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The samurai drama has become a bit of a rarity in recent years, especially in anime. There have been creative “re-imaginings” of classics, such as Samurai 7 or Kaze no Yojimbo, as well as playful reinventions of the genre, like Samurai Champloo. However, it’s rare to see a serious epic on the scale of Lone Wolf & Cub or Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. In that regard, Sword of the Stranger is a welcome change of pace – it manages to satisfy the craving for a serious samurai drama with the flair of a modern, big-budget thriller.

Stranger follows Kotaro, a boy on the run from the Ming, and his dog Tobimaru. In their travels, the two run into an odd traveling samurai, known as “Namaeshi” (“No Name”). Namaeshi is a man who remembers little about his past. The little that Namaeshi does remember haunts him to the point where he refuses to draw his sword. Not knowing this at the outset, Kotaro hires the samurai as a bodyguard, to guard him until they reach safe territory.

The Ming forces seek to create the legendary Xian medicine, which promises eternal life to those who take it. To complete it, they need the boy or, more specifically, the blood in his veins. Fueled by opium and armed with the infinite riches of the Chinese throne, the Ming forces will stop at nothing to get what they want.

In the Ming forces, an odd foreigner named Luo Lang rides in the ranks. He is a hulking beast with white skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a 6-foot height. While he swears loyalty to the Ming, there is clearly something else that drives him forward.

Unlike most of the samurai anime on the market, Stranger’s plot actually makes sense. Events flow from point A to point B with little effort. There are no mystical monsters, and no magical monstrosities to give Namaeshi a hard time. Instead, it’s just a man, a boy, and a dog up against a band of opium-popping Chinese officers. More specifically, the Chinese are after the boy, who was prophesied to be the key ingredient to the mythical Xian medicine[1]. The Xian medicine grants eternal life to whoever takes it, and consists of the blood of a chosen individual (drawn at midnight on the night of a full moon), among other ingredients. At the same time, the Chinese are in cahoots with the local lordship, who is receiving weapons and large sums of money to help in the search for the boy.

The political intrigue and man-on-boy-on-dog bonding moments are frequently broken by some of the most exhilarating swordplay to grace an animated feature. The action sequences are a winning combination of fast-paced, brutal, and exceptionally choreographed animation. Everything plays like an intricate dance of parries, lunges, and slashes, as blood gushes and limbs fly. All the while, heart-pumping, taiko-powered rhythms provide an extra layer of tension. The fights prove to be beautiful and gruesome, breathless and simply fun to watch. The entire package is pulled together by slick animation, mixed with absolutely gorgeous use of color and scenery.

A stellar soundtrack by Naoki Sato accompanies the action onscreen. The soundtrack provides a sweeping score that mixes powerful, somber strings and lilting flutes with traditional instruments, such as taiko drums and bamboo flutes. The result is an odd combination of eastern and western influences that allow for a broad range of melodies.

At the same time, the cast is brought to life with stellar voice acting. On the Japanese side, Tomoya Nagase and Kouichi Yamadera steal the show as Namaeshi and Luo-Lang, respectively. Yamadera is particularly memorable for his stunning performance as he smoothly transitions from Japanese to perfect Mandarin and back. In the English dub, Michael Adamthwaite and Aidan Drummond are particularly apt for their roles as “No Name” and Kotaro, respectively. For the Mandarin conversations, the English dub uses the original Japanese recordings. The voices match up wonderfully, which makes the performance even more impressive. Both dub fans and Japanese purists will be satisfied with the outstanding quality of acting.

Fans of traditional samurai films, or aficionados of action dramas, should feel right at home with Sword of the Stranger. The film has enough to appeal to the die-hard fans, but at the same time has a broad appeal that can snare those who don’t normally enjoy films in the vein of Kurosawa or Okamoto. More than anything, Sword of the Stranger is simply impressive on every level. Sword of the Stranger is not merely a fantastic film; it’s a triumph of hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation in an age where Wall-E and Shrek are the faces of modern animated film.

[1] The naming of the medicine is based on He Xian Gu, one of the Eight Taoist Immortals. In mythology, He Xian Gu is associated with immortality, and is depicted as a woman carrying a large bamboo ladle.