Martial arts are an expression of power, showcasing the potential of the human body when pushed to its physical limit. It also makes for exciting anime, and allows animators and directors to showcase their prowess as things get heated.
Push The Boundaries of Martial Arts With These Anime!
From the whirling kicks of Capoeira to the brick-breaking chops of Karate, martial arts are the culmination of humans exploring the limitations of their bodies and finding the best ways to move, strike, and defend themselves over the course of thousands of years. In this list, we’ll explore 15 of what I believe to be the best martial arts anime to date.
For clarity’s sake, martial arts anime are taken to mean anime where martial arts is a primary focus or martial arts plays a significant enough role in the storyline. This includes the use of an established fighting-style like Boxing, or more loosely defined style of combat sometimes involving ki, magic, and spiritual powers. Given that some of these anime are massive franchises, only one entry from each will be placed on the list.
Note: The order and entries on this list are the writer’s own personal opinion.
- Sengoku Basara
The Sengoku period of Japan was a violent time in Japan’s history where the country was ultimately unified – such an important event obviously has attracted many anime that use it as inspiration. Sengoku Basara is an anime adaption of a video game set in that era, where two members of rival clans – Yukimura Sanada and Masumune Date – clash with and come to respect each other.
Afterwards, they must put aside their differences to gather allies and oppose Nobunaga, an ambitious and ruthless man seeking to unite Japan beneath his banner, no matter what.
This martial arts anime takes a historical setting and throws in action sequences and special powers to spectacular effect. Watching Masamune using six swords at once while Yukimura fights him with two flaming spears sets the standards for what fights in anime should look like. It’s pretty much an action-orientated story with a simple plot, but that’s all it needs.
Have you ever tried to get the last discounted pre-made lunch at a store, only to suddenly be kicked around by a bunch of hungry teenagers in a desperate bid for cheap food? Well, in the anime adaptation of the light novel series Ben-To, that’s how things go for You Satou one fateful day. He quickly learns that prepackaged lunch-boxes called “Bentos” are highly valued when they get discounted, and a full-on war game breaks out as several factions fight for the right to eat (cheaply).
This martial arts anime is an all-around fun, fan-service heavy one that takes place in a world where supermarket brawls over discounted bentos are commonplace, having evolved into a sort of culture for the fighters. The experienced fighters are known as “Wolves”, while the weaklings are mere “Dogs”, and there are rules among them on proper ethics, such as no poaching from someone who has managed to get their hands on a bento.
Our protagonist learns everything there is to know, bit by bit, as he steadily climbs up the ranks and become a Wolf himself, suffering numerous, hilarious beatings in the process – all for the sake of not paying full price on a lunch.
- Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
Based off the 1983 to 1988 manga series, Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) is set is in a world where a nuclear war has wiped out 70% of the population and left the Earth barren. Our protagonist, Kenshirou, is a martial artist who travels in search of the man who stole the love of his life, Yuria. He must now use his Hokuto Shinken fighting style to defeat the various foes within the hostile wastelands to reach her, and in the process, become a symbol of hope in this bleak world.
- Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi)
Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi) is a fantastic martial arts anime based off a mangathat ran for around 12 years. In summary, Kenichi is a student that is constantly bullied until he meets a classmate known as Miu, who lives at the Ryouzanpaku dojo.
This dojo is home to several Master-class fighters of various fields of martial arts, and they put him through a hellish amount of training in an attempt to make him the strongest disciple in history. However, as his skill and reputation improves, it draws the attention of a martial arts gang that seeks to bring him into the fold or get rid of him.
The anime has Kenichi steadily face opponents who have dedicated themselves to pursuing a different form of martial arts, with a lot of comedy mixed in-between the fights. These battles help to shape his own combination-style of Karate, Muay Thai, Ju Jitsu, Chinese Martial Arts, and Weapons defense into something tangible, but also his opponents improve over the course of the series and ally with him. And when the masters get involved, the battles tend to ramp up to incredible spectacles. You don’t want to pass this one up.
The next martial arts anime that stands among the best is Katanagatari, based off a light novel series. Set in the Edo-era of Japan, a number of different sword-styles have flourished, but there is none more unique than the one where the body is utilized as the blade itself—Kyotouryuu. This is the style practiced by Shichika Yasuri, our protagonist, as he journeys around Japan to collect 12 unique and powerful swords at the behest of Togame.
This martial arts anime not only boasts a unique art style compared to the other entries in this list, but a story that is surprisingly deep. While there is a fairly decent amount of action, and these sequences are fluid and excellent, it is mainly driven by dialogue and relationships. Though there are only 12 episodes, each episode is rather long (50 mins!) and carries significant weight that will leave you intrigued from beginning to end.
- Yuu Yuu Hakusho
Yuu Yuu Hakusho is based off a manga that follows the adventures of Yuusuke Urameshi. After his unexpected death and rebirth he becomes a Spirit Detective; an agent that deals with supernatural threats. The role ends up placing him into battle after battle, with the stakes steadily increasing to determine the fate of the world itself.
What makes this one of the best martial arts anime is how Yuusuke ends up facing off against a variety of demons and humans, each with unique powers that they incorporate into their battles and strategies. The focus of the story doesn’t only center on the main protagonist either. Other characters develop over the course of the anime, and watching how they interact is part of what makes this classic a worthwhile watch.
- Samurai Champloo
Without a doubt, Samurai Champloo is one of the best martial arts anime from the early 2000s. It tells the story of Mugen, Jin, and Fuu as the three travel across Edo-era Japan in search of a samurai that smells like sunflowers. Leaving aside the killer sound track and hilarious comedy moments, the swordplay action is absolutely amazing and gives this anime an extra little edge.
Being a straight-laced and old-fashioned samurai, Jin uses a refined and efficient technique that’s akin to moving art. Mugen, in contrast, uses a wild-style that seemingly combines elements of break-dancing with unpredictable swings of his sword to brutal effectiveness. The foes they face also have varying degrees of skill, resulting in some epic clashes over the course of the series.
- Naruto Shippuuden
There are very few who have not seen or heard of the Naruto franchise. Centered around the titular character as he goes through battle after battle in pursuit of his dream to become the leader of his village, the series has blossomed into a multimedia franchise. Naruto Shippuuden is the entry we’re going with for this list.
The anime is long-running and current (as in still ongoing at the time of this list’s creation), having taken us through the life of Naruto Uzumaki as he went from a newly-minted ninja to one of the most powerful. The battles are large and expansive contests of power, skill, and planning, and the large list of characters tend to attract a vast number of fans, which has secured its place in this list.
- Hajime no Ippo
Hajime no Ippo* is based off the manga series, which began in 1989 and is still ongoing. It tells the story of Ippo Makunouchi, a bullied student who is saved one day by Mamoru Takamura and taken to his Boxing gym. It is in this gym that Ippo finds himself enthralled by the art of Boxing and asks Mamoru to take him under his wing as a student. He soon seeks to become a champion boxer, a journey that will require his blood, sweat, and tears to reach the top.
This is hands-down one of the best martial arts anime to date. Not only does it have four seasons and an ongoing source material, meaning you’ll never want for more, but the character development allows us to become invested in the characters. As we watch their struggles, we become able to empathize with them as the build-up of emotions outside of the ring explode in the inevitable match.
This anime will sweep you off your feet and leave you wanting to study the sweet-science of Boxing for yourself by the end.
- Dragon Ball Z
Coming in at the top of the list is Dragon Ball Z. Based off the manga, the story has Goku, a member of an alien race called the “Saiyans” that was raised on Earth, working with his allies to defend the planet from threats that find their way to it. It is a sequel to Dragon Ball, taking place five years after the conclusion of that anime, and has a sequel in the form of Dragon Ball Super (let’s just forget Dragon Ball GT ever happened shall we).
The reason this is considered (by me) to be the best martial arts anime is because Dragon Ball Z is a never-ending story of battles that constantly scale up in size. The heroes constantly fight against beings whose power-levels start at planet-destroying and get even bigger with every conflict. It’s ridiculous and cheesy and just an absolute spectacle. All these things help to make it a fun and dramatic series that keeps the viewers enthralled from beginning to end to see just how far the characters can push themselves to victory.
Let’s be real, we all know this isn’t the best anime out there by any stretch of the imagination, but beyond the power of its nostalgia and important place in anime history, it does so many things right that it would be a crime for this not to be in the #1 spot.