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Sword of the Stranger Blu-ray Anime Review

10 min read
The timeless tale of a wandering samurai, crafted by the best in the business

The timeless tale of a wandering samurai, crafted by the best in the business

What They Say:
In the throes of the Sengoku era Japan, a mysterious envoy of powerful Chinese warriors arrive in search of a runaway boy. Our young escapee Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru cross paths with a traveling ronin. Simply known as Nanashi (translated as No Name), he wanders the country, bound by an oath to never draw his sword again.

The unlikely trio of Nanashi, Kotaro and Tobimaru are dragged into a plot of corrupt Japanese politics and secretive Chinese rituals. Troubled by their dark pasts, our characters are compelled by the red string of fate.

An original story and directorial debut of Studio BONES veteran Masahiro Andō, Sword of the Stranger is a passion project on par with the classic samurai films that inspired it.

The Review
Audio:
When creating a period piece, capturing the atmosphere of said historical period is often the main goal. For Sword of the Stranger, Naoki Satou’s soundtrack encapsulates the vibe of samurai cinema to a T.  With fluttering woodwinds backed by a bellowing string orchestra, the score emulates the vast scale needed to accompany the theatrical motifs of this movie. The arrangement perfectly keeps tempo, with thunderous energy for action scenes and tranquil cooldowns for the character-focused moments. For a film of such epic proportions, Satou’s score blends in a way that only boosts the emotional vigor of each section.

While the voice acting is commandeered by a handful of industry veterans, the lack of Chinese voice actor credits is apparent, as some of the scenes with Chinese dialogue may come off as a bit amateur. Despite this setback, the sound team had native Chinese speakers advising the voice actors to the best of their ability. Sound design from Kazuhiro Wakabayashi was stellar, making sure that dialogue and sound leveling was handled with care. Distance played a large factor, with voices traveling in open areas compared to echoing when characters were indoors. Wakabayashi was very keen on the shifting scale of the film; bringing audio to the forefront without overstepping what’s on-screen.

This release is presented in 5.1 surround sound for both the English and Japanese audio, while special features are produced in 2.0 stereo.

Video:
When I first saw this movie years ago, it wasn’t widely available, which came as a detriment to its quality. Thanks to Funimation’s licensing, Sword of the Stranger can be seen at the high definition it truly deserves to be viewed in. Studio Bones has made a name for themselves for incredible animation and this film is no different. There isn’t a moment in this film that doesn’t look incredibly beautiful from a production standpoint.

Of course, the main draw to a samurai movie for many comes down to its fight scenes. Needless to say, Sword of the Stranger contains some of the best-choreographed swordplay you will ever see in animation. From industry giants like Yutaka Nakamura, Masashi Ishihama and many more, there isn’t a more dependable team you can find for an action-centric film like this. Action scenes aside, subtle character animation and beautiful backgrounds of early winter Japan are littered throughout. If anything is going to draw someone to this movie, the visual feats offered are a strong frontrunner.

This Blu-ray is presented at 1080p High Definition in a 16:9 aspect ratio, with special features running at 1080i.

Packaging:
The Sword of the Stranger Blu-ray comes as part of Funimation’s series of “Essentials” releases. The front cover has our three main characters standing among a battle-torn backdrop filter all in red. The back cover provides a character sketch of Nanashi, with a brief movie description, listed Extras and several screenshots from the film. The inside of the box comes with a digital code for the movie and the Blu-ray disc. The disc itself is spattered in a bloody-red finish, further emphasizing the violent nature of the movie. The inside of the cover sleeve has neatly-lined sketches of all the major characters who appear throughout the movie.

Menu:

The menu offers a static picture of Nanashi drawing his sword, with the theme melody playing in the background. The four available options (Play Movie, Scene Selection, Setup, and Extras) are presented across the screen, with a horizontal smear of blood behind them. Setup options have the simple choice of English 5.1 or Japanese 5.1. All extras can be found on this one disc. Overall, it’s a fairly standard menu setup.

Extras:
The extras include a wide range of goodies.  First up is a production report detailing the film’s inspiration and how it came to be. This feature includes a behind-the-scenes look at what was going through the team’s minds as they crafted the film. Extended interviews from Director Masahiro Andō, Producer Masahiko Minami and several other key developers painted a picture of the vision they had going into Sword of the Stranger. It’s not often you get such deep insight into a film’s production process, so this extra sits as a crowning jewel I hope to see in more Blu-ray collections.

On top of the extremely detailed report, we’re given a cast interview with Yuuri Chinen and Tomoya Nagase, the voice actors for Kotaro and Nanashi respectively. Both of them being new to voice acting in anime, it was quite inspiring to hear how their first animated feature would impact their careers moving forward.

As mentioned in the Production Report, the Extras included a Pilot Film and Battle Animation that were created in the planning process of the movie. It’s exciting to see these small clips that formed the film’s original vision and how it progressed from those first few ideas.

Lastly, we have theatrical trailers and TV commercials for the film, as well as trailers for several other Funimation releases.

Overall, this Blu-ray is jam-packed with extra content that is sure to impress anyone who wants to learn more about the industry.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The story of Sword of the Stranger has been told for decades. From samurai cinema’s earliest incantations in pre-war Japan to the heydays of Akira Kurosawa. It’s a story that managed to cross international borders, as seen in Spaghetti Western classic A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood as the “Man with No Name” (a movie based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). Within anime and manga, the wandering samurai trope continued with popular works such as Lone Wolf and Cub and Rurouni Kenshin. Beyond that, characters like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop and Vash the Stampede from Trigun continued the tale of a mysterious man spurred on by the demons of his past.

For almost a century now, Samurai and Western genre films have intertwined and reinvented each other. The initial goal for Director Masahiro Andō was to create an action film that paid homage to both of its genre predecessors. A film innately Japanese in its roots and global in its Hollywood style of approach, Sword of the Stranger­ was born.

The movie opens with a roaring battle-cry of ferocity. An envoy of warriors clad in crimson robes come under fire from a legion of archers. Right out of the gate, we’re thrown into the blood-drenched world of the samurai. As the gory massacre ensues, we come to find out these robed crusaders are not of this land. These soldiers have been sent by the Ming Emperor of China in search of a boy who has fled to Japan.

Cut to our person of interest – the young boy Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru are scrapping by, taking refuge in an abandoned temple. The two find themselves on edge when a wandering samurai appears in their sanctuary. Kotaro takes issue with the samurai’s presence, but the mild-mannered ronin remains unprovoked. No sooner are we introduced to our main cast than a squad of Japanese soldiers have come to seize the boy by force. With no choice but to fight, the unknown samurai defends the boy from his pursuers, only for one of the powerful Ming warriors to make an entrance. After a spectacle of intense combat, the samurai defeats the Ming warrior, but at the price of Tobimaru being poisoned while assisting him. The hot-headed Kotaro, still untrusting of the unnamed samurai, becomes desperate and promises a reward for the samurai to save Tobimaru. Feeling more indebted to the dog than the boy, our hero reluctantly decides to help, and so the journey of our weary travelers begins.

Sword of the Stranger follows several plotlines in its roughly 100-minute runtime. The main story concerns Kotaro and the wandering samurai. It’s a timeless story of unlikely allies, each driven by their cruel fates, coming to accept one another as the plot thickens. Kotaro, a boy seemingly betrayed by everyone around him, has come to trust no one in his path. That is until he learns more about his samurai companion. Simply known as Nanashi or “No Name”, the samurai is a veteran of previous wars. Haunted by the events of his blood-filled past, Nanashi has tied his sword to its sheath, swearing to never draw his blade again.

In another sequence, Nanashi admits to Kotaro that he too is a foreigner of this land – dying his red hair to black as a way to find peace in a land often hostile to outsiders. At this point in the film, even the standoff-ish Kotaro warms up to Nanashi. Strangers with no real motivation to help one another, it’s their common dispositions that lead to a foundation of trust. In the cold, steel-swinging world of the samurai, the blooming relationship between Kotaro and Nanashi is the beating heart of this story.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the antagonists of this story – the Ming warriors dressed in red. We come to find out these immensely powerful warriors have enhanced their combat prowess with a mysterious drug that deems its user unaffected by physical pain. As their motivations become clearer, the scale is escalated to fantastical levels – the escaped Kotaro is to be used in a ritual to grant immortality to the Ming Emperor. The strongest of these warriors is Luo Lang, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner with an insatiable bloodlust. Midway through the film, Luo Lang has a sudden skirmish with Nanashi, a teaser confrontation to set up the stakes for the film’s climax.

And lastly, we have a subplot involving the Japanese shogunate and its corrupt political dealings. As seen in the first conflict between Nanashi and the other samurai, some underhanded deals have led to a partnership between a group of the Japanese military and the Chinese mercenaries. The main character of this subplot is Shogun Itadori, a hard-boiled samurai with ambitions to become revered across the land. As their involvement with the Ming warriors comes to light, Itadori is keen to the corrupt motivations of his Lord and takes matters into his own hands.

With the pieces lain out, we arrive at the movie’s climactic merger of all these threads. The finale lands with an explosive release – the only way for a samurai to truly overcome conflict is through his blade.

For a modern rendition of classic samurai cinema, Sword of the Stranger treads lightly, not veering too far from the tried-and-true formula. While the plot may seem too risk-averse, the movie maintained a goal of being distinctly Japanese, while also being easily digestible for a global audience. In that sense, the film plays to its strengths very well.

In pursuing such a broad direction, the film’s pacing sometimes came as a hindrance to fleshing out its characters. Director Andō was deliberate in sticking to an action-movie template, which means he was very strict about keeping the movie’s runtime to around 100 minutes. While the movie handled the main story of Kotaro and Nanashi very well, many of the other characters could have used more screen-time to create a deeper connection. Aside from Luo Lang, who’s motivations were fairly straight-forward, the rest of the Ming warriors were barely characterized.

The Japanese shogunate subplot suffered greatly as well. Itadori has his moments in the limelight, but characters like the Princess and Itadori’s right-hand man Juurouta had little more than a handful of lines throughout the entire film. While a runtime of 120 minutes might have made more room for characterization, it was clear that Nanashi and Kotaro were the focus of the film. Andō stated directly in the Production Report that some characters weren’t given the screen-time they deserved, something that he saw as an unfortunate sacrifice to create the vision he had for the movie. Regardless of the weaker subplots, the story of Kotaro and Nanashi was nearly flawless.

In Summary:
In a time where samurai and western films are revered as old-school landmarks, Sword of the Stranger wears its vintage influences on its sleeve. An ageless story forged by the best of the best in modern animation, this film earns its spot as the next classic to carry the torch for samurai cinema.

Features:
Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby TrueHD Japanese 5.1, English Subtitles

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

Released By: Funimation
Release Date:
April 9th, 2019
MSRP:
$14.99
Running Time:
103 minutes
Video Encoding:
1080p High Definition (HD Native)
Aspect Ratio:
16:9

Review Equipment:
LG 55UH6090 60” 4K UHD Smart LED TV, Xbox One X Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 4K, Sony STR-DH550 Receiver 5.1 Surround Sound System, Sony SS-MF600H 200w Tower speakers (x2), Sony SS-SR16 60w surround speakers (x2), RCA RT2300 70w center speaker, JBL SUB500 150w subwoofer

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