Worthy of it being a classic and one that is worth the watch on repeat.
The influence of the Samurai genre has stretched itself far and wide through the anime genre over the years, from classics such as Ninja Scroll and The Hakkenden to modern anime such as Samurai Champloo and Gin Tama. Looking at Japan through a feudal period with maybe a few twists and changes to help grab the interest has long become a key defining element of the genre, especially since there is so much to cover. With Sword of the Stranger, it’s a shame how this movie is rather overlooked and yet there is so much in this that manages to make it stand out and become something to invest in because of original it is…despite repeating a few clichés and tropes, however this film manages to hit all the right notes at becoming a very good movie.
The story focuses on a young boy named Kotaro and his Shiba Inu dog Tobimaru as they are on the run from Ming Dynasty swordsman that follow a very strict prophecy so they can sacrifice the boy to obtaining the secret ingredient to gain immortally, along the way Kotaro meets a Samurai just simply known as “No-Name” who agrees to help protect the boy as he makes his way to the nearest temple. However as all this is happening one of the Ming Swordsman named Luo-Lang plans to find a swordsman who can match his fighting skills while just going along with the plan at hand, not too interested on immortality but to find a worthy opponent to kill. Much of this story while the film isn’t based on a pre-existing material isn’t wholly original, we’ve all seen the stories of someone being hunted down for the villains to get something out of while seeing protagonists put up against each other who of course don’t like each other but they warm up to eventually and all elements in between, however despite the cliché and very exhausting elements that this story uses the end result turns out to be a rather satisfying one.
Sword of the Stranger sets its attention on 3 main characters, Kotaro, No-Name and Luo-Lang. Kotaro as a character is at times very irritating but also likable, he comes across as hot-tempered while also displaying a genuine purity of how a kid would behave as well as seeing his relationship with his dog Tobimaru. Just seeing the two together really displays a strong love that any child would have with a pet and it does it in a satisfying way where you want to make sure these characters are alright. No-Name’s character is one that is purely complex, the most notable trait of his character is that his sword is permanently tied and bounded with ropes due to a really horribly incident that refuses him to draw his weapon. However despite that he remains somewhat aloof and distant while also acting like a big brother figure to Kotaro, to the point where he teaches the boy how to ride a horse. With Kotaro they do display the bickering, argumentative qualities that you would expect from a cliché but that said by the end of the film No-Name remains fiercely dedicated and loyal to Kotaro, much so that his experience with the boy sets the character on one about personal redemption and trying to move forward past what shaped him in his youth. As for Luo-Lang, his role as a “villain” isn’t really all about obtaining anything of any physical wealth. As a character Luo-Long is really only after one thing and that’s to find an opponent who is just as strong as him if not more so, and as a foreigner in an unknown country his attempts are finding someone seem rather non-existent. But as a character Luo-Long is rather admirable as well as determined in his goal and doesn’t particularly care about the main objective of capturing a child to achieve immortality, while not very deep in his qualities and while he isn’t even really that evil, Luo-Lang’s arc is pretty engaging to see because of his agenda.
In regards to the films production, there’s much to admire but there is also much to point out which falls kind of flat in regards to quality. Animated by Studio Bones (RahXephon, Wolf’s Rain, Soul Eater) and directed by Masahiro Andō, the animation for Sword of the Stranger often jerks back and forth between Film quality Anime and TV quality anime. In between moments where faces on the characters are not drawn on properly and production looks rushed due to time restrictions, however most of those are very minimal and really are on screen for only a couple of seconds so they aren’t even worth complaining about. But as a whole this movie is stunning, the beautifully painted backgrounds and the set pieces which capture the look of the Sengoku Period of Japan really highlight the film very nicely in it’s cinematography, accompanied by some rather pleasing character design work by Tsunenori Saito. What stands out very well however are the fight scenes, being a not just a samurai film but an action film the fight scenes in this are animated with a great degree of poise and careful consideration all under the control of Yutaka Nakamura. Known for his work on Vision of Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist and Eureka Seven, as a key animator Nakamura manages to make the fights in this movie intense and brutal. To where you see characters get cut up and bloodied in horrible ways but to where you see close-up details of the faces while moving in for the kill as the fight scenes get bigger and bigger and more and more exciting, what’s also worth pointing out because the cast of characters are both Chinese and Japanese, you are seeing a huge culture clash in weaponry and fighting skills. So the fighting wastes absolutely no time in becoming exciting while being incredibly violent as well as beautiful to look at in motion.
Audio wise this movie’s score is really good to listen to. The score by Naoki Satō (Eureka Seven) is both tense and exciting for it’s action scenes but it manages to become calm and very uplifting for it’s character driven scenes. Tracks such as “Rasatsu No En” and “Ihojin No Yaiba” are powerful and moving for a reason because of the instruments that are used, the pounding drums and tense incredibly forceful use of the movie’s theme really drive the action forward and do it in a way where it feels like you are being grabbed onto and pulled violently through the story and dripping with blood on the end of it. Tracks such as “Deai” and “Na Mo Naki Kizu” play the theme in both different ways, one is very comforting and safe while the other is sad and haunting and both of them do a really good job at capturing the scene as well as the drama, however tracks such as “Tsukiyo No Seijaku” that hit the right mood at about 1 minute just give you such a strong feeling of joy and excitement and what you feel from such a well composed score which only makes you wish that such a track was much longer. This score does everything in it’s power to capture the feudal era of Japan and it does it so beautifully. From the voice acting side of things is where it’s rather interesting; Sword of the Stranger’s method when it comes to voice acting is based in its characters, a portion of them being Chinese. Rather than just aim for a movie where all the characters speak one language in both English and in Japanese, the movie uses Mandarin for its language in-between the dual audio options and while it can be a little jarring when characters flip flop back and forth between their languages they do a fairly good job of working it into the Chinese characters with subtitles to read of course.
Then there’s the English dub done by the Ocean Group, on the performance side of things you have Michael Adamthwaite playing the character of No-Name. Adamthwaite captures the character as he is written by making him a calm but serious and shell-shocked man while also making sure he remains sympathetic and comforting to the character of Kotaro. At the time of this movie’s release you have a young Aidan Drummond playing the character of Kotaro, who manages to capture the character as a short-tempered and very hot-headed but innocent and very carefree boy and he manages to convey that very well in this. Then you have Scott Mcneil playing the character of Luo-Lang, over the years Scott Mcneil has become one of the most highly recognizable and very enjoyable voice actors to listen to. From his work in Beast Wars & X-men Evolution to his anime voice work in Gundam Wing & Inuyasha, Mcneil does a grand job at disguising himself in his character work as a voice actor, here it’s no different. His performance as Luo-Lang is very monotone but intimidating and manages to bring the character to life rather well here, it’s villainous while also coming across as noble and doesn’t make it sound generic as you would think a villain’s voice would sound.
Additional voices provided by Ocean Group regulars such as Brian & Paul Dobson, Richard Newman, Hiro Kanagawa, Ken Kramer, Maryke Hendrikse, Tabitha St. Germain etc all do their jobs here rather nicely with the characters they provide, giving you something to remember and appreciate while admiring their craft at creating some rather appealing minor characters.
While it doesn’t take its place next to the greats in Anime and while it’s not 100% original in its ideas, Sword of the Stranger is a very good movie. The characters are engaging and worth investing in, the story is very tight in what it’s doing, the production while spotty is rather pleasing to look and the action wastes absolutely no time in being fun and exciting. This is has all the elements necessary to be a fun action movie as well as a very enjoyable Samurai film, it’s one that has been overlooked really badly and it doesn’t deserve to be. It’s a rush of film while also being one that is engaging to watch on a personal level, so there is so much to take away from this.
Worthy of it being a classic and one that is worth the watch on repeat.
Sami Sadek is a lifelong Transformers and Anime fan, and can often be found propping up bars or appearing in the background of Auto Assembly vids. He has also talks on Youtube, Tweets on Twitter, doodles on Deviantart and is a regular co-host on this very site's Cyberritz. He has never had a swordfight atop a church whilst a crow watches. Honest.