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Sword of the Stranger is very much a homage to the whole period samurai flick, or jidaigeki. All the affectations are here: the nameless ronin, copious violence and gore, initial reluctance to drawn steel, vicious enemy/rival seeking a worthy opponent, etc. etc. It’s certainly not what I would call incredibly ambitious, but it’s excellence is found not so much in originality but rather in how perfect the execution is. It is the attention paid to a lot of subtle details – no frame is ever really wasted. Rarou’s fighting style, for example, is noticeably “Chinese” in some aspects (these come through more in his final duel) and would not feel terribly out of place in a wuxia film. Some spoilers to follow after the break.

Rather Confucian of him.

Rather Confucian of him.

There is a rather interesting side to Sword of the Stranger: the decision to cast the Chinese as the antagonists (if not outright villains), and the inclusion of foreigners in the story. On the one hand, you could certainly read this in a similar fashion to Ikkitousen and conclude that the film is an indictment of blind loyalty to traditional values and ideas of cultural supremacy – in an attempt to hold the warlord Shogen at bay, the Chinese take his lord hostage. Unfortunately for the Chinese, Shogen sees this as a perfect opportunity to rise in rank and simply has his loyal suboordinate kill his lord with an arrow, then proceeds to rally his lord’s army to his side to take down the Chinese. The Chinese are of course understandably aghast at the barbaric notion of a servant turning against the master (with the foreign warrior among them, Rarou, smirking all the while).

Another jidaigeki cliche here, the "you can't do it, it's futile!" moment.

Another jidaigeki cliche here, the "you can't do it, it's futile!" moment.

At the same time, Shogen is certainly not the protagonist of Sword of the Stranger and certainly fits better into the role of a villain. He is, ironically enough, shot and killed by a Chinese arquebus in the battle that follows. The hero of Sword of the Stranger turns out to be Nanashi, the nameless ronin, who chooses to altruistically save Kotaro. Nanashi is neither Chinese nor Japanese – it is revealed his black hair is actually naturally red, and was saved as an infant from a sinking ship.

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Sword of the Stranger is perhaps more about transcending culture, rather than a critique of a specific culture. Despite the fact the film is very much grounded in a jidaigeki aesthetic, the “lone and virtuous wandering hero” is certainly not unique to the genre. Chinese wuxia and American westerns feature a similar sort of scenario, where the hero often has humble origins and is certainly divorced from institutional influence.

Of course, it’s also an amazing action film by BONES, which is probably recommendation enough.

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