The first feature film from director Masahiro Ando, Sword of the Stranger, gets a lot of things right. Unfortunately, originality isn’t one of those things, but this is still a beautifully rendered animated film with a lot going for it.
The story is fairly simple. A Japanese boy named Kotaro is fleeing a group of Chinese warriors in Sengoku period Japan. He runs into a ronin with no name who ends up in the boy’s employ. The characters are all interesting, but the boy is a little bit difficult to like. He’s abrasive and belligerent. Those might be bizarre choices for a protagonist, but it does make him more interesting than your standard waif. His personality is tempered by that of his dog, Tobimaru, who absolutely steals the show.
There are bad guys and sword fights and a plot to make the Chinese emperor immortal, but the crux of the tale is the relationship between Kotaro and No Name. As such, it’s an interesting story, but one that depends on subtlety to relay the performances. Unfortunately, subtlety isn’t animation’s strong suit. I imagine that the exact same script rendered in live action with excellent actors would carry more weight. The Japanese voice actors here do a good job (I didn’t listen to the English voice track) and the animation is top-notch Ghibli-quality stuff, but at the end of the day the faces either work or they don’t. Here, they don’t relay quite enough information to give the story the emotional weight it deserves. So how to make up for that? The music.
Naoki Sato’s score is simply beautiful. He makes wonderful choices regarding the underlying emotions of each scene and his melodies are hummable and moving. I can think of no better choice for this project. I liked the music so much that I’m considering purchasing the score. When’s the last time you felt that way about an anime? So many Japanese composers mimic western scores, but Sato creates something that’s both original and faithful to western film traditions. It’s a real treat.
As I mentioned before, the cel-style animation is gorgeous. I had forgotten how much I liked painted backgrounds since I see them so rarely these days. While there are some CGI elements, this is mostly hand-crafted animation and it shows. I know there are people who think that animation doesn’t really benefit from the high-def treatment, but I couldn’t disagree more. I bought the Blu Ray of this feature and the visuals scream in HD!
The animators at work here are true artists and it really shows most clearly during the fight sequences. Most anime sword fights are more style than substance, but the fights here are “shot” and cut just like the best live action features. They are exciting and stressful to watch when our heroes are losing.
All in all, this is a very good animated feature. So good, in fact, that my disappointment stems from the fact that I hold it up to the best live action features like the Lord of the Rings. That’s where it falls a little short, but not for lack of trying. It’s just that animated performances can never quite contain all the subtleties of a live actor’s performance, not even when a real actor’s performance is motion captured. Still, it’s a testament to the beauty of this film that I even consider the performances of its animated characters. Recommended.