Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Sword of the Stranger
Hunted for reasons he can't explain, the young boy Kotaro flees into the forest as the temple that sheltered him burns in the distance. Running across a nameless swordsman, the two are drawn together when Kotaro's pursuers catch up to him. Against a backdrop of conspiracy that will draw in a feudal army and even the Ming emperor, these two will be forced to work together in order to find peace and sanctuary. In a world defined by bloodshed, loyalties will be tried and principles tested by the hands of fate.
Sword of the Stranger is something of a wonderful oddity. Bearing no source material or spinoff potential, it's one of those rare anime-original films that offer an unfiltered vision of a creator or even studio. Blessed with gorgeous art design and animation, it offers an incredibly pure distillation of precisely one thing: the classic story of the masterless swordsman finding his purpose.
The story of Sword of the Stranger is all confident, energetically executed samurai cliches. The two protagonists are the samurai who's attempting to escape his past, and the young boy who gives him a new shot at life. Their enemies include deadly Chinese assassins and a blue-eyed foreigner who seems more interested in testing his own skills than playing by the rules. There are predictable betrayals and death-defying rescues, and even a scene where the heroes gallop down a glimmering beach, for once free of the toils of duty and danger.
None of the film's predictability really hampers in it any way. Sword of the Stranger won't win any awards for character writing, thematic complexity, or narrative invention, but that's not the point. Archetypes exist because they're primal and compelling - we iterate and alter them to create nuance and reflection, but simply creating a classic drama is also a fine choice. And when it comes to classic action dramas, Sword of the Stranger's execution is second to none.
The film opens with an ambitious shot of young protagonist Kotaro fleeing through the forest, layers of branches and leaves parting as his panting fills our ears. That shot is a fair demonstration of what ultimately becomes a staple for the film - shots that test the limits of what is practically achievable within animation. Later shots will spin around combatants as they fight, or follow the arc of a blade as it sings against sky, or burrow through many layers of shattered beams to arrive at a figure huddled beneath them. Sword of the Stranger's direction is never afraid to set aside the practical for the ambitious and dramatically effective.
After that first shot, we see Kotaro himself, stumbling through the woods with his trusted dog and monk caretaker. Scrambling over roots and branches, Kotaro possesses a lived physicality that will also carry through the film. From the expression work to the broader character acting and visceral fight scenes, Sword of the Stranger's animation is phenomenal from start to finish. Outside of a few awkward, blatant pieces of CG animation, the animation work here is a persistent marvel.
One early battle impressed me with how well it conveyed the scars of battle in an active sense - broken arms would hang loose as their bearers fought with their remaining limbs, and blood in the eyes would actually impact a character's sense of positioning. Later on, a fight across snowy rooftops demonstrates the power of animation's ability to convey weight, as nimble but heavy bodies slam against each other while struggling for purchase on a rain-slick slope. In between, lighter scenes of characters simply talking or cooking dinner still impress, offering more visual characterization than anything offered in the film's bare-bones script.
Sword of the Stranger's direction and animation are ably matched by the film's beautiful background art. The palette here is utterly natural, sticking to the browns, grays, and occasional dyed fabrics of the woodlands, but the wide array of painted backgrounds still feel rich and vivid. Between the precise character acting, beautiful background art, and well-chosen colors, you can almost feel the crisp air as warriors clash.
Even Sword of the Stranger's music generally impresses, though it's less of a marvel than the film's visual delights. An orchestral mix heavy on strings and beating drums, it can occasionally feel a bit repetitive, but still ably matches the tone of the production. There is little here to break the spell of a sordid feudal drama - even the humor is fairly restrained, sticking to occasional out-of-place expressions and goofy vignettes between the two leads.
If Sword of the Stranger has any major weak point, it's unsurprisingly the script. The film doesn't need a particularly vivid story to succeed as an action spectacle, but any hopes for strong emotional investment or audience reflection can't really survive the relentlessly predictable and nuance-free storytelling. You might think the film's Chinese antagonists would offer some sort of political commentary, but Sword of the Strangers' lords are largely interchangeable - the only real thematic questions offered are “maintaining loyalty versus acting on principle” and “dulling your senses versus embracing the brief virility of life,” and I doubt you need my help to guess where the film comes down on those. Fortunately, the bond between Kotaro and his swordsman friend feels legitimately earned - the two are given enough material to actually feel like family, even if the middle act that brings them together feels a little unfocused.
Funimation's new release contains the film on both DVD and bluray, as well as a handful of bluray extras. The included dub is quite solid - a few of the minor characters don't really sell their personalities, but the lead roles all feel well-chosen. Very strangely, the dub chooses to neither subtitle nor dub over the film's plentiful spoken Mandarin, leaving the audience with less information than the subtitled version in a fair number of scenes.
Other extras include battle animatics for a variety of the film's action setpieces, and the already-impressive pilot film, which details some of the bloody events of the nameless swordsman's early life. There's also a terrific “Production Report” that combines interviews with a variety of the film's key staff into a sort of narrative of the film's production. Director Ando and other staff are refreshingly frank about the film's creative choices. Ando states that he specifically limited the characterization in order to create a film “like the genre movies from the 70s” - a western or cop story where the audience goes home with all their desires for the genre satisfied. They also deliberately pared down exposition and dialogue during storyboarding in order to convey more visually, and intended the project specifically to show what action animation can do. From the producers to the background artists, photography team, and voice actors, a broad swathe of creators contribute to this illuminating feature. Finally, the bluray includes footage of a live event featuring the film's central voice actors, along with the usual promotional trailers.
Overall, this is a very solid release of an excellent movie. Sword of the Stranger is a film utterly dedicated to one precise goal, a buffet of action served in a beautifully animated package. If you're looking for a bloody good time, it's a must-see film.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A nearly perfect action movie, telling the classic tale of a nameless soldier with energy and astonishing beauty.
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