Title: Sword of the Stranger
Director: Masahiro Andō
Staring: Tomoya Nagase, Yuri Chinen, Kōichi Yamadera
Set during Japan's feudal period 'Sword of the Stranger' tells the story of a young orphan boy named Kotaro who finds himself pursued by ruthless group of soldiers in the employ of China's Ming Emperor. With no idea as to why he is being chased Kotaro desperately enlists the help of a mysterious ronin named Nanashi (literally meaning Nameless or No Name) who has the curious habit of fighting with his sword sheathed, although this doesn't appear to make his skills any less lethal. As the reasons behind the Ming's pursuit become apparent Nanashi finds himself having to relive and face up to the past that has for many years haunted him if he is to have any chance of saving Kotaro from his would-be captors.
Directed by first-timer Masahiro Andō and produced by Bones 'Sword of the Stranger' is a real visual treat. The high-octane fight scenes are lavishly animated and expertly choreographed with a visceral sense of speed, but that's not to say the scenes without action aren't just as beautifully presented. The artwork and animation remain consistently excellent throughout and while some may find the colour palette subdued, the scenes of wanton bloodshed provide a stark contrast against the almost ethereal depiction of the landscape.
In terms of the story 'Sword of the Stranger' does nothing you won't have seen before, but has the definite virtue of not trying to do too much. The film is expertly paced, never once dragging or out-staying it's welcome - a pleasant suprise considering this is Masahiro's directorial debut. The characters will seem pretty standard to most, Kotaro is initially standoffish and reluctant to show his vulnerability while Nanashi attempts to hide his wounded past through humour and an anti-hero attitude straight out of a Clint Eastwood western. Ultimately events force both Kotaro and Nanashi to open up and trust each other, but the point is never forced home and feels like a natural progression for the characters.
Overall 'Sword of the Stranger' is a spectacular achievement and not just for the superlative animation. The characters are believable and more importantly likeable, the story is entirely engaging without ever feeling bloated, the music is suitably epic and the visuals are thoroughly intoxicating, the end result is a highly enjoyable anime feature that remains entertaining from start to finish.