A swordsman with no name (who is named Nanashi despite his no-name status) happens upon Kotaro, an orphan child being hunted by Ming Chinese agents. Nanashi accepts Kotaro’s offer to protect him and his dog Tobimaru in exchange for a treasure once Kotaro arrives at his destination. Meanwhile, the Ming warriors continue to track and pursue them, since Kotaro is needed to realize their agenda.
Sword of the Stranger is very lean on ideas, but it’s not really an idea movie. It’s a fusion of old-school Japanese action with a Western style hero’s journey. In fact there isn’t much I can say about the story since it amounts to little more than a series of action scenes strung together with walking.
There are actually two parallel stories going on. One involves Kotaro and his escape from the Ming Chinese, and another involves the Ming and their dealings with a shady Japanese lord. These two threads never really converge. Kotaro’s purpose is revealed but it doesn’t have much effect on the Ming/Japanese story. For both story threads, the thematic elements are nothing new. One involves the loner Nanashi trying to make up for his blood soaked past, while bonding with Kotaro. Another involves a measure of political conflict between the Ming and the Japanese. The cutting between these plots is clumsy at times but honestly the story is simplistic enough that the editing has very little impact.
What you really want to see from Sword of the Stranger is not necessarily the elaborate action sequences, but the vividness of the production. You feel like you’re being taken on a visual journey through feudal Japan. There’s a sort of loving attention paid to the setting, reflected through the amazingly detailed backdrops and character designs. You just can’t help but to get caught up in the romanticism of the period.
Sword of the Stranger falls squarely on the entertainment side of cinema. But it is very well-done. The story is intriguing but not challenging; it’s utterly safe but with enough originality added to keep your attention. The pacing is spot-on, alternating between exposition and action at regular intervals. The last third of the movie is one gigantic action sequence that’s difficult to look away from. The fighting is brutal, and gore is used frequently but cautiously. This movie is not high concept but makes no pretensions to be; it simply makes the best use of its spectacle.
The cast can be divided into 3 factions which are at odds with each other. Nanashi and Kotaro are merely trying to escape the Ming. The Ming are overseeing a large construction project on Japanese land, and need Kotaro to complete it. Finally, the Japanese are represented by Shogen, who appears to have shared a past with Nanashi although this story thread doesn’t actually go anywhere.
Nanashi is a charismatic lead, who uses innovative and non-lethal tactics to get through his scruffles. Kotaro, being a child, is mostly helpless although he is protected to some degree by his dog Tobimaru. Though Kotaro is written as being short tempered and somewhat stuck up, he stays out of the way enough so that he doesn’t become annoying. Basically Kotaro’s sole purpose is to provide a believable reason for Nanashi to participate in the last battle. I did not feel any particular desire to see Kotaro saved – he wasn’t that strong of a character.
Shogen and his forces attempt to undermine the Ming in various ways, but ultimately they are just fodder for the final battle. There was no reason to root for them at any point, but they are a necessary element in that Nanashi doesn’t present a credible threat to all the Ming agents by himself. The real villains of this movie are the Ming Chinese, who exude a sense of almost otherworldly menace. They are all proficient fighters, and all have an insanely high level of pain tolerance. In this way, Nanashi is similar to them, although Nanashi pursues his own goals and not those of a government.
The main reason the Chinese work as villains is because they’re not really villains. They are very much professionals, sent to Japan to do a job and then get out. They’re exciting to watch, and the bare scraps of a group dynamic between them leads to some intriguing action late in the movie. Rarou, the foreigner of the group, stands out above the rest as an expert swordsman. His schtick as someone who’s only looking for someone strong to fight is probably the only thing I’d change. Throwing a dart at a newspaper probably leads to more interesting motivations than that overused cliche.
Sword of the Stranger was produced by Bones, which is most notably responsible for the Fullmetal Alchemist series. Some of the character designs are reminiscent of ones from that work, leading to faces that look a bit innocuous for the subject matter. Production values overall are stunning, especially the meticulously realized backdrops. Just sitting back and looking at each shot is a treat. The action scenes are well choreographed, although the combination of quick cuts and shaky-cam obscure some important details at times. This is frustrating, as the fighting is exciting otherwise but really needs to tone down on the quick cutting. You went through all that trouble animating it, let the audience see your work.
The musical selection is curious, as it is decidedly Western. Although it is intended to evoke the feel of an epic journey, the movie doesn’t make much of the actual journey. Still, I couldn’t help but to be stirred by it. Fight scenes are usually set to a background of drums, a practice which grates on me more the more I hear it being used. Is this the future of martial arts cinema? Endless scores consisting of anonymous drums banging to the same unimaginative beat?