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Score: 8.34/10

Synopsis

In the Sengoku period of Japan, a young orphan named Kotarou and his dog Tobimaru steal from unsuspecting villagers in order to make ends meet. However, Kotarou is forced to remain on the run when he finds himself being hunted down by assassins sent by China's Ming Dynasty for mysterious reasons not involving his petty crimes. Fortunately, the duo run into Nanashi, a ronin who has taken refuge in a small temple, when Kotarou is attacked and Tobimaru poisoned. Although the samurai saves the helpless pair from their pursuers, he feels that there is no need to help them further; but when offered a gem in exchange for his services as a bodyguard, he reluctantly accepts Kotarou's offer of employment—just until Tobimaru is healed and the two reach their destination. As the three set out on a perilous journey, it soon becomes evident that their path is riddled with danger, as the Ming Dynasty has now sent a terrifying swordsman after them to capture Kotarou and fulfill a certain prophecy. [Written by MAL Rewrite]

Are you searching for a bland movie with a paucity in character development, predictable plot points, and subpar-to-average animation, then you’re in luck — because Sword of the Stranger (Stranger: Mukou Hadan) exists for your substandard anime expectations. For anyone who does have a shred of self-respect, however, should eschew themselves from this tedious movie watching experience for something with, I don’t know, some modicum of originality. But I digress, on to the review.

Commencing on a positive note, or a non-negative one, is an ideal place to start, primarily because it’s going to be all downhill from here. But let’s not deliver inappropriate praise where it does not belong, because while the scenery is satisfactory, and the fight scenes are borderline splendid, there is much to be desired in terms of character aesthetics. So much so, that I am having a difficult time remembering what Kotarou and Nanashi look like, and I just finished watching this movie last night; whereas, the characters from Samurai Champloo (Mugen, Jin, and Foo) — a far superior samurai anime, by the way — remain vivid in the periphery of my mind, years after my initial watch. Considering that the main protagonists set the tone for the entire movie, it is crucial to provide identifying characteristics that allow the audience to, not only believe the characters are “real,” but mentally differentiate themselves from other anime characters.

Sadly. This does not occur.

The term one-dimensional gets thrown around a lot these days, yet, to my mind, this overly-used term best describes the characters in Sword of the Stranger. Kotarou is your typical mischievous child with ill-manners, and a bad attitude to match. His parents (SPOILER ALERT!) passed away during his infancy — god forbid an MC doesn’t have deceased parents, it’s damn near a requirement for anime nowadays — thus, he is unyielding to strangers, creating a social wall between himself and others. The other main character, Nanashi, a ronin, obscures his true identity by dyeing his hair black, to avoid people from recognizing him, or, perhaps, from acknowledging the events of his past. Although it was not expressly stated, I am willing to bet that Nanashi’s parents also kicked the bucket — because, why not? The only other character worth mentioning is Luo Lang, an antagonist who cares for nothing/no-one else but attaining a worthy foe (i mean, to be fair, its only the thousandth time I heard that one). All in all, its a pedestrian cast that lacks humanizing qualities due to insufficient effort, on the part of the writers, to create a situation that allows a deeper understanding of who these characters truly are. With that said, I would be remiss in not mentioning the flashback Nanashi has toward the end of the movie. It definitely had the potential of establishing an authentic internal conflict, but it was all ruined with one simple line: “Hurry up and do it — you goddamn coward.” What mother, what human would react in this way, when faced with their own death? It’s beyond cliched, its just straight up ignorant. And another thing, how come when Luo cut off that dude-with-the-gun’s arm, he barely reacted? He either loaded up on high doses of opium prior to entering the battle, or has no sensory symptom to detect pain, because he took those sword slices like a champ.

In lieu of neglecting character development and a competent plot, Sword of the Stranger elects to focus its attention on those “gorgeous” battle scenes. Everyone tells me, ad nauseam, that despite the deficiencies elsewhere, Sword of the Stranger distinguishes itself with superior animation and fight scenes. To counter this point, allow me to present exhibit “A:” Sword of the Stranger was released in 2009; Samurai Champloo was released in 2004 — I rest my case.

In regards to my final numbers, here they are:

Animation: 5/10
Characters: 1/10
Plot: 2/10
Enjoyment: 3/10
Sound: 2/10

Overall: 2.6/10

I’ll round that down to a 2/10, mainly because I fell asleep two times while watching this movie. But one can hardly be at fault for increased melatonin levels (the chemical that helps you sleep) when observing tedious characters, formula driven plots, and garden-variety animation. In all honesty, I am offended that I didn’t fall asleep more often during this malarkey, it would have been a more productive use of my time. Just an FYI: somebody better let Sanofi Aventis know their sales are about to take a huge drop, because Ambien is no longer the best remedy for curing insomnia. Sweet dreams!

Sword of the Stranger is both unusual and refreshing in the way that it seemed to come out of nowhere and prove to be a remarkable anime. It seems, lately, that anything warranting a large budget and a lot of effort from a studio is either a sequel, an adaptation based on a successful manga or novel, or the next dull addition to a creatively stagnant franchise. None of these things, Sword of the Stranger is an unexpected big-budget film, which leapt instantly to the forefront of my favoured anime movies with exhilarating action sequences, captivating visuals, raw, evocative music and simple but affective characterisation. The look and sound of the show will instantly grab you, and perhaps even carries the film over the insubstantial plot backbone. Some people have already ordained this film as a classic of sorts, but I’d have to disagree with that, simply because, although it hits hard and fast with splendour, and resonates beyond mere eye-candy, it doesn’t have a crucial element to elevate it into that tier. The characters do have sufficient weight for the audience to empathise with them, and they are also very likeable, but I felt that my appreciation of the characterisation is due largely to the voice talent behind them. So, credit goes to the cast and not necessarily to the way the film was written, which perhaps had more featured characters than it should have. If the film had focused more on the central to characters, I feel it could have been a classic, or at the very least, deliver an even more powerful finale. Perhaps replacing some of the action scenes with more intimate, personal character moments could have helped. But that minor gripe aside, the big problem with the film was the gaping hole where the plot should be. A plot should always be more than just a vague framework to drive a movie from one scene another all the way to the climax. It should give credence to the movie, so that the film has a certain importance or reason. As it was, the plot, both simple and relatively silly, told me that the film existed for the sake of great action scenes. It’s a valid premise for entertainment, but it means there’s no lasting impact on the audience because it doesn’t really have anything much to convey. There’s no story here I haven’t seen before in this genre, and for much of the time the plot is a little too confusing. It seems I’d almost forgotten the potential for animation to be so visually compelling. On a technical level, the anime medium has frequent success, but transcending animation quality, it’s a very rare experience for an anime to be truly visually compelling, creating not just mood and detail, but also scenes of beauty. This film achieves that in a way that totally blew me away, and I don’t say that very often (I’m not one of those apt to calling every Kyoto Animation production flawlessly animated). The climax of the film, a roaring skirmish amidst snow and fire, is breathtaking and elegiac. More than just an impressive, visceral action sequence, it is tinged with emotion and dramatic tension, which drives the film up to its climactic pinnacle. As I say time and time again, the concept of a conclusion is highly important to me. When anything ends I expect more than a bit of excitement, or an explanatory wrap-up, I want the climax to resonate and to pay-off the themes of the series/movie. This film does achieve that, and even though it is devoid of really challenging and engaging themes, it still manages to be moving with likeable characters and endearing score music. In my mind, an anime that can end on a powerful high note, with stunning production and consistent pacing, is a winner. Even though the film falls prey to a number of action film clichés, and at times feels like a rehash of bits of the samurai film genre, and even though its plot is undemanding and almost silly, it is irresistibly engaging. Beyond anything else, this should definitely be approached as an action film, and with that approach, I can safely say it is a great accomplishment in its genre. It is fast-paced and features fierce, clever battle sequences, but more importantly, overshadowing the violence (which any action film can claim on), it is rendered with artistry and beauty, and effortlessly tugs at your heart. Frankly put, the only flaw in this film is the slight lack of depth to the characters, and the completely unremarkable plot. But if, like me, you’ve grown tired of the relative mediocrity of most anime television and want something to renew your love for the anime medium as an art form, this would be a good bet.

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