Masahiro Ando’s Sword of the Stranger (2007) is an exciting, violent samurai action-adventure in the Toshiro Mifune tradition; it just happens to be animated.
The film opens with adolescent orphan Kotaro (voice by Aidan Drummond) on the run. Accompanied by his faithful dog Tobimaru, Kotaro had to flee the temple where he’d been living when the warriors of the corrupt Lord Akaike and agents of the Ming Emperor attacked. While hiding in an abandoned shrine, Kotaro meets a ronin who calls himself No Name (Michael Adamthwaite).
Kotaro is initially upset by the presence of this mysterious stranger. But he needs a friend badly: Both the Japanese and Chinese warriors are still hunting for him. The head of the Chinese squadron plans to sacrifice the boy in an elaborate ritual: His blood will be used to prepare “Xian Medicine,” an elixir that is supposed to grant the Ming Emperor eternal life. After a lot of fussing and some unsuccessful attempts at bullying, Kotaro “hires” No Name to help him get to the temple at Shirato, where he believes he’ll be safe. The ronin dispatches the first batch of attackers handily: No Name may be sardonic and secretive, but he’s a formidable fighter.
As the mismatched pair sets off on the road, a powerful bond forms between the designated victim and the warrior who bears the physical and psychological scars of his battles. Kotaro has no idea why the Chinese want his blood, but he hides his fear behind sham bra-
a grandly swashbuckling — if violent — animated take on the genre. By Charles Solomon.
vado; No Name suffers from nightmare-flashbacks of his past deeds.
Although he’s a redoubtable samurai, No Name is actually the foreign-born survivor of a shipwreck. He dyes his reddish hair black to avoid attracting attention. Like Kenshin Himura in Rurouni Kenshin, No Name has vowed not to use his sword again, in penance for the murders he committed in the past. The blade of his katana (long sword) is tied to its sheath with a knotted chord. Even sheathed, it’s a deadly weapon.
After a series of adventures, Kotaro is betrayed by the monk he trusted at Shirato, and handed over to his pursuers, hours before the ritual sacrifice must take place. Led by Tobimaru, No Name charges to the rescue, taking advantage of the clash between Akaike’s samurai and the Chinese warriors. A spectacular series of fight scenes climaxes in the duel between No Name and the leader of the Chinese troops, Luo-Lang (Scott McNeil), who, despite his name, is a blond, blue-eyed foreigner. When No Name snaps the knot that binds his sword, the movement has the impact of a cavalry charge.
Dueling Gaijin It’s surprising that the climactic samurai duel in an anime feature is fought by two non-Japanese. No Name fights for a just cause — the need to protect an innocent victim and a friend; Luo-Lang has been seeking an oppo- nent worthy of his skill as a swordsman. Ando and his artists choreograph their fight with flamboyant intensity.
The filmmakers use CG to give Sword of the Stranger a feeling of epic scale without detracting from the drawn animation of the characters. The towering altar constructed for the sacrifice of Kotaro and the flights of arrows from the Japanese archers enhance the excitement and contrast effectively with the handsome watercolor backgrounds. But Ando keeps the audience focused on the bond between Kotaro and No Name, a bond that proves stronger than the ties between lord and vassal or ally and ally. In a pair of winning performances, Drummond and Adamthwaite make the viewer believe their characters have genuinely grown to like and trust each other.
Dynamically staged and animated, Sword of the Stranger will appeal to both anime fans and devotees of classic live-action samurai movies. Animators and audiences often complain that the medium has been relegated to harmless fairy tales and fantasies in America. Sword of the Stranger proves that animation can be as effective as live action for swashbuckling period adventures — in the hands of the right artists. [
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