May 5, 2008
Washi (All reviews)
Sword of the Stranger is both unusual and refreshing in the way that it seemed to come out of nowhere and prove to be a remarkable anime. It seems, lately, that anything warranting a large budget and a lot of effort from a studio is either a sequel, an adaptation based on a successful manga or novel, or the next dull addition to a creatively stagnant franchise. None of these things, Sword of the Stranger is an unexpected big-budget film, which leapt instantly to the forefront of my favoured anime movies with exhilarating action sequences, captivating visuals, raw, evocative music and simple but affective characterisation. The look and sound of the show will instantly grab you, and perhaps even carries the film over the insubstantial plot backbone.

Some people have already ordained this film as a classic of sorts, but I’d have to disagree with that, simply because, although it hits hard and fast with splendour, and resonates beyond mere eye-candy, it doesn’t have a crucial element to elevate it into that tier. The characters do have sufficient weight for the audience to empathise with them, and they are also very likeable, but I felt that my appreciation of the characterisation is due largely to the voice talent behind them. So, credit goes to the cast and not necessarily to the way the film was written, which perhaps had more featured characters than it should have. If the film had focused more on the central to characters, I feel it could have been a classic, or at the very least, deliver an even more powerful finale. Perhaps replacing some of the action scenes with more intimate, personal character moments could have helped. But that minor gripe aside, the big problem with the film was the gaping hole where the plot should be.

A plot should always be more than just a vague framework to drive a movie from one scene another all the way to the climax. It should give credence to the movie, so that the film has a certain importance or reason. As it was, the plot, both simple and relatively silly, told me that the film existed for the sake of great action scenes. It’s a valid premise for entertainment, but it means there’s no lasting impact on the audience because it doesn’t really have anything much to convey. There’s no story here I haven’t seen before in this genre, and for much of the time the plot is a little too confusing.

It seems I’d almost forgotten the potential for animation to be so visually compelling. On a technical level, the anime medium has frequent success, but transcending animation quality, it’s a very rare experience for an anime to be truly visually compelling, creating not just mood and detail, but also scenes of beauty. This film achieves that in a way that totally blew me away, and I don’t say that very often (I’m not one of those apt to calling every Kyoto Animation production flawlessly animated). The climax of the film, a roaring skirmish amidst snow and fire, is breathtaking and elegiac. More than just an impressive, visceral action sequence, it is tinged with emotion and dramatic tension, which drives the film up to its climactic pinnacle.

As I say time and time again, the concept of a conclusion is highly important to me. When anything ends I expect more than a bit of excitement, or an explanatory wrap-up, I want the climax to resonate and to pay-off the themes of the series/movie. This film does achieve that, and even though it is devoid of really challenging and engaging themes, it still manages to be moving with likeable characters and endearing score music. In my mind, an anime that can end on a powerful high note, with stunning production and consistent pacing, is a winner. Even though the film falls prey to a number of action film clichés, and at times feels like a rehash of bits of the samurai film genre, and even though its plot is undemanding and almost silly, it is irresistibly engaging. Beyond anything else, this should definitely be approached as an action film, and with that approach, I can safely say it is a great accomplishment in its genre. It is fast-paced and features fierce, clever battle sequences, but more importantly, overshadowing the violence (which any action film can claim on), it is rendered with artistry and beauty, and effortlessly tugs at your heart. Frankly put, the only flaw in this film is the slight lack of depth to the characters, and the completely unremarkable plot. But if, like me, you’ve grown tired of the relative mediocrity of most anime television and want something to renew your love for the anime medium as an art form, this would be a good bet.