Kotaro runs through a verdant forest, the dark, piercing night keeping him hidden as he hurtles down the mountain, out of breath, trying to evade his pursuers. The sound of crackling as a temple burns to the ground follows closely behind, penetrating the evening’s stillness as he and his Shiba Inu Tobimaru run as fast as their legs will carry them. He has nothing but his wits and a small jewel in his possession, but he is determined to get across the country unscathed — his only solace is a promise of safety from a kind monk in a far-off temple, until he crosses paths with a swordsman with no name.
Baiting him with the promise of the priceless jewel as payment, Kotaro persuades the wandering samurai to help him reach his destination, and also protect him from the group of merciless Chinese soldiers that remain hot on their trail. The pair remain at odds with each other at first, constantly bickering as they slowly trudge through the Japanese countryside, but as their mission continues a genuine bond develops between bodyguard and the pursued. Through their friendship we learn about the atrocities of war and fanaticism, the effects of both clearly still weighing heavily on their minds. Despite their best efforts to avoid danger, though, Kotaro and the samurai’s journey is not devoid of terror as they are confronted by a seemingly endless stream of battles.
Both violent and touching, Masahiro Ando’s period epic is a masterpiece of Japanese animation. With its incredible story, striking visuals and stunning soundtrack, Sword of the Stranger is a powerhouse. It is filled with a myriad of fast-paced action sequences, all of which are gorgeously animated and intricately staged to create an intense narrative. Produced by Studio Bones, who are behind projects like Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these sequences, and indeed the film as a whole, is as remarkable as it is.
The examination of the centuries long hostility between the Japanese and Chinese is depicted in an interesting way here, namely because it doesn’t lean one way or the other. Citizens from each country are shown in a good and bad light, and to add to this the story’s lead swordsman No-Name and Luo-Lang are both of foreign descent that have demonstrated their skill on the battlefield time and time again. Their rivalry, and blood-soaked past, proves to be one of the most interesting parts of the film as the narrative tries to emulate that classic samurai genre that made Japanese cinema an international phenomenon.
While it is an exhilarating drama to watch, it can be said that the film is intended to be a crowd-pleaser that presents a narrative with minimal substance. Thanks to its incredible fight scenes and striking score this flaw, if it can be called that, seems to be of little consequence. Sword of the Stranger may have a familiar story, but it’s outstanding nevertheless.
Sword of the Stranger is being screened across the UK as part of the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme. For more information on cities and dates, go to their website.
Director: Masahiro Ando
Release: Out Now
From: All the Anime
Format: Blu-ray and DVD Collector’s Edition, Theatrical Release (Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme)
Age Rating: 15