What better way to start off a new year than to review a movie from one of my favourite studios, Studio BONES? Today I’m covering one of the team’s original movies, Sword of the Stranger, which has been brought to the UK thanks to Anime Limited. Will the film live up to my love for BONES projects?
The story is set in Japan during the Sengoku-era and follows a young boy, Kotaro, and his dog, Tobimaru, as they flee from their home. They are told to seek help from a monk named Master Zekkai at the Mangeku temple in Akaike Province. Along the way, the two meet a wandering swordsman who ends up working for Kotaro after the three are suddenly attacked. The swordsman is never named but Kotaro calls him “No Name”. No Name has made a vow to never draw his sword again but promises to protect Kotaro, who is wanted by the Chinese, until they reach the temple.
The Chinese have come to Japan chasing after Kotaro, who happens to be a prophesied child. The prophecy dictates that if the chosen one is killed at a precise moment each year their blood can be used to create an elixir of immortality. Until now the Japanese have let the Chinese go about their business peacefully, but as time goes on they become less tolerant – which leads to them also chasing after Kotaro in hopes of obtaining him first to spite the Chinese. When faced with powerful enemies will No Name be able to protect his new boss?
Overall I think that Sword of the Stranger is a fairly straightforward and predictable story, but not necessarily in a bad way. Once the core plot points of the movie begin to come together, it’s easy to figure out what’s going to happen and how things will end, but while this is usually a drawback, Sword of the Stranger makes up for it with some brilliant fight scenes and a likable cast.
Although Kotaro is never given an age he’s probably no older than 10. He has a fairly stubborn personality but the love and care he shows toward his Tobimaru make up for his rough outer shell. Meanwhile, No Name is quite aloof and doesn’t want to share his past (although we are treated to flashbacks throughout the movie exploring his background), but as he travels with Kotaro, we see that he has a soft, caring, if not fatherly, side to him. I’d talk about some of the other supporting characters but frankly many of them don’t last beyond the fight scenes they appear in, and those that do stick around for the majority of the movie are strong silent types, thus it’s hard to get a read on them.
Going into Sword of the Stranger I wasn’t expecting the animation to be mind-blowing, especially given that the movie is a decade old now, but Studio BONES have done some fantastic work here. The fight scenes in particular were well choreographed, easy to follow and, most importantly, fast and fluid to watch. Even away from the fight scenes the rest of the animation also impresses, especially the water colour backgrounds that are frequently used.
Where music is concerned, things aren’t quite as impressive, sadly. Handled by Naoki Sato (Eureka Seven, Blood-C, Assassination Classroom), I found that there wasn’t much variety in the tracks and one particular track was reused a lot. The overused material wasn’t always exactly the same in terms of the instruments because it starts out as a piano and violin piece and has trumpets added in later, but the structure and progression of it doesn’t change at all. As much as I liked the track in question, by the end of the film I was honestly sick of it and surprised that there wasn’t more music on offer for what otherwise seemed to be a fairly high budget affair.
The Japanese voice actors on the other hand did a splendid job, especially Yuri Chinen (he doesn’t have any other anime roles to reference) who plays Kotaro. Chinen puts a lot of enthusiasm and power into Kotaro’s personality and overall offers a very strong performance. No Name is voiced by Tomoya Nagase (who also has no other anime rolls to speak of) and is also extremely well played, his voice actor keeping a calm and even tone throughout the movie to match the gentle yet strong personality that No Name has.
Sword of the Stranger does have an English dub on offer and from what I watched the characters have been voiced well but no one performance really stands out. With the series set so firmly in Japan, and with both Japanese and Chinese speaking characters, I’d strongly suggest watching the original Japanese audio for a more immersive experience. However, if you’re someone who really wants to watch the dub, then it’s by no means terrible!
This release comes to the UK thanks to Anime Limited and is available as a Collector’s Edition, which includes the movie on both DVD and Blu-ray. Extras include a 40-page booklet and on-disc extras such as a “making of…” featurette, Japanese cast interviews, the Pilot short, and trailers.
Overall Sword of the Stranger is a bit of a mixed bag. The story, animation and cast are a strong point – if you can overlook the predictable path of the plot – but the music really lets things down. I think perhaps it’s best to say that this isn’t a must-watch for anyone but could still be a hidden gem for BONES.