‘Sword of the Stranger’ review
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
The modern, romanticized view of the samurai has given us many anime about them. Arguably, these noble warriors are just as recognizable in the West now as in their Japanese homeland. Sadly, few of these modern samurai shows have been much to talk about. Most have been heavy on the mystic legend, while emphasizing over-the-top supernatural villains and bland overpowered heroes knocking down buildings. Sword of the Stranger scoffs at that rubbish and says, “No, this is how you do a samurai movie.”
In Sengoku-era Japan, a child and his dog flee for their lives, pursued by Chinese mercenaries. The mad Emperor of the Ming dynasty believes that sacrificing this child will grant him immortality. Lord Byakuran, his agent, brokers a tense alliance with the treacherous Akaike Shogunate, even as he plots to take the child for himself.
The child, Kotaro, meets a nameless vagabond who is good in a fight but refuses to ever draw his sword. Kotaro convinces the ronin to protect him until he reaches safety. The Chinese give chase, led by a leering, six-foot, blue-eyed Western warrior named Luo-Lang, who seeks only worthy opponents to kill.
The film is stylized, and the bad guys believe in the supernatural, but for the most part it is set in the real world. There’s no off-putting hip-hop nonsense like in Samurai Champloo, nonauseating 3-D robot battles like in Samurai 7—just wood-block percussion and lilting flute themes, reprised in triumphant brass for traditionally animated, man-to-man fight scenes so slick and intense they feel like live duels.
Fortunately, the action doesn’t detract from the character focus. Most of the film shows Kotaro’s bond with the nameless man growing as they travel together, snarking at each other all the way. The nameless man’s got a shady past, of course, but like in Cowboy Bebop, we never learn the whole truth, although we do learn enough to contrast him with the fearsome Luo-Lang. Perhaps this is best—if we weren’t left wanting to know more of the mystery, the ambiguity of his fate would fall flat.
The attention given to the supporting cast helps the film come to life. Everyone has an arc of their own, a stake in the plot to catch Kotaro. Master Itadori, Lord Akaike’s top warrior, nearly becomes a second protagonist despite having only a few scenes to explore his Macbeth-like ambition to rule. Akaike’s disdain for the Chinese becomes his undoing, even as he strong-arms the Buddhists who promised to protect Kotaro. There is a lot going on, and everybody’s in on something.
Luo-Lang is excellent as a dark reflection of the man with no name. When he speaks Mandarin with his monotonal Japanese accent, it sounds like the Black Speech of Mordor. Even his allies think he’s creepy—they’d ditch him in a second if they didn’t need his help. He feels a lot like the Darth Vader of the film, and is genuinely terrifying.
Nameless ronin, duplicitous courtiers, and sinister foreign warriors can be seen in many films and anime alike. But Sword of the Stranger is more than the sum of its parts. In arranging those elements just so, the film becomes a fresh and vital love letter to everything that makes Akira Kurosawa and Masahiro Shinoda’s classic samurai films so entertaining.
Thank you, Studio Bones, for making samurai great again.