Director: Masahiro Andō
Screenplay: Fumihito Takayama
Based on an Original Premise
Voice Actors: Tomoya Nagase (Nameless); Yuuri Chinen (Kotaro); Kōichi Yamadera (Rarou); Akio Ōtsuka (Shogen Itadori); Atsushi Li (Master Byakuran)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
There are numerous period stories in anime. Samurai are as popular in animation as they are live action cinema. Straight ahead stories. Action. Drama. Comedy. Generals of ancient wars depicted as cute girls. Even Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) remade as a futuristic tale. Sword of the Stranger is an underrated action drama where a nameless ronin, Nameless, encounters a young boy Kotaro and his dog, developing a cautious relationship that becomes protective when Nameless soon realises Kotaro is being pursued by others. A group of Chinese travellers, known as the Ming group, want to capture the boy to sacrifice for an immortality ritual, a contingent who use powerful pain killing drugs and have members like Rarou, a blond and blue eyed foreign warrior, that can cleave through an entire raiding party even when severely injured. There is also a Japanese contingent housing the Ming group who eventually find the Chinese suspect, desiring to get involved when they discover what they are up to, leaving Nameless to protect Kotaro and deal with a war time past that haunts his dreams and leaves his sword tied up to never draw the blade out.
It's a brutal anime. Very visceral and gore where no one is safe - men, women, even horses. What's different from an ultraviolent anime at its schlockiest from the early nineties is that, applying to the film as a whole, time is managed perfectly and every character is given time to breath and have concerns outside the main plot. Even the Ming group, technically the villains, have moments of doubt and pause to think even if the film can brutally cut short characters' lives within an instant. For a film much about the bloody sword combat, there is a surprising amount of humanity in depicting the characters as it does, a masterstroke that helps elevate the film from the danger of being a generic chambara story. The artistic quality of the film in terms of design and its muted look helps as well, giving Sword of the Stranger a calm tone even though it has a foot occasionally in the more exaggerated samurai stories by having major or minor characters who, even if they cannot fly or have bee hives growing out of their back, have their own signature weapons or a quirk for the few brief minutes they appear onscreen.
This willingness to have time in the film's short length devoted to minor characters is refreshing; helped by the simplicity of the narrative, you can devote additional time to suddenly cut to minor details, such as a minor villager character talking to another after his importance to the plot is done with, closing the parts of every character with respect rather than abruptly pulling them off screen. Even if the deaths can be sudden and most aren't dwelt on at all, especially in the finale where opposing sides and Nameless cross paths, it doesn't feel like a glib decimation of the character ranks but the harshness of battle taking place, with enough having been made of even a bow woman or a minor soldier for you as the viewer to take up the missing shock hardened ronin and warriors don't have time to think about.
The fight scenes are the most important part of the film though in the end, and if they didn't work, the film would've been handicapped badly. Though the film altogether is methodically paced, these scenes are numerous and exhilarating. They skirt the border between realism and a hyper exaggerated fiction, where there is nothing outlandish and the magic talked of by the Ming group doesn't consist of people being able to fly, but it's not an issue to have a character running across roofs and an unstable wooden structure as fast as he can. Anime can have fight scenes that are realistic or the completely ridiculous, but in the case of the most memorable examples they all build up their characters' personalities even in their gait and how they sling fists or swords as much as their super moves. Sword of the Stranger fits comfortably amongst live action brethren like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972-4) and other samurai films I've seen in how the pauses and stillness before a sword is drawn and after when a participant falls down dead are as important as the clash itself. Like the American western there is usually a ritual to the combat and in terms of characterisation, something which is important to cinema let alone as much as for this blog's future entries, the samurai genre is as interesting for me as the western as it both a) deals with morality plays and have so many entries that various genres, plots and moods have been dissected in them, and b) the fight scenes we love in these films and in Sword of the Stranger all have distinction between each other during the narrative length. The first encounter between Rarou and Nameless randomly on a bridge, tense and set alongside the blissful unawareness of a fisherman just under the bridge, to the violent climax all stand out differently from each other even if the fight scenes all have a sword or bladed weapons being brandished.
Samurai films in particular too, though there can be exceptions, have had less issues dealing with the white hat/black hat definitions that have been westerns throughout the decades, morality in general a lot more grey here even if Nameless is a good man. The willingness to show the villains in a more complex light is different from other samurai films I've seen, but regardless of historical accuracy or not, an ambiguity without becoming sophomoric nihilism pervades many of the chambara tales and does here as well. Heroes have to be ruthless in films like this to Lone Wolf and Cub, and Nameless certainly belongs to the group of anime protagonists who have dark pasts, a cliché that works here because, quite sensibly, he's shown to be a noble man with a moral code through good writing.
Ninja Scroll (1993) this is not, not only in the lack of the fantastical but also that the villains aren't inherently monstrous bad guys despite wanting to ritually sacrifice a young boy. It makes my lack of knowledge of Japanese history embarrassing in that, seeing a depiction of the country's past in this action yarn, like many of the samurai films, it would be great to know how much accuracy there is. The samurai films, like the westerns, not only tell interesting moral stories even in a rip roaring tale but a depiction of worlds straddled between chaos and order, mythological ideals that are universal of law, survival and honour dealt with in these films. Even in a film like Hanzo The Razor: Sword of Justice (1972), an exploitation movie, you can have these issues brought up directly or in the background. I wouldn't be surprised even if clichés which litter Sword of the Stranger are partly based on things taught in Japanese classrooms but its self defeating, having enjoyed this anime sleeper immensely, that I've been too lazy and not read up on my period Japanese history for context.