Sword of the Stranger (of 1) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Monday, June 08, 2009
Release Date: Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On the run from the Chinese, Kotaro finds himself a swordsman to help him stay alive.

What They Say
What qualifies a man as good or evil? Is it the amount of political power one attains, the quality of his swordsmanship or how well he serves his lord? With the fall of the second shogunate Japan has sunk into a state of disarray historians now call the Sengoku period, or the era of Warring States. Civil wars rage on throughout the many feudal holdings, where a man may raise his station in life simply by killing his superior.

Whilst wandering this war torn country side a nameless ronin stumbles upon a young boy by the name of Kotaro, his dog and the many Chinese assassins dispatched to claim the boy in some strange ritual for immortality. Seeing something of his own past within the child, the nameless swordsman chooses to act as his bodyguard but can he truly keep Kotaro from the clutches of the Ming and their bloodthirsty blonde mercenary, Luo-Lang?

The Review!
Audio:
Bandai Entertainment’s second Blu-ray release outshines their first when it comes to the audio as we get a solid bilingual presentation in lossless format. Both the English and Japanese mixes are done in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format and they’re quite beautiful throughout. There’s a lot of quiet moments along the way where the small sounds stand out all the more, but when it comes to the big action fight sequences, it’s even more impressive as the swords clang and the background sounds reverberate. The directionality is just as impressive as it moves about the forward soundstage and there’s plenty of activity in key scenes with the rear channels. Playback was flawless and problem free.

Video:
Originally in theaters in 2007, the transfer for this theatrical feature is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p and is encoded using the AVC codec. BONES really put a lot of effort into this and it shows on the screen here as the colors themselves are simply stunning. The reds of the Ming’s outfits in particular really stand out for me as they flap about in the wind or in movement. Characters are filled with lots of detail which is only rivaled by the beautiful backgrounds throughout. There’s a very rich feeling to this movie with its design and the high quality transfer really captures it. The smoothness of the animation, the depth of the detail and the overall solid looking presentation has this as a real stand out piece. When BONES creates something of this nature, it needs a transfer like this to show it off. I can’t imagine watching a standard definition version of it after seeing this.

Packaging:

Sword of the Stranger gets a standard Blu-ray case and design for its release but the artwork is a bit too murky and dark which plays out poorly in contrast to the case itself. I look forward to when people get past the need to use blue cases and start using others. The logo in the center is somewhat muted which helps it to blend into the artwork itself which doesn’t help either, though I do like the illustration artwork of the two principle men of the series as they’re set against the dark cloudy sky and a murky view of the sacrificial tower. The back cover keeps to the same dark tones but it works well for how easy it is to read the summary text, of which there is a fair amount. There are a number of shots from the show laid out all over it, though they’re like the front cover in that they’re somewhat dark in nature. The technical grid covers things solidly and the discs features and extras are listed to the left, though I can’t figure out why they’d use red for the extras. Toss in the production credits and you’ve got a good looking back cover overall, but one that is a bit of a hard sell. No show related inserts are included nor is there artwork on the reverse side.

Menus:
The top level menu design for the feature is decent though it does feel a bit rough around the edges as it tries to fit in with the style of the logo with its broad strokes. The main menu has full clips from the movie playing with a haze of red around the edges of it which looks decent as it cycles through, though it is fairly short. Along the bottom section we have a navigation strip that has No Name along the left with te logo and then the navigation itself alongside it on the right. Submenus pop up very quickly and it’s quite responsive which is great. Some of the text is a bit hard to read because of the font used, but moving around is easy enough and it’s quick with a solid flow to it. The pop-up menu uses the same design and is just as responsive during playback of the movie.

Extras:
The extras section has a decent selection of items to it, though it’s padded out a bit as it provides individual access to the five TV commercials and the three theatrical trailers. In addition to that we have the translated credits section and the original pilot film which runs for just a few minutes. The Cast Interview extra runs just under twenty minutes and has the standard format of having some of the cast members up on stage in a Japanese event where they’re walking around on stage – in costume! – and talking about their roles and the feature. The production report, or staff interview as its labeled in show, is a great documentary that runs about fifty minutes as it runs the entire range of the production and what was involved with it. It’s admittedly familiar to anyone who has watched these kinds of documentaries before, but the appeal comes in seeing the locations they work in and the particular staff members you may have an interest in. All the extras on this release are presented in standard definition.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When it comes to the BONES studio, they’ve certainly had more hits with me than misses for what I’ve seen. When they work on original productions they really wow me more than some of the adaptations they do, but they aren’t always striking gold. I’m still holding a grudge for Clockwork Fighters and I’m real ambivalent about Kurau and Ghost Slayers Ayashi. They do have some really impressive titles under their belt however and they’ve tried a number of different things. So when they set out to do a new original movie called Sword of the Stranger, I went in with a bit of caution based on past experiences. No need to raise expectations, even with many fans hailing it as a wonderful film.

Sword of the Stranger is a fairly predictable movie when it comes to its story, but it’s execution is what helps it rise up above it to some degree. Taking place in the feudal past, the film revolves around a young boy named Kotaro who has been kept hidden by some monks in various temples. His life is being sought by a group of Ming Chinese who have come to Japan to secure him for a sacrifice that they need for their religious/political goals, though some of them don’t think it’ll make a lick of difference no matter who it is or if it happens on the anointed day or some other day. The Ming are ruthless in their pursuit of the boy, either burning down temples or killing any who get in their way of capturing the boy. The main man after him though in service to the Ming is Luo-Lang, a brutal blonde haired warrior who deals out death in a cold and calculated way. Luo-Lang is the kind of warrior who doesn’t exactly take pleasure in what he does, he’s not cruelly violent, but he’s methodical and will do what it takes to win. Powerful, confident and very capable.

On the run after escaping from the Ming, Kotaro does his best to survive along with his faithful dog Tobimaru. The two form quite the bond with each other and they’ve survived well considering what Kotaro’s life has been like. Things change however when Kotaro finds a nameless ronin camping out in his abandoned home. Kotaro isn’t happy to find him there but circumstances force the two into a relationship where Kotaro buys No Name’s services with a valuable given to him by one of the monks. The soldiers who found him, of the lord of the region named Akaike, exert their authority over No Name and that causes plenty of blood to be shed. No Name doesn’t find himself drawn into the battle for Kotaro per se as he doesn’t want to get involved, but when the Ming warriors start getting involved he’s drawn deeper into all of it and finds himself facing quite the challenge.

Now under “service” from Kotaro, No Name helps him and his wounded Tobimaru to find the refuge he needs while fending off the Ming that come after them, particularly Luou-Lang. Sword of the Stranger does move into somewhat predictable territory at this point as the two men forge a relationship of sorts along the way where No Name cares for Kotaro more and Kotaro grows to respect him more, even though he knows he’s just using him to survive and to help Tobimaru. But that bond is one that feels real as it goes along, made all the better by the performance of Tomoya Nagase as No Name. There’s quite a lot said by the expressions and tone of voice as the two travel and get to know each other, understanding who they are and how they have to work together to survive. This is all balanced well against the threats that they face, mostly from Luo-Lang, and the sense of desperation and the need for survival is definitely palpable during many scenes.

Sword of the Stranger may be a fairly straightforward swordplay movie but it’s made all the more engaging because of the great choreography and beautiful animation. BONES skimps not at all here in either department as the fight sequences are stunning to watch, whether it’s the battle between No Name and Luo-Lang on the bridge or the opening butchery along the mountain pass. There’s a great beauty to the bloodshed that goes on here and they show it with the right kinds of quick cuts, giving you enough to really follow the action without losing the sense of how it progresses. All of this is tied to the beautiful animation itself, from the striking backgrounds that feel natural, with clouds moving often as well, to the character animation itself. There’s a richness to the colors here that’s stunning at times, notably with the red cloaks of Luo-Lang and his accomplices, so that when they do fight it’s engaging just to watch their clothes swirl about. Every yen of the production feels like it’s on the screen.

In Summary:
Sword of the Stranger delivered exactly what I was looking for from it; a high quality visual treat involved swordsmen. I didn’t go into the feature expecting an amazing story and the one I got was what I figured it would be just from the trailer and promotional material, but it’s done in such a slick and solidly entertaining package that it overcomes its predictability. Sword of the Stranger is just a whole lot of fun, engaging enough to keep you drawn to it and beautiful enough in its execution and design to make you smile throughout it. Add in the right amount of violence and it’s a manly mans movie that will also appeal to women. No Name is your ideal Japanese ronin hero and the story that surrounds him allows it to be proven. The story may not be memorable over time, but the experience itself certainly is, especially in this high definition presentation.

Features
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Making Of Featurette, Pilot Film, Commercials, Trailers

Review Equipment

Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: A-
Video Rating: A
Packaging Rating: B
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: A-
Age Rating: 13 and Up
Region: A - N. America, S. America, East Asia
Released By: Bandai Entertainment
MSRP: 39.98
Running time: 102
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 1080p
Disc Encoding: H.264/AVC
Series: Sword of the Stranger