Sword of the Stranger takes place during the Ming dynasty, or more accurately, in the early to mid-1600s. This historical era is important for two prominent reasons relating to the story: it was considered the height of Chinese traditional medicine and when Japan found itself opening its borders to the West; at least in a very limited manner. The Dutch had entered into a trade agreement with the island nation bringing in an increased foreign presence and, as history as demonstrates again and again, with it a fear of the other.
Sword of the Stranger is as much an impressive demonstration in choreographed sword fights as it is an example of what it meant to be othered in that specific moment in time. The outcome is laid bare by our three primary characters: Kotaro is an orphaned boy who has fled a fate of slavery only to be “chosen” as a sacrifice on behalf of the Chinese emperor. Society has deemed him of little value outside of his supposed ability to lead to more power for the ruling figurehead (which of course, was never going to work). No Name (Nanashi) is a man with no past and likely of mixed heritage due to his naturally red hair. He hides his foreign-ness with dye in order to assimilate and live without issue. Finally, Luo-Lang is a tall blonde man likely with Dutch heritage who has decided to embrace the monster moniker imposed on him and live by his own values (which, in his case, is murdering for funsies.)
No Name’s attempt to assimilate into his surroundings means he lived without a personal identity, instead adopting whatever name his new master gave him instead. These names aren’t unlike how background characters describe Luo-Lang, things like “Red Ogre” or other titles that focused on his reputation with a blade. When Kotaro meets him he has abandoned his previous life as a samurai in hopes of creating a life in the sidelines of history. No Name is wracked with guilt about his former life, spending each night plagued by nightmares. He defied his own principles and assassinated the children of a deposed lord. It’s an act he now considers cowardly and it is that cowardice that haunts him.
Sword of the Stranger excels in its ability to fully realize its world. No Name’s actions were the direct result of the bloody and selfish politics of the time. Most of the tertiary characters are directly engaged in these exact politics and the result is continual bloodshed. The local Japanese lord hopes to betray the visiting Chinese by capturing Kotaro for himself and using him as a bargaining chip to push the terms of their exit from the country. His trusted general agrees but only with the intention of potentially overtaking the lord’s power for himself. He goes so far as staging a last hurrah coup and promises the princess’ hand to an eager soldier. Meanwhile the emperor’s adviser overseeing the longevity ritual also hopes that he might take the vitality for himself, stating simply that he’s of the aristocratic class and thus more deserving of living than foreigners like Luo-Lang.
The Japanese and Chinese forces’ alliance is a shallow one, but undoubtedly none of the characters would ever admit how similar they are in their selfishness for power. The pursuit of Kotaro is a testament to that. In the final act, the trio of boy, swordsman, and dog arrive at the local Buddhist temple where Kotaro had been assured he would find safety. This of course, doesn’t happen. Even the head monk of a religion that was supposed to be dedicated to honoring life kowtows to political pressure and agrees to hand a child over to die. No Name tries to save him by interrogating the monk who willingly handed the boy over. It’s here that No Name lectures him about his cowardice, but he’s really speaking about himself too and the central theme of the film as a whole: harming the weak, the defenseless, the “other,” out of an adherence to authority is inexcusable cowardice.
Anime News Network has published multiple reviews of this artistically gorgeous film over the years but I can’t overstate how fantastic it looks. Studio Bones brought on Masahiro Ando to helm the film as his directorial debut and he just knocked it out of the park. It’s no wonder he’s gone on to direct other fan-favorite works like Snow White with the Red Hair and O Maidens in Your Savage Season. He shows a real nuance for character animation, whether it’s the skulking of an embarrassed bandit or the smirk of a clever kid. (Kotaro is what we call ‘too big for his britches’ but he grows on you.) The background art can’t be ignored either as our protagonists walk the quiet beaches and travel on rocky terrain in the midst of autumn’s browns, yellows, and oranges. Every landscape shot is a painting.
The movie has long been shared for its high-impact sword-fighting action, but there’s plenty to appreciate in its quiet moments too. One of the first things I noticed is the horses are fully and competently animated which might seem like an odd thing to hone in on, but the animal is notoriously difficult to animate and industry veterans have commented that they’ve brought in particular animators for horse scenes since it’s not a common skill anymore. In the midst of the gore and violence, there’s attention to all the small details that shows how carefully each scene was crafted.
The Sword of the Stranger is an expertly executed film that brings plenty of meat to its action. I can’t recommend it highly enough, so pop some popcorn and settle in. You won’t want to miss it.