ストレンヂア －無皇刃譚－ 「Mukou Hadan」
Running Time: 82 mins.
Release Date: September 29th, 2007
Director: Masahiro Ando
Writer: Fumihiko Takayama (Screenplay),
Starring: Tomoya Nagase (Nanashi), Yuri Chinen (Kotarou), Atsushi Ii (Bailuan), Kouichi Yamadera (Luolan Rarou), Junko Minagawa (Mu-You),
Animation Production: STUDIO BONES
Sword of the Stranger is an incredible action spectacle built around a good old fashioned chambara story brought to life with a flair and dedication to the details of the era and the characters in it through an incredible anime aesthetic that accentuates the physical world, a place of movement, passion, lies, loyalty, and action!
The story kicks off in Sengoku era Japan with intrigue and excitement as the first thing we see is a temple set ablaze and a boy named Kotaro (Yuri Chinen) and his loyal dog Tobimaru fleeing the scene. He is being pursued by the royal army of China’s Ming Dynasty. They have been hunting him for over a year and the net is closing as the boy and his dog run through the bleak wintry countryside and along the coast of the small state of Akaike. When Tobimaru is injured in an ambush, Kotaro reluctantly recruits a mysterious, nameless samurai as his bodyguard with the promise of payment. However, “No-name” (Tomoya Nagase) has a guilty past and his own inner demons to battle, all of which comes out in the open in an epic chase narrative.
This is the set up for an original action movie produced by the animation studio Bones, the legendary animators behind Cowboy Bebop, Darker than Black, and Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. More recently, they have worked on Un-Go, Space Dandy, and Blood Blockade Battlefront. All of that animation talent is poured into placing an appealing layer of life around a rather simple plot of a ronin defending the innocent against overwhelming odds and rediscovering his fighting spirit along the way.
The story is hardly a maze of complexity as it travels a well-worn linear path trod by many samurai films with daring rescues and lots of double-crossing but it is a comfortable journey with enough detail for the establishment of characters. Tobimaru acts as a vital bridge between Kotarou and nameless swordsman who gradually open up to each other in a series of vignettes resulting in a bond between the three which feels natural and earned and help cement themes of loyalty. Meanwhile, the Chinese characters are given enough distinguishing details to make them worthy enemies especially since they have distinctive weapons like the shuang fu which come into play later in the film and the local Japanese lead by Lord Akaike are given a layer of politicking to add some Sengoku drama that links with No-name’s past.
The journey of the trio is long and perilous as they are hunted and assaulted by enemies throughout their travels in Akaike province. The environment is initially defined by a muted colour-palette from the browns and olives of rain-swept rocky escarpments and beaches lashed by squally weather before settling into a beautiful blindingly white snowstorm buffeting a mountaintop fort at the end where arterial spray stands out more. It looks pretty bleak, like something from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and just like that film, it shows that life is tough and can be short. The biggest and most constant threat are the soldiers of Lord Akaike and the Ming forces led from the front by fearsome warriors Shogen Itadori and a mysterious blue-eyed blonde-haired European named Luo-Lang, both of whom cast long shadows across the landscape with their colourful attire and powerful personalities.
From that establishing shot with the Chinese entering through a pass shrouded in hazy mist (which is like something from the works of Chinese artist Wang Hui), the character designs and environmental designs have a distinct look that adds life to the film just before that life gets cut away in combat. Fights are ugly as people get hurt, lose limbs and have their flesh gouged out and have to resort to underhanded means to survive. It is at moments like these when you really notice details put into the fights.
The sound-design is meaty and satisfying, highlighting steel clashing with and sliding along steel, arrows zipping through the air before landing with a shrill splintering sound against wood and a meaty splurch when the target is flesh. Whips and daggers roar through the air and sound like jets, the impact of bodies hitting walls and pillars is thunderous and the art shows massive amounts of splintering wood, ricocheting rocks, and smoke billowing from the sites of collisions. Impact shots and reaction shots where people stagger from a hit and take in the damage to their bodies are highly effective and work to show the high stakes of the fights.
It all culminates in a battle that seems like a scene out of another Kurosawa movie, Ran. A raging fight in a fortress set on fire and falling to pieces as people battle through it. The final fight is incredibly brutal as distinctive characters get killed without ceremony. Social rank and confidence mean nothing compared to fighting ability and the film is so breathless in delivering its action the resulting corpses quickly stepped over. There’s no time to savour or revile a character’s untimely passing. We’re more concerned about the living and if they are strong enough to survive.
Fights are epic and the scale and scope of the human endeavour to survive impossible odds is shown in scenes thrown at the viewer through an energetic camera which sweeps and zooms across the battlefield to little pockets of combat between groups of people. This is where the superlative action direction and art direction go into overdrive as Luo-Lang and No-Name engage in what many consider to be one of the greatest anime fights in history and time is taken to indulge the audience in highly detailed animation that sells the movement of the characters.
The art breathes life and energy as character and environment design work together to give off sublime movement of the characters pushing themselves to the limits, the muscles of their legs and arms and torso stiffening and bulging as they spring and twist through the air, the bounce of a wooden walkway as it gives under the weight of two warriors locked in combat, the snow sprayed up by skidding warriors desperate to avoid a sweep of a sword, it all gives off the sense of urgency and desperation and boundless energy and even joy in being alive that some might feel during moments of peril. It combines with a musical score that, already a brilliant mixture of woodwind and string, becomes heavily percussive as every blow from a punch and every jab from a sword, and every fall from a great height becomes life and death.
The ending allows everything to finish cleanly. When the credits roll, audiences will see everything had a purpose. There is a lot of foreshadowing in the film to make everything fit together neatly as characters make observations and exchange items early in the film that come into play later. As a result, the lessons of loyalty and being true to personal principals are well-established and the ending is hugely satisfying and even liberating as a familiar beach scene is given a new life by a change in the weather. What drives the narrative forward are the fights where fantastic music, art and sound design are married together by perfect direction to spin this tale up to the most exciting speed possible.
The film’s simplicity gives centre stage to action scenes which are all very compelling. This is some of the best action cinema you will see. Watch it!