Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
A child and his dog flee from a burning monastery; trained Chinese assassins are attacked on a mountain bridge; a wandering swordsman finds shelter in a decrepit shrine. Within a few days, these three factions will come together in a shower of sparks and a fountain of blood. So goes the basic premise of Sword of the Stranger.
This isn’t the first time I’ve watched this 2007 movie. I caught it with a friend about two years ago and fell in love with its dynamic action scenes. So when I saw Sword of the Stranger was available on Hulu, I knew it was just the thing to watch during this very busy month! Unfortunately, I learned that movies that are fascinating on a first viewing don’t always hold up under extended scrutiny later.
The battle sequences in Sword of the Stranger are still beautiful, fantastically animated set pieces. They might rely a bit too much on an overenthusiastic shaky-cam effect, but they’re creatively choreographed and come part and parcel with emphatic gore effects that let you know this isn’t your standard, kid-friendly affair. The last half-hour in particular devolves into a three-sided brawl with limbs being cleaved from bodies and axes settling wetly into heads.
But the plot that’s supposed to shore up these action sequences is more than a little thin. There’re too many characters in too little a space, meaning everyone is more archetype (or, worse, stereotype) than person. Protagonist Kotaro is your standard bratty kid who learns to trust; his reluctant protector with no name is the typical wandering samurai who needs to be reminded that while swords kill, they can also protect. The primary antagonist – blonde haired, blue eyed, Chinese-speaking assassin Luo-Lang – is the most intriguing, but this is mostly because he speaks little and acts out of ambiguous motives. He’s not given enough screen time to become fully realized, and his fellow assassins/would-be allies might as well not exist for how little the movie pays attention to them. Throw in the political machinations of a Japanese warlord and things begin to devolve into an unappealing mire. Adorable shiba inu Tobimaru steals all of the scenes he’s in, though, so there’s that.
The problems with the script are only compounded by a weak dub. Having originally watched this movie with subtitles, I was sorely disappointed that the English version chose not to offer subtitles for the Chinese-language parts. This might not have been a big deal and might even have added to the ambiance of the show if the Chinese were limited to mid-battle quips and other inconsequential dialogue. Unfortunately, a few pretty important chunks of the story are spoken in Chinese. Had I not had the benefit of an earlier showing with subtitles, I would have found myself confused and more than a little annoyed. The voice actors chosen for each role matched pretty well to the characters themselves, but almost everyone sounds like they’re phoning it in. Nothing spectacular to talk about there.
Ultimately, you’re not going to watch Sword of the Stranger for the plot, so go in expecting to see some fantastic sword fights and little else. Don’t ask for depth. Enjoy it on a visceral level, instead, and you’ll find that Sword of the Stranger earns its one and a half hours of runtime.