REVIEW: DVD Release: Sword Of The Stranger

Film: Sword Of The Stranger
Release date: 26th July 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 102 mins
Director: Masahiro Andô
Starring: Yûki Chinen, Tomoya Nagase, Akio Ôtsuka, Kyle Rideout, Naoto Takenaka
Genre: Anime
Studio: Beez
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Every now and then an anime film crosses over into the mainstream. Films like Akira, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away all enjoyed surprise commercial success internationally. Sword Of The Stranger’s achievements have been modest in comparison, but not for the want of trying.

During the Ming Dynasty, a nameless swordsman with a troubled past protects a hunted young boy as their fates lead them into the middle of a war between the Chinese and Japanese.

As the two mighty armies head for their inevitable fallout; our unlikely heroes must work together on their journey to freedom. Not easy when they don’t like each other very much. And with dissent in the ranks of the armies leading to infighting; who knows what the future will bring for this troubled land.…

At times Sword Of The Stranger may seem a little hokey; the stranger with the troubled past, the revealing flashback while a character is incapacitated, the mysterious villain who only desires a worthy opponent. Yet any cheesy idea can work if it is executed properly. Director Masahiro Ando seems to know this, and doesn’t resist using any genre convention or cliché in the book. The fact that he largely pulls it off is testament to his skill.

The camaraderie between Kotaro and No-Name is at first prickly, but as time moves on a natural kinship emerges. Surprisingly, Kotaro’s (and then No-Name’s) relationship with Tobimaru (a dog) is one of the first signs that the film is as adept with the emotions as it is with the action. Tobimaru is never used simply as a mawkish excuse for sentimentality; rather as a genuine character and part of the core protagonist group.

With so many other characters and expositions to get through in a brief hour and forty minutes, it is to the filmmakers’ credit that at no point does it feel forced or contrived. Because of this aptitude for balancing the different elements, the feeling is that a longer runtime wouldn’t go amiss. If anything, the film could do with a little extra time just to better flesh out some of the characters - Luo-Lang, for example, could thrive with more than just his archetypal motivations, and perhaps a little more time with the Chinese and Japanese camps might give a greater understanding of their rivalry and what drives them.

Fortunately, Ando knows that he is heading towards as grand a climax as one could hope for. The female warriors we see at various points throughout spring into action spectacularly, and the three main warriors (Luo-Lang, No-Name and Mr. Itadori) get their respective opportunity to shine in at least four individual moments of impressive and emotional bombast.

The most impressive element, though, is not that Ando can balance the emotion with the action, but that he can present such emotion during the action. Even secondary and hitherto unknown characters are presented with a full spectrum of emotion, even if we only see them at the time of death. And what death! The blood runs and sprays in high volumes from beginning to end, more than enough to satisfy the bloodlust of any Japanese cinema fan.

The Kurasawa influence is obvious, other inspiration can possibly also be found in Sergio Leone and Hayao Miyazaki (surely the benchmark for all modern anime), like whom Sword Of The Stranger has the crossover appeal that Princess Mononoke enjoyed thirteen years ago - it’s a shame that this isn’t the case, and that it didn’t get the Oscar nomination (it was submitted for consideration for the 2009 awards). Perhaps it’s because on the surface there is nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. It’s only when you see it that you realise just how much it stands out.

All in all, if you’re looking for an hour-and-a-half of unabashed enjoyment, or if you want to show a friend how good anime can be, you could do a lot worse than giving this a spin. SEAN

1 comment:

  1. Agree with the review completely this film is the perfect balance of action and emotional input. I had the good fortune of meeting with the director in London and he was a great guy. Love his other stuff including Type moon's Cannan which I recommend to anyone that enjoyed Sword of the Stranger.