Thursday, November 5, 2009

DVD Review: Sword of the Stranger

Some time ago Sword of the Stranger made its debut in select US theaters, and it's my understanding that there was a decent turnout from the anime loving crowd. A few months later (back in June) the DVD arrived and after watching the film I can honestly say that I wish I was able to attend one of those original theatrical showings. Sword of the Stranger is a riveting action flick. It presents a straightforward story, solid pacing, amazing art direction, and the cast brings a great amount of energy to everything. It's safe to say that if you enjoyed anime films such as Ninja Scroll you're going to love this one.

Originally released in Japan in 2007, Sword of the Stranger was produced by Bones and comes from a first time director (Masahiro Andou). Bandai has acquired the rights to release the movie here in the States and the film has hit stores on both standard definition DVD and Blu-ray. Whichever medium you prefer or have available to you, the simple fact is that you should check this film out. It's a blast from start to finish, and though it may not exactly be a masterpiece, it's one heck of a ride.

The film takes place during the Sengoku era of Japan and features a story that revolves around the Chinese tracking down a young boy named Kotaro. They had burned down a temple where he was staying and that left the monks sending Kotaro off with little more than the shirt on his back, a piece of jade, and a pup named Tobimaru. Why the Chinese are tracking down Kotaro isn't quite clear at the beginning, but towards the end of the film it revolves around some Chinese mysticism and the like. Before I get ahead of myself though, when we next see Kotaro he's stealing some food and trying to make ends meet with his dog. After making his way back to his hiding spot, he discovers that he's not alone.

There's a mysterious stranger (known as Nanashi, or No Name) resting in the run down temple Kotaro has been using for shelter. This man doesn't introduce himself to Kotaro and at first they butt heads, but soon enough Tobimaru shows his animal instincts and lets us know that the stranger is a good guy. It takes almost no time at all until we see the Chinese forces arrive and attempt to take Kotaro into custody. Naturally the stranger has none of that and he steps up to defend the kid. In the process Tobimaru is injured and Kotaro is about to lose his only friend. He uses the piece of jade given to him by the monk as payment for the stranger to take them to the next town. Soon enough the stranger gets tangled up in events much larger than he ever would have expected from meeting a boy and a dog. Various warriors from China are all put into the stranger's path and ultimately he develops an attachment to the kid and his dog. The whole affair pits him against another stranger foreigner with skills that are quite deadly.

I don't want to give too much of the story away, but in all fairness there really isn't much more to the film than that. The movie is about as straightforward and barebones as you can get and aside from the establishment of the characters, their relationship, and what the story is all about, you don't get many other developments. That keeps Sword of the Stranger feeling somewhat leaner than most anime films. There are no big confusing story arcs, no involved interpersonal relationships, and no real developments such as twists in the plot. You're just taken from one action scene to the next and there's a little bit of exposition in between. It was purposeful on the part of the main hero, but as a whole we don't really learn much about the characters in this film. We just kind of join them in the midst of everything that's going on and go with the flow. It is a bit light in some regards, but it's still largely entertaining.

The DVD features some solid video (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) and audio (English and Japanese 5.1), and a bunch of bonus features as well. A 17 minute interview with the original cast and a pilot video make their way onto this release. There's also some lighter fare such as commercials and trailers.

If you haven't heard about or seen Sword of the Stranger yet then you're missing out on one of the better animated films to come from Japan in quite some time. It's a lean mean action machine and feels like Kurosawa-like in many ways. Despite its short comings and simplicity this is an awesome experience that deserves more mainstream attention. It's an exemplary anime film and remains high octane from beginning to end.

Maki Rating:

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