Bones have done some interesting series in their time, but striking originality isn’t their forte. With Sword of the Stranger, then, perhaps we should say that they are playing to their strengths. A nameless ronin (far from the first ‘Nanashi’/No-Name) with some incredible skill but no loyalty but to money (a la Yojimbo), with a mysterious past that means he uses a sword that does not kill (a la Kenshin) gets mixed up with protecting a mysterious young boy hunted by an emperor (a la Seirei no Moribito) and finds his nemesis in a strong, blonde-haired fighter from the West (a la Bakumatsu).
What ensues is of course the child getting captured and the ronin going to the rescue. The plotting is a little bit weak – only because a rather uninteresting third faction are on the scene first can the ronin be in the right place at the right time, and their presence seems only to fill in gaps – plus the characters are straight from stock. There’s not a lot to say story-wise: it’s typical jidaigeki, and ticks those boxes.
But its strength is its style, and no-one’s going to be in the anime fandom long if they don’t like recurring ideas. The action sequences are stunning, dynamic and well-planned, and while there are of course character shields and overblown flips, there are also anticlimactic deaths and the reinforcement of the fact that you can be one of the strongest fighters on a battlefield and still die in an instant.
The gore is perhaps gratuitous; yes, war is bloody, but this isn’t gore for realism, it’s gore for gratification of teenaged testosterone fantasies. The kid’s design is perhaps a little stumpy, and it’s unclear whether he’s 5 or 9. The spoken Mandarin raised titters from the Chinese contingent at the screening, but anime always has poorly-spoken foreign languages. This is a simple and unsophisticated movie, but for an exercise in style, great animation, nice art and a solid atmosphere, it is a good diversion.
(originally written 24.2.08)