Sword of the Stranger is a 2007 film by BONES centering around a young boy and two warriors who are drawn to him due to various circumstances. The film is set in feudal Japan, with more than a few similarities to Seirei no Moribito in attempted plot and characterization. Both involve warriors with dark pasts who find themselves compelled to protect a young boy while being pursued by hostile factions. With that said, the resemblance to Moribito extends only to that superficial level, and Sword felt more, to me, like a story “going through the motions” than one that is believable, compelling, and memorable. One major difference is that Moribito kept its fight sequences sporadic, with the increasing tension providing weight and dramatic effect to their inevitable appearance. Sword, on the other hand, is not quite as picky when it comes to tossing out moments of violence and gore – they are essentially the defining element of the film. As I am not particularly a fan of violent anime, I avoided this film for a long time for this reason, finally caving in after reading many positive reviews. Sadly, while there are some good qualities to the film, overall, my mind hasn’t really been changed, and I would personally recommend it only to fans of heavily action-oriented films with a very basic, Hollywood approach to narrative.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Villainous factions attempt to acquire a certain young boy, Koutarou, in order to proceed with fulfilling an ancient prophecy that deems his sacrifice a requirement. At the beginning of the film, the boy meets up with the main protagonist of the story, a nameless former warrior, and they form something of a chummy relationship. When the boy is later tricked and kidnapped, the warrior goes after him and rescues him in the inevitable grand climax of blood and sword-clanging. In the midst of all this is a fairly uninteresting villain character, a Western assassin working for one of the pursuing factions who has no personality beyond adoring a good battle. As you may expect, the final battle consists of the nameless hero and this assassin going head to head, after the assassin purposefully ruins an earlier chance to defeat the hero on the grounds of wanting to battle a “worthy enemy”. Again, if you’re trying to get away from common tropes, this isn’t really the film for you.
There is a hint of something likable about the relationship between the hero and the young Koutarou, familiar as it may be, but it isn’t really given much time to grow organically (particularly as the film is happy to spend much time on stylish action scenes instead of the necessary development). It was enough to provide the minimum emotion required to make the final rescue scenes plausible and mildly rewarding, but never really managed to approach the depth of the similar relationship in Seirei no Moribito. For a film with a relatively thin plot, there is also a rather large amount of time spent following plot-incidental characters, though often it was merely to see them die in a gory battle scene afterwards. As you would expect in this genre, there’s a lot of random swordfighting which contributes nothing to the overall narrative or characterization. This isn’t really a criticism, as I suppose it would be a little silly to blame an action film for having a lot of action.
I would assume that a great deal of this anime’s popularity is at least partly due to the animation quality. There was clearly a high budget and a lot of talent which was poured into Sword, and the result is a very high quality visual coating that will impress many. Since I don’t find watching violence particularly appealing, I never really reaped the benefits of this high quality coating, but I can see why it gets the praises it does in that regard. The music is another matter entirely. The early portions of the film have a very minimalistic approach to background scoring, but the latter half of the film relies so heavily on one primary pentatonic melody (the film’s main theme, I suppose) that it borders on overuse – seeming to pop up every few minutes. However, the lush orchestral sound, like the visuals, once again gives a certain slick sense of presentation that probably boosted the impression of quality to most viewers.
There isn’t really anything terribly egregious about the film, but what I was missing from it was a sense of natural cohesion binding together all the various scenes. Sword felt more like a collection of ideas that sounded good – and would probably be effective in a better-written film – thrown together in a simple manner and dressed with a lot of flashy violence and sweeping music. For example, the idea of a warrior who refuses to draw his sword due to his past is a pretty compelling idea to me, since I have a liking for those sorts of pacifistic themes. Yet Sword treats this more like a technicality than any moral decision, as the main character freely kills others using other means for the sake of gory fight scenes, which sort of diminishes the impact of such an idea. It seems clear, though, that the focus of the film was meant to be the swordfighting rather than any emotional catharsis, so perhaps these complaints are redundant. I will, however, close with a recommendation for Seirei no Moribito, which I’ve mentioned numerous times already. The general story arcs have similarities, but Seirei no Moribito is more dedicated to its storytelling than it is to action for the sake of action, and ends up being far more memorable for it.
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