Sword of the Stranger – Review
December 1, 2011 1 Comment
Sword of the Stranger is a relatively old (2007) animated film directed by Masahiro Ando and produced by studio BONES. It is a samurai drama based in Sengoku-era (warring states period) and is essentially part coming of age tale, and part tale of a lost soul finding himself. The story itself is relatively simplistic in nature, but makes up for that with wonderful characters, an interesting plot and some brilliant fight sequences.
The film follows Kotaro, a young boy who is being hunted by a group of Ming soldiers from China for mysterious and very strange reasons. Among the soldiers there is a strong and fearsome ‘western’ fighter named Luo-Lang, whose only desire is to find a worthy opponent. Due to various circumstances, Kotaro and his pet dog Tobimaru meet ‘Nanashi, a nameless ronin (Nanashi literally means ‘nameless’) who is haunted by visions of his past which has led him to avoid drawing his sword ever gain.
Throughout the film the circumstances surrounding these two unlikely companions gradually lead to a startling and spectacular finale. I did find the plot a little too simplistic in places, on occasion seeming to be simply a filler to connect action sequences. There was also an element of ludicrously to the plot once I found out the Ming soldiers plan, and the reason for chasing Kotaro did seem a bit arbitrary, however this did not spoil my enjoyment of the film while I was watching it.
This story as I said is quite simple in nature, effectively about one nameless samurai’s struggle with his past and potentially finding it the shape of Kotaro and Tobimaru. There is however far more to this story, it is a coming of age tale for Kotaro who must learn that he cannot act spoiled all the time, fend for himself and learn to live in the era. More importantly however it is a story of Nanashi’s struggle with his demons and his quest for what you can essentially call spiritual fulfilment.
As the story unfolds we gradually learn more about Nanashi’s and of course Kotaro’s separate pasts, although not everything. In fact I like this element, we learn enough for the story but there are many other mysteries and aspects of their respective ‘past lives’ that are left out, perhaps for another time to use that very cheesy line. I would have liked a bit more character development to add more to the characters, however I feel there was enough done to make them more than two dimensional, and give them personality.
The film paints a brilliant picture of the Sengoku-era, one of lords, peasants and warfare, what we largely consider to be the time of the samurai. The Ming soldiers are in Japan for what they consider a very important mission for their emperor, and are staying in a feudal lords castle – the castle here is not the grand affairs that you may see in Kurosawa films, with large bricks and stones, rather it is built upon a natural rocky area and is essentially wooden palisades – the lord naturally has other plans in mind. We see a fascinating struggle of ideologies and identities, along with various retainers of the lord scheming behind his back, aiming for greater things.
We are shown the Sengoku-era as it was in some ways, a nest of in fighting, political intrigue, and deals with outsiders to gain more power. Through this we have the Ming soldiers attempting to carry out their mission while negotiating the politics of a strange country. It is truly fascinating to see all these different layers within a story, so while it is ostensibly about the struggle of a nameless samurai and a boy against the Ming dynasty, it is also about the power struggles within Japan itself.
But now we get onto what is easily one of the best parts of the film, the fight sequences. They are quite brutal and in many ways quite short, but they are immensely well done. The fights are dynamic, with varying camera positions and angles, and of course a lot of blood flying around. We have the Japanese soldiers with their Katana and bows, but we also have the Ming soldiers. The Ming soldiers are fascinating, very individualistic compared to the relatively uniform Japanese soldiers; they all have individual weapons and of course use ‘kung-fu’. There is a lot of ‘magical realism’ within these fight sequences, with a lot of aerial action and spectacular moves on the Ming soldiers part.
The film gradually builds up to a spectacular fight sequence at the end, which is both visually stunning, but also really hits the other senses, largely because of the soundtrack. I adore the soundtrack, it really adds another element of emotion to the story overall, and I always think that any anime, be it a film or a series without a decent soundtrack is fatally flawed. I do however have one small issue with it, and that is the majority of the music to me sounds like Celtic/Gaelic music. Having Celtic music in a samurai film just seems out of place to me, however the soundtrack is so good that I am completely willing to overlook this since it doesn’t actually detract from the film in any way.
The voice actors do a fine job, with Nagase Tomoya and Chinen Yuri doing a wonderful job of playing Nanashi and Kotaro respectively. There is a fair amount of Chinese spoken in the film, and although it occasionally sounds a little forced I honestly think it was well handled, and didn’t seem to out of place.
The animation is wonderful, the fight sequences as I said were brilliantly done, being both immensely dynamic, but also quite clear, and clean. There was elements of CG used during the fight sequences, however to me the majority of the film appeared to be hand-drawn, and well done. I don’t think the series in terms on animation is up to the level of a Ghibli film, there were some slip ups during what can be considered the less important scenes, however it was still very well done. The backgrounds were especially nice to look at, with some wonderful landscapes, and the snow during the end sequence was very nice. There are a few issues with the animation though, in places the quality does seem to slip slightly, but overall it is well done and even these little slips don’t really take anything away from the film as a whole.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, I would not call it a master piece since there are certain elements that don’t quite work so well. The plot, while having an interesting level of complexity if you look at the samurai is also very simplistic in nature, with the class ‘unintentional hero’, however I think it is adequate and well enough told so that you do not really notice these issues.
It does not necessarily challenge you in ways that say Spirited Away of Howls Moving Castle (Both very good Miyazaki films, there are others) do, however I feel that there is enough there to make a good story. I liked the main characters a lot actually, they had some interesting back stories and in the end it seemed to be to be a story about two unlikely companions learning to live with themselves no matter what their past.
The stories conclusion will probably be quite obvious to most people who watch this film, the ‘unlikely hero’ has been used on numerous occasions, however this doesn’t mean that the story is badly written. While it is simplistic in nature (with a lot more to look at if you wish), it is the way in which the story is told that makes it successful. The story is well told, and adding in good animation, dynamic fight sequences and a good soundtrack make the film work overall.
Sword of the Stranger really shows what BONES can do when they put their mind to it (The current series UN-GO is not a fair example of good work by BONES). Essentially, for all its faults this film really draws you in and the conclusion will surely excite anyone who likes a visually stunning, well-told Samurai drama. It may not be a masterpiece, but it kept me gripped right the way through to the end, which for me is a sign of a very good film, definitely recommended.