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"Sword of the Stranger" Offers Dazzling Style, Satisfying Storytelling

If Afro Samurai is the closest thing to the current generation’s Ninja Scroll, studio Bones’ Sword of the Stranger is a genuine step forward for animated samurai action. It does not carry a deep, art house-worthy message or explore bold, new narrative territory. But it brings a captivating, excellently paced story to vivid life with an ambitious and at times truly astonishing presentation.

The film is set in Japan’s Sengoku period, a time of nearly constant conflict. A young orphaned boy named Kotaro has been targeted by the forces of the feudal lord Akaike, who is working in concert with a Chinese group known as the Ming. Forced to flee his temple home with only his dog Tobimaru in tow, Kotaro is eventually cornered at a shrine but is saved by “No Name,” a vagabond samurai who defends the boy and himself from some of Kotaro’s pursuers. Offering what little of value he has, Kotaro hires No Name to escort him to safety. What follows is a journey that will forge a bond between warrior and child and put No Name’s swordsmanship to the ultimate test. No Name soon gains a fierce opponent in Ming member Luo-Lang, a western swordsman with blonde hair, blue eyes, formidable skill, and a simple and unquenchable thirst for the thrill of combat.

Beyond the obligatory and intense action scenes, the growing relationship between No Name and Kotaro is the film’s primary focus. Kotaro begins the movie with no one to trust and takes a bossy and aloof attitude, but he ultimately softens as No Name helps rescue his dog and does not seize any easy opportunities to abandon the boy. For his part, No Name is the familiar reluctant warrior regretting a past deed that he wishes he could forget, going so far as to tie his sword to his sheath so that it cannot be drawn. The main characters complement each other: Kotaro gains a protector, a friend, perhaps even an older brother figure; No Name gains an unexpected opportunity for penance. These concepts and the idea of two lonely, lost souls finding each other are hardly original, but they are nonetheless executed effectively and credibly.

The larger plot of Sword of the Stranger may initially seem absurd: the Ming, who are hunting Kotaro on behalf of the Chinese Emperor, plan to sacrifice him in an elaborate ceremony that will create the fabled Xian Medicine, which the Emperor believes could grant him immortality. Fortunately, we are not asked to suspend our disbelief on the point. It is never definitively stated whether this supernatural experiment could actually be pulled off, but it is enough for the story that the Ming are willing to kill to find out. The story acquires greater depth through the ambitions of Akaike’s chief vassal, Shougen Itadori, a master warrior who both distrusts the Chinese and dreams of becoming his own master. These conflicting interests and ambitions eventually lead to the film’s climactic battle, a lavishly animated and chaotic set-piece that has characters major and minor dropping like flies.

If there’s a weak point in the writing, it lies with the substantial number of antagonists: quite a few are only simple underlings waiting to be killed off. Itadori is, fortunately, sufficiently developed that everything he does makes sense, even if the viewer doesn’t like it. A weaker link is Luo-Lang. He is undoubtedly a charismatic and fearsome antagonist, but he’s one of those standard true-warrior types motivated only by his search for a battle worthy of his remarkable skill. To an extent, maybe, this is deliberate; it’s quite easy for the viewer to root for the individual and personal struggles of our lead characters while Japanese and Chinese characters alike are basically occupied with scheming and killing for their own self-interested purposes.

Ultimately all of this makes for a more substantive and satisfying experience than your average action flick, an accomplishment that reflects real credit on director Masahiro Ando (Fullmetal Alchemist, Canaan) and writer Fumihiko Takayama (Gundam 0080). The gorgeous score by Naoki Sato (Eureka Seven, X) is a true asset that leaves us contemplative in sublime and quiet moments and riveted in times of danger, especially during the final battle. However, Sword of the Stranger‘s greatest strength is definitely its top-grade animation and action scenes that range from stunning to overwhelming. The choreography is easily more than a match for any action title in recent memory. Brutal, realistic warfare combines with impossibly elegant swordplay in a veritable feast for the eyes. It all culminates perfectly in the climatic final duel, a no-holds-barred deathmatch that somehow manages to best the movie’s already high standards. Ten or even twenty years from now, this will be a movie that continues to stand tall as an aesthetic triumph.

In terms of graphic violence, it should be noted that the movie doesn’t pull punches. Scores of people die, limbs are cut off, soldiers and bandits are shot full of arrows, and blood falls like rain. That said, while the action is heavily stylized and very bloody, it’s not an unrestrained festival of gore. The violent content is closer to that of Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal than the extremes that Ninja Scroll and Afro Samurai indulge in.

This film was dubbed by Ocean Studios, and skeptics of its work should know that the movie is an impressive showcase of fresh talent. Aidan Drummond’s very capable Kotaro can be fairly called his first significant starring role, whereas Michael Adamthwaite’s performance as No Name will be completely unfamiliar to anime fans who have heard him on television as Ribbons Almark in Gundam 00. Scott McNeil’s Luo-Lang may be another story to Gundam fans who recall him as Ali Al Saachez, but fortunately Luo-Lang’s normally calm and reasoned demeanor call for a very different kind of delivery that helps discourage direct comparisons.

Bandai Entertainment’s release of the movie is simple but impressive. The video is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and both the DVD and the Blu-Ray release offer 5.1 audio for both the English and Japanese languages. Extras include cast interviews, theatrical trailers, and several TV commercials. One very welcome surprise is the presence of a short pilot film that highlights No Name’s past before he became a ronin. It’s an impressive piece of work in its own right, and the sort of unusual extra that all too rarely comes to light these days. The Blu-Ray comes with a “production report,” which chronicles the film’s development process with an abundance of subtitled commentary from the Japanese staff. This worthy extra aside, fans who can play high definition media will definitely want to choose the Blu-Ray release just to get full experience of the movie’s remarkable visuals.

Sword of the Stranger is one of those rare achievements that takes full advantage of its medium, offering some of the best artistry that 2D animation currently has to offer. It comes highly recommended as an experience that will leave a lasting impression on animation aficionados, action fans, and casual film lovers alike.

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