How long has it been since we’ve seen a really good animated samurai epic? Not a series, but a feature film? Apart from Ninja Scroll (which wasn’t to my taste), the animated Musashi (not yet seen by me) the middling Blade of the Phantom Master and a couple of other things that don’t even come immediately to mind, this is the first such production in ages. I had little doubt from the trailers and stills that it looked good, but it’s heartening to know the creators also gave us a story worth seeing through to the end. It’s not just a demo reel.
Stranger is set in a windy coastal stretch of feudal Japan, where peasants eke out hardscrabble existences by the seaside and wind-blown mountains. If you were a samurai, the best way to advance in the ranks as was to either a) kill as many of the other guys as possible or b) kill your own lord and declare yourself his replacement. It’s no country for old men—or young ones, for that matter. Small wonder the urchin Kotaro and his dog Tobimaru have turned to theft to survive, after the monastery where they were sheltered burned down. One day they find a visitor of sorts in the abandoned temple where they’ve been squatting: a handsome fellow, sporting both a sword—tied shut in its scabbard—and a rather diffident attitude. He’s not interested in robbing the kid; he just wants a roof over his head for a night so he isn’t sleeping in the rain.
Then swordsmen come to kill the boy, and suddenly the Stranger (or “No-Name”, as he’s called in the credits) is jolted into action. He’s a skilled fighter—skilled enough to kill several men without so much as drawing his sword. When Tobimaru is poisoned, Kotaro “hires” him to get the two of them to the next town and find a healer, and the two of them evolve something like grudging respect. The kid’s tenacious and smart, Stranger admits, but he’s reluctant to be more than just his guardian for the length of their trip. That and he has to ask himself: why are hordes of armed men coming after a boy who can’t even so much as pick up a sword?
The answer comes soon enough, in a parallel plotline involving a local samurai daimyo, Akaike, playing host to a whole cadre of mysterious warriors from Ming-dynasty China. The Chinese, along with their ancient warlord leader, Byakuran, have come to Japan to fulfill a prophecy that might well provide immortality, and the Japanese lords are obviously interested in getting a piece of that if they can. No one banks on one of the warriors—the towering, blond-haired and blue-eyed Luo-Lang, who’s never been bested in battle—realizing the prospect of dueling the Stranger is far more interesting than anything else his masters have to offer. Eternal life means little to men who live every day in the shadow of a spectacular death.
Also interesting is a parallel story involving Itadori, the head of Akaike’s army, whose ambitions parallel Luo-Lang’s. He turns out to be even more bloodthirsty than Byakuran expected, which they find out the hard way when Itadori uses a time-honored trick to deprive his enemies of a useful hostage. He kills him, and wastes no time rallying the dead man’s troops right to him. They are only too happy to follow a live man over a dead one. Touches like this—and the intelligent relationship between No-Name and Kotaru, too—round out the film and give it the full-bodied feeling of one of the golden-era samurai epics from the Fifties and Sixties.
I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit the swordfighting was the other crucial ingredient in such movies. I’ve noticed that as of late the high-end live-action samurai films have actually become more reserved and realistic in their battle scenes. It’s a reflection of growing awareness of the realism of such battles in general: those fights either ended very quickly or dragged on while one or the other party bled to death from any number of small wounds.
Animated productions, by contrast—like Stranger—are now all the more exuberant and unrestrained. There’s several elaborate and spectacular battle sequences scattered through the film, but the final third is all one giant mass combat—Itadori’s men versus Byakuran’s assassins, and Luo-Lang versus No-Name as well as everyone else in sight to boot. Every minute detail is placed with loving attention, even if they only last a split second—from the way the fighters slide across floorboards in the snow to the point-of-view shot we get when No-Name is temporarily blinded by a spray of someone else’s blood. Such brutal moments come often—as when a man’s forearm is almost hacked off but instead of falling away just hangs there, by the thinnest string of flesh, for several nerve-chewing moments.
Stranger comes to us courtesy of the animation house Bones, they of Fullmetal Alchemist, Darker than Black and the Cowboy Bebop feature film. This is the first original animated feature they’ve created that was not based on an existing property—a TV show, a manga. Based on what they came up with, I’d very much like to see them come back to this well again and drink even more deeply.