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Sword of the Stranger (a J!-ENT Anime Blu-ray Disc Review)

June 11, 2009 by  



“‘Sword of the Stranger’ is probably the best anime to showcase nearly realistic sword fighting and action sequences.  Detailed art, well-planned action sequences, awesome musical score and great voice acting on both the Japanese and English tracks.  ‘Sword of the Stranger’ is a magnificent title worth having in your Blu-ray collection!  Highly recommended!”

Image courtesy of BONES/STRANGERS 2007.  All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Sword of the Stranger (Mukoh Hadan)

DURATION: 102 minutes

BLU-RAY INFORMATION: 1080P High Definition (1:78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen), English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Subtitles: English

COMPANY: Bandai Entertainment

Release Date: June 16, 2009

Directed by Masahiro Ando

Screenplay by Fumihiko Takayama

Music by Naoki Sato

Character Design by Tsunenori Saito

Art Director: Atsushi Morikawa

Animation Director: Yoshiyuki Ito

Art Design: Shiho Takeuchi

Director of Photography: Yohei Miyahara

Producer: Masahiko Minami

Animation Production by BONES

CAST:

Tomoya Nagase/Michael Adamthwaite as the voice of Nanashi (No Name)

Yuri Chinen/Aidan Drummond as the voice of Kotarou

Kouchi Yamadera as the voice of Rasetsu

Naoto Takenaka/Brian Dobson as the voice of Shouan

Akio Ohtsuka as the voice of Shougen Itadori

Atsuhi Ii as the voice of Byakuran

Hirofumi Nojima as the voice of Fuugo

Jun Hazumi as the voice of Zekkai

Kouhei Fukuhara as the voice of Suishin

Maaya Sakamoto as the voice of Hagihime

Mamoru Miyano as the voice of Jyuurouta Inui

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?

In 2007, well-known anime director Masahiro Ando ( “Jin-Roh”, “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie”, “Ghost in the Shell”, “Fullmetal Alchemist”, “Metropolis”) directed the animated film “Stranger~Mukoh Hadan” aka “Sword of the Stranger” received positive reviews from American viewers when screened in Los Angeles and New York in the Summer of 2008. The film would go on to have a release in theaters in America in Feb. 2009.

The film known for its dramatic and action-packed sword fighting battles, beautiful painted backgrounds, and involving storyline with a screenplay by Fumihiko Takayama (“Patlabor WXIII”, “Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket”), character designs by Tsunenori Saito (known for his works with “Blood: The Last Vampire”, “Escaflowne: The Movie”, “Eureka Seven: The Movie” and “RahXephon: Pluralitas Concentio”) and music by Naoki Sato (“Eureka Seven”, “Mouse”, “X”, and “H2: Kimi to Ita Hibi”).

The original 3+ minute pilot for “Sword of the Stranger” was actually screened back in 2003 for the Tokyo Anime Festival before being released theatrically in Japan in 2007.   The film caught a lot of buzz for the short clip but since the original pilot, a lot of work has went into the creation of this animated film.

The goal of the director and the BONES production crew, to create an action-based animated film that utilized realistic movements and sword fighting. And the final result is quite phenomenal.

“Sword of the Stranger” revolves around a young boy named Kotarou who along with his dog Tobimaru is told by his guardian to run away from his home (which looks like it has been torched).   Not much is known about this child but we do know that there are a group of Chinese assassins who are working with the Japanese to find this boy.

Meanwhile, as the boy and his dog try to survive and steal food, while staying at an abandoned temple to feast on the food they have stolen, both find a samurai sleeping in the temple.  Kotarou acts rude towards the man but Tobimaru seems to like him and even shares his fish with him.

While they rest in the temple, two Japanese samurai and a Chinese assassin try to take the Kotarou but the lone samurai (who we will call “Nanashi” which means “No Name”) fights and kills the men.  But during the fight, Tobimaru who risked his life trying to save Nanashi is poisoned.  Kotarou hires Nanashi to take him to a village and bring Tobimaru to a doctor.

Meanwhile, a group of Japanese samurai and another Chinese assassin arrive to the temple and discover the dead bodies. The Japanese are suspicious of the Chinese and suddenly this alliance leads to betrayal.

The Japanese take the Chinese assassin and torture him in order to get answers of why they are after this boy.

Meanwhile, while Kotarou, Tobimaru and Nanashi rest at the village after the dog had receive treatment for the poison, while Nanashi had ventured in the city, on his way back to the place he was staying, he gets into an encounter with a blonde, blue eyed assasin who is wearing the same clothing as the Chinese assassin.  The battle is a draw but it makes Nanashi wonder why these men are after Kotarou.

As Nanashi tries to wonder what is so special about this boy, we learn from the Chinese and the Japanese that Kotarou is being targeted for his blood.  His blood will help create a Xian medicine that will grant the person who drinks it immortality.  He must be found at a certain time and the blood must be taken in at a certain time, thus timing is crucial for them.

As this goes on behind-the-scenes, the bond between Nanashi and Kotarou but unknown to both of them, Kotarou is wanted and he needs to be sacrificed.

VIDEO AND AUDIO:

“Sword of the Stranger” is an animation that took several years to make and one of the primary things that the animators wanted to accomplish is a sense of realism.

Sure, a live action film could achieve certain things but Director Masahiro Ando and staff wanted to achieve realism through animation. Everything from lush background that features details of Japan during that period of time, full of trees and land is beautifully painted. Seasons are captured as well during the backgrounds.

But most importantly, the fighting sequences are what they wanted to make sure they can capture. Body movements during sword fighting and fight sequences were quite impressive and really well-done.

And this is where featuring an animation in 1080p High Definition (the film is featured with an aspect ratio of 1:78:1 anamorphic widescreen) does well. Making sure the fighting looks fluid and that the details of the animation are strong.

Because the time is taking place during overcast and nearing the fall to Winter season, there is a bit of overcast and thus there is a shade of darkness at times that don’t showcase a high amount of vibrant colors. But capturing the rainy and winter season is captured well in the animation and I was very impressed by the animation action sequences and background detail of temples, the dirt, the trees and overall surroundings.

As for audio, “Sword of the Stranger” is presented in both Japanese and English Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Both tracks are well-acted and dialogue is clear on both tracks, well understood and well-acted. For the Japanese side, I was very impressed by pop star Tomoya Nagase’s (of the band TOKIO) first seiyuu role. Nagase is known for his live action films and his Japanese dramas but it was an interesting casting choice that was right on.

In fact, I think it was quite beneficial for BONES in hiring a Johnny’s Jimusho pop idol because as evident in the press conference for this animated film, his female fans definitely turned out for the event.
But voice acting on both the Japanese and English tracks are well done.

But what I enjoyed about the audio is how it immersive it is. Every channel including the rear surrounds are used. From action sequences and the clanging of swords, the rain and thunderstorms to the sound of the crowds of people shopping in the villages. This is captured very well in the soundtrack. I didn’t pick up any strong LFE on my subwoofer but overall, I was impressed by the overall use of the speaker channels for the sound effects and ambiance.

Also, the musical score by Naoki Sato was well-done and really comes through on certain scenes as the music does create a mood for the film. Especially between the relationship of Nagase and Kotarou and how Kotarou really hasn’t had any family and how these two plus the dog eventually develop a stronger bond. So, overall audio quality is well-done.

Subtitles are featured in English (including songs and signs).

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Sword of the Stranger” comes with a good number of special features.  The features are in standard definition with a Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack and English subtitles.

  • Production Report – (49:15) The production report is the meat and potatoes of the special features.  Interviews with the director, producer and various staff involved in the project.  Discussing the challenges they had and the goals they had to achieve realism (for example, aside from the action sequences, even snow falling featured over 400 cuts).  The featurette also goes into the animation, visual effects, voice acting, the music and more.  Overall, an informative and wonderful featurette.
  • Cast Interviews – (17:24) This featurette includes the press conference introducing voice talents Tomoya Nagase (Nanashi) and Yuri Chinen (Kotarou).  Also, one on one interviews as both talents talk about the challenges of being a first time voice actor, thoughts on their characters and their favorite scene in the film.
  • Pilot Film – (3:53) This is the pilot film screened at the 2003 Tokyo Anime Festival.  This was used to get studio interest in producing the film because it was a period animated film.  Although the pilot film really doesn’t have much to do with the actual final film, it does show what Director Masahiro Ando wanted to accomplish in the fight scenes.  So, I am very happy this was included.
  • TV Trailers – Featured in High Definition are five short TV trailers (in Japanese) for the promotion of the film.
  • Movie Trailers – Featured are three High Definition movie trailers (in Japanese) used to promote the film.

I have to admit that I was very excited when I first watched this film last year.  I’ve heard so many positive things about the action sequences and how much careful planning went into making the fight scenes so fluid but also how much went into the art production.

With a talented staff behind the feature film, I was drawn in by the storyline, action-scenes and beautiful animation, beautiful musical score but also the well-done voice acting.  I was drawn in by the detail of the scenery.  May it be the lush trees and plants and the temples but just the overall feel of the animation.

As mentioned, pop star Tomoya Nagase is a talented actor but he did a wonderful job for his first time as a voice actor.  Yuri Chinen did a great job as Kotarou as well.  And the English voice acting was actually quite strong and definitely well-done.

The 1080p High Definition transfer featured a lot of detail and the action sequences come alive thanks to the picture quality.  Also, there was no skimping on the lossless soundtrack.  Sounds of nature, crowd ambience and action sequences were well captured and showcased utilizing the various speaker channels and was very happy to hear my rear surrounds at work for this title.

“Sword of the Stranger” is a solid anime film release and for anime action fans, it’s a title worth owning and having in your Blu-ray collection.   Highly recommended!

After you watch the film, please read my interview with “Sword of the Stranger” Director Masahiro Ando.

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