Sword of the Stranger channels a classic vibe with its straightforward narrative and steady beats. It doesn’t try to play with our feelings, taking one step back and two steps forward like Death Note, nor does it ever abandon its premises and take on different directions like Psycho-Pass or Zetsuen no Tempest. It doesn’t keep secrets either. Rather, each piece is clearly laid out so that we could see what’s in front before we get there, but that’s not a bad thing since Sword of the Stranger tries to focus on solid execution instead of emotional gimmicks that aim to shock. Because of that, I feel justified in exploring the plot in this review — I don’t think that what I divulge should be any surprise, and certainly should not affect your enjoyment of this movie. However, if you are sensitive to spoilers, proceed carefully.
Distrustful orphan Kotarou hires a nameless ronin Nanashi with karma points and a cheap stone to escort him to Mangaku Temple while protecting him from government agents who are on the pursuit. We understand right from the beginning the entire cast: its protagonists and villains clearly defined. The only twist is revealed early if you pay attention, well in advance of our journeyers reaching the rendezvous point. The character’s roles are mostly incidental, that they happen to come together due to the events except Nanashi. It’s simple. Perhaps too simple — and safe. A narrative with limited elements in play such as this requires at least one or two of three things to successfully capture our attention: suspense, well-planned motives, and character bonding.
It needs to keep us asking: What happens next? What will happen once they reach the destination? It would be preferable to have a fleeting sense of insecurity or impending doom, some large obstacle for our heroes to overcome in order to aid in their growth. For example, in Samurai Champloo, the final few villains are shown to clearly supersede Mugen and Jin in skill. Sword of the Stranger accomplishes this in some respects, with undefeated villain Luo-Lang, a slight background of political intrigue, and beating drums and low string in the soundtrack that help set the mood. On the other hand, Nanashi (practically Rurouni Kenshin with a deeper voice) is also undeniably strong — in fact, he crosses swords with Luo-Lang early in the movie, fighting with him on equal ground without even drawing his blade. There are several fight scenes here and there, but it never quite feels as if Kotarou is in significant danger for the duration he is with Nanashi. Compounding to this problem, perhaps we don’t care whether Kotarou is in danger. He comes off as self-entitled and whiny, a highly temperamental little brat that often blames others for his circumstances. A few times throughout the movie, he uses the lines, “It’s your fault that…” and, “It’s the horse’s fault that…” And although he gradually warms up to Nanashi, there is no indication that Kotarou has really learned anything from his ordeals even at the movie’s finale.
That’s the biggest flaw in Sword of the Stranger: its mostly flat, one-dimensional characters exist to fill a pair of shoes for some fight scene down the line. Characters that are given a chance to express their ambitions are soon killed off, leaving the revelations pointless. Because of this, the political intrigue never develops into relevancy as far as the protagonists are concerned: they occur in the background, resolving itself neatly while buying time for Nanashi’s entrance. The Ming (Chinese) swordsmen, the primary villains, are depicted with cartoonish qualities, often immune to pain and taunting in short instigative Chinese phrases. Luo-Lang himself, a blonde haired European working for the Chinese government, fits the nihilistic I-just-want-to-fight-strong-opponents archetype perfectly, reciting lines such as, “I don’t use medicine because it would be boring,” and, “Pain makes me feel alive.” Overly ambitious chief vassal of the Japanese daimyo (feudal lord, subordinate to the Shogun) Shogen Itadori plays a somewhat major role, although ultimately inconsequential, his one-tracked boasting about having his status match his dreams is outdone only by his one-tracked demise. Buddhist monk Shouan is the catalyst for Nanashi’s development, resorting to cliched taunts of desperation such as, “You’d do the same thing, you’re just the same as me.” The result is that it is hard to care about any of these cardboard cutouts, it is hard to put the Kotarou-Ming dichotomy into perspective, it is hard to view the Ming or the Japanese army in contempt, and as such it is hard to truly root for Kotarou’s survival.
If lack of character depth are the bricks that make up the wall between Sword of the Stranger and our engagement, then the counterfeit motive, when it is revealed, is the concrete. I call it a counterfeit motive because it is unrealistic, apparently only to serve as an excuse for the events to play out: the Ming Emperor wishes to concoct an Elixir of Immortality and they need the blood of a child that is prophesied to be born only once in hundreds of years. This is perhaps the worst route Sword of the Stranger could have taken since it not only makes Kotarou seem insignificant, incidentally involved only due to some Dao monk’s questionable prophecy, but it further dehumanizes the Ming villains. If the protagonists are charismatic and lovable such that the audience should naturally be inclined to root for them, then it would be understandable for the antagonists to oppose them in a classic match up of good versus evil. However, Kotarou is not a character that warms the heart. If there is any character to redeem this cast, it could only be Nanashi — the only character whose actions reflect a realistically nuanced motive. He is the only character given — dare I say — feelings.
All of this leads into the most important element: the bonding that must occur between Kotarou and his hired guard Nanashi which would ground the foundation for the story’s final act. Nearly a third of the movie’s running time is spent between Kotarou and Nanashi with the express purpose, it seems, to allow Kotarou to open up to Nanashi; however, due to Kotarou’s obstinacy this development is forgone until nearly halfway into the movie. It may be just me and my lack of patience for immature characters, but the conversation which reveals Kotarou’s past occurs too late, and doesn’t allow enough time for the full acquaintance of the two to settle in (it doesn’t help that Kotarou’s relation to the prophecy was never explained). The bonding is more proficiently developed by the technical aspects: the nostalgia inducing soundtrack and the well-timed cut to Shogen Itadori’s subplot, giving the impression of time passed. For similar narratives and better character chemistry, I suggest Rurouni Kenshin: Tsuiokuhen or Seirei no Moribito.
What saves Sword of the Stranger from mediocrity is its technical brilliance. Its backdrops are beautifully painted with incredible detail and texture. Environmental effects like smoke, snow, and splashes of water add to the artistic depth, although there are a couple instances of CGI that stand out unnecessarily. Sometimes the colors are a bit too muted or washed out compared to the character cels, drawing attention to itself, but that might be grasping at straws. Animation starts out strong with each swing of the sword, each motion clearly defined, but progresses with increasing inconsistency — later fights utilize more stylistic shortcuts, with flashes of light as weapons make contact or lines representing fast movement.
To be sure, whether at beginning or end, the art and animation is a spectacle. Rarely does the camera angle give in to lazy pans of a still background; rather, multiple depths give more perspective. Character designs, however, are of varying quality: they are sometimes detailed and proportionate, other times more generic, missing shadow detail, particularly when it comes to Kotarou’s face which is often relegated to consisting of only large eyes, a half-circle mouth with no teeth, and barely noticeable nose (similar to Nagisa from Clannad). Ironically, it is noticeable that the more prominent a character is in Sword of the Stranger, the less detail is given to his countenance.
The soundtrack is efficient, but detached — it works to establish a historic nostalgia or suspense foreshadowing an event, but never really evoking sentiment. Opportune crescendos in the orchestral score are timed to the fighting, making it more involving, but I wished it could have devoted the same attention to the scenes where Kotarou and Nanashi bond, instead of repeating the same flute melody — it lends those scenes a mellow fondness, but it doesn’t do enough to draw me in. One major complaint however, is not in the soundtrack, but that all the Chinese Ming soldiers are played by Japanese actors, and as such most of them (except for one) have awkwardly inauthentic accents.
While I may seem overly critical of Sword of the Stranger, that is only because it has such high production value that it could have had the chance to become the next masterpiece. It is by no means bad, and I want to make clear that the movie never dips into the territory of dissatisfaction, but at the same time it never really excels. For a movie that’s so simply paced, it is missing either interpersonal drama that connects the characters to each other, or deeper philosophical introspection that allows us to peer into their hearts, the kind that reveals character subtext. Sword of the Stranger could have definitely benefited from being more character driven since its plot is so basic. Its beautiful composition is enough to keep me entertained, but not enough for it to be truly great. It never loses my attention, but I am not enthralled. The dramatic tension is sorely missing. While Sword of the Stranger has clear merits, it never truly connects. And for that reason, I am rating it 6.6.
L-Bound/U-Bound represent the worst and best, respectively, that I expected Sword of the Stranger to end from watching it up until the point in the chart. I came into the movie with hopes high: the fantastic art coupled with an exciting fight scene is a great way to open a samurai movie, A few minutes in, I gave Sword of the Stranger a U-Bound of 8.4, representing high potential. An L-Bound of 4.8 to start means that I expected Sword of the Stranger not to bomb, that at the very least if the story doesn’t fully pan out, it would still be an entertaining ride. As time went on, it became increasingly clear that nothing earth-shattering is going to occur. The movie doesn’t take many risks in buildings its foundation, it moves ahead, steadily and surely, one step at a time. The gradual narrowing of the U-Bound and L-Bound represent that, as the actual score straddles around the middle, stagnating around 6 until an hour into the movie before picking up; by that time all the pieces were in play for the final showdown. At about 88 minutes in, there’s a physics-breaking feat, in my opinion, causing a slight dip in the score — see if you can catch that.
Warning: This pie chart is unscientific.
I guess I forgot to mention the loyal dog Tobimaru. This might stimulate a sentimental response from dog-lovers, and while Tobimaru plays a part in the plot (it’s responsible for why Kotarou hires Nanashi in the first place), it doesn’t really contribute to the quality of the plot. Meet Tobimaru: