Patrick Galloway’s excellent book Samurai films: Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves has this to say about the prerequisites of any self respecting Samurai film:
- The hero is probably a swordsman
- He’s a samurai, or an ex-samurai (or yakuza) and he’s usually motivated by either:
- The desire to protect innocents
- A combination of 2 or more of the above
The fact that Bones Studio animated feature film Sword of the Stranger can pretty much run through that lists of checks and come up in the black is definitely not a bad thing. In fact, from the opening scene, it’s painfully clear that this is the kind of chambara movie you never knew you always wanted to see. And shortly after that realisation comes another, in the form of a question you never knew you always wanted to ask: like the ninjas versus pirates debate, in a fight between a samurai swordsman and a kungfu master, who would win? This is not a trick question, and Sword of the Stranger provides an exceedingly thrilling answer.
Our adventure opens with the young Kotaro and his clever doggie Tobimaru on the run. Enter Nanashi (lit. Nameless), your typical troubled masterless swordsman to the reluctant rescue. Voiced by popular actor Nagase Tomoya, Nanashi is a dry, drawling, seemingly careless man of few words who very much prefers to not get involved. Too bad the bad guys – a mysterious group of military heavies from China who are after Kotaro for as yet unknown reasons – treat everyone who gets in their way the same; with extreme prejudice. Plucky little Kotaro, realising his predicament – and that he’s stumbled upon a wealth of impressive yojimbo skills – soon hires Nanashi to help him get to safety.
With such a simple premise, you could expect Sword of the Stranger to be a little easy to predict, and it is, but that’s not the point. Sword of the Stranger is a chambara film through and through, directly descended from such stock as Inugaki and Kurosawa, and as such its function isn’t to surprise, but to illustrate the internal conflict between obligation and individualism, between loyalty and morality.
Such internal conflict almost always arises from a single moment or event, and the hero’s life almost always changes directly after it, and in the way of all good samurai films, we don’t even have to have this explained in Stranger to immediately know it as fact. The sword, as an extension of the samurai’s soul, is perhaps the most significant prop in a chambara film – indiscriminately drawn it infers the wielder lacks honour and discipline; broken, it represents weakness of spirit, defeat or a loss of purpose. Bound – as in Nanashi’s case – it’s a symbol for guilt, rejection or a lack of belief in the self. This is perhaps most effectively highlighted in the chance encounter on a bridge between Nanashi and Luo-Lang, the outsider among outsiders. The two of them facing off in the quiet afternoon, with water flowing gently underneath and clouds passing overhead, is a classic chambara movie moment. But the point of this scene is not to wow us with Nanashi’s prowess against the main antagonist, although it does that, nor to foreshadow the coming battle between the two, but to illustrate how heavily Nanashi’s past actions weigh upon him; he will not draw his sword again unless he absolutely has to.
Of course, it’s already a forgone conclusion that he will have to. Kotaro is courageous enough to be likable, but even if he wasn’t, Nanashi is still honour-bound to fight to save him and the story’s culmination on the Ming’s mysterious sacrificial structure is possibly the best extended action sequence you’ll see on your small screen for quite some time. I mean, I probably don’t even really need to say that Bones cut not a single corner in the production of this feature, right? Their grasp of human motion – the fluidity and energy – and how the camera can compliment it is spectacular to watch, and it’s this attention to detail and level of quality that make Sword of the Stranger a guilty pleasure of a feature film, completely minus the guilt. Well paced and perfectly balanced, it has the sort of broad entertainment appeal that defies anyone, young or old, not to get swept up by it and transported off to a time and place where heroes really do save the day.