Sword of the Stranger
English Title: Sword of the Stranger
Original Title: Sutorenjia: Mukou Hadan
Country of Origin: Japan
Director: Masahiro Andô
Producer(s): Masahiko Minami
Screenplay: Fumihiko Takayama
Cinematographer: Yohei Miyahara
Art Director: Atsushi Morikawa
Runtime: 103 minutes minutes
When Kotaro pays a wandering swordsman to take him and his dog safely to a Buddhist temple, it is not quite the straightforward transportation that the swordsman expects. Kotaro is being pursued by a group of red-cloaked foreigners who fight like demons and feel no pain, and who seem to have the co-operation of the local feudal lords. Unsurprisingly, he is suspicious and angry when he first encounters the swordsman, but as they travel together he gradually comes to trust this softly-spoken, dependable stranger. However, the stranger has secrets of his own, and attracts the attention of one of the foreigners, a tall man with blonde hair and light eyes when they get into a scuffle on the road. After all, what kind of a swordsman refuses to draw his sword? More importantly, when he can kill even without removing his sword, what would it take to convince him to draw?
Sword of the Stranger is a straightforward chanbara film, with a ronin (Tomoya Nagase) in the changing Tokugawa society acting as yojimbo for the obnoxious but courageous Kotaro (Yuri Chinen). The story will be predictable for anyone who knows the genre, but this does not make it any less engaging or emotionally true. The relationship between the boy and his bodyguard is the heart of this film, and the subtlety and sensitivity with which it is developed adds substance to the story. The swordsman’s resigned mildness when dealing with Kotaro’s demands and accusations paves the way for a relationship of mutual respect without the sarcastic macho face-offs often required by Hollywood buddy movies, and Kotaro’s prickly sense of pride is tempered by the tenderness he shows his dog, Tobimaru.
The emotional core is balanced by regular action scenes, shot with the smooth choreography and dynamic cinematography for which production house Bones is famous. Even the gore is beautifully choreographed, as red blood splash across the otherwise muted palette. The explicit injuries and deaths make it unsuitable for younger viewers, but it is not gratuitous, instead amplifying the intensity to make the final clash feel like a fight with real consequences. In retrospect, some plot points will seem contrived or clichéd, but the film is so well-paced and attractively executed that most viewers will remain absorbed when actually watching. It is this straightforward accomplishment that makes Sword of the Stranger so accessible, an ideal introduction to the concept of animated cinema for adults who will find the combination of historical Japan and modern action very appealing indeed.
Author of this review: Amelia Cook