Sword of the Stranger Review
If an anime director can be judged based on their work prior to becoming a fully fledged filmmaker then Masahiro Andô would certainly be considered first class, having worked up until 2007 as a storyboard artist and key animator on projects like Ghost in the Shell, Jin Roh, Metropolis, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, The End of Evangelion, Planetese, Eureka Seven, RahXephon, and Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s an impressive C.V as an animator but his work as director was limited to only a handful of episodes of Kikaider, RahXephon and Fullmetal Alchemist, where he demonstrated a particular talent for directing action. He finally made the leap to feature film directing in 2007 by giving his talents for creating action set pieces a thorough workout in the period swordplay film: Sword of the Stranger.
Set in the tumultuous Sengoku Jidai (The Warring States period of Japan), Sword of the Stranger follows a young orphan named Kotaro who is being pursued by a band of highly-skilled Chinese warriors working for the Ming emperor. They’re hunting Kotaro because it is has been prophesised that his blood can be used in a sacrificial ritual to create an immortality elixir called the Xian Medicine, but the youngster is proving to be elusive prey. Enter a wandering ronin with no name: Nanashi (nameless) who crosses paths with Kotaro and is drawn into a lethal scuffle with one of the Chinese warriors who has just located his target, but is quickly despatched by the skilful ronin. Kotaro hires Nanashi as his personal bodyguard with the promise of a jewel worth 10 gold coins should they make it to Mangaku Temple where Kotaro can seek asylum, but Nanashi is going to have to put up with not only the threat of the Chinese, but also the irritation of Kotaro’s distrusting nature.
There isn’t a tremendous amount of narrative complexity to Sword of the Stranger, the main goal of Andô and scriptwriter Fumihiko Takayama seems to be to create a plotline that isn’t too heavy on details and can allow for a series of action interjections. This is an unashamedly mainstream film, one aimed not only at Japanese but also western audiences as well, incorporating elements not only from the Jidaigeki genre but with its Man-With-No-Name hero traditional Western trappings can be felt as well. Luckily “narratively unadventurous” is about the biggest criticism you can level at Sword of the Stranger, sure the plotline is bogged down in the first hour by too many Nanashi/Kotaro bonding scenes that have little originality to them, but it’s not like the script is entirely lacking in finesse – for instance there is very little exposition thrown at the viewer, and the decision to drip-feed information throughout the full three acts adds intrigue to a slight plot. In the final act the storyline also splits into multiple strands involving three factions: Nanashi/Kotaro, the Chinese faction, and Lord Akaike’s clan who control the region where the Chinese are ensconced, which are perfectly balanced and converge in a truly exciting finale that brings the story to a very satisfying close. A standout moment in this big showpiece is the final revelation of Nanashi’s past, which comes at a pivotal moment in the overall plot and amplifies the context of that moment immeasurably. It’s the mark of an assured storyteller, perhaps the only true one in the film.
Where Sword of the Stranger truly excels is in the characterisation and action. Ironically the two least intriguing characters are the leads, a fact that is forgivable because they remain pretty likeable throughout. Kotaro comes off the worst of the two, a rather generic youth-in-peril who distrusts everyone around him and has a cute pet to project his warm-hearted childhood naivety onto. Nanashi is another walking cliché: a tortured hero with a shameful incident in his past, but he’s not wallowing in self pity and is affectionately magnanimous. The supporting cast is much more colourful, one of the main themes of the piece is how many characters in the Sengoku Jidai appear to be subservient to a ruling faction or nation, but ultimately are self-serving in their motivations. The main villain Luo-Lang is an excellent embodiment of this principle, seemingly loyal to the Chinese at the start of the film, but it quickly becomes apparent that his motivation is purely adversarial. His fatalistic nature makes a rather dry and gloomy character seem much more fun, this is typified in a very amusing moment towards the end when he’s taking Kotaro to the place of his impending sacrifice and scorns the child for not enjoying the moment of being alive while he’s still living it.
The other standout character is Shogen Itadori, a seemingly loyal samurai leader working under Lord Akaike who we soon discover has an extremely ambitious nature, which results in some very bold power moves later on in the film that mixes up the confrontation angles in the finale quite effectively. His gleeful nature in battle is very cool, the kind of character that can take a sword through the neck and laugh at his opponent for making such a flimsy attack. There’s also a slew of minor supporting roles that are relatively insignificant in the context of the whole plot, but who all shine in the big finale because Andô makes sure to give each and every one of them a single (or two) moment of pure badassery that justifies their presence in the earlier stages of the story.
Despite a rather pedestrian narrative in the first half of the film, Sword of the Stranger feels remarkably well-paced. This is down to a number of brilliantly directed action sequences that are truly dynamic and take full advantage of the differing fighting styles of the Japanese and Chinese characters. The fights are extremely fast, completely fluid, and well choreographed - Masahiro Andô has enthusiastically cast off the shackles of TV anime to embrace the extremities of violence that feature film-making allows. Each confrontation is particularly brutal; limbs go flying everywhere and geysers of blood spew forth with satisfying regularity, and Andô just builds the action up and up gradually until all hell breaks loose at the end. If he demonstrates a lack of adventurousness in plotting a film, there’s no doubt that his ability to develop an exciting action sequence is first rate. It’s this skill that drives Sword of the Stranger forward with real verve, making it not only an impressive debut feature, but also one of the best Jidai Geki action films of recent years.
PresentationPresented in 1080p using the AVC codec, Sword of the Stranger comes to Australian Blu-ray with an impressive transfer that has few flaws to speak of. The realistic vistas of the Japanese countryside make for a very muted colour palette that is no less striking than something that is vividly coloured. Earthen tones dominate, greys and browns are boldy defined and the more vivid blues and crimson tones look great with no bleed. Chroma noise is present in one or two places but not enough to be a distraction during regular viewing – in fact thee compression is excellent throughout, with only some tiny blocking, minute mosquito noise and banding making their presence felt, and most instances of the latter are down to the animation process rather than compression. Contrast and brightness levels are perfectly balanced, shadow detail is excellent and black levels very solid - as are detail levels. There’s not always a tremendous amount of detail in the animation, but the transfer is rarely less than pin sharp and Edge Enhancements are kept to only very light halos that are easy to miss. Grain is also barely perceivable and is only really noticeable in darker scenes, where a light, sharply fined layer is present. There doesn’t appear to be any noise reduction processes applied either. At about 45m:53s into the film there is a glitch where a grey screen is shown for about 4 frames, I can’t say I noticed this during regular playback as it occurs during a brief flurry of action, but some viewers may be sensitive enough to pick up on it.
For audio you can choose to watch Sword of the Stranger in either the original Japanese or an English dub, both in DolbyTrueHD 5.1. Listening to the Japanese track was a pretty pleasing experience, there’s a lot of activity coming from every direction and all you speakers will receive a thorough workout. Bass is punchy and focussed, kicking in forcefully during action sequences and becoming more delicate to give the clean-as-a-whistle dialogue depth. Dynamics are excellent, each element of the sound is pleasingly defined and Naoki Sato’s score has excellent clarity. The English track is more or less of the same quality, it’s just a touch more restrained than the Japanese and dialogue is distinctly lower in the mix. The dub itself is very good.
Optional English subtitles are provided as are optional English subtitles for signs only for those who choose the English dub.
ExtrasThere’s a small selection of extra features on the disc, some of which are really worthwhile, they are:
Cast Interview: Footage from a premier Q&A session with the two leads: Tomoya Nagase and Yuri Chinen intercut with individual interviews recorded in a studio. The two leads pretty much stick to only discussing the characters and themes of the film, which can be a little dull.
Production Report: An excellent making of featurette that is quit focussed and thus very informative on how Sword of the Strange made it from page to screen. All the key animators were interviewed and chime in but it is director Masahiro Andô who is the omnipresent interviewee and he’s very direct and articulate when discussing what his vision for the film was.
Pilot Film: This is a very cool animated short that was made back in 2003 in order to drum up publicity and interest in a feature length film. Some of the character designs and action licks made it into the finished film, but in general this is very different beast to the finshed feature, making it a definite must-watch for fans of Andô’s work.
Credits: A boring static screen with a couple of names involved in the creation of the Blu-ray.
TV Commercials: Pretty self-explanatory, there are five scenes here.
Theatrical Trailers: Three trailers for Sword of the Stranger
Trailers: Another three trailers but this time they are for other Anime titles Madman are distributing on DVD.