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Sword of the Strange Essentials Edition Blu-ray Anime Review

9 min read

On the run from the Chinese, Kotaro finds himself a swordsman to help him stay alive.

What They Say:
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 No Name, a mysterious stranger who gets pulled into the chase.

When Kotaro’s dog is poisoned, No Name 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 No Name must face his past before a horrible fate is met again.

The Review:
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language and the previously created English language dub, both of which are encoded in the lossless Dolby TrueHD format in 5.1. Both the English and Japanese mixes are done this way and they’re quite beautiful throughout with how it brings the film to greater life. There’s a lot of quiet moments along the way where the small sounds stand out all the more, but when it comes to the big action fight sequences, it’s even more impressive as the swords clang and the background sounds reverberate. The directionality is just as impressive as it moves about the forward soundstage and there’s plenty of activity in key scenes with the rear channels. Playback was flawless and problem free.

Originally in theaters in 2007, the transfer for this theatrical feature is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. BONES really put a lot of effort into this and it shows on the screen here as the colors themselves are simply stunning. The reds of the Ming’s outfits in particular really stand out for me as they flap about in the wind or in movement. Characters are filled with lots of detail which is only rivaled by the beautiful backgrounds throughout. There’s a very rich feeling to this movie with its design and the high-quality transfer really captures it. The smoothness of the animation, the depth of the detail and the overall solid looking presentation has this as a real stand out piece. When BONES creates something of this nature, it needs a transfer like this to show it off. I can’t imagine watching a standard definition version of it after seeing this.

Replicating the general design of the previous edition, the standard sized Blu-ray case comes with just the Blu-ray as the DVD has been cut from it – as has the o-card. The cover artwork is the same but adds that sliver of grey with the Essentials designation to it that’s unobtrusive overall. The front cover is appealing with our core characters that have a harsh look about them and the use of the reds and blacks as the background gives it an intense feeling. The back cover works a parchment style approach and some nice line artwork of our main character along the left. The extras are clearly listed below him, though they should put the running time for the extras there as well or make bigger note of it, while the right has a good breakdown of the premise. The remainder is familiar with some small shots from the show that don’t do anything to sell it as well as the production information and an easy to read accurate technical grid that breaks everything down cleanly and clearly.

The menu design for this works really well even though it’s just a static image. With our lead character front and center, it’s done in illustration style and that gives it a lot of personality with the more earth tone oriented color palette and just the general roughness of it. Combining that with the navigation strip along the bottom that’s done as white with red blood splotches across it, it has a good sense of power about it and even movement while still just being a static image. The navigation itself is straightforward and works well as both the main menu and the pop-up menu to add just enough thematic elements to it while also just looking great in general.

The extras section has a decent selection of items to it as it goes beyond the basics of the TV commercials and the three theatrical trailers. In addition to that we have the original pilot film which runs for just a few minutes. The Cast Interview extra runs just under twenty minutes and has the standard format of having some of the cast members up on stage in a Japanese event where they’re walking around on stage – in costume! – and talking about their roles and the feature. The production report, or staff interview as it’s labeled in show, is a great documentary that runs about fifty minutes as it runs the entire range of the production and what was involved with it. It’s admittedly familiar to anyone who has watched these kinds of documentaries before, but the appeal comes in seeing the locations they work in and the particular staff members you may have an interest in.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When it comes to the BONES studio, they’ve certainly had more hits with me than misses for what I’ve seen. When they work on original productions they really wow me more than some of the adaptations they do, but they aren’t always striking gold. I’m still holding a grudge for Clockwork Fighters and I’m really ambivalent about Kurau and Ghost Slayers Ayashi. They do have some really impressive titles under their belt however and they’ve tried a number of different things. So when they set out to do a new original movie back in 2007 called Sword of the Stranger, I went in with a bit of caution based on past experiences. No need to raise expectations, even with many fans hailing it as a wonderful film.

Sword of the Stranger is a fairly predictable movie when it comes to its story, but its execution is what helps it rise up above it to some degree. Taking place in the feudal past, the film revolves around a young boy named Kotaro who has been kept hidden by some monks in various temples. His life is being sought by a group of Ming Chinese who have come to Japan to secure him for a sacrifice that they need for their religious/political goals, though some of them don’t think it’ll make a lick of difference no matter who it is or if it happens on the anointed day or some other day. The Ming are ruthless in their pursuit of the boy, either burning down temples or killing any who get in their way of capturing the boy. The main man after him though in service to the Ming is Luo-Lang, a brutal blonde haired warrior who deals out death in a cold and calculated way. Luo-Lang is the kind of warrior who doesn’t exactly take pleasure in what he does, he’s not cruelly violent, but he’s methodical and will do what it takes to win. Powerful, confident and very capable.

On the run after escaping from the Ming, Kotaro does his best to survive along with his faithful dog Tobimaru. The two form quite the bond with each other and they’ve survived well considering what Kotaro’s life has been like. Things change however when Kotaro finds a nameless ronin camping out in his abandoned home. Kotaro isn’t happy to find him there but circumstances force the two into a relationship where Kotaro buys No Name’s services with a valuable given to him by one of the monks. The soldiers who found him, of the lord of the region named Akaike, exert their authority over No Name and that causes plenty of blood to be shed. No Name doesn’t find himself drawn into the battle for Kotaro per se as he doesn’t want to get involved, but when the Ming warriors start getting involved he’s drawn deeper into all of it and finds himself facing quite the challenge.

Now under “service” from Kotaro, No Name helps him and his wounded Tobimaru to find the refuge he needs while fending off the Ming that come after them, particularly Luou-Lang. Sword of the Stranger does move into somewhat predictable territory at this point as the two men forge a relationship of sorts along the way where No Name cares for Kotaro more and Kotaro grows to respect him more, even though he knows he’s just using him to survive and to help Tobimaru. But that bond is one that feels real as it goes along, made all the better by the performance of Tomoya Nagase as No Name. There’s quite a lot said by the expressions and tone of voice as the two travel and get to know each other, understanding who they are and how they have to work together to survive. This is all balanced well against the threats that they face, mostly from Luo-Lang, and the sense of desperation and the need for survival is definitely palpable during many scenes.

Sword of the Stranger may be a fairly straightforward swordplay movie but it’s made all the more engaging because of the great choreography and beautiful animation. BONES skimps not at all here in either department as the fight sequences are stunning to watch, whether it’s the battle between No Name and Luo-Lang on the bridge or the opening butchery along the mountain pass. There’s a great beauty to the bloodshed that goes on here and they show it with the right kinds of quick cuts, giving you enough to really follow the action without losing the sense of how it progresses. All of this is tied to the beautiful animation itself, from the striking backgrounds that feel natural, with clouds moving often as well, to the character animation itself. There’s a richness to the colors here that’s stunning at times, notably with the red cloaks of Luo-Lang and his accomplices, so that when they do fight it’s engaging just to watch their clothes swirl about. Every yen of the production feels like it’s on the screen.

In Summary:
Sword of the Stranger delivered a lot of fun when I first saw it years ago on its first release and it does what it needs to do here with this new edition – it presents a high-quality visual treat involved swordsmen that’s even more affordable now and easier to give a try. I didn’t go into the feature expecting an amazing story and the one I got was what I figured it would be just from the trailer and promotional material, but it’s done in such a slick and solidly entertaining package that it overcomes its predictability. Sword of the Stranger is just a whole lot of fun, engaging enough to keep you drawn to it and beautiful enough in its execution and design to make you smile throughout it. Add in the right amount of violence and it’s a manly man’s movie that will also appeal to women. No Name is your ideal Japanese ronin hero and the story that surrounds him allows it to be proven. The story may not be memorable over time, but the experience itself certainly is, especially in this high definition presentation.

Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Production Report, Cast Interview, Pilot Film, Battle Animatic, Theatrical Trailers, TV Commercials, U.S. Trailer, Trailers

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Funimation
Release Date: April 9th, 2019
MSRP: $19.98
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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