As you have probably already guessed from the title, Sword of the Stranger is a Samurai action (or chanbara チャンバラ) movie, and the feature film debut of Masahiro Ando, who’s previous directorial work includes the TV series Canaan as well as being a key animator on projects such as Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in The Shell and Planetes. It’s an impressive CV, no doubt about it, and one that means expectations from both the industry and fans are high.
The plot is relatively straight forward, though not without it’s occasional twist or surprise. Orphan Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru are fleeing assassins from China, lead by a mysterious Caucasian warrior. They cross paths with Nanashi, a roaming ronin, whom Kotaro employs to act as his bodyguard and escort. It’s pretty standard chanbara fair, with obvious shades of Kurosawa and Lone Wolf and Cub, and it would be easy to say that the story is really just there to string together a sequence of impressive and bloody fight scenes, but that would be a little unfair. It might not have the intensity of Yojimbo or the drama of The Seven Samurai, but it tries it’s best, and at times succeeds. There’s some believable and likable characters, most notably Kotaro and Nanashi, whose relationship develops from mistrust to brotherly respect in such a subtle and convincing way that rookie Hollywood scriptwriters should be forced to study it before they’re allowed to start churning out yet more over enthusiastic buddy movies, regardless of the genre or setting. The scenes with the moody ronin teaching young Kotaro to ride his horse are gentle, touching and a refreshing break from the action and jidaigeki (時代劇) drama, as are the moments between the boy and his brilliantly and subtly animated dog. Away from these characters the usual political intrigue unfolds in the background, as the portrayal of despotic feudal lords and corrupt monks skillfully recounts the chaos and moral collapse of Sengoku era Japan.
If there’s one criticism to be leveled at Sword of The Stranger, it’s perhaps that while the setting, plot and characters are expertly conceived and executed, they perhaps feel a little too familiar. There’s nothing here that feels truly original in any way, although to be fair that could be a criticism leveled equally at the chanbara genre as a whole. If you’ve ever seen a Kurosawa, or in fact any Samurai, movie before this all feels instantly recognisable. Similarly, there’s little done in terms of narrative or cinematography that couldn’t be done in a live action film. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself, it’s just that after the impertinent playfulness of anime like Samurai Champloo it sometimes feels like a wasted opportunity. Admittedly Champloo is an extreme and unfair comparison in terms of what Ando is aiming to create, but I couldn’t help feeling that a little more experimentation could have added some more fire to the, at times at least, fairly conservative direction. But while it does at time have the structure and pacing of a western film, perhaps this is actually more indicative of the impact that Kurosawa and his peers had upon the way Hollywood has made movies for the last 40 years.
Although at times straightforward, the art and animation direction is seldom less than impressive. Character designs are elegant and emotional, and backgrounds beautifully realised. The mountainous, snowy setting allows Ando to create a washed out pallet that while far from monochrome again harks back to the golden era of Japanese samurai cinema. at times the only real splashes of colour are the violent fountains of blood from katana strikes, and it’s a visual technique that works well.
And it is bloody. The violence comes thick and fast, with some pretty exteme depictions of torture and sacrifice sitting alongside the graphic swordplay. Don’t be fooled by the ‘boy and his dog’ protagonists; this is a mature and uncensored film, and certainly not suitable for younger viewers.
It’s easy, a few days after watching the film for the first time, for me to nit-pick Sword of the Stranger. Don’t let this mislead you; it’s an accomplished, enthralling and highly entertaining film, one that I enjoyed from beginning to end, and will certainly return to in the future. If the harshest criticism I can bring to it is that it covers familiar territory and conventions, then compared to much anime made in recent years that’s no crime at all. If anything it’s conservatism makes it highly accessible to viewers new to the medium, and an instant recommendation to fans of well produced anime and the samurai movie genre as a whole. As a directorial debut it’s an impressive achievement, and one that proves Masahiro Ando will be a talent to watch over the coming years.