“Sword of the Stranger” isn’t out to reinvent the samurai movie, though its simple story is part of the charm. If there’s one thing that sets it apart from other Jidaigeki (period drama) films of its ilk, it’s the focus on cultural clash. The Chinese characters adhere to hierarchy more; their Emperor has the Mandate of Heaven, after all. In turn, they’re sometimes confounded by the Japanese characters’ more mercenary attitudes. The score (courtesy of Naoki Satō) also uses Chinese instruments, creating sweeping emotion in action and establishing shots like a good Wuxia film does.
What makes “Sword of the Stranger” stand out is its animation, though. Studio Bones was and remains more well-known for their TV anime. Indeed most of their films, such as “Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (a collaboration with the studio Sunrise), are TV spin-offs. “Sword of the Stranger” is the rare original film project for Bones; it feels like their team taking all their experience and trying to prove what they’re capable of on the big screen. They stretch their animators’ talent to the maximum and the results are stunning.
The film’s colors are subdued, with an earthy and naturalistic palette. Oftentimes, the most colorful sight onscreen is the blood splatter flying through the air. The action is where things get jaw-dropping. During duels, characters don’t just swing their swords, but their whole bodies too. The ferocity of Nanashi and Luo-Lang’s final duel, and the swiftness of the camera following them, is only possible thanks to the animated realm it unfolds in.