Sword of the Stranger
Nearly ten years ago now, back when I had enough time to devote some of it to PC gaming, I picked up Shogun: Total War. The general concept was that you are a daimyo trying to bring all of Japan under your control. There were plenty of strategy elements, like collecting rice to build your army, diplomacy, research, you name it. But all that stuff was really the window dressing to the most fun part of the game, which was thrusting your units into battle and watching them beat the snot out of a variety of ninjas, ronin, and other assorted flavors of Japanese soldiers in the 16th century. With up to 5,000 soldiers in a single scenario, the battlefield got bloody quick and stayed that way. The plot of the game was meager at best, but it didn't need a lot...when you have 5,000 guys whomping on each other in feudal Japan, who needs a reason?
Sword of the Stranger, which is set in the same era, reminds me of the best parts of Shogun. It's got a plot, but when it lingers too long on it, it slows down. But that doesn't happen too often. This anime, created by BONES, is all about the slicing and the dicing, and boy, does it do it well. With incredible action sequences, a strong soundtrack, and superb animation, it's not all that difficult to set aside the color-by-numbers script.
Kotaro is on the run. A young orphan under the care of a kind monk, Kotaro's told in the opening scenes to flee, and that's what he does. Soldiers from the Ming dynasty are after him, and his loyal dog Tobimaru is his only companion. But not for long...Kotaro meets a ronin without a name that he recruits as his bodyguard. The ronin, Nanashi (which literally means "no name"), is haunted by his past and the orders he blindly followed. But he has no idea what he's getting himself into, for Kotaro is part of a prophecy that the Ming dynasty is determined to make come true. He will eventually find himself crossing swords with the very best warriors China has to throw at him.
Sword of the Stranger isn't crazy different from many low-budget OVAs in the 80s and 90s. The difference is how it goes about doing what it does. First, this is a top-flight production. It looks and sounds great. If the opening sequence with its pounding drums and swordplay doesn't give you a little thrill, I don't know what will. And while things do slow down, the quality never fades. It may not look as stunning as the cityscapes in Tekkon Kinkreet or Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but the detail level is always appropriate to the setting. If there's any fault in the direction -- and it's one that's seen all over the postmodern filmmaking landscape -- it's that the action sequences are so fast that at times it's hard to follow what's going on. But in the most important battles, the ones where it's not one fantastic swordsman against a slew of flunkies, everything actually makes perfect sense, so it's a forgivable problem. (The only caveat I would make is for the squeamish; the blood flows freely here, and while the most gruesome bits happen at blazing speed at the edges of the screen, it's gory.)
Another place where Sword of the Stranger beats out the competition is in developing its characters. Now Kotaro is way too annoying as a lead, frankly -- his attitude is frustrating enough that it affected just how much I liked this show. He does grow over time, and yes, he's got the orphan thing to fall back on, but BONES should have known better than to make him difficult to like. But on the other hand, Nanashi's mysterious past and laid-back attitude make him the perfect foil for Kotaro's type-A-on-steroids personality. He's the far more interesting of the two, and I certainly wouldn't mind a sequel if he was the star. But even if Kotaro isn't the perfect little protagonist, the way he and Nanashi grow into friends works really well. The movie also proves that not every film needs an "origin" story; sometimes, it's best that we don't know everybody's motivation. Real life is far more like that.
The other important bit in a film like this is that it has strong villains. Nobody is trustworthy...this is not a "bash on the Chinese" kind of film. The monks are corrupt, the daimyos are corrupt...it's depicted as a time when everybody did what was right in their own eyes. That said, there are two main villains who are worth their salt. The first is Byakuran, ostensibly an advisor to the Emperor himself, who leads the chase after Kotaro. While he seems like an Imperial loyalist, he's got his own plans well in view the whole time. Meanwhile, Luo-Lang is one of Byakuran's henchmen, but he's more bored than anything else. His skills are so great that it's been a long time since he's enjoyed a fight, and he's itching for a battle worthy of him. And perhaps most importantly, while the film is straightforward, there's enough subterfuge going on that it's not totally predictable. Is it simple? Yeah. But it's not dull. I also appreciated that the film, while it has some supernatural concepts (such as a prophecy), isn't outside the realm of reality like Ninja Scroll and its ilk.
I can't say that Sword of the Stranger is going to become one of my favorite films; it does have some pacing issues when the weapons aren't flashing. Kotaro isn't a great lead, either. But truthfully, the action is incredibly fun to watch, and if you are willing to overlook a few summer blockbuster excesses, it's pretty great. Frankly, this is a movie where you might sit down and enjoy the whole thing a couple of times, then return just to the best sequences over and over...but that makes it a purchase rather than a rental, doesn't it?
Sword of the Stranger -- graphic violence -- A-