Written by Bananaowns
Images courtesy of Studio Bones
I have a weird relationship with anime films, in that I have trouble actually starting them. I don’t know what it is about the longer runtime that makes me hesitant to start an anime movie. I don’t have this same issue with series. I will spend three hours binge-watching a series and not even think about it, but I have trouble watching an hour and a half movie. It takes a special movie to make me commit to the entire runtime. When I do finally finish an anime film, I usually rave about them. For this week, I managed to watch what I would describe as a Kurosawa film, but in animated form. I absolutely adore the works of Akira Kurosawa, so this is relatively high praise. Of course I am talking about Sword of the Stranger. It’s a stereotypical samurai film, but its strength lies with how well it represents the genre. Not every work has to be groundbreaking or new. A work can be amazing for simply being a great example of the genre. Sword of the Stranger is one of the best samurai films that I have watched and yes, I am still comparing it to the works of Akira Kurosawa. I’m Bananaowns and this is an Otaku Youth Anime Review.
The story of Sword of the Stranger takes place in Sengoku-era Japan. This is an era characterized by rampant war and political machinations that make Game of Thrones look like child’s play. The film opens up with the flight of a young boy named Kotarou as escapes from a burning temple. Kotarou, along with his dog, is fleeing from a group of Chinese mercenaries, led by the mysterious blonde swordsman Rarou. Kotarou manages to hide out in a rundown temple and encounters Nanashi, a wandering swordsman who refuses to draw his blade. Kotarou’s pursuers catch up and Nanashi gets involved with the fight, much to his chagrin. Kotarou strikes a deal with Nanashi and hires the man as his bodyguard. That is the basic setup of the plot to Sword of the Stranger. Of course, there are many more intricacies, but I would be doing a great disservice by spoiling too much.
This type of plot is fairly typical for this genre or even just film in general. It possesses all of the typical tropes: the swordsman with a haunted past, the bickering between the two leads, and the most important, the talented rival. Yes, Sword of the Stranger does offer a typical plot, but it carries out the story perfectly. The characters are perfectly fleshed out (more on that later). The setting is absolutely interesting. The plot is perfectly paced to match the journey of the main characters. At times, the pacing does slow down, but difference in speed almost serves like a countdown for the bursts of action. This speed decrease creates just the right amount of tension as the viewer waits for the next twist of the story. In particular, the cat and mouse game between Nanashi and Rarou is the highlight of the movie. Every time these two are even near each other, the audience is just left on the edge of their seat, just waiting for the proverbial pin to drop. A film’s ultimate goal is to evoke a genuine emotional response from the audience. Sword of the Stranger is packed with emotion. The final confrontation alone is an emotional powerhouse of a scene. Every facet of this movie managed to evoke some sort of emotional response from me. From the pangs of defeat to a triumphant glory, Sword of the Stranger is filled to the brim with emotion.
Sword of the Stranger features a relatively small cast of characters, but this small cast is given the attention that it deserves. This attention allows each character to develop in a meaningful way. Kotarou starts off as a brat, albeit a resourceful one. He is angry due to his circumstances and is relatively closed off as a result. It’s a rarity for such a young character to be developed just as well as the adult characters. Kotarou is believable as a child that has been thrown into such extreme circumstances. Now the bulk of his character development comes with his interactions with Nanashi. The two start off as relatively cold to one another, just a simple relationship based on money. Kotarou shows his inner fear because he constantly believes that Nanashi will betray him at any moment. Over the course of the story, Kotarou begins to open up to Nanashi. The two form a relationship that I can only describe as that between brothers.
Nanashi is one of the more mysterious characters. He is a ronin, a samurai without a master. It quickly becomes apparent that his tragic past haunts him immensely. He’s the rare swordsman who refuses to draw his blade, instead using only the sheath to fight. That does not mean he is any less lethal though. Nanashi represents the ronin archetype perfectly. He possesses just the right combination of self-loathing and goodness. While initially hesitant to assist Kotarou, he eventually overcomes his trepidation. Much like Kotarou, Nanashi receives quite a lot of his character development from their relationship. Assisting Kotarou acts as a sort of medium that allows Nanashi to directly address his past sins. The final few scenes of the film grant a very satisfying emotional payoff to Nanashi’s part of the story.
So a great samurai film needs a worthy rival for the main character. Rarou is the perfect answer to Nanashi. Unlike Nanashi, Rarou is perfectly content with his status as a swordsman. He will do whatever is asked of him, just to get a chance at potentially facing a strong opponent. Rarou is not evil per se, but just wants to be challenged. He is actually rather honorable towards those that he deems worthy. As an antagonist, he is absolutely ideal. For one, he is actually competent. Rarou is a very dependable hire just based on his skills alone. Throughout the movie, the viewer does not get to know his backstory unlike the other main characters. Rarou remains an enigma. He is simple the blonde European that works for the Chinese as they carry out a mission in Japan. Overall, the main characters of Sword of the Stranger are interesting and developed quite well throughout the film.
Typically anime films feature gorgeous animation. Sword of the Stranger is not an exception to this rule. Every frame of this film is beautiful. The backgrounds are very well done. The character design is phenomenal. I’m sure any potential viewer has probably heard about the amazing fight scenes that are featured in this movie. There are not too many of them, but they are the highlights of the movie. Look at any of the fight scenes in this movie and try to tell me that each one is not absolutely gorgeous. From the way the characters move to the excellent choreography, these fight scenes are a treat to any viewer. These fight scenes feature some of the best swordplay that I have ever seen in an anime. I really don’t have much more to say other than this film is worth the watch alone simply for the high animation quality.
The sound design features the only negative thing I have to say about the film. The sound effects for the dog are low quality. It’s almost like listening to a MIDI version of a sound effect. Now the other sound effects are well designed. The foley for the sword battles is especially impressive. That being said, the rest of the sound design is pretty great with the highlight being the music. First off, the voice acting is very good for this movie. I really enjoy the switch between Japanese and Mandarin when it comes to the Japanese and Chinese communicating. From a story perspective, it adds immensely to the idea that this Chinese force is truly foreign. It also adds the extra element of silence to Nanashi and Rarou’s rivalry. Without the benefit of communication this rivalry is almost entirely expressed with the animation, which is a concept that I really give them credit for.
Now it’s time to talk about the music of Sword of the Stranger. Frankly, it is perfect. The music perfectly fits every scene of the film. It is emotional when it needs to be. At times it can also be ominous or triumphant. The opening scene paints the perfect introduction to the score of this film. It is the perfect music for a samurai film. The music also has a variety of stylistic choices. One scene might have a more traditional Japanese flair while another might use a more Western sounding score. This really comes to a head during one of the final battle scenes of the movie. The entire film was building up to that moment and the music echoes this sentiment. It starts off slow, but gains as this confrontation finally happens. It is one of the more emotional pieces that I have ever listened to, especially when combined with the context of the story and the animation quality.
Sword of the Stranger is a film that I would say is almost perfect in every way. This should be required viewing by any fan of anime. The story is great and the characters are great as well, the added bonus of the story being Rarou, who is a very interesting antagonist. Being a film, the animation is excellent as expected. The sound design is great as well combining fantastic performances with an emotional score. Of course there are some flaws, but the combination of the story, the characters, the animation and the sound, really create a complete package. I give Sword of the Stranger my Bananaowns’ stamp of approval. It really is amazing in every way, to the point where I would categorize it as one of my favorite anime films. To put that into perspective, that is in a category that is filled with Studio Ghibli, Mamoru Hosoda, and Makoto Shinkai films. That is very high praise from me and not everything that I watch receives that level of praise. Thanks for checking out this review, I’ll be back next week for a look at some more anime recommendations for the winter season.