Review for Sword of the Stranger - Collector's Edition
‘Sword of a Stranger’ is a really great film in its own right. Completely setting its genre (anime) aside, I think anyone who enjoys a good story full of action, passion, humour and ‘good over evil righteousness’ will love this. The fact that it’s also a brilliant piece of anime is just a bonus.
Although it’s been released on Blu-Ray before (see resident anime aficionado Jitendar Canth’s excellent review here), this ‘Collector’s Edition’ from Anime Limited is dual-format, with DVD and Blu-Ray, and comes in a natty collector’s case, with a 40 page booklet (which I haven’t seen) and a host of extra features.
The film is a Studio Bones release, the fine folk and creative powerhouse responsible for series like Fullmetal Alchemist and Ouran High School Host Club.
Although this is another in a long line of historic Samurai style swordsmen epics, it had more in common with the ‘Baby Cart’ movie series than with ‘The Seven Samurai’. Set in Japan during the Sengoku era, the film starts as it means to go on – with a POV shot of some battling in the woods, before introducing us, with a sudden gear change, to a spirited young boy (Kotaro) and his faithful dog, Tobimaru. They seem to be on the run from a group intent on finding them, though we don’t immediately know why. They’re on their way to seeking help from one Master Zekkai, a monk from a temple in a nearby province.
Then they leave their hide-out for a short period, they get an unexpected guest. Whilst he seems to be, for the most part, a very laid back hobo, it transpires that it is none other than a mysterious swordsman (‘No Name’) who seems almost fated to fall in to their lives. Humouring the boy, and his offer to part with something valued at a few yen if the swordsman helps him, the three (including the dog) set off on a treacherous journey together. The idea that the swordsman is merely a ‘gun for hire’ in the eyes of the impudent youngster is maintained with great humour as they set off on their travels. The boy insists on reminding ‘No Name’ that he is his boss at every available opportunity.
Hot on their tail, and clearly intent on capturing the boy, are a clan of samurai swordsmen hired by the Chinese. They believe that Kotaro is the prophesised child and that, if they kill him at a very precise moment of the year, their blood can be used to create an elixir of immortality. Which is bad news for Kotaro. The Japanese, fed up with the Chinese and wishing to foil their plans, are also chasing poor Kotaro, just to spite the Chinese.
The swordsman has vowed never to draw his sword, but seeing that the boy is in danger, makes an exception and is seen to be a formidable fighter, able to take on several swordsmen at a time.
Once the scene is set, the film then settles in to the treacherous journey, with tons of excitement and sword-fighting battles along the way. I guess you could say it’s pretty much a ‘road movie’ but without a car. You could also argue that it’s a buddy movie too, as it has more than a little of that too. Kotaro is a great character – probably no more than 9 or 10 years old, he is fiercely independent and stubborn to a fault. ‘No Name’ on the other hand is ‘Clint Eastwood’ cool, a man of few words and high contrasts, springing into action when called to do so with breath-taking agility. They’re a real mean team.
It’s a nicely paced, self-contained feature film that requires no previous knowledge of the characters or even of the anime genre in order to enjoy it. Whilst it may not be the story of the year, it’s incredibly entertaining and its 90 minutes fly by.
The film may be 10 years old now but the animation, perhaps due to its historic setting and muted brown and grey water-coloured tones, looks very contemporary. The fight scenes in particular are brilliantly rendered and creatively choreographed. The Blu-Ray picture quality, with an HD 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, is great and the DVD is more than acceptable. (Note: the screen grabs featured in this review are from the DVD).
Although I know this will rankle anime purists, but I viewed the film with its English dub which, for me, was perfectly acceptable – if a little generic. Maybe next time I’ll go with the Japanese originals. Audio wise, though the score is nothing remarkable or particularly notable, it all works just fine. For the record, this edition comes with English, French and Japanese language options with English and French subs for the Japanese.
The disc comes with a surprising array of extra features (for an anime release at any rate). Not least, a surprisingly comprehensive 51-minute documentary (well, interviews with those involved) tracking the project from conception to completion. It smacks of self-promotion, as these things tend to do, but is well worth watching. This is in Japanese with English subs.
Also included is an intriguing (finance raising) 4 minute ‘pilot’ which, despite having very few words, shows the stylistic intent really well.
There’s a nice inclusion which shows the Japanese cast at a Q & A following a theatrical preview. Finally, a sample animatic, a rough, animated storyboard which is fascinating if you like the process and creative design, plus a bunch of TV and theatrical trailers too.
I’d highly recommend ‘Sword of the Stranger’. It may not be Studio Ghibli, but it’ sgot enough creativity and production value to stand proud as a bona-fide feature film. It’s also bloody entertaining. With the emphasis on the bloody. Oh – and fun and heart warming too. If you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, now’s your chance.