When a man with no name shows up, it’s best not to mess with him.
Anime is not a genre to shy away from sword-wielding heroes in search of redemption, so it can be difficult for this type of character to stand out amid a sea of samurai. While Sword of the Stranger sticks to a successful formula when it comes to its hero, the spectacular, fluid animation and intense battle sequences by the Bones animation studio take a tried and true standard to a new level.
Then again, there’s something to be said for a method that has succeeded over and over again, and if nothing else, Sword of the Stranger give anime fans exactly what they want. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with design, a beautiful soundtrack and impressive voice acting, and despite how shallow the film might seem on the surface, it runs deeper and deeper as the story unfolds.
The story starts with a boy named Kotaro (Aidan Drummond) and his dog, Tobimaru, on the run from vicious assassins until they encounter a mysterious wandering samurai who simply goes by the alias No Name (Michael Adamthwaite). No Name comes to the boy’s aid after agreeing to do so for a price. The problem is, the boy is being pursued by Ming warriors from China, including a seemingly unstoppable foreigner whose sword skills are inhuman (Scott McNeil). While No Name tries to stay out of trouble, he soon finds himself wrapped up in a battle between the Ming and a Feudal Lord with the fate of Kotaro on the line, and he is forced to draw his sword once more.
Sword of the Stranger’s protagonist blends together elements of Rouroni Kenshin and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name to create a hero who tries to shrug of his bloody past in his search for redemption. That being said, just because he keeps his sword sheathed doesn’t mean he lacks the deadliness to take on anything the Ming assassins throw at him. Through visually astounding fights sequences, he proves exactly why he is a man who had to put away his sword. Not only is the choreography some of the best seen over the past decade, blending elegance with brutality, but the angles in which it’s filmed make this a blood-soaked good time that never lets up. It’s a beautiful blend of Chinese and Japanese fighting systems, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both, especially when two Western men clash using the different styles.
While the movie certainly doesn’t stray off the beaten path, it keeps its wits about itself throughout the 102-minute run time. It’s easy to follow, but it maintains enough interest to keep the audience absorbed in the story. Combined with a soothing soundtrack that is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, the film has all the makings of an epic and delivers on every level. At first it comes off as a by-the-numbers anime, reminiscent of Ninja Scroll, but as it goes on, it escalates itself, and the hero’s devotion and willpower are more than enough to give the audience a reason to cheer for him as he races to save a young boy’s life.
Sword of the Stranger is a feature that anime fans cannot afford to miss, especially because it blends together so many much-loved elements. Despite the fact that almost everything in the movie has been done before, Sword of the Stranger blends enough originality to make it one of the best animated features to hit our shores in a long time. It’s no wonder that this film did so well at film festivals, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the classic samurai genre.