I have always loved watching antagonists since as long as I could remember. Those characters that become obstacles to the protagonist’s goals. Creating the tension within the series, whether it be in a menacing way like classic horror villains or merely testing their character like bullies from high school dramas. These characters can steal the screen if the writers and directors are not careful, overwhelming the protagonist with just their presence. That is why we, from time to time, award the work or idolize these antagonists for what they bring to a series. Whether it was the ground-breaking and career defining role of Heath Ledger as the Joker or the sinister revolutionary Char Aznable hell-bent on vengeance for his family. We love them, love to hate them and sometimes even admire them. So in this new segment I am going to take a look into antagonists all across the entertainment media and judge them on criteria that is essential to a great antagonist.
So starting off the Hunt for the Great Antagonist I decided to go a little bit off the beaten path. I’ll get to the well-known juggernauts at some point, but I also want to look at other antagonists that often aren’t highlighted. Luo-Lang is one such antagonist that, while considered to be in one of the best action sequences in anime, does not get much attention. Many do not know that name, let alone know the character behind the fight sequence. That chilling menace he brings to that scene alone is worth noting, and to be in the one of the best fight sequences in anime he makes for a slightly less generic starting point for this sequence. So let’s peer deeply into those cold and lifeless blue eyes of his and see if Luo-Lang is a well developed antagonist or merely a one hit wonder!
Luo-Lang is a mixture of confidence, skepticism, and psychopathy. Just a winning concoction for a primary antagonist, but does that mean he has a well-rounded personality? Luo-Lang is a man bored with his life, always hunting for strong opponents to satiate his random bloodlust. Against opponents he knows he can defeat, there is this cockiness that comes out. He will throw away his sword, fight random strangers for a warm up or even offer his foe some medicine to regain all of his strength back. Luo-Lang is the “monster with the golden hair” that the Japanese citizens described. A man bent on not proving his strength, but rather relieving his boredom. He suffers from a distinct lack of depth to his characteristics, but those characteristics are so strongly defined through each of his actions that they make up an accurate representation of his moniker. Easily discernible as a character.
A big part of who Luo-Lang is in the story is in relation to two people, Byakuran and Nanashi. Byakuran is the leader of the Ming forces in Japan and hunting after an Elixir of immortality. He strongly believes in honour and blind loyalty to an Emperor and thus will enact one of the most ludicrous missions in order to attempt to appease him. Luo-Lang’s relationship with Byakuran is one of employer and a clash of beliefs. Luo-Lang is someone who feels more confident in his own ability, and thus feels entirely skeptical about those who follow blindly the orders of another. He appreciates that Byakuran brought him to Japan where he found Nanashi, but that is as far as his positive comments towards him goes. Often he will make fun of the mission considering it to be nonsense. He enjoys watching Byakuran’s beliefs fall short as when they use the Japanese feudal lord as a hostage he is quickly dispatched. Byakuran could not comprehend how the Japanese soldiers could do that to their lord, but Luo-Lang seems to respect this apparently blasphemous tactic. There is a divide between who Luo-Lang is and what Byakuran believes in which allows him to kill Byakuran without a second thought in the end of the film. Byakuran was going to shoot Nanashi as his back was turned only to have his hand chopped off by Luo-Lang. Seeing this side of Luo-Lang’s character helps to support the demonic nature of the man, seeing his own allies as tools to find strong warriors to fight. He even lets the one Ming soldier who respected him collapse upon his body and just slide off with even glancing in his direction. Luo-Lang is a cold-hearted murderer who only understands the thrill of the fight, and the Ming relationships he has only continue to support that.
The final piece to the puzzle that is Luo-Lang lies in his relation to Nanashi. They are what the title of the film is referring to in such a poetic way. Two men who have fought for their respective countries, yet neither were born in them. Nanashi’s red hair and Luo-Lang’s blonde hair signify that. In a way they foil one another in their relationships and mannerisms. Nanashi is a pacifist, Luo-Lang is bloodthirsty, Nanashi escaped the army, and Luo-Lang stays in the Ming army. Nanashi has come to understand the importance of other people in his life, while Luo-Lang is someone who has always been unable to connect with someone else. They both come from similar origins and hold the same values in a fight, such as Nanashi declining medicine from Luo-Lang because it makes him feel more alive. Luo-Lang at that moments understands that Nanashi was truly the man he was looking for while in Japan, a kindred spirit of the battlefield. Luo-Lang has always been seen as a monster by everyone else, but finds solace in finally finding someone who understands him. In some ways this relationship between him and Nanashi, the parallels and contrasts portray him as a tragic villain who never was taught the meaning of relationships. One so comfortable with being touted as a monster or a barbarian by not only random people but his own comrades. In a way Nanashi as a contrasting point to the story showcases how broken an individual Luo-Lang is turning a more generic villain into someone worth feeling empathy towards. If Luo-Lang had more time dedicated to a potential backstory much like Nanashi had, then it would be easier to see it as such yet the lack of information makes it hard to make clear-cut judgements on how tragic Luo-Lang is.
Luo-Lang is motivated by one thing, power. It is as simple as that. They don’t evolve over the time or get tested, they just simply drive him to find and fight against Nanashi. It is the one characteristic that ensures that the final confrontation happens, his simple desire to become stronger through fighting tough opponents. It doesn’t make for a thought-provoking discussion besides the fact of how he came to be this way. We get endless amount of stories about the Emperor, the Elixir of Immortality, why the Ming soldiers do what they do, why the Japanese soldiers do what they do, yet we never explain why Luo-Lang is who he is. Why does he want to become stronger? There is never a true answer to why he has this motivation in the first place, but we do know he is determined to continuously fight strong opponents.
An antagonist can have a very simple explanation to their motivation and still be a decent antagonist. Byakuran is a lesser antagonist compared to Luo-Lang within the film, despite being the leader of the Ming forces. His goal is to obtain the Elixir of Immortality for the Emperor of China and gain his favour. His true intentions are revealed however as his true motivation is to obtain the elixir for himself as he is scared of his own mortality. Concise and to the point, but explained well enough to understand why Byakuran reached that decision. There just isn’t a strong enough base for us to understand why Luo-Lang has this motivation other than the plot needs him to have it to clash with Nanashi.
Sword of the Stranger is a strange film to begin with, and it is a film that contrasts large accomplishments and aspirations like the Chinese and Japanese forces with the personal accomplishments of the main leads and Luo-Lang. Luo-Lang is a skilled fighter and his journey is about finally meeting and facing off against Nanashi. He kind of achieves half of his goal in the end, getting his wish to fight someone strong though he will never learn from it as he is now dead. In a way his accomplishment in this film is the fear of the Japanese locals. They fear him claiming that he is a demon.
Though does he leave a lasting impression? I would say once he perishes nothing will be left of his existence as sad as that may be. We immortalize ourselves through our actions, and Luo-Lang besides being menacing and different never really struck true terror into the hearts of others. He simply existed as a shield for Byakuran and never will leave a lasting impression upon the locals. In the way of accomplishments he never truly seems to be much of an obstacle to the hero’s journey until the very end but does achieve the end result he desires in his lifetime. There isn’t a backlash against foreigners caused by Luo-Lang and even if there was Nanashi hides the fact that he is different with the hair dye. He isn’t given a chance to impede the hero’s journey and thus is given the minimal amount of small victories over menial enemies like the Japanese commander, Itadori, and a group of bandits in the beginning.
There is a difference between circumstance and being an active force. In this entire movie the active force driving the Ming and Japanese forces to find the child was from the head Ming warrior. Luo-Lang on the other hand, while the final antagonist left standing, never really has much relevance to the plot of our leads until the end where destiny brings these two strangers together in a final clash of protector versus demonic warrior. While it is a cool concept to be sure and pays off immensely with that final showdown, the overall importance of the showdown and why it happens is a lesser element of the film.
Luo-Lang is this known force to the rest of the Japanese, but to the two main leads he is merely that one random guy who killed his allies and wants to fight. He may be a looming threat over the horizon for our two protagonists from the eyes of the viewer as we know he will clash with them at some point, he never plays an active role in Nanashi’s growth but merely cementing it. He is the conclusion but not the journey, making his role in the overall plot of the film more minute than other characters. He is more of a force of opposition to Idagaki and the Japanese rather than Nanashi, which was the inconsequential subplot of the film only to reinforce Nanashi’s transformation from back when he was in the army. To put it lightly he only has one moment of relevance in the entire film.
As much as Luo-Lang is not too relevant to the overall story of our leads, he owns almost every second of screen time he has. That bored stare as he sits atop his horse looking down at the weak masses not worth his attention, the way he charges confidently into battle for the sake of a warm up, this is a man who makes his presence known even when there is no purpose for him to stand out. He is a menace to society as a whole with his distinct lack of caring for the lives of others. He evolves over time into the true blonde haired demon all of the Japanese citizens were talking about during his final confrontation with Nanashi. Every time you see Luo-Lang in battle or preparing to fight he truly comes alive and embodies that cocky attitude that becomes his hubris in the end where he gets far too excited for his own good. Every fight is like a dance with him or an onslaught.
The way he carries himself however leaves a bit to be desired whenever he is out of fight scenes. Due to him being bored throughout most of the film, he doesn’t really come alive until key moments in the plot and those are only the fight scenes. When he is discussing with the Ming he is stoic and calculating, often finding himself disconcerting to their blind loyalty. He does make some fun jabs at their ideology from time to time, but the amount of downtime we receive between the moments where he is alive and owning the screen and when he is merely bored is a bit too much. He certainly is a monster, but it depends on the situation when he shows that side of him making for most of his screen time to be of him complaining and hunting for strong opponents while abiding by the Emperor’s orders.
At the end of all that Luo-Lang is left with a final score of:
I’ll be honest…I thought he would be a bit higher than that. His sword abilities and demonic prowess weren’t enough to help him break the 25 point mark, but hopefully he can find solace in being in one of my favourite fight scenes to date in film. I mean it truly is a fantastic fight sequence, using everything from the terrain to their impressive skills with the swords. If you haven’t watched it I would recommend looking it up if you don’t have the time to watch the film, especially if you are an action buff.
So that brings this first step into the quest complete and it was quite fun to finally open up that Blu-Ray I had recently bought of Sword of the Stranger and watch it again. Much like John Wick, Sword of the Strangers just fills me with delight due to its technical prowess with fight scenes. Recommendations of films, television series, cartoons, anime, that contain great antagonists are completely welcomed! Name the title of the work rather than the character in order to not give away spoilers, as sometimes just mentioning who the antagonist is can be a spoiler.
Have you seen Sword of the Stranger before? What is your opinion on Luo-Lang as an antagonist? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself a great day!