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Sword of the Stranger (2007)

Soldiers from the Ming dynasty have entered Japan to retrieve a powerful artefact that will grant their emperor immortality. Nothing will stop them in their quest and they will take whatever measures are deemed necessary to complete it by the specified time. What they didn't consider was the ingenuity of a child and the skills of a lone samurai who has tied his sword into its sheath so it cannot be drawn. What starts as a simple retrieval mission stretches the skills and patience of these warriors as the child Kotaro enlists the samurai Nanashi with the task of getting him to a place of safety

Sword of the Stranger is the feature directorial debut from Masahiro Ando (who would go on to direct the Kickstarter funded Under the Dog). It takes a set of classic Western or martial arts story elements including the lone child running from some peril; a prophecy of some sort; a wandering hero with a dubious past; powerful rulers who are selfish to a fault; outsiders who possess near mystical powers; an exotic villain; the chance for atonement and builds a coherent narrative. Yes the story has been done before and we know where it is going but it works. Here Kotaro is a child on the run from something and Nanashi is a wandering samurai who becomes the boys' bodyguard.

What really sets this feature-length anime apart from the pack is the level of polish and flair that is on display. What else would you expect with Studio Bones (Blood Blockade Battlefront, and Space Dandy to name only two of their impressive body of work) as the production company responsible? The character designs (by Tsunemori Saito) are a marvel when animated. When static the design work stands strong - you wouldn't confuse it with something else. When animated the designs really come to life. The defiance of Kotaro is written across his face and body. Nanashi carries himself as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. There are heart-breaking sequences when this weight is lifted hinting at his previous life and its eventual tragedy.

As for the 'foreigners' (or outsiders) they look just alien enough to come across as threatening but equally very human for our sympathy. They are tools in a bigger plot, serving some kind of greater good. The one who stands apart from them is Luo-Lang. He is a bit of an outsider in his own community - he doesn't share their allegiances or beliefs. We know this instantly with the disdain and boredom displayed on his face. He is blonde, bulky and a complete contrast physically to his comrades. He also has a mastery of his weapon that far exceeds the rest too which we see in some of the most stunning action scenes in anime for many years.

There is a lot of action in Sword of the Stranger. These scenes are brutal, at times savage but have such a fluid, almost balletic quality to them. Yoshiyuki Ito and Tsunemori Saito have developed some truly memorable moments full of impact. An early scene in a temple has one of the Ming warriors use his whip as if he was a rhythmic gymnast. It flows and dances like a ribbon. Another early scene is a Mexican standoff on a bridge between Nanashi and Luo-Lang, their first encounter. Not only is the action superbly handled but the editing and camera work amp up the tension and the threat.

The fight choreography throughout is awesome. It is not reserved only for the major characters and all sequences play out for each of the characters as they should. Of course, the final, climactic battle and the duel are a marvel. There is so much to see but rather than everything kind of blurring together each element is its own thing punctuated by a fitting finale. The other punctuation, a giant exclamation mark if you will, are the limbs lopped and the copious amount of blood that sprays, spurts and gushes from each encounter.

The emotional impact of the film comes from the relationship that develops between Nanashi and Kotaro. What starts off as teasing from one side and defensive bluff and swagger from the other morphs into a father-son relationship. This is set up the moment they meet but the journey is sweet and poignant. We know where the story is going early on, it can only end one of two ways and Ando incorporates both the potential for hope and sadness throughout "his" picture. What ostensibly is a chanbara (Japanese sword fighting) movie is so much more and should mark Masahiro Ando as one to watch in the future.

There is great use of colour in the film. The palette of colours across Japan is subdued - it's all greys, pale greens and bleached browns. Nothing really pops out at your until wealth is on display which sets up a nice contrast between rich and the poor, and the rich and those in power. Whilst nothing new it adds an extra level of detail to remove the need for copious explanation of the status or roles of everyone we meet. As for Nanashi, he wears such dark coloured clothes it's almost as if he wants to be invisible from the wider world, whilst Luo-Lang wears an opulent burgundy that commands your attention.

There is not an ounce of fat on Ando's film. Its 102 minutes just fly by. It never sags or feels as if moments could be cut or shortened. Every moment leading up to the final act is important in either developing the world or, more importantly, the relationship between Kotaro and Nanashi. The quiet moments are a delightful contrast to the brutal crimson inflected action scenes giving them much more impact.

Sword of the Stranger is one of those rare anime that easily breaks away from that label. It is a production that balances story, comedy, tragedy and action alongside colours, scenery and music. Each of these elements complements and enhances the impacts of the others that builds to a mighty crescendo at the end. Masahiro Ando has lead a team who have created a film that could easily be shown to those who would normally shy away from animation. This being Ando's first feature as a director marks him as someone to watch in the future. Yes, the action and the fight choreography is sublime but there is so much more to see rewarding multiple viewings. Whilst the story is not a standout on its own, the flair, polish and panache truly sets this film apart and should be in the collection of any animation fan.

FROM Anime Limited
RATINGNot Rated [US]
15 [UK]
1hr 42m 

IN A NUTSHELL: A perfect blend of action and emotion with some of the most excitingly choreographed and fluid action scenes in anime.