Most samurai films are just that, films involving samurai (usually ronin) in a war-torn country and a lordless swordsman trying not to attract attention, just to have destiny kick him into something major that only his skills can solve. The great majority of films work this way, some shake things up, others do not, and others simply decide to add a few other elements to maybe span another genre or two. Sword of The Stranger is one such movie, where a few, and I do mean just a few, elements of the supernatural and mysticism are used to support the plot, it does not really work out that way, but it does work itself out in a memorable way.
Directed by Masahiro Ando (Hanasaku Iroha, CANAAN), who also had storyboard and unit direction roles. Admittedly, I have not seen much of his work as a director, but he does, at least in my opinion, seem to have a knack for making characters with believable traits and reactions. Character design was done by Tsunenori Saito (Halo Legends OVA), with music score by Naoki Sato (The Familiar of Zero, Tales of Agriculture aka Moyashimon).
Sword of The Stranger is quite an interesting tale, it goes like this: Kotaro, a young Japanese boy in the Sengoku period, is being targeted by a group of assassins from the Chinese Ming dynasty, because his blood is apparently the final ingredient needed to create a medicine that would grant immortality. One afternoon as he is having dinner with his dog, Tobimaru, he meets a nameless ronin who goes by Nanashi (No Name), if you must call him anything; now, no name is your typical ronin with a blood-stained, tragic past. And an origin story so mysterious not even he knows it; to be honest, he just screams “I AM GONNA FIND PEACE AND DIE BY THE END OF THE MOVIE!” at you, but that fate is fittingly averted. The premise of the film is nothing too impressive, but it is well and fully supported by its cast of characters. The ambitions of its many characters shape the flow and direction of the movie, there is the Chinese emperor who directly causes the conflict within the movie by sending out his assassins.
The conflict is further compounded by the conflict raging within the leader of the assassins, Master Bai-Luan who is torn between relinquishing the medicine to his emperor or to use it on himself. There is also the seemingly unnecessary samurai who once knew no name, Shogen Itadori and whose ambitions give rise to the final confrontation in the movie unfortunately, just as many characters, the assassins in particular, feel flat and almost unnecessary, their motivation goes no farther than following orders, or they are simply reacting to their circumstances. Luo-Lang for example is a simple battle maniac seeking for a fun fight throughout the movie, he is not a very complex character, but it gives No Name someone to kill at the end of the movie to announce it is all over.
Since this is a film about samurai in the Sengoku period, it is no stranger to swordfights, most of which are awesomely brutal, and just as short, and while that is certainly realistic, their choreography it is most certainly not; I take no stance on the realistic vs. ideal debate on any work of fiction so it is up the viewer whether they like them or not, but I did.
Studio BONES has yet to leave me unimpressed with their work, and this film is no exception. Each background would fit just as comfortably in an old Japanese painting, than in this animated film. The characters also blend in perfectly with the unusual backgrounds, not a single minute of the movie can be found where they look out of place. Their designs do not disappoint either, every character has their own unique look and there are no pretty boys or girls to be found.
The film can be gritty and brutal, but it is also quite idealistic, with its well-placed moments of comic relief using Kotaro’s and No Name’s interactions, and growing relationship that usually get along as well as two siblings with a twenty year gap. The film it is also quite satisfying on its body count as it kills just about any character you could possibly want dead by the end of the movie.
The one thing I found rather strange is that Luo-Lang, the big antagonist in the film (boasting the largest list of fatalities) is quite possibly the least reproachable of all the villains, having a rather simple amoral sort of personality that nevertheless is honest, direct and fair.
Pros: Enthralling fight scenes that will leave you rewinding over and over again. Strong, realistic characters guide the plot along. Their ambitions can be clearly seen shaping the plot by the second with some relatively unexpected twists at several turns. Fitting music that enhances the impact of moment; be it at peace, having fun, or really having fun (in Luo-Lang’s case). Beautiful backgrounds that seem to come right out of an old Japanese painting; they blend seamlessly with the modern, animated foreground and characters. Decent voice acting.
Cons: Has a rather weak, forgettable premise. Some characters felt bland or even unnecessary, jarring when considering some of those characters feature rather prominently. The protagonists can be endearing, depending on how you look at them. But they do not have enough to make them stand out in any sort of meaningful way and their motivations are rather shallow.
Sword of the Stranger is a film that can be enjoyed by any action fan and is worth the purchase. It has few betters and anyone would agree there are much worse ways to spend 104 minutes.