Kotaro has been learning to live for himself since his only protector, the monk Shouan, bid him to flee alone from their faceless pursuers. The young orphan boy is wanted for his blood, the key to a mystic medicine which will bring immortality. Sengoku-era Japan is rent with war against the Chinese, a savage landscape where swordsmen hunt for prey to keep their swords sharp and slake their boredom. The medicine is the fever’s only cure, but Kotaro has managed to give them the slip with his one remaining companion, his dog Tobimaru. Man and beast are the same, all surviving from one predator to the next. In the midst of this turmoil, the child meets No Name, a ronin and mercenary.
Hiring the stranger as his bodyguard, Kotaro speeds away from the stream of greed that causes men to pursue him as a mere trophy. No Name teaches him to ride, becomes a father figure and stands the central pillar of this story’s significance. In a landscape desolate of honour, where a nameless man left his life as a soldier behind to retain something of his soul and sanity, love and family are the only thin barriers between a life of purpose, and nothingness. When life itself is fragile, these two find companionship in a day to day reality that makes it near impossible. Like lamplights around them, more of the pure bonds threatened by violence become entwined in answer to why the war limps on. All wish only to see its end, and return to a simpler life.
All the more tragic for being surrounded by this hope is the blonde foreigner Luo-Lang, who chases Kotaro for China’s Emperor. He has no-one, and the duty of providing his lord with the means to live an unnatural eternity is his one treasure in the world. The image of what No Name could have become had he fallen to the false honour of violence, their ultimate clash, both fighting for Kotaro’s life, becomes the valiant pulse of the film. A land of people made strangers by war draw blades for the memory of a place they once belonged.
Studio Bones show their sensory and emotional mastery over combat in this climactic battle, blood hissing vehement in cold air and as it splatters the fresh fallen snow. Even in moments of peace, painted mountains and grasses make the world itself sharp, as though a man could fall and be impaled by thousands of needles. The need for the Chinese to find the chosen child for the immortal medicine truly feels like a necessity for survival.
In these quiet spaces, the film is almost spiritual in its loneliness, interspersed with powerful moments of hope and comfort. Even victory cannot ensure peace, or survival, but Kotaro and No Name brave that road together. Each were forged in violence, so their journey is already stained in blood. That knowledge is in a sad smile from Kotaro, and the weeping red of the stranger’s heroic wounds as they push on to another triumphant uncertainty.
Extras: Making of; pilot; Japanese cast interviews; animatics; teaser & trailers; Blu-ray & DVD combi in collector’s packaging