I try to support anime’s continuing struggle for mainstream recognition/viability whenever I can. I buy DVDs of shows I like, and I buy tickets to whatever theatrical runs trickle down to the American market. It seems that most of the theatrical animated features in Japan nowadays are annual One Piece/Detective Conan/Doraemon movies, sooo the pickin’s have been pretty slim for a while. The first one I ever saw while it was actually in theaters was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. I saw a review of it in the paper and persuaded Film Walrus to come with me and check it out at this awesome independent theater which is now defunct. And it turned out to be great!! Since then, the experiences have ranged from the sublime (Cowboy Bebop: The Movie with Film Walrus’ whole clan in a packed theater downtown) to the underwhelming (last year’s Paprika where I was one of three people in the theater and one of the others brought half of the concession stand back with him).
So it was with enthusiasm that I read an article about a new original film getting an exclusive one-night premiere in the U.S. before getting dumped onto DVD. It was through Fathom, that company that makes its business off of selling tickets to one-night events that they stream through satellite to theaters so that you can see Naruto or whatever on the big screen. I had gone to a rather costly screening of a This American Life event last year that… could have gone better. But this one was cheaper and the movie looked intriguing. What was that movie, you ask?! Sword of the Stranger!
Sword of the Stranger is a period flick set in Japan’s feudal era. A young boy named Kotarou is being hunted and a kindly monk quietly smuggles him out of harm’s way when their monastery is attacked. Kotarou’s loyal dog in tow, the boy is left to fend for himself and squats in an abandoned house when he meets No-Name, a mysterious (REALLY?) stranger who ends up protecting Kotarou’s life from people that are sent to capture him. Kotarou decides to go with No-Name, whom he promises a treasure to as long as he and his dog are delivered to safety. Along the way we learn that No-Name refuses to use his katana, and actually has it bound up so he can’t unsheathe it, and that he has nightmares about a horrible deed in his past that he had to commit.
At the same time, we’re shown a group of Chinese that are traipsing about the Japanese countryside. Apparently they are shacking up with a local feudal lord and using his land to construct a giant macguffin for some reason. They’re searching for Kotarou because he is an essential ingredient for their ceremony to create a potion of immortality that they can bring back to the Ming emperor. Serving the Chinese is a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man they call Luo-Long, who is a master swordsman seeking out his equal in combat.
…Can you see where this is going?
The first thing I can find fault with in Sword of the Stranger is that it’s perfectly predictable. I can guarantee you that you already know exactly how this movie plays out, because I was sitting in my seat in the theater and calling everything before it happened, too. It’s a very straightforward tale where the good guys win and the dishonorable die. The story and characters don’t stick with you at all. In another few weeks I guarantee I won’t remember any of this.
There’s a quote someone says in this movie: “Never set your aspirations so high that you can’t achieve them” or something like that. Well, I guess the staff took their own advice and didn’t bother taking a chance on any of it. There WAS potential in this movie to be something special and poignant, even with its cookie-cutter ingredients. If it had an actual artistic aspiration, it could’ve focused a bit more on the relationship between No-Name and Kotarou and really had us invest in the boy’s safety. As it is, he spends half the runtime being an obnoxious twerp that rewards No-Name’s protection with rudeness and suspicion. There could’ve been an authentic emotional core to the whole thing that was just hollow in the end.
It didn’t help that the movie seemed cluttered with a bunch of plot detritus that got in the way of telling a simple, focused story. Every few minutes it would zip off to show us an irrelevant conversation that half-heartedly developed characters that got maybe four minutes of screen time in the end. The people making this really needed to take a few steps back and ask themselves about their storytelling priorities when they made this. Do we need to know about No-Name and Kotarou, the core relationship of the movie, or do we need to know about this random Chinese dipshit that has a few lines and then dies in a fight in the end? There was even a silly subplot that the movie kept shoving in our faces about the Chinese soldiers taking drugs so they wouldn’t feel pain. WHY DID WE NEED TO KNOW THAT.
There’s also problems of believability. Why would the Japanese let a bunch of Chinese jerks tromp around killing as many people as they liked? What happened to that famous Japanese xenophobia?
Oh, that’s right, it’s one of the themes of the movie. Kinda fitting since it’s called Sword of the Stranger, at any rate. There’s definitely SOME tension between the Japanese and Chinese. There are lines here and there of both sides saying something snarky about the other, like “who can possibly know what goes through their minds?” and stuff like that. Plus the Chinese end up being duplicitous and evil. Well, so do the Japanese, I guess. And No-Name ends up being a foreigner with red hair who has to keep dying it black or else people get suspicious of him. And he ends up being a former child-killer. Maybe the message is that every culture has awful people?!
So if Sword of the Stranger doesn’t really give a hoot about story or character, what IS the draw? Ostensibly, it would be the action. There’s some really well-done sword fights scattered throughout the film, with the best saved for the final duel between No-Name and the blond villain. It’s fluidly animated and obviously the bread and butter of a film like this.
Unfortunately, if you took out the sword fights you’d be wondering if it were really a feature film at all. The animation studio bones produced the film and it doesn’t really show. bones is responsible for some really beautifully done motion pictures, such as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and Escaflowne the Movie. None of the lavish artwork or animation of those films end up in Sword of the Stranger. If anything, it looks on par with a reasonably good television show. When it comes to animated movies from big-name studios, I expect a certain amount of eye candy, and Sword of the Stranger doesn’t even look as good as their Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa movie, let alone approach the artistry of the two I mentioned previously.
And that’s even without getting into the technical issues I have with the way that Fathom presented it. The picture was totally unacceptable considering the price I paid for my ticket. The picture was fairly soft and the audio half-hearted. It actually looked worse than a DVD. I could’ve waited a few months, rented this on Netflix, and had a better audio/visual experience than I had forking out a premium price to see it in theaters. This is completely appalling and it totally makes me think twice about giving Fathom any of my money ever again.
But while I say all these mean, critical things, the movie had some nice things about it. Hey, the character designs were actually fairly distinctive and attractive to look at. The soundtrack would play a neat little bagpipe tune sometimes. (Is No-Name supposed to be Scottish?!) And Fathom was nice enough to include making-of stuff after the film… involving the AMERICAN staff, so nothing about the ACTUAL making of the movie.
Was it a bad movie? No, not really. Just a disappointing one that didn’t seem to want to live up to its own promise. It was one of those where you can’t help but make a checklist of things you would’ve done differently in your head while you’re seeing it. I’m a little more bitter about it than I would otherwise be considering the price I paid to see it and the lackluster presentation. My first film of 2009 is a big, fat phooey.