Director: Osamu Dezaki
Screenplay: Takeshi Narumi
Based on the novels by Takeshi Narumi
Voice Cast: Eric Flynn as Shuranosuke Sakaki; Alan Blyton as Kagairo; Bill Roberts as Dogen; Frank Rozelaar-Green as Marouji; Garrick Hagen as Daizen Imura; Julia Brahms as Princess Mayu; Sarah Wateridge as Oren
Viewed in English Dubbing
Synopsis: In period era Japan, the purple clad swordsman Shuranosuke Sakaki is assigned to rescue the princess of the Nakura from the Seki ninja in exchanged for a priceless sword. Things are not as simple as this especially when various monstrous and supernatural warriors get in his way.
Whilst Manga Entertainment is still the largest anime distributor in the United Kingdom, who now release the new Pokemon films and Dragonball series, I cannot help miss their old lurid side. To the point they have lost their personality nowadays. It was an awkward transition back in the late 2000s, the moment the company who released violent anime like Ninja Scroll (1993) and Urotsukidôji: The Legend of the Overfiend (1989) stepped away from their reputation when they released family friendly material like Professor Layton tie-. Yes, even in the VHS days Manga Entertainment did release great work, like Akira (1988) to Macross Plus (1994), but they were notorious for their trashy releases. For being the company who coined "beer and curry" anime, expecting young men to watch anime on Friday nights like straight-to-video Steven Segal flicks. That they relied on the OVA and theatrical market, TV series an alien term for them barring less than esteemed series like Tokko (2006) and Virus Buster Serge (1997). And I confess that, now Anime Limited exists and other companies take up the small British market, I miss this lurid side of Manga Entertainment even if I only got into it in the DVD era. Back in the early 2000s when I was getting into anime, the now defunct ADV Pictures was the other primary source for the medium, Manga Entertainment were still releasing their old catalogue titles onto DVD, including the less than spectacular evidence of their past like Sword for Truth. As much of this is nostalgia but there was at least a personality at hand too.
The irony is that its director Osamu Dezaki, up to his death, is one of anime's most well regarded craftsmen. A working director who yet, over his prolific career, had auteurist flourishes and was responsible for incredibly well made and beautiful projects. Paired with character designer and animator Akio Sugino, he did a lot of magic as well. Their pairing on Sword for Truth, after Dezaki's stint making American animation in the late eighties, was not one of those magic moments. It was released in the West a long while after its initial Japanese release as well. When the aforementioned Ninja Scroll became a very popular hit for Manga Entertainment in both the United States and the UK, naturally there were attempts to capitalise on its success. ADV tried to openly promote Ninja Resurrection (1997) as a sequel by also having a protagonist named Jubei, probably less likely to anger fans than the fact of it, over the two episodes, having no ending whatsoever. Manga Entertainment itself released Sword for Truth, made in 1990, many years later.
The anime, based on the novels of Takeshi Narumi and with said author scripting the plot, has all the fantastical absurdities of the others but is more openly explicitly in its use of real Japanese history, none of which is taught in the West unless one openly studies it, and neither is explained in this anime. Set in the Tokugawa era, the villains for starters are meant to be Christians, mostly hidden in the English dub. A plot point which has a bad taste in the mouth as, depicted in Masahiro Shinoda's 1971 film Silence and Martin Scorsese's own attempt on the same material also called Silence (2016), the history of how Christianity was outlawed in Japan is not one to be proud of. This era is depicted in a lot of chambara pulp stories, like Lone Wolf and Cub, but is rarely depicted as such. It also raises questions who the big bad you only see in the last act is and never contributes anything else to the actual material. A hairless mountain of a man who worships at a burning cross whilst naked writhing women orgasm around him, it's as if the Pope was an evil warlock on steroids and best not to try and explain.
The history, as is common in a lot of pulp samurai tales, is background content that you do not fully need to understand. Or that would be the case were it not for how many names are badly pronounced, Manga Entertainment's dubs varying wildly in the mid-nineties, and that story still scatters in historical context and maps through its narrator, enough for a Japanese viewer to possible get in nods to, virtually nonsensical without context to Western viewers without the context. Infamously the English dub confuses things further in one scene, thus sabotaging the entire structure in places. In one of the more infamous scenes, whilst the narrator gravely talks about how opium was used to brainwash members of an assassin's cult, explicit animated lesbian sex is taking place onscreen where one of the participants is being brainwashed. That the English dubbing script confused them for the kidnapped princess causes a huge plot hole when these female ninja attack the villainous ninja at one point. If the very stern male voiceover explaining how opium was used to indoctorate assassins over a sex scene wasn't "tasteful" already, this mistake and its effect is the exclamation mark.
It's not a high point in Osamu Dezaki's career in the slightest. Even Golgo 13: The Professional (1983), whilst based on a manga with problematic gender depictions and a luridness to violence and sex, at least had incredible style and a nihilism that had effect on the silly material. Sword for Truth is a chambara Golgo 13, in which our anti-hero is a stoic warrior who wins every fight and has sex with a lot of women. Not well made, not helped by the significant budget limitations and few of Dezaki's artistic flourishes. It is the perfect definition of a guilty pleasure and if anything softens its tastelessness and huge problems, it's the complete lack of story context and general strangeness. These characters exist in a lot of Japanese pulp stores, but this one has the quirk of dressing in lovingly purple clothing and having, like Ninja Scroll, to fight various freakish ninjas (harpoon throwing frog men, old ghost men who skip on top paper lanterns, even a giant tiger). Where the first women he has sex with is a female pickpocket who inexplicably has a demon eating babies tattooed onto the whole of her back. Material so over the top that, because its told with such stoicism, it's ridiculous. Even the English dub helps with this, as the princess asks whether he can ever love her on a battlefield. Or when an assassin asks a target whether he has a family before suplexing him to death.
Also at under fifty minutes, there is no ending. The kidnapping plot is resolved, but it barely scrapes into this world. Especially when there is a cameo by what clearly is a character from the source material, an assassin with the potential for an afro who kills his targets with martial arts rather than weapons. The Christian Big Boss if presented as an oversexed version of Sauron, but never contributes anything to the actual material. This is testament to an issue with OVAs that, whilst missed, the straight-to-video anime industry for every great release was also notorious (especially by the nineties) of work that never had actual endings to them or were just made to encourage people to read the original manga to get the endings.
Is there any worth to Sword for Truth then? Actually yes, in the sense that, in reference to a discussion with a friend on Letterboxd that came from musicians but could also apply to cinema and anime, any great artist who never has an egregiously bad period in their career is playing it too safe. Thankfully Dezaki would go on to adapting Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack into anime throughout the nineties, given us the incredible 1996 theatrical movie that redeems for this completely. A one-off, getting back from the American animation industry can be shrugged off especially as the material is still entertaining and so bad, its compelling. Barring the music, which is actually good, this is the mad trashy side to anime which thankfully isn't the norm nowadays but whose unpredictable energy could be stolen back and applied to better written and animated productions. It is not as if we've escaped from this type of material either - and I'd argue some anime now is more insidiously worse for their gender politics and ideas especially when you get to the underbelly of Moe. If anything, as dumb as a brick and the English dub has howlers as Manga Entertainment's dubs could be infamous for, is a side of the company that should still be celebrated even if laughing at it at the same time. Manga Entertainment helped finance Ghost in the Shell (1995), so their reputation was never fully trash merchants either at the period. In fact - whilst this is possible fed on watching the old Manga Entertainment trailers scored to Mad Capsules Market too many times - the company even in the early DVD era when Sword for Truth was released at least still had a distinguishable personality unlike in the 2010s.