Stranger is first and foremost an action movie. Because the meat and potatoes don’t lie primarily with the plot, its straightforward and very typical “unlikely hero” premise is forgivable. A wandering swordsman reluctantly agrees to protect a child from an elite Chinese expedition. The local feudal lord joins the pursuit, stacking the odds further against the protagonists.
By no means am I implying that the story is bland. The web of tangled motives creates conflicts between the feudal government and the Chinese, and also internal conflicts within each group. There’s plenty of plot movement here to justify a feature length film even though the simple premise of “samurai protects child” remains throughout. The overall simplicity is, in fact, a benefit to this historical martial arts epic; the story flows at a brisk pace, but remains cohesive and effortless to follow. This straightforward approach to the plot lends itself to the primal, action oriented appeal of this film.
In the bread and butter aspects of the visuals, Stranger isn’t especially impressive for a movie. Though the character animations show consistent attention to details of weight and balance, the ugly CG and the lack of textural details in the background make the more mundane scenes easily mistaken for a half decent TV series.
As soon as the first action scene shows up-and fret not, for this occurs during the opening credits, the merits in the visuals suddenly become abundantly clear. Aesthetically, these scenes are impressive. The characters are spritely and acrobatic, but grounded with a touch of realism in their body mechanics. Even in the fastest exchanges, the frames of animation are sufficient to keep individual moves distinguishable.
Regarding everything that puts the drama into gratifying action scenes, Stranger delivers in spades. The action choreography moves at lightning speed with elaborate exchanges passing within the blink of an eye, but apart from a few of the villains’ excessively acrobatic flourishes, the characters’ techniques still manage to stay within their weapons and personalities. The main character, for instance, is an unambitious, get the job done kind of guy, which comes through in the action scenes with his simple, fundamentally sound usage of his two handed sword. The fact that he actually cuts and thrusts with two hands may seem like a trifle detail, but it contributes to the continuity of his character. Considering the characters’ personalities in the choreography make it altogether more believable, more engrossing, than if it had been treated merely as eye candy.
This film puts the “acting” of the characters to good, tension building use as well. With their body language and facial expressions, most of the characters show fear as they barely manage to thwart an attack and an eruption of killer intent as they deal a finishing blow. A few of the villains are emotionally unphased by pain, which, by design or not (in this case, it is by the design of the plot), saps a little of the drama out of these scenes. Still, a good majority of the cast members, including the main character, deliver convincing performances that make these fight scenes more like a tooth and nail brawl, and less like a ballet masquerading as violence.
The music primarily consists of the powerful orchestral pieces typical of epics. The ever present leather drum beats and flute solos give the soundtrack a distinct Asian flavor appropriate for the setting. The full onslaught of an orchestra of strings or a blaring leather drum beat are played against the action scenes, while unaccompanied flute solos match well with the more tender segments. Despite the range of emotions that the different tracks embody, the Asian motif keeps the soundtrack cohesive, as if each track was part of a single, larger piece of music.
My one glaring issue is the “dub” put over the Chinese expedition. It’s shown many times in the movie that these characters don’t speak Japanese with any semblance of fluency. Most of the time, their lines will be dubbed in Japanese, leaving the viewer to imagine that in reality, the language they are speaking is Chinese. On the other hand, at seemingly random points, these characters will actually speak Chinese to each other. How the director decided when Chinese was appropriate as opposed to the dub is beyond me. One character may deliver a Chinese line, and the very next line he utters in the same scene will be dubbed. It’s also a little jarring when half of the expedition speaks perfect Chinese while the other half speak it so poorly that had the context not been there, I’d have sooner guessed it to be broken German than broken Chinese.
The characters in Stranger have few nuances. Simply describing the two main characters as lone wolves, one a petulant child, the other a reluctant, carefree ronin, covers most of the complexities you will see in their personalities. From this description you could probably also guess that the two characters eventually bond, and bring out the virtues within one another. The child learns to be more appreciative and apologetic, while the ronin finds meaning in self sacrifice. The rest of the cast is equally simple, only the exact opposite of the two protagonists. They’re not malice embodied ala traditional Disney villains, but they do demonstrate the darker side of humanity: cowardice, ambition, blood thirst, greed, and several other character flaws. The heroism and purity of the protagonists are highlighted nicely next to the backdrop of immorality in the rest of the cast.
The emphasis of these characters is the virtuous courage of our ronin hero; going against the world if need be to save an innocent child. The clash of heroic self sacrifice and greed inspired villainy gives the cast a bedtime story charm that is unhindered by simple and clear characterizations. The two main characters also avoid my two greatest peeves with one dimensional leads; their defining quirks aren’t obnoxiously exaggerated, and they prefer emotional understatement over melodrama. Instead of beating you over the head screaming “this is my unique personality!” or sulking and bawling at their own misfortunes, the two main characters retain a believable mildness that separates them from the droves of corny single-layer characters.
You can, and ought to, leave your higher thought processes behind while watching Stranger. Its story piques our deepest, most primal sense of morality, and the action fuels our savage desire to watch violence unfold. If at any time you are too lazy to follow convoluted plots, too irritable to stomach pretentious lectures on philosophy, but you want to find release in heart pounding action sequences, then there is no title more elegant than Stranger that will satiate such a craving.