A little while 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. Now that the DVD has arrived I can honestly say that I wish I was able to attend one of those 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.
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. Highly Recommended!
Sword of the Stranger is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic playback. From a technical perspective the film looks really good. The image absolutely pops from the screen with vibrant colors, great contrast, sharp visuals, clean lines, and virtually no distinguishable flaws (at least no major ones). The image isn't quite as clean as its Blu-ray counterpart, but that's to be expected. You can see a few instances of grain now and again and sometimes the resolution just isn't quite as defined as it could have been.
With regards to the art direction there's a lot of attention to detail that really comes through here. The animation is powerful and fluid, the character designs are attractive and interesting, and the environments are quite rich. There's a definite focus on the small things here and you can expect to see some neat little effects throughout the feature. It's these subtle factors that really pull the picture together and make it as visceral as it is. Needless to say Bones did an awesome job!
Presented with 5.1 surround tracks for both English and Japanese languages Sword of the Stranger offers an impressive audio experience as well. Throughout this film, on both tracks, the sense of immersion is quite solid. I'd almost go as far as to say that Sword of the Stranger offers one of the better anime sound tracks I've heard in quite some time. Everything from the dialogue to music and effects is presented dynamically on the soundstage and you'll never be bored. The rear channels bear an appropriate amount of the burden and the movie really works the bass as well. Quite impressive!
Some bonus features actually make their way onto this release for Sword of the Stranger. For starters there are some trailers and commercials for the film and other releases by Bandai Entertainment. There's also an original cast interview that clocks in at just over 17 minutes, which features some nice moments with some of the original Japanese cast. Additionally there's also a pilot film that was used to promote the feature prior to its production. This is vastly different compared to the final product, but it's a nice little glimpse at the evolution of the story and characters.
Sword of the Stranger is quite the wild ride. It's action packed and barebones, which typically equal a guilty pleasure, but this movie handles everything perfectly. The story is easy to get into with few surprises, the characters are enjoyable enough to watch, the action is amazing, and the production of this film is something to marvel. I can't say enough about how much I was entertained while watching this feature. Sure it's not very deep and you can basically leave your brain at the door, but it's incredibly fun to watch and stands out as one of the better anime features I have seem in quite a long time. Consider it highly recommended.