Directed by: #RodrigoPreissMaya
Written by: #RodrigoPreissMaya
Stray Katana is an infuriating film. The short animation takes inspiration from Japanese history and art, but writer-director Rodrigo Preiss Maya seems to have little to no understanding of or respect for the culture, preferring instead to use it as a backdrop for his film's message. He is drawn to the aesthetics, but has no concept of their significance; they look good (or ‘cool’ as one reviewer puts it), so he uses them. These blatant failures of research and respect are many and often, beginning almost immediately with a mispronunciation of ‘Edo’, the city where the film is set. This, however, is the least of its problems.
In 1615, an unnamed rōnin – a samurai without a master – is visited by a shadowy, intimidating presence. The next day, a stranger appears at the gate and asks for some water. The rōnin invites him in, and comes to realise that this man is Jesus. At first shocked and confused, he soon decides to follow Him wherever He leads, and attempts to complete a spiritual quest.
The first question that must be answered is: why? Firstly, why does this need to be set in Japan in the Edo period? Other than the aesthetics, there is nothing that sets this version of a familiar story apart – not to mention that the probability of a rōnin already being Christian, which despite the narrative progression seems to be the implication (he is already aware of and seems to believe in God), was incredibly small. Why did Preiss Maya want to tell this story in particular? This rōnin, disgraced and purposeless, can apparently only absolve himself through Christ, depicted here as a white man with long brown hair; the film is at least consistent in its historical indifference. What is being suggested here? It seems borderline offensive to imply that their own diverse spiritual beliefs were lesser, and that true peace – represented of course by a dove – could only be found in Christianity.
The animation itself leaves much to be desired. It attempts to mimic ink wash painting, or sumi-e, which on top of everything else feels like just another insult. Instead of being liquid and fluid, there is stiffness; in one scene, an open door is suddenly closed, with no frames to show the movement. There are also moments that invoke iconic Japanese imagery: geisha, Mount Fuji, and a predictable nod to Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. Again, this feels like the work of people who greatly admire the aesthetics of a culture they refuse to explore or understand in any real depth. Aside from the Japanese voice actor (Kaz Kikui, who performs all three voice roles in the Japanese version), there appear to be no other Japanese people involved, and it shows. Tellingly, in the list of people who inspired the film that appears in the credits, the only Japanese name is Hokusai's. This wilful ignorance on behalf of the filmmakers bleeds across the entire film.
On top of all this, Stray Katana is simply unoriginal. Stories of sad, broken men visited by a stranger who turns out to be God, or more specifically Jesus, have been told many times before, and much more effectively than this. The problem here is that transplanting this familiar narrative on to a rōnin in the Edo period seems to suggest that these particular broken men would have been much better off as Christians, which makes the film feel like propaganda more than anything else. Hiding the message behind a cool samurai aesthetic is more than a little insidious.