Nanashi vs Luo-Lang (Sword of the Stranger)
The samurai genre is a staple in Japanese anime. While it clearly draws stylistic influence from the real-life samurai films of directors like Akira Kurosawa and Kihachi Okamoto, samurai anime has the benefit of not being constrained by the laws of physics, the limits of a physical camera, safety concerns in action scenes, and the (perhaps mediocre) fighting skills of actors. When done well, combat scenes in samurai anime can be the most sublime expression of stylised violence out of any storytelling form. And the climactic battle between a nameless ronin and a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Chinese assassin in Sword of the Stranger ranks as one of anime’s finest.
The genre’s conventions are all there in the film. Nameless (anti)hero fleeing a dark past: check. Said hero has renounced violence: check. Events inevitably force the hero to abandon his pacifism: check. Hero’s principal antagonist is a warrior of equal skill: check. Said antagonist displays hyperviolent psychopathy and a morbid obsession with the hero: check.
Clichés aside, the fight choreography is absolutely stunning. BONES, the animation studio that produced Sword of the Stranger, is known for its well-crafted action scenes infused with fluid movement and explosive energy. The duel between Nanashi (“No Name”, of course) and Luo-Lang is perhaps the studio’s best fight work to date. The sheer speed of the combat and the humanly impossible movements of the fighters aptly illustrate the strengths of the animation medium. Elements like wind, snow and the large wooden structure are used to impart a sense of exertion, suspense and danger. The sound effects of steel blades parrying, grating and cutting all ring, screech and swoosh with aural fury.
The score by Naoki Sato is reminiscent of Taku Iwasaki’s haunting music for another samurai anime gem, Samurai X: Trust & Betrayal, especially the flute solos. Maybe I’ve been conditioned to associate that sort of music with awesome samurai swordfights, but Sato’s majestic score acts as a counterweight to the frenzied action. It’s a beautiful package, the whole blood-soaked, snow-blasted affair.