#1 A sengoku-era adventure story
The story centers around a boy named Kotarou, who is one the run from a band of Chinese soldiers that are chasing him all across Japan. When he is inevitably cornered, Kotarou enlists the helps of a nameless, sword-wielding vagabond, who promises to bring him to the safety of a faraway Buddhist temple in return for a valuable treasure.
It’s an exciting story with high stakes, as Kotarou’s enemies are quickly revealed to be as ruthless as they are efficient. On the other hand, it’s also a beautiful story in a way, as it focuses on the developing friendship between Kotarou and his nameless protector. The two are standoffish and mistrustful of one another at the start, but watching the two bond over the course of the adventure is a great experience, even on a rewatch.
#2 Good boy
#3 Chinese dialogue
A cool effect that the movie pulls off is that the Chinese characters speak actual Chinese most of the time. I can’t say for sure how accurate the dialogue is or if the voice actors are saying the words correctly, but it sounds confident and it’s neat hearing such a different language in anime.
It reminded me of when I watched A Day Before Us, which was a South Korean anime series. They do cheap out a tiny bit by having them sometimes speak Japanese (or English in the dub) whenever these characters exclusively speak with each other, but the majority of their dialogue is in Chinese, so it’s not like this is a rare gimmick.
This does also make the English dub highly recommended. I’ve seen the movie in both languages by now, and the Chinese dialogue stands out far better when the rest of the film is in English. With Japanese audio it can be easy to miss the effect if you aren’t overly used to hearing Japanese voice acting or watching the film with someone new to anime.
#4 Legendary fight scenes
Sword of the Stranger is renowned among the anime community for its swordfighting. The movie was produced by action powerhouse Studio Bones under the direction of Masahirou Andou, who is famous for making Canaan, Under the Dog, and his work as a key animator on several sci-fi masterpieces from the 90s. That’s a recipe for success right there.
Battles are frequent and their choreography is full of energy. Characters dodge and dash, their swords clash, and all of it smoothly animated with optimal camera angles. There is so much energy to these fights and they get absolutely brutal. Blood flows freely and, while it doesn’t feature much “gore” in the traditional sense, I did find myself wincing at several scenes.
This all builds up to one of the most amazing final battles I have ever seen in anime movies. It’s a spectacular finale with so much going on, back-to-back fantastic fight scenes between all the major characters, and it’s shockingly vicious. It’s a fantastic conclusion, both for its intense action, as well as for how it wraps up several story threads that developed across the movie.
#5 Atmosphere of the Japanese countryside
The Sengoku period has already been explored very well in the medium of anime & manga, but I enjoy how Sword of the Stranger‘s adventure story is so far-removed from the big cities, forts, and warring lords of the era. Instead, it gives us an interesting look in the rural life of Japan at the time.
Much of the movie is set in small villages and takes Kotarou to majestic mountain ranges, dense forests, and abandoned coasts. It’s a nice atmosphere, brought to life with a cool visual style. They went with a semi-realistic look and coloring, which makes bursts of colors—such as all that blood— stand out very well.
I was particularly fond of the anime’s backgrounds, which had a ton of people working on them. The camera angles make good use of this by frequently making sure that dialogue-heavy scenes play out while some cool mountains or other decorations feature in the background.