Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A boy and his dog and his ronin (Sword of the Stranger)

Hey! It's (my arbitrarily self-declared) ANIME MONTH!!! Off to a bit of a late start, but better late than never, I always say.

Coincidentally enough, there is an anime film due up for attention from the 1001 Movies Blog Club later this month, which I will get to in due time. But today the subject at hand is a 2007 flick called Sword of the Stranger. I ran across reference to this film quite by accident. Noted interwebs gadabout and friend-of-the-blog Harvey Jerkwater was kind enough to direct my attention to a couple of blogs about movie mechanics, Film Crit Hulk and Cockeyed Caravan, and I've been reading through a ton of their archives recently. Both are fantastically illuminating, but Film Crit Hulk wrote up a thinkpiece on action sequences in movies, how they are supposed to work and sometimes don't, and in the comment thread of that post several people raved about the action sequences in Sword of the Stranger. Since I had never even heard of this movie but May was coming, I added it to my Netflix queue, and now here we are.

It is certainly a movie that has quite a bit of action in it, and the action is handled deftly enough. There is a fine line to be walked in cinematic action sequences, especially fight scenes, between giving everything a speed and immediacy that conveys a feeling of breathless chaos to the audience, and yet keeping everything clear and comprehensible and logical so that it does not devolve into a meaningless assault on the senses. Sword of the Stranger does in fact walk that line and delivers some admirably well-constructed swordfights. Beyond that? Not a lot.

On the one hand, it's a simple and straightforward tale that every culture has multiple versions of: a child is being hunted by powerful forces with a sinister agenda; the child encounters a good adult who would be a potential protector if he weren't so self-interested; the child offers to pay the adult for protection; they stay one step ahead of the bad guys, bickering all the while; the adult delivers the child to safety and gets paid, only for the child to then be betrayed into greater danger; the adult realizes he cares about the child enough to risk his own life in a rescue attempt for no reward. I don't really have a problem with archetypal stories, and in fact I realized that this particular story has a built-in advantage in that the Selfish Protector might live or might die saving the child, because surviving the ending is a complete non-factor in both his personal redemption arc and the overarching plot. Most action movies we all assume that the hero is going to live past the closing credits, and no amount of suspension of disbelief can make the climax of the flick truly feel like the hero's ultimate fate is in question. Vanquishing evil usually means outliving it, but apparently not always. (Spoiler: the Selfish Protector in Sword of the Stranger does, in fact, live. You may now return from the edge of your seat.)

On the other hand, there are some more complex trappings in the story which at times made me feel like I must be watching the fourth installment in a six-film cycle or something (as far as I've been able to determine, though, that's not the case). The film is set in feudal Japan, and the bad guys are a Japanese faction working with representatives of the Ming emperor. The emperor wants the child because he fulfills some prophecy and his blood can be used to make an elixir which grants eternal life. The Ming representatives are all highly skilled warriors who can fight without tiring or feeling pain because they are all taking another drug-like elixir that bestows those benefits (but not, as it turns out, immortality). The most deadly and ruthless Ming warrior is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner. The Selfish Protector is a red-haired foreigner. Where are these non-Asians from, exactly? Why are they far and away better swordsmen than any of the Chinese or Japanese characters? Where does the pain-blocking drug come from, assuming its production is less resource-intensive than the immortality elixir? None of those questions are ever answered.

One of the things that I like about anime, and why I wanted to dig into it some more, is because it does offer a certain amount of insight into Japanese culture - although maybe insight is not quite the right word. Exposure might be better, because insight would imply understanding, and I'm not always left with the feeling that I understand Japanese culture any better for having watched an anime film. Why this historical epic about daimyos and monks should come down to a duel to the death between a Swede(?) and an Irishman(?) is beyond me.

But the pure artistry on display is worth the price of admission and then some. Sword of the Stranger takes full advantage of the fact that it is an animated feature wherein anything that can be conceived and drawn can be put on screen. The camera moves can be fast and furious and capture angles that would be physically impossible for human beings in the real world. The flick of a sword can send the exact right amount of blood flying dramatically across the frame. Because everything is unreal, everything gets equal weight in its rendering, as opposed to live-action blockbusters that try to have their cake and eat it too, with actors and CGI effects interacting uneasily at best. Even Pixar movies, which of course I love, pride themselves on their exacting modeling of real-world physics, but there's a lot to be said for an animated film that embraces a more stylized approach that depicts things your brain knows are impossible yet come alive before your eyes.

In the end, though, at least as far as Sword of the Stranger is concerned, marveling at the technical achievement of the arresting visuals, not just things I've never seen before but those things presented in a way I've never seen before, is really the only takeaway I had from the film. The look and feel served the story admirably, but it was only a passable story to begin with. Hopefully later this month I will have a chance to ruminate on some anime that brings just as much innovation to what's being said as how it's being said.

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