There is probably a whole generation of anime fans in the UK who were brought up on series and movies like Ninja Scroll - Relatively simply tales at their core that stood out largely on account of their stylish animation and action sequences, giving many of us a taste for anime that we ended up craving more and more of as it promised to deliver breath-taking scenes that no live-action offering could even dreaming of approaching.
If you've found yourself wishing for a return to those arguably simpler times, then this could be your lucky day, as Sword of the Stranger hits the UK in DVD form, bringing us an original work from Bones and director Masahiro Ando that ticks off many of these boxes.
While Sword of Stranger introduces us to a number of factions and individuals, from the Chinese Ming Dynasty onwards, in truth there's no real need to concern yourself with the historical aspects or rivalries of those factions, because at its core this movie is a far simpler tale of friendship between two people - A young boy named Kotaro, and a nameless wandering samurai (the "stranger" of the film's title) who has made a vow never to draw his sword and use it to shed blood again. The two meet with Kotaro on the run from the aforementioned Chinese, while our nameless samurai ends up sleeping rough in the same disused temple. Naturally, this leads to a rather fractious beginning to this pair's relationship, with unease and distrust the order of the day; a state of affairs which is only intensified when Kotaro is attacked, seeing his dog Tobimaru injured in the ensuing scuffle which the man with no name can't help but become involved in.
In dire need of expert attention, Kotaro ends up hiring this samurai to take him both to cure Tobimaru and then onwards to his final destination, a monk's temple which should (in theory at least) see him returned to safety. From here, the film almost becomes something of a "buddy movie" for a while, as we watch Kotaro and "no-name" and see their relationship shift, grow and blossom before Kotaro's would-be captors finally catch up with him, leaving the nameless samurai faced with either leaving his new travelling companion to a terrible fate or breaking his long-standing vow and unsheathing his sword once more.
Given my opening paragraphs to this review, it probably goes without saying that the real highlights of Sword of the Stranger almost all come from its action set-pieces - Lighting-fast blurs of gore, movement, sound and light that quite frankly defy explanation via the written word. All I can really say here is that on several occasions these sequences made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end while simultaneously sending a shiver down their spine - These scenes are violent, they're brutal, yet they somehow still prove to be somehow utterly beautiful and as a result hugely compelling to watch. The action on show here is a true definition of the phrase "no-holds barred" - With one exception, there are no cinematographic tricks played here, which means no slow-motion or "replays" of spectacular moments; it all occurs in real-time and at ridiculous speed, so blink and you'll miss it. This choice of style for the action, matched with carefully chosen and crafted camera angles and shots, is almost a guaranteed shot of adrenaline into the body of anyone who sits down to watch the movie.
Despite this blood and guts approach, and for all of its violence, drug abuse and torture, the rest of Sword of the Stranger actually proves to be a surprisingly light-hearted affair - There are plenty of amusing moments and sharp sections of dialogue throughout, not least between the ever-snide Kotaro and the more laid-back "no-name", and this actually makes for a nice juxtaposition against the mainstay of the action and a developing plot which involves immortality and human sacrifices. If there's one downside to this it is perhaps that some of these scenes go on for a little too long, which gives us a point in the second half of the movie where you might be left dying to get back to some more action, but overall the balance works reasonably well in terms of both pacing and story-telling.
Overall though, it's probably fair to assume that most of the viewers of this film will be here for the action, and I can guarantee 100% that if that's what you're looking for from a modern anime feature film then Sword of the Stranger absolutely does not disappoint - I don't think I've ever seen fight sequences pulled off in anime with such aplomb with the exception of Ando's other directorial work subsequent to this, CANAAN. Thankfully, scratch beneath this action-oriented surface and you'll actually find an entertaining and watchable story to go with it; a good old-fashioned journey in terms of both distance and relationship that leaves you rooting for the protagonists by the final climatic battle of the film, a sure sign that the story-telling process is working exactly as it intends to.
If you like action-oriented anime, and to be honest if you like watching top-notch animation full stop, then Sword of the Stranger is well, well worth watching and enjoying. My only personal query over this release would be whether it's better to wait for it to hit Blu-Ray in the UK (which it will be as soon as the release is ready) - If you have all the required abilities to play back such High Definition media, then you'll probably want to hold fire and enjoy it in all its glory; otherwise, this is one DVD that deserves to be part of your collection, if only as an example of what the art of traditional Japanese animation looks like when it's pushed to the absolute limit.