Set in Sengoku-era Japan, Sword of the Stranger follows the story of a ronin without a name, and Kotaro, a young boy without a home (and his trusty dog Tobimaru) as they try to evade an extremely dangerous group of Ming Dynasty swordsman. It’s a story of companionship, trust, and kickass swordplay.
Studio Bones (My Hero Academia, Wolf’s Rain) take on both animation and story duties in this original anime. Examining the latter, Sword of the Stranger is perhaps not the most original tale. There are no end of anime where a seemingly mismatched stubborn child and older callous character are thrust together on an adventure, and a lot of the plot lines were mapped out in my head long before the fact. But well-written characters and an excellent job by the Japanese voice cast made this far more about the journey than the destination. Kotaro and No Name form a believable bond over the 102-minute runtime, one I would love to see more of should the opportunity arise (there have been rumblings of a follow-up for years but I’m not getting my hopes up). Plus the central mystery around Kotaro and why he’s being chased, and the backstory of No Name are at the very least intriguing. But if you want groundbreaking storytelling, the likes of which you’ve never seen before, you’ll need to look elsewhere. That’s certainly not to say that this period piece conflict won’t keep you entertained though, and if the story fails to grab you, at the very least the action will.
The bulk of the time the animation through this film is standard fare, not at all bad but nothing extraordinary. But the second a weapon is drawn, oh boy! That’s when things get turned up to 10. The fight scenes in this movie are nothing short of works of art. The choreography is top notch and action is animated with amazing fluidity (Director Masahiro Ando was a key animator on Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and you can certainly see the pedigree). These moments are what you are paying the entry cost for and believe me you get your money’s worth. This movie may be over a decade old, but it stands strong next to today’s anime, in fact, a few modern studios could maybe learn a thing or two. Going in to a movie called Sword of the Stranger I would hope you’re expecting at least a sword fight or two, so if you’re not wanting to see limbs flying off then this might be one to skip, but if you like the edges of your Blu-ray stained with the blood of your enemies this is definitely for you. There’s good enemy variation too, so it’s not just a case of constant sword clashes. Sure there are reams of grunts that get sliced through, but each major member of the pursuant Chinese clan have their own weapon of choice and fighting style, and all would make fine video game bosses.
Soundtrack wise, nothing really stood out to me. This was disappointing as given how much personality the main characters have, the music really has none. But the voice acting, on the Japanese dub at least, was really strong. There is also an English voice track on the Blu-ray, which is passable, but considering this is a very Japan-centric story, I’d recommend watching it in its native tongue. In terms of extras, the disc features a making-of featurette and cast interviews, as well as animatics, trailers and my personal favourite extra, the pilot, which is a proof of concept video for the movie (but more importantly, another incredible fight scene).
At its core, Sword of the Stranger is an average movie, but what makes it stand out is the incredible job the studio does in creating some of the most satisfying on-screen movement I’ve ever seen. Sometimes anime can be overly cerebral, I don’t always want to think, occasionally I just want something I can easily follow with edge-of-your-seat action and Bones have delivered that here in blood-filled buckets.