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Blu-ray Review: Sword of the Stranger

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2007's Sword of the Stranger, from Bones, sees first time director Masahiro Andô helm an action-packed sword and samurai epic. You can't go wrong watching Sword of the Stranger, especially on Blu-ray, as you will struggle to find a better choreographed and executed action film, anime or otherwise.

The story for this 102-minute film is interesting enough. It sees the mysterious foreigner No-Name, a skilled swordsman, hired by the young Kotaru and his dog to ensure their safe passage to a Buddhist temple. It is quickly evident that No-Name’s considerable skills will be necessary as the boy is being pursued by representatives of the Ming Dynasty who have come to Japan to build a mysterious monument for their Emperor.

The fusing of elements from China and Japan is quite interesting due to the history of the two nations and the focus it puts on "other" and foreignness within the story. The Japanese don’t trust the Chinese, the Chinese feel superior to the Japanese, while Westerners are regarded as freaks or demons due to their drastically different appearance. No-Name even colors his hair to avoid the prejudice it brings. It’s also interesting, and kind of amusing, that in a film which highlights the skill of the samurai and Chinese martial arts, two Westerners are the most skillful fighters in the two fields.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t really advance past interesting. I wouldn’t really call it deep or engaging. It seems to throw elements and explanations at you, like crazy Chinese science/magic mixed with ancient prophecies, which are enough to make you go "oh okay, that’s why that happened" but not fully immerse you in the story and the journey that’s taking place.

The characterization is okay but at times it is predictable. You know from the word go No-Name is going to be a flawed hero who sees helping this kid as a way to help himself while the Ming elite Luo-Lang (another Westerner) is the type of guy looking for the next meaningful fight and that’s it. Some of his actions actually reminded me of Dragonball Z’s Vegeta. The thing is they don't delve all that deeply into their motivations here (apart from one flashback scene) and I would have been especially interested in finding out a bit more about Luo-Lang.

Where the film excels is in its action, fight choreography, and animation. There are a lot of great action animes but Sword of the Stranger really stands out due to its contrasting fighting styles. The Chinese contingent each specializes in a certain weapon, which adds a huge amount of variety and unpredictability to the combat when they face off against samurai warriors. The fights also seem to find the right balance of intensity and pacing for their moment in the film. For instance the first fight, between No-Name and one of the Ming warriors, is brilliant. It’s probably the most important fight in the film because it needs to build up the Ming as a threat but also showcase No-Name’s potential to be the hero. What this results in is a seesawing battle that really gets the heart pumping and expectation building. After that each fight just seems to get better and better as No-Name slowly starts to show his true ability. All the action zips along at a cracking pace, a credit to the animation, and you often find yourself unable to predict what may happen next in the battles. The action is also gory and blood filled. Soldiers are often maimed and decapitated and spend their last moments alive as human blood fountains, spraying out huge arcs. Seriously, there is enough blood here to please Quentin Tarantino.

As I stated before the animation is quite excellent, especially in High Definition. The film is presented in 16:9 widescreen and this allows you to fully appreciate the gorgeous and beautifully crafted backgrounds. The blending of colors and the composition give the backgrounds an undeniably artistic quality. Character designs are well done and throughout the film the color is crisp and clear with the occasional red or blue really standing out. The film also has a sharpness of image which really highlights the difference in the rich and poor as the poor look drab and depressed in grays, browns, and greens while the rich adorn themselves in softer yellows, reds, and blues. There's also a great deal of detail in the faces of the characters. They showed real emotion with little accents, twitches or flickers showcasing shock, disbelief or horror quite well. At times the horses looked a little odd but that’s generally because I don’t think horses transfer over well to any realistic looking animation. There’s something about the proportions and the height which don’t seem right, although Sword of the Stranger contains some of the better looking horses I've seen.

Sword of the Stranger also combines traditional hand-drawn 2D animation with some 3D CGI animation. On the whole the integration is seamless as the CGI is only loosely used to show off backgrounds when things, like an arrow, are moving at really high speeds. You’ll find yourself, at first; thinking "is that CGI?" as it can be quite hard to tell. The only blatantly obvious, and badly integrated scene, is a first person scene where a horseman is riding through a tricky path in the woods.

While the animation and fight scenes are great, the whole film is anchored by a brilliant soundtrack that is superb in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The best way to describe it is to say that the sound really pops and leaps out at you. In all the fights you can really hear bones breaking, innards tearing, blood spilling, and wood splintering. There are several scenes where someone is forced into a wall and the action is punctuated by a loud, satisfying CRACK. The soundtrack also goes to great lengths to add real atmosphere to the fights. This is done through a great musical score and good sound effects. The sound of swords cutting through the air, bashing into other swords, creating that real metal-on-metal sound, beautifully captures the ferocity with which the fights are being fought while the movement of feet, clink of armor, and the adjusting of grips all help to build the atmosphere. It all culminates in a really tense feel, especially in the superb climactic fight.

I watched the film in English and the voice acting is quite good. Experienced voice actors like Michael Adamthwaite (Yzak Joule, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny), Scott McNeill (Picollo, Dragonball Z), and Hiro Kanagawa voice the English version and do a really good job. Aidan Drummond voices the boy, Kotaru, and he sits on the borderline between overly annoying child you wish would die already and child you hope makes it to safety because he’s a child. Also, I loved the fact that when the Chinese speak around the Japanese you can’t understand it. The Chinese speak in Mandarin and it aids that sense of tension and otherness while just sounding freaking cool.

The Blu-ray comes with a nice set of DVD extras that clock in at 77 minutes. This includes a short pilot film for the feature, trailers, and a cast interview. The pilot is an interesting inclusion and is actually worth a watch as it provides some more cool action and some interesting and thoughtful dialogue and editing. One thing though, the cover shows the dog holding a spear in its mouth. Sadly he doesn’t spear anyone although he does go for the jugular on several occasions.

On the whole, Sword of the Stranger is a great feature that any collector should have while its stylish, high energy fight scenes and beautiful animation will appeal to non-fans as well.

*Note: Copy reviewed was the Madman Entertainment copy which is different from the copy available on Amazon.

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