Set in Japan’s Sengoku (aka “Warring States”) era, Sword of the Stranger begins with the escape of a young boy named Kotaro from a burning monastery. Left to fend for himself with his trusty canine companion Tobimaru, Kotaro makes his way through the Japanese countryside, surviving as best he can while trying to make his way to a distant temple.
Eventually, Kotaro’s path crosses that of a nameless ronin (masterless samurai). Which proves quite convenient when a group of Chinese and Japanese soldiers corner Kotaro, seeking to capture him for some nefarious purpose. The swordsman quickly dispatches the villains and the headstrong Kotaro hires the swordsman, first to help heal the wounded Tobimaru, and second to protect them until they can make it to the temple, where the monks will give them sanctuary.
Not surprisingly, Kotaro and the ronin begin to bond, though both prove initially headstrong and defiant towards each other. But both have something in common: they’re running from the something. Kotaro is obviously running from the Chinese and Japanese seeking his capture, though he doesn’t know why they’re after him in the first place; the nameless ronin is running from a past that occasionally reappears in his nightmares, and may have something to do with his disabled sword.
Meanwhile, the Chinese soldiers are working with a Japanese lord to build a massive temple for purposes unknown by the lord and his vassals. Sent by the Chinese emperor, and working on a strict timetable, the Chinese intently seek after Kotaro, whose life is intertwined with some prophecy. Meanwhile, the lord and his chief retainer, Shogen Itadori, work behind the scenes to uncover the Chinese group’s plot, even resorting to torture and kidnapping to find the truth, and hoping to use whatever they find to further cement their power.
Sword of the Stranger is an accomplished film — on the surface anyways. From an animation standpoint, the movie is something to behold, though that’s essentially a given since it was produced by Bones, one of Japan’s finest animation houses. I personally found myself enthralled by the landscape scenes — the film is set in what appears to be the Japanese hinterlands in late autumn/early winter, and Bones creates barren landscapes that are also quite beautiful in places. And their integration of CGI is quite smooth as well — you still notice the CGI, but it’s not annoyingly obvious.
Some of the character designs may take a little getting used to, but Bones and director Masahiro Andō use them well, especially in the film’s battle sequences, which are frequent, intense, and extremely bloody. Limbs are hacked to pieces, heads are chopped off, bodies are turned into pincushions by arrows, and both the Chinese and Japanese sides boast warriors possessing seemingly preternatural skill. This is all established within the film’s first 15 minutes or so, when we see Luo Lang — the greatest warrior in the Chinese camp — single-handedly decimate a group of bandits. And of course, it’s pretty safe to say — though we don’t see it at first — that Kotaro’s nameless ronin is also a warrior of considerable skill.
The action sequences are certainly exciting to watch (though it helps to have a strong stomach). However, the film actually began to turn my stomach after awhile, and not simply because there were copious amounts of animated blood and gore splashed across the screen. What began to turn my stomach was not the amount of bloodshed, but rather, how pointless and hollow it all began to feel. Which was a direct result of just how much potential and depth is ultimately squandered by the film.
I found the storyline increasingly dull and predictable, and the characters a collection of clichés (e.g., headstrong and obnoxious little kid, swordsman tortured by the sins of his past, a warrior who only cares about finding a strong opponent). The only character with any depth is Itadori. In fact, the film’s most interesting scene occurs, not during one of the vicious duels, but rather, after Itadori has been thumped in a training duel by Luo Lang.
He refuses to be ashamed by his defeat, and instead, speaks of his ambition for power and greatness, all while playing with his infant son. This is the only time in the film that we really see a character with multiple sides to their personality (e.g., ambitious warrior, doting father). All of the other characters are one-note riffs on the same old types that have been seen in so many other samurai, martial arts, and animé titles.
There’s a lot of depth and backstory that is hinted at, including the relationships among the Chinese soldiers, a shared past between the nameless ronin and Itadori, and Kotaro’s true nature. I assume such details were downplayed so as to add some intrigue and mystery to the plot, which I can appreciate. However, the details are placed so far in the background that instead of tantalizing, they frustrate. They feel tossed off and half-baked, so much so that I wonder if some critical footage was mistakenly left on the cutting room floor or if the filmmakers wrote them into the plot and then simply forgot about them.
In any case, the film moves towards an utterly predictable climax. By the time the nameless ronin and Luo Lang cross swords — one warrior hoping to finally atone for the sins of his past, the other having finally found an opponent worthy of their skills (and trust me, I didn’t spoil anything right there) — it’s a letdown.
It’s yet another flashy and bloody battle, but after a film full of them, it’s rote and routine — and not nearly as exciting as some of the earlier battles. And it’s hard to call it a climax because that term assumes a building up of dramatic tension, something that is in poor supply throughout the film. It’s a climax in name only, a duel between two supreme warriors with the fate of so much riding on the outcome that takes place only because that is what is required to finish the movie, not because it brings about any real, satisfactory resolution to the storyline.
I might be singing a different tune if I’d seen Sword of the Stranger, say, ten years ago. It feels like an “Animé 101” primer, albeit a very bloody one — a film that contains a number of animé tropes and dutifully trots them out without doing anything new with them. But if you’ve already seen titles like Ninja Scroll or the Samurai X OVAs, then there’s really no reason for you to check out Sword of the Stranger — unless you’re a Bones fanboy.