No J-pop song opens or closes Sword of the Stranger. There are no celebrity stunt-casts for either the Japanese or English versions. The director, Masashi Ando, was the ultimate workman of the Japanese industry, with a long credit list of storyboards, key animation, and episode direction, but few series or movie direction at the time (he did go on to direct CANAAN, Snow White with the Red Hair, and the Kickstarter-funded Under The Dog after this film). It is just a pure film that lacks obvious corporate sponsors and media tie-ins, and is beholden to no one but the audience. All of this and more makes Sword of the Stranger a must-watch.
The story is a bit stock. A warrior (who literally goes by “No-Name”) has a past he wants to forget. He refuses to draw his sword to prevent the past from happening again. Something happens that forces him to draw his sword again and redeem himself. Is this the plot of Sword of the Stranger or Rurouni Kenshin? The other central character, a boy named Kotaro, even draws a few parallels to Yahiko from Rurouni Kenshin, with a similarly headstrong, rebellious attitude coloring many of his actions with No-Name.
But that largely doesn’t matter. After a slow, ponderous start where Kotaro is left to fend for himself and a rather goofy scene among bandits that isn’t funny, things quickly roar to life. The goofy bandits draw their swords and bows and ambush a convoy of Ming Chinese warriors escorting their superior, and all hell breaks loose. Only seconds pass by before the first combatant loses his head. And then the greatest warrior among the Chinese, Luo Lang, goes on a rampage among the bandits slicing them into pieces with blood splattering everywhere, including on the screen. The icing on the cake of this frantic action scene is composer Naoki Sato’s frenetic, chaotic masterpiece of taiko drumming. If the first five minutes of this movie made you want to take a nap, Sword of the Stranger‘s first
action sequence will not only wake you up, but keep you glued to the screen to see what will happen next.
Sword of the Stranger’s gift is that it is a passion project, a love letter to the classic samurai tales by Akira Kurosawa and also to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. Yes, it is about a nameless drifter who rediscovers his purpose by protecting an innocent, and is surrounded by shades of grey all around him, much like Kurosawa and Leone’s films. But that is precisely the point, as Ando outright says in the extras. This is not an attempt to re-invent this type of picture, but do it better, by playing the tropes straight and relying on the execution of the film’s well-worn ideas to make it stand out.
In another nod to Kurosawa and Leone’s classics, no one is ultimately sympathetic in this film outside of No-Name and Kotaro; the Ming Chinese are under the impression Kotaro has blood to form an immortal elixir (the lack of evidence supporting this suggests the leader among them is insane), while the rest of the Japanese are portrayed as greedy and treasonous. The only other character with principles is Luo Lang, and his advice to the Ming is ignored because, as his blue eyes and blonde hair suggest, he is a mercenary from Europe who traveled to the Far East in search of a worthy opponent. The Ming leader outright dismisses Luo Lang multiple times, calling him a “Western barbarian” when Luo Lang says anything that contradicts the leader’s beliefs. This is not to say Luo Lang is a moral person (he’s perfectly willing to execute Kotaro anyway), but he has some standards, at least in some bloodthirsty knight way.
The emotional meat of the film, as cliched as it is, is the bond which grows between No-Name and Kotaro as No-Name tries to bring Kotaro to safety. This subplot is played completely straight, and in true anime tradition, they even have a plucky dog tagging along (Tobimaru). The expected evolution from bickering reluctant companions to borderline-family is telegraphed long before it eventually happens. Just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it is not sweet, however, as Kotaro and No-Name reveal themselves to be far more nuanced than they originally appear. Kotaro’s blowhard overconfident act is precisely that, an act, and No-Name is far more haunted and pure-hearted than his early scoundrel act made him seem. It works in the context of the film, and may even develop well if you’re inexperienced in these kinds of films, but there is a “been here, done that” feel to the characters.
Far more impressive is the animation, especially the action sequences. The detail in every action scene is fantastic in both choreography and fluidity. Blades and other weapons break with abandon, blood shoots from wounds in a way that’s somewhat more realistic than the usual blood geysers. Characters charge around crash into each other with vicious force, and even little details like grass swaying in the breeze is well-animated and adds to the atmosphere. This is one of the most well-animated movies outside of Studio Ghibli that Japan’s ever done. Occasionally something goes off-model, and there are a few peculiar character designs that clash with the serious tone of the film, but ultimately the film is beautiful in stills or in motion.
Equally important is Naoki Sato’s score. Beyond skillful, frantic taiko drum pieces is an effective orchestral score that doesn’t succumb to Sato’s James Horner-esque habit of self-plagiarism. Sato’s work is powered by a strong, distinctive main theme that is right out of Kurosawa or classic Hollywood, and both Western and Japanese woodwinds are utilized with a full string orchestra backup. It’s a score worthy of independent listening and also suits the film perfectly. Combined with impeccable sound design with realistic, fleshed out sounds and background, it makes for one of the most immersive audio experiences in anime this millennium.
Watching the film in English is interesting, and not in a good way. About a quarter or so of the film is in Mandarin Chinese, and the English dub makes no effort to have the Chinese parts dubbed over or subtitled. This makes the film harder to watch unless you have the subtitle option ready to turn on and off at will. That being said, the English dub, recorded by Ocean Westwood in Canada, is competently cast and performed, with a couple of iffy bit parts along the way. Despite some iffy direction in some of the dub work they’ve done, the benefit of the Ocean dub actors is that they have always sounded like ordinary people than “anime voices,” and this has lent a earthly sound to their work in the past and in this dub as well. Nobody really stands out, but there is overall a seamless flow that is broken up only by the untranslated Mandarin (whose actors often sound nothing like the English voices). The Japanese dub either does a better job of matching the Mandarin and Japanese voice actors (there are separate Chinese and Japanese voice actors credited for the Ming Chinese characters), so there is more flow and less of a break in immersion in that soundtrack. That all being said, either soundtrack is good enough for viewing, and sub- and dub-purists will not be convinced to watch the other version.
The Blu-ray is crammed chock full of extras and great, in-depth interviews about making the movie, and is well worth your time to watch after the film is over. It’s too bad nothing physical is packaged in this set and it’s all on the Blu-ray, but that’s a mild nitpick on my part.
Overall, while Sword of the Stranger doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it is a terrifically entertaining movie and sometimes that’s all you need. Put aside the desire for deconstruction and just let a pure passion project play out in front of your eyes and be entertained. You won’t be disappointed.