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Sword of the Stranger UK Blu-ray Anime Review

10 min read

Honour before awesome.

What They Say:
With breathtaking animation that keeps you at the edge of your seat, this classic tale from Studio BONES is a hidden gem of its time.

Set in feudal-era Japan, a young boy named Kotaro and his faithful dog Tobimaru are caught in the turmoil of a grim prophecy. At the request of the Ming Dynasty’s aging emperor, the boy is pursued by a band of formidable Chinese assassins. After escaping the destruction of the temple that took him in, he runs into a mysterious stranger who gets pulled into the chase. When Kotaro’s dog is poisoned, the nameless stranger reluctantly accepts payment to escort them to a temple in Shirato. The unlikely companions form a bond over saving Tobimaru’s life, but unrest is brewing all around them. The Chinese assassins clash with the local lord as they build a religious tower, and a blond-haired, bloodthirsty swordsman among them seeks a worthy opponent. Chaos erupts when the assassins find Kotaro, and the Stranger must face his past before a horrible fate is met again.

The Review:
Audio:
This is a dual release so for this review as a change of pace will be reviewing the DVD variation. This is one of the most impressive releases I’ve heard in a while as we have 5.1 releases in English, Japanese AND French as well – being an Anime Ltd release and based in France for distribution you do get a few French language options now and again but apart from one series (The Count Of Monte Cristo) I can’t recall a 5.1 in all the options. And yes, I did try them all and none of them had any issues with audio or changing volume – in sync with the subtitles, and whilst I enjoyed it most in the native language (especially as you can tell more easier between Japanese and Chinese than how the two other dubs handle it), the dubs in English and French are also more than acceptable and definitely worth looking…or in this listening too.

Video:
Similar with the audio, the video is set in 16:9 – 1.78:1 aspect ratio via NTSC transfer to PAL format – with DVD releases nowadays the effect is in the shadow of it’s more powerful Blu-Ray cousin but no such issues with this great transfer to DVD – whilst the animation is a tribute to older style and Ghibli-esque productions, it is still beautiful with no delay, slowdown or it becoming grainy or blurry via pausing – the moments switching between reality and imagination are never forgive the pun, blurred as they intermix fantastically and comes through as a great and cared for production.

Packaging:
There was no packing for this test release; however, there is collector’s edition packaging in the special edition.

Menu:
The menu is pretty standard for a movie – clips of the movie in the main menu above the choice showing on a blade of a sword (most likely No-Name/Nanashi’s) – choices are Play Movie, Scenes, Audio, and Credits – you can select subtitles of English or French depends on the audio (as well as selectable subtitles if you are watching the English dub as well) – you can return to the main menu easily from the movie as well. Simple but effective.

Extras:
There are no extras for this release unless you count the credits.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Sword of the Stranger is one of those movies similar to Mai Mai Miracle that was considered a classic movie but never got a chance as a review in the UK (leading to a hilarious release when they only did it in Italian without the English dub) – released in 2007, Anime Limited rescued it and released it with the full dub (and a French one to boot), and done by one of my favourite art studios Bones, needless to say this remaster was high on my list to watch.

I was not disappointed. One of the best movies I’ve seen and it’s nice that there are so many movies that don’t have the Ghibli tag which are still just as, if not more beautiful and intense than some of their movies, with this being a prime example.

Set in the Sengoku-era of feudal Japan, we see a young boy named Kotaro with his dog Tobimaru fleeing from some people for as of yet, an unknown reason. A monk tells him to go to a temple in the Akaike area to find someone named Zekkai who will look after him and is aware of a situation that Kotaro is oblivious to. This seems to be linked to some Ming warriors from China under an elderly commander named Bai-Laun…whose star fighter/assassin is an apparent western fight named Luo-Lang, blond hair, blue eyes and a thirst for battle – which is a key throughout the movie as it goes along…

It leads to Kotaru and Tobimaru hiding out in an abandoned temple where a wandering samurai is also resting. We don’t actually find out his true name (Nanashi in Japanese/No-Name in English throughout the movie) – the character is quite snarky to combat Kotaru’s brattiness. However, Tobimaru seems to find him a nice person which leads to the two basically forced to bond. However, as they cook a meal they alert the Ming warriors (who are also with soldiers from the Akaike…where Kotaro wants to go to…alarm bells start to ring…) who go to capture Kotaro…however turns out No-Name is quite the warrior (again, alarm bells ring when you think how Luo-Lang wants a worthy match) and whilst Tobimaru is poisoned, he uses it as an ‘excuse’ to stay with Kotaro to safe the dog’s life when Kotaro offers a payment that he got from the monk as hiring – you can tell though that No-Name is a lot nicer than he lets on…

So they manage to find someone to help the dog, but you see that Luo-Lang and the Ming Warriors are there (some typical complaining over the westerner – kudos to the show where the Ming warriors do speak in Mandarin with actual Mandarin speakers playing their roles, the dub does it at times as well but the Japanese is every time) and Luo-Lang senses that No-Name is a warrior and challenges him (just for fun) but interestingly, No-Name has his sword tied up for a reason (he managed to kill the three warriors before without unsheathing his sword – you learn through flashbacks about his past gradually throughout to WHY he doesn’t release his blade) – but when he learns of the deaths (unknowingly that No-Name is the one who killed them) he leaves them alone (also showing some great intelligence trying to figure out who killed them as it is clear the Lord Akaike is not trusting them and has his own plans…) and we learn the reason why the Ming are after Kotaro…

Basically the plot is that Kotaro’s blood apparently can cause immortality at a specific time of the year (which Akaike learns of and wants to betray the Ming for that reason – it also leads to an interesting side character in Shogun Itadori, who is clearly wanting Akaike’s position of power, and with him being more respectful and powerful, he seems a more likeable character) – with this mind and knowing the Akaike have been working with the Ming, it comes as no surprise that when No-Name gets Kotaro to the temple, that they have betrayed him and the Akaike takes Kotaro. No-Name realises something is wrong, finds Tobimaru and go to try and find Kotaro – but the Ming captured Akaike and take them all to a place ready to drain Kotaro. Itadori takes advantage of thing and kills Akaike, and the battle begins between the two factions whilst No-Name is searching for Kotaro using Tobimaru’s scent…

We learn by now of No-Names past, and that he used to be an imperial samurai, but left after he was forced to kill two children as couldn’t disobey their orders (Itadori hints when he had a fight with Luo-Lang that there was one person who was as skilled as Luo-Lang but didn’t have the heart for it – implying correctly it was No-Name) – so despite tracking and exhausted, No-Name finds them all. It eventually leads to pretty much everyone getting killed (Itadori, and even Bai-Laun – Luo-Lang even kills him because he is very impressed with how No-Name kills many soldiers without his sword), Kotaro avoiding his sentence and a final battle between Luo-Lang and No-Name – without spoiling the end, there is a victor…but the finale ends rather ambiguously as you wonder if there is a winner in the end…

This is called a hidden gem in the description and it is indeed, over 10 years since it was released and I hadn’t even heard of it beforehand. The entire second half of the film is a full blown tearjerker and a real ride of a story, and with the ambiguous ending over who survived, it is one that makes you think as well.

The lead characters are all incredibly interesting as is their role in what they do and choose. No-Name/Nanashi is a character who is etched in mystery but also etched in history, and when you learn his history, his attachment to Kotaro is almost a way for him to atone for what he did, which makes sense considering his eventual lack of pay and his determination to save him. The fact he may also be a foreigner (due to his red hair – why do all the anime recently with red hair protagonists tend to be awesome – looking at you Snow White, Ancient Magus Bride…) gives him a direct rivalry with Luo-Lang and whilst he isn’t as much of a fight maniac as Luo-Lang is, he obviously has kept his honed skills so his legend still lives on. This is apparent in the climactic fight with Luo-Lang as during the movie we learn the Ming have this drug which makes them impervious to pain (but not death ^^) and Luo-Lang offers him the drug due to what he had to do to save Kotaro…and he still refuses (gaining even more respect from Luo-Lang as well).

Kotaro at first seems like a bratty half-pint but you then learn his own history and also his curse as it will, which is why the Ming and eventually the Japanese all target him. He is quite cheeky, but No-Name gives as good as he gets so the two have a fun dynamic, and despite his nature he adores his dog Tobimaru (who is a very good boy as well) so you learn his heart and then feel bad for what he has to go through and who actually betrayed him. The two have a good team and whilst No-Name does most of the work, the plot works through Kotaro so his worried smile at the end of the movie again suggests the ending might not be as happy as we hoped…

And of course, on the villains side we have Luo-Lang and even then I’m only going to call him that because he is on the Ming dynasty side who want to drain Kotaro’s blood – he actually has no interest in it and only took the job to find a worthy opponent…which he did in No-Name. He is also despite being mocked for being a Westerner, highly intelligent in the battlefield, appreciates the skill of the drug but won’t take it as he feels pain makes him more human, and he obviously disapproves some of the things his employers do – the two key ones being wanting to sacrifice a child and of course, his boss wanting to kill No-Name before he gets his fight. It leads to the final fight being whilst in his favour, his respect for No-Name is to the utmost degree and he doesn’t hold anything back….

…the only mildly negative thing I can say is that the other villains are pretty much stock entries once you learn the plot. Itadori is the only other character I could say had some decent development with his rise for power, and the rest are pretty forgettable and used only as a set up so either No-Name or Luo-Lang can kick some ass. And to be fair, the action scenes are very well animated (even more so before No-Name even draws his blade) and it gets forgot about because of those and the interactions between the two leads, as well as Luo-Langs careful thoughts and eventual wants to fight No-Name.

Other than that, it is one of the best movies I’ve seen and am just disappointed I didn’t learn about it before now. Definitely one blade you want to see glistening…

In Summary:
Sword Of The Stranger is a classic two sides story with someone in the middle and with the lead characters on No-Name, Kotaro and Luo-Lang all being well developed and interesting characters, then the plot comes full force and you enjoy the atmosphere, the back story and the conclusion. With the ending quite open and the flashbacks making you like No-Name all the more, Sword Of The Stranger is an underrated gem that needs to be seen once by any past or modern anime fan.

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: N/A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: N/A

Released By: Anime Limited
Release Date: December 18th, 2018
MSRP: £19.99
Running Time: 103 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Playstation 4, Sony Bravia 32 Inc EX4 Television, Aiwa 2 Way Twin Duct Bass Reflex Speaker System.

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