Sword of the Stranger poster featuring Luo Lang and Nanashi.
Well nuts. My first review, for Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, got lost in cyberspace a while back, so this one will be, officially, my first review for this site. But that’s okay, because I’m reviewing a top-notch film for you.
It’ll be a little gushy and maybe even a little mushy at times, but that’s only because this film is that good. A traditional samurai plot is upheld by stunning animation, impeccable voice selection, and a sound track worth listening to on its own. The story is that of Kotaro, a young boy fleeing from a group of Ming warriors following their Emperor’s orders. Their goal is to make a medicine from the boy’s blood that grants immortality, as prophesied by trusted member of the Emperor’s court. A child sacrifice is only chosen every hundred years, and must be sacrificed at a specific time and day, and Kotaro is that child.
He is first sent on the run by his monk protector, who bids him to find his way to a specific temple that will protect him. Along the way, he takes shelter in an abandoned building and encounters a nameless ronin. After demanding that the ronin leave, he makes dinner for himself and his dog, Tobimaru, who offers the ronin a fish despite Kotaro’s protests. The ronin sticks around long enough to witness a Ming warrior and his escorts attack the boy; despite his previous disinterest in Kotaro, he becomes protective of the boy and defeats the attackers. Tobimaru is injured and poisoned in the attack. Kotaro subtly begs the ronin to help him save the dog, offering up a gem the monk gave him and boasting about it’s value. The ronin, Nanashi – “No Name” – accepts the boy’s terms to save Tobimaru and escort the two to Mangaku temple after much hesitation.
Tobimaru and Kotaro early in the film.
They immediately set off for the nearest town with a medicine man. Tobimaru is treated and recovers while Nanashi locates a saddle for them. On his way back to their rented shack, he is attacked without reason by Luo Lang and holds his own until the fight is interrupted with the news that two of Luo Lang’s companions are dead. The Ming leave, and Nanashi returns to the shack. They argue briefly before Tobimaru wakes. Due to the dog’s recovery, Kotaro’s attitude towards Nanashi improves, allowing the ronin to teach the boy how to ride a horse. Once Tobimaru is able to travel, they continue their journey.
Upon reaching the temple, Kotaro happily gives Nanashi the gem while telling the truth about its value. The two have a laugh, and Nanashi quietly slips away when Shouan, Kotaro’s monk friend, appears from the temple. The monks tie up Tobimaru and escort the boy to the center of the complex, where the head monk greets him, then hands him over to the Ming. Lord Akaike’s men attack the Ming in an attempt to capture the boy for ransom. The Lord’s men fall easily, but one takes off on a horse to gather reinforcements, which alerts Nanashi to the commotion. He arrives at the battle scene after the Ming leave with Kotaro, and demands information from Shouan. The monk proclaims that he had no choice, and that if Nanashi were in his position, he too would have given up the boy. Deeply disturbed by the monk’s justification, the ronin deems Shouan unworthy of being a monk and races off on foot with Tobimaru to the Shishine fortress, where the Ming have constructed a gigantic altar.
Shogun Itadori arrives at the temple after Nanashi leaves, finding Shouan’s body hanging from one of the trees. While Itadori is gone from the daimyo’s mansion, Luo Lang, Lord Byakuran, and the other Ming kidnap Lord Akaike and take him to Shishine. Itadori is alerted to this and makes his way on horseback with his lieutenant, meeting up with a platoon of soldiers on the way to the fortress. They reach the fortress before Nanashi. The Ming use the daimyo in an attempt to stall for time, but Itadori has his own agenda and his lieutenant kills the lord before they storm the fortress gates.
The battle is well under way when Nanashi arrives, and is caught in a blast that destroys part of the fortress and kills most of Itadori’s men, but survives unscathed. While trapped in the debris, he relives the moment that caused him to put down his blade: he obeyed an order to kill the children of the lord he helped depose, despite his own moral code. He comes back to reality with new resolve to save Kotaro and escapes the debris, working his way to the boy. One of the surviving Ming attacks him, but the ronin breaks the binding preventing him from drawing his blade and kills the Ming with ease. Tobimaru, having gone up the altar while Nanashi was buried beneath the debris, delays the sacrifice long enough for the ronin to reach the altar, but not enough for Nanashi to get to the top. Knowing he can’t make it, he throws his sword, and it kills the large Ming assigned to kill Kotaro.
Nanashi makes his way to the top and reunites with the boy. However, the Ming still want Kotaro, and two attack the ronin. He kills one Ming fighter, but is blinded by a spray of blood, though he manages to send himself and the remaining attacker off the platform to the one below. Only he survives the fall, and while Kotaro pulls him from the edge of the platform, Lord Byakuran fires at him. Luo Lang has different plans for the ronin, however, and slices through the gun and the elderly man’s left arm, causing the bullet to miss its target. Luo Lang reveals his true nature: he cares not about the Emperor’s medicine, nor about the boy, only about finding a warrior who can defeat him. Thus, they fight, and Nanashi ultimately wins.
A still from the final fight scene that showcases the film’s exceptional art.
And now I can talk about how much I liked it. There are very few animes that I don’t end up nitpicking to death, whether it’s over bad writing, bad animation, or bad editing. Sword of the Stranger is an exceptional film in pretty much every way. The animation is beautiful, the plot is strong, the characters are genuine, and the dialogue is real.
To start with the animation, it is supreme when it counts, and was sloppy in all the right ways. The level of detail and care put into this film is palpable, most notably during the final fight scene. Not to mention the beautifully painted backgrounds that give it an even more authentic feel.
Now on to the plot, which is your basic samurai epic; this is not a bad thing. Traditional samurai epics are fantastic things to behold, and this film brings only glory to its genre. It is complex without being confusing, and each majour character is well-defined in the context of the plot. The ‘invasion’ of the Ming adds an interesting element to the film, as it brings extra-cultural influences as well as a hint of the supernatural.
As for the characters, none of them feel out of place or forced, with their traits displayed naturally and effectively. Luo Lang and Nanashi are an intriguing duo in opposition due to both their similarities and differences. Both are foreigners, are exceptional fighters, and are driven by their own motives. In contrast, Luo Lang seems to have little use for morals, where Nanashi adheres to them strictly. Nanashi’s agreement to escort Kotaro and Tobimaru to Mangaku temple, and ultimately saving the boy from a sacrificial death, is a way for the ronin to clear his guilty conscience, to repent for the killing of innocents he had done in the past, while Luo Lang’s only desire is to find an opponent worthy of killing him. I could go on about the characters for hours, so I won’t, and will move onto my final topic, the dialogue.
I’m a writer myself, and one of the few things about writing that always gave me trouble was dialogue. Having recently taken up screenwriting, I have learned to appreciate the dialogue in films much more than I used to; but it also means I’m much more critical of it. A good film can end up being cringeworthy if the dialogue is badly written, and good dialogue is memorable, even if the film isn’t so great. So when I say that the dialogue in this film is real, I mean that the writer knew exactly what they were doing. This can be surprisingly uncommon. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a translation for the spoken Chinese, so I only have a faint idea of what was said, but all the English was spot-on.
In closing, I’ll reiterate: this is a great film. I would recommend this to everyone mature enough to watch it, including those who don’t usually enjoy anime.