“Sword of the Stranger” – Chris Luedtke

I’ve grown weary of films carrying the dreaded “action” stamp. The genre, whether animated or flesh-and-blood, tends to come with a voice that whispers, “Don’t worry! We’ll get by on destroying stuff!” What should get my pulse pounding or adrenaline flowing usually results in a yawn that makes mountains crumble. But Sword of the Stranger doesn’t rely on its ability to devastate so much as its style, and for its efforts, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

Kotaro (voice of Yuki Chinen, whose character looks like a bastardized Lain from Serial Experiments: Lain) is on the run from the Chinese. He doesn’t know why, but the emperor wants him, and his little dog Tobimaru too. While seeking refuge in an abandoned temple, he meets a man with no name (voiced by Tomoya Nagase) only referred to as Nanashi (English for “no name”). A vicious attack leaves Tobimaru wounded and Kotaro offering his new acquaintance a reward for saving the pooch and serving as his bodyguard. Nanashi agrees, but after meeting Lou-Lang (Koichi Yamadera), a warrior in search of an equal, he soon realizes he’s on an adventure he may not make it through.

If you’re versed in the many ways of anime, you might notice that Sword of the Stranger has a different approach than most of its associates nowadays. With heavy series hitter Bleach making it a bloody ritual to perform one-up ultimate attacks and still only show motionless sword swings, we see this one embrace a more fluid form of combat. The first thing I noticed upon Lou-Lang’s introduction is that each character has their own style. They actually move whilst fighting, as opposed to cutting from character stills to their opponents striking defeated poses. Sword of the Stranger steps up a notch not only through carefully choreographed swordplay but also by making the cronies a little hard to take down. If anything about this film grabs you, it’ll be the action, which is well worth the price of admission.

However, Sword of the Stranger does short us on an interesting story. There’s a general “we’re good, they’re bad, we kill bad” mentality here, a machine the characters oil well enough so that we’re never really surprised with each new plot twist. Characters butt heads constantly, and though we almost get the feel that everyone has their own agenda, nothing daring comes to light. Still, these setbacks don’t bog down the overall film. Nanashi and Kotaro’s perpetual bickering strangely brought to mind Night of the Living Dead and its characters’ inability to get the hell along (although, sadly, there’s no raising of the dead here).

Oftentimes, Sword of the Stranger recalls the ruthless, raw, and unforgiving styles of Ninja Scroll and Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal. The animation is just as striking, although the story and character connections aren’t as deep, especially compared to the latter. But the character models do look like they were swiped from other impressionable anime, with Nanashi resembling Manji from Blade of the Immortal and Kotaro, again, looking a lot like Lain. Lou-Lang is your basic cocky blonde westerner stereotype, and the oldsters are your typical ragged bunch.

There isn’t much in terms of original character design or plot, but know that Sword of the Stranger is still a cut above most animated samurai flicks. It’s a badass film from start to finish, with a merciless style that makes it a treat to watch. A bloody good time awaits those who slide this into their players.

Rating: ★★★½

-Chris Luedtke

Check out the Sword of the Stranger trailer here.

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