“Sword of the Stranger”: How to Save Stand Alone Films

pumpedWhen taking in the upcoming release schedules for major Hollywood studios, it’s pretty obvious that as a whole the industry likes adaptations, reboots, and revivals. They also like “true stories” and “lineups” ‘til the end of the century! But Hollywood can do this because they have the means to: they have the money, the people, and the technology to pull it off. But over in Japan, I started to notice a reverse trend in their animation film industry, and it wasn’t as obvious until recently as I re-watched “Sword of the Stranger” with my family, that there was something missing.

Story in Simplification

First, let me tell you about why this film is a must for every film fan! Not just for anime weeaboos and otakus, I’m talking about genuine fans of film and especially for samurai films. “Sword of the Stranger” was released back in 2007, and I saw it during a one-night screening at my local theatre. The theatre was packed, and deservedly so: this movie holds the same enthusiasm for it’s balance of action and story that can also be found in “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

What I mean is that “Fury Road” was an action-packed thriller that was fast, but as comprehensible as it was foreign. You could leave yourself in the hands of Director George Miller and he delivered a movie that could easily be followed, in spite of its science fiction premise. “Fury Road” didn’t try to be a movie it wasn’t, without some obscure deeper meaning or art-school techniques. This same kind of vision was also emulated in “Sword of the Stranger.”

The film’s story is about a young boy named Kotaro and his dog who are traveling alone in feudal-era Japan. A group of Chinese mercenaries and diplomats are searching for him, as they believe that this little boy’s blood will be the key to making the elixir of life for the Chinese emperor. The boy stumbles across a no-name ronin samurai (no really, his name is No-Name) and he hires the ronin to be his bodyguard until they can reach a place of safety far from the hands of the Chinese. As you’d expect, they form an unlikely friendship on the run together, and the film is filled with witty banter and plenty of badass sword fights for you to choose from.

As you can tell, the story is simple and has probably been told in countless other ways before. The most important parts of the film to me were the relationships and the animation, and this film has both in spades. Kotaro and No-Name’s relationship is like a pair of brothers meeting each other for the first time. Sure they bicker, but it’s clear that No-Name becomes very protective of Kotaro. The buddy-road trip is a common trope in films around the world, but works well here thanks to some great dialogue. I personally enjoyed the English dub and how well they translated the script, but purists may side with the original cast.

The animation is stunning. You can easily tell characters apart without having to deal with funky hair colors (I’m looking at you, blue-purple-haired main characters in anime!), and movements in battle and in casual scenes flow nicely. It doesn’t shy away from blood neither; there’s no organs spilling out, but the animators were pretty liberal with blood spray during sword-fights, so best save this film for older children and up. The landscapes, the animals, and the freakin’ weather in the movie all looked realistic and lovingly animated. But let’s be honest: the star scenes in this movie were the sword fights.

I highly recommend this film, for lovers of both film and anime. If you were a fan of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” then you will definitely find a lot to love about this movie, and maybe a few comparisons of your own.

Where are the Stand Alone Films?

swordofthestranger-minSo, here’s where I get into the meat of a problem. As I was re-watching this movie recently, I realized that there were very few original anime films coming out of Japan nowadays. You could probably count them on one hand every year. Sure, you have Miyazaki and Hosoda who release an original work almost every year but, for the most part, anime feature films are pulling a Hollywood: they’re either reboots, revivals, or spin-offs of existing anime TV shows. What happened to original, stand alone anime films?

I personally believe that it’s all about the money. It’s why Hollywood can afford to take risks on original stories, reboots, and spin-offs, because they have the means to do so. A failure won’t cripple their studios, most likely. But in Japan the animation studios are struggling.

Thanks to unrivaled streaming on the internet, fans all over the world have instant access to their favorite anime TV programs. However, this leads the studios to suffer from the lost revenue. It explains why so many shows with moderate followings never get a second season. Or in the case of Manglobe’s recent bankruptcy, the lack of funding comes at the horrible timing when one of their productions, like “Gangsta”, was on the rise. Right now, despite the “Gangsta” popularity, there’s no word about a second season.

Because of these problems, rarely will a studio take a chance on a stand alone film. How can they compete with the likes of Miyazaki, Hosoda, Pixar or Dreamworks films? It takes time, personnel and resources that they often don’t have for a feature-length film. BONES (the studio behind this movie) took a bold risk with “Sword of the Stranger,” and thankfully it was successful for them. But not all studios had such a happy ending. I bought “Sword of the Stranger” on DVD as soon as it was released, and repeated this with Miyazaki and Hosoda’s films too. But I’m on the hunt for more original anime films like “Sword of the Stranger” created by smaller, lesser known animation studios that don’t receive enough credit: “5 Centimeters Per Second”, “Patema Inverted”, “Redline”, “Tekkonkinkreet” …these could be the Pixar-quality films of our time, and we’re missing out on them over here simply due to lack of funding for the studios who brought them to life.

If you love a work of anime, please fund them! Buy the Blu-Rays/DVD’s, the merchandise, the toys, the cosplay, all from reputable sources that will give back to the studios. This way, maybe we can increase the odds that Japanese animation studios will take the chance to bring their original stories to life again.

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