Sword of the Stranger, Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

This was our second experience at the Imaginasian theater and it continues to be a nice, quite place to see a film (though it was about 40 below in the theater). My only issue was the film was dubbed, I was quite surprised. I figured a place that specializes in foreign film would show it in its original language. When I asked about it they said they have no control since it is just what the company gives them. Bandai! In the Anime News Network coverage it said it would be shown in Japanese.

I think it all revolves around the fact that anime companies are convinced that the majority of people want dubs over subs. That is a mantra you here all the time. So they release movies in theaters with dubs because they assume they will get more people in the theater. That might make more sense if this had a large number of theaters it was playing in. But as it stands Sword of the Stranger is only playing in a few select theaters across the nation. At that point you’re only going to get less casual anime fans (more otaku) and art house movie goers, both of which tend to prefer subs. I understand their position but I too would have preferred watching the Japanese version.

The movie begins when Kotaro and his faithful dog Tobimaru are on the run from warriors from China. The monk Kotaro has been staying with tells him to run to the main temple in the area where he will be safe. While trying to get to the main temple Kotaru takes refuge in an abandoned shrine and meets a nameless swordsman. Soon warriors come to take Kotaro away and the nameless swordsman defends the boy but Tobimaru is poisoned in the fight saving the swordsman. Kotaru then hires No Name to save his dog and escort him to the temple. No Name reluctantly agrees but must wonder why such powerful warriors are attempting to kidnap such an ordinary child.

Sword of the Stranger presents a simple tale of a man who did something terrible in his past and lost his warrior spirit. Through the events he becomes entrenched in he regains his desire to fight.

Atleast it would be simple but the director, Masahiro Ando, insists on throwing in dozen of side characters and secondary plots. The are over half a dozen Chinese warriors who have their own little stories. There is local lord and his servants who are working with the Chinese while plotting against them. There is also several sub plots that are only tangentially related to our main character’s story.

Don’t forget the drug plot! Oh and they guy who wants to marry the Princess. Along with the man that sort of knew No Name in the past.

I admire the director’s ambition but if this were a series of OAVs or as TV show I would understand the need to throw in so many different plot threads. But it is a movie so he would have done better to simplify some of the plots or reduce the number of changes to make things run a little smoother. I realize he wanted more fleshed out characters and themes but this movie did not need them. All it needed was a simple plot to attach us to Kotaru and No Name and more quality with less villains.

It is true it might have served better is some longer format, but I still saw what was important coming through to the surface. The characters that were supposed to stick out did and the fights were great. And while the plot does have a too many threads, it isn’t done poorly and it isn’t confusing. The film sets the tone and pace with the fight in the rain kicking it off then gradually building up to the final confrontation.

Indeed the director has the good sense to make sure we never got too bogged down in the byzantine plot. We spend a good deal of time watching Kotaru and No Name bonding. We also learn quite a bit about all the people scheming to get Kotaru and scheming against each other. In between all these scenes are some awesome battles. Anytime things get close to getting slow someone will challenge No Name or the Chinese warriors will get into a fight. This is an action movie and it know you came for the fights so they deliver.

No Name (Nanashi) is a totally sweet combination of Kenshin (from Ruroni Kenshin) and Jubei Kibagami (from Ninja Scroll). His refusal to draw his blade doesn’t keep him from beating the tar out of everyone that tries to attack him. His past haunts him and though he claims to be helping the Kotaru and his dog for payment he grows to genuinely care for both of them.

Unlike Kenshin, No Name seems to have made no such vow as not to kill. He quite impressively proves that a sword can still be an effective killing weapon even if you never unsheathe it in the first fight. He is a laid back fellow with many secret although one of his secrets was rather odd and I’m not sure why it even existed in the first place.

Kotaru is your stereotypical anime brat. An inexperienced angry little know it all punk in the beginning he definitely grows into being a much more likable character as the movie goes on. I liked the scenes where No Name teaches Kotaru to ride a horse. They let you bond with the characters as they bonded with each other. Tobimaru is an awesome dog though out the movie and one of the most likable characters. I am sure Narutaki wishes he had a Tobimaru.

We get a wide variety of villains, some with a little gimmick and some who are just damn good with a sword. Like the whip guy who was the first to show up was out of control. But then our major baddie, Rarou, is just looking to slice and dice in a new country. He establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with when he kills an entire group of bandits in the opening. His only real motivation is to pick a good fight, well he certainly picks a good one when he runs into No Name.

Rarou is an evil (more evil?) Kenpachi from Bleach. He is always fighting in hope of finally finding someone who can give him a run for his money. In fact he is only with the Chinese because he knows they are were the action will probably be. The Chinese bad guys were without a doubt cooler than the Japanese ones. They mostly exists to get their bums handed to them by cooler fighters.

The battles were beautiful, fluid, and bloody! Heads rolling, limbs flying! The movement was smooth and they always kept you right in the action. I just keep thinking of the fight that starts on some stairs. It was only a moment but it was so cool! Also liked how the terrain was coming into play for some of these fights, just kept it interesting. They were everything I was hoping for.

The fight choreography was well done and beautifully animated as only a movie could be. I liked the fact that most people had their own unique but interesting fighting style. There are even good deal of horse mounted fighting which in not something you commonly see in anime. The end battle is quite the bloodbath which is a fitting climax for the movie. It is quite a nice series of battles even if Narutaki thought that the music was too epic for the actions taking place. I would definitely see other action anime by Masahiro Ando again.

As much as I complained about the plot I could see this being a break out hit in America. It is a one shot movie with a good amount of violence which is usually popular among casual anime consumers. In fact, the plot complications might give it a boost among the casual anime fans. Most of the plot additives where added to give a sense of depth and philosophy to an otherwise standard story.

My initial interest in this movie stemmed from a need to see some really well done and totally cool fight scenes. Everything else that might have happened was just gravy so on that note I was totally satisfied. Sword of the Stranger doesn’t do anything new, doesn’t have an incredible plot, but it has a serviceable story with totally amazing battles and great animation to boot. I will be happy to own this movie.

Top 5 Favorite Swordsmen
5. Guts (Berserk)
4. Magatsu (Blade of the Immortal)
3. Kenshin (Rurouni Kenshin)
2. Zoro (One Piece)
1. Manji (Blade of the Immortal)

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2 thoughts on “Sword of the Stranger, Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

  1. Scott says:

    The dub surprised me as well, but I’m pretty sure that Bandai did the same thing they did with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by sending the dub print to NYC and sending the sub print to LA’s ImaginAsian theater. When I interviewed dub VA Greg Ayres at AnimeNEXT last month, he mentioned that he saw an East Coast vs. West Coast trend in that the east coast anime fans tend to prefer dubs while the west coast goes for subs. So that’s probably the reason why we got the film dub.

    But I was very impressed with the performance of the child actor Aidan Drummond as Kotaru. As I was watching the film, I thought for sure that the role was being played by a veteran adult actress like in most anime dubs. To have a kid do a leading role so well like that is very reminiscent of the professional child actors Disney had in all their Miyazaki dubs. This kid’s got talent, and I hope we see him in more roles in the future.

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