When it comes to anime studios, studio Bones in my mind is one of the most consistent in regards to quality. Their catalog is filled to the brim with standout work, from the brilliant Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood to My Hero Academia, you can peruse their catalog and find it difficult to find anything that was less than average. But instead of looking at one of their anime series I am going to revisit Sword of the Stranger, an original film produced by Bones in 2007.
The narrative is as follows, a young boy named Kotaro is on the run by mysterious group of Ming Swordsman who look to sacrifice him in order to gain immortality for the Chinese emperor. This group, headed by Bai-Luan, uses some sort of “super” elixir, possibly opium as it’s never really explained, to numb themselves to pain. Because throughout the film they take some gruesome injuries and literally just walk it off as if getting your hand cut off or arm broken is a normal occurrence. Working with the Ming is a European swordsman named Luo-Long whose only real motive is to find a worthy opponent. He has no desire in immortality and in typical action movie form is the complete opposite of the protagonist.
Along the way Kotaro befriends a Ronin who has no name and thus afterwards is known simply as “No Name” or Nanashi in the original dub. He is an utter bad-ass who refuses to draw his sword due to his sordid past. This does not stop him however, from dispatching his adversaries with relative ease. He, unlike Luo-Long, wants no part of fighting, only doing if there are no other options. Kotaro ends up getting captured around midway by the Ming as he is betrayed by the monk who swore to protect him and Nanashi thus begins his pursuit through the Japanese prefecture of Aikage. It turns out that prefectural governor is a greedy asshat and has been housing the Ming Swordsman, unaware of their true intentions. He does end following up on his suspicions and captures one of the Ming warriors and discovers their true goal of sacrificing a child. The governor, obviously upset at this revelation tries to fight the Ming, but eventually gets kidnapped and then ironically killed by his chief vassal (go figure), which then leads to the fantastic final confrontation which involves the Ming, the Aikage soldiers, and Nanashi.
While the plot is fairly by the numbers, even though there are a few twists in regards to character motivations and deaths, the real draw of Sword of the Stranger is it masterful animation. Every action scene is captivating, from the opening fight scene all the way to the final duel between Luo-Long and Nanashi. There is a sense of weight when swords clash or when a character is being cut down, it’s quite frankly…captivating. Even the quieter moments in the film, which generally occur before or after a conflict, are beautifully animated and really shows the attention to detail the studio Bones is known for. This was a film that was in the running to be nominated for an Academy Award and it shows. By no means is it perfect as you’ve seen this type of story before, but it is worth revisting multiple times.
Sword of the Stranger is a fantastic film and great for any fan of action cinema, regardless if you’re into anime or not. The plot is formulaic but the action is anything but, well worth revisiting.