, it subscribes entirely the Hollywood system of a strong narrative arc, proven character archetypes, and an emphasis on style over substance. If there's anything about Sword of the Stranger that could be considered a disappointment, it's that it seems "safe", sacrificing narrative innovation for a fun jaunt down a very well-traveled road.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Japanese directors, anime or otherwise, tend to overreach when trying to imitate Hollywood, often attempting to cram in too much story (and ending up with a confusing mess) or becoming too obsessed with mood (resulting in something very boring). First-time director Masahiro Ando avoids both of these, and other common traps. He gets the pacing just about right, while perhaps being a little too evasive with clues early on about just why everyone's trying to capture Kotarou. But the real show-stoppers are the film's myriad action sequences.
These action sets are some of the most intricately staged, gorgeously animated fight sequences in anime history. They're also almost hilariously bloody at times, as limbs, heads and major arteries get chopped in full view of the camera, and not even abating in the presence of a kid or the dog. As the body count rises, so does the level of excitement. It's really quite involving.
Amusing, but slightly less involving are our pair of protagonists, the ronin without a name, and the kid being pursued by the Chinese. Koutaro's trying hard to be self-sufficient, and when they meet he's nasty in that way kids get when they try to assert dominance. When Ming forces find the kid and attack, Koutaro's (adorable) dog gets injured. No-Name fends them all off, and the kid grudgingly admits that he does, in fact, need help after all (though he still tries to maintain dominance by "hiring him"). But once on the road together, the kid's position slowly softens. He's especially surprised when they bathe and No-Name washes the black dye out of his hair, revealing it's true color: red. He's a foreigner, a fact that surprises Koutaro, and actually makes him lower his defenses a bit... which is unusual for the era. We wonder what, exactly, this kid has been through.
As with anything dealing with the relationship between China and Japan, one always tends to look for suggestions of the two countries' centuries-long rivalry and Japan's notorious ethnocentrism. Amusingly, there's none to be had in Sword of the Stranger: both countries' inhabitants seem pretty terrible. China, with its maniacal obsession with spirituality and weird science for the sake of its rulers, actually comes off a bit better than the Japanese lords' short sighted attempts at money-grabbing trickery. If anything, the film is openly critical of both countries' suspicion of foreigners: the strongest warriors seem to be the ones with Western genes (as evidenced by hair color), ostracized by Japan and used as a tool by the Chinese.
Notably, a good quarter of the dialogue is actually in Mandarin, though I didn't note any Chinese names in the credits. Instead, most of the voice cast consists of anime veterans such as Kouichi Yamadera, Akio Ohtsuka, Maaya Sakamoto and Mamoru Miyano. Three of the most prominent roles went to on-camera actors: Naoto Takenaka (who anime fans will recognize from his roles in the Nodame Cantabile series and the Ping Pong live action movie) plays the weak-willed monk Shouan, while Tomoya Nagase of Tokio fame brings a sense of regret and energy to No-Name's cool exterior. Kotarou is played by Johnny's newcomer Yuuri Chinen, who provides the right balance of annoying and attempted self-reliance to the boy.
There's little about No-Name, Koutaro or anybody else in Sword of the Stranger you haven't seen before. There are few places that the film goes that you haven't been before. But just the same, it's an absurdly fun, highly enjoyable sort of film that just about anybody could enjoy, provided one likes action. It's rare for anime feature films to get the heart racing without tripping over itself by trying to be or do too much. Sword of the Stranger could just be the cross-over hit the genre has needed for a very long time.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Breath-taking action scenes wrapped around a compelling story that actually makes sense.
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