Can good ol’ martial arts flourish in a medium where high school students have supernatural powers and neon hairstyles?
Sure, of course!
From sword fights in medieval Japan to hand-to-hand combat, anime features a wide range of martial arts.
So my objective here is to identify anime that showcase the art of battle in the most incredible light possible—making martial arts an important part of the performance.
Keeping this in mind, here are my recommendations for the finest martial arts anime of all time. So grab your black belt and buckle up!
- 21. Afro Samurai
- 20. Kurozuka
- 19. Hunter x Hunter
- 18. Tiger Mask W
- 17. Yawara!
- 16. Ranma ½
- 15. Dragon Ball
- 14. Juubee Ninpuuchou (Ninja Scroll)
- 13. Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer)
- 12. Street Fighter II V (Street Fighter II: The Animated Series)
- 11. Kenpuu Denki Berserk (Berserk)
- 10. Shigurui
- 9. Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou
- 8. Naruto
- 7. Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
- 6. Grappler Baki (Baki the Grappler)
- 5. Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple)
- 4. Seirei no Moribito (Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit)
- 3. Katanagatari
- 2. Sword of the Stranger
- 1. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan (Samurai X)
21. Afro Samurai
I understand. You’re undoubtedly asking why Afro Samurai is here, especially when the voice cast features none other than Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman.
It’s still anime, though, and it’s one of the best.
Afro Samurai is bloodthirsty, unapologetic, and full of style.
This applies to both the series and the film Afro Samurai: Resurrection.
Did you picture an afro-haired warrior confronting ninjas and another samurai sporting a teddy bear mask?
Afro Samurai is filled with vibrant colors, hip-hop, and outrageous sword fights. And I couldn’t have asked for more.
Because of the MC’s look and the combo of swords and firearms, I wouldn’t blame you if you assumed this was Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.
However, Kurozuka was released eight years earlier and features vampires rather than zombie hordes.
Kurozuka, like most of the entries here, isn’t based on a manga.
It’s based on a book by Baku Yumemakura. So it progresses from the Heian period to a nightmarish future in Japan.
Martial arts isn’t significant in this film, although it appears in all of the key action sequences.
19. Hunter x Hunter
I don’t mind if you watch the original 1999 version or Madhouse Studio’s huge 148-episode 2011 adaptation.
What important is that you understand why so many manga fans, like myself, are ready to wait months for a new chapter.
To be sure, there are shounen moments in Hunter x Hunter.
But it’s unmistakably a martial arts animation.
Killua and Gon, for example, do the Flowing Dance, a martial arts workout.
It is a sparring method derived from Kumite, a fundamental part of karate. Isaac Netero also taught the Shingen-Ryu kung fu style.
It’s a long watch, but believe me, it’s worthwhile.
There’s a reason why it’s one of MAL’s most popular shows.
18. Tiger Mask W
Is wrestling classified as a martial art?
Many people now see martial arts as an Eastern idea unrelated to boxing and wrestling, which are more recognizable in the West.
However, folk wrestling is another name for traditional combat arts.
And Tiger Mask W is all about hijinks in the ring.
If you thought WWE was true sports entertainment, wait until you see what happens here.
This is high-flying action at its finest, with just the right amount of craziness thrown in for good measure.
I recommend watching the battle between Tiger Mask and The Third, who does suplexes, chops, and powerbombs, for a brief taste.
It’s okay if you haven’t heard of Yawara.
While it was a rating hit in Japan (versus my next inclusion on this list), it didn’t fare as well elsewhere.
However, it is still a fantastic anime to watch!
Yawara’s titular character is a Judo master.
She refuses to live like one. Yawara desires an everyday existence where she can express herself as a woman and just be with a man.
Unfortunately for Yawara, she frequently encounters hurdles in her daily life that require her to exercise her secret skill.
16. Ranma ½
Ranma 1/2 is a comedic masterpiece that starkly contrasts the violence and carnage of Afro Samurai.
This debuted in 1989, but there hasn’t been another comedic romance like it since.
Consider it Martial Arts: Slice of Life.
Ranma 12 focuses on Ranma Saotome and Akane, who are engaged.
It’s a fun show to watch, and there are 161 episodes to catch up on.
Along the way, they encounter Ryouga and Shampoo, the latter of whom is from China and is a member of the Joketsuzoku, which is trained in body manipulation and pressure point attacks.
15. Dragon Ball
If you thought Ranma 1/2 was extremely old, wait until you saw Dragon Ball from 1986.
The series is the grandfather of shounen and super-powered MCs, and is perhaps one of the all-time most popular anime, alongside Pokemon.
From Dragon Ball through Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai, the narrative is filled with wild conflicts.
The series gradually focuses on explosions and energy strikes. However, there are still hints of martial arts along the way.
The brand features seven martial arts schools, as well as the World Martial Arts Tournament.
Goku excels at boxing and kickboxing, with a kicking technique similar to taekwondo.
14. Juubee Ninpuuchou (Ninja Scroll)
This Madhouse project, which debuted in 1993, is set in feudal Japan and features a swordsman named Jubei.
He has little time for political wrangling, and he also has to cope with a swarm of magical ninjas.
It’s similar to Shigurui in that it’s not suitable for children, but it features far less gore.
The battles with the Devils of Kimon are beautifully coordinated, and the flowing animation is timeless. Give it a shot if you can get a copy or stream it online.
13. Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer)
Nobody could have predicted how popular Kimetsu no Yaiba would become.
As the year’s indisputable #1 anime, it spawned memes and boosted sales of Zenitsu, Tanjiro, and (most notably) Nezuko merchandise.
Aside from its emotionally gripping tale and endearing cast of characters, Kimetsu no Yaiba demonstrated why Ufotable is still a top-tier studio: it understands how to create outstanding action sequences.
The famous series, set in Japan’s Taisho era, challenges the heroes against a plethora of demons, each with their unique set of powers and limitations.
This program, like Afro Samurai, enjoys sword combat.
It also includes a whole new set of sword-fighting methods known as breath styles, which is a visual treat.
12. Street Fighter II V (Street Fighter II: The Animated Series)
This list would be incomplete without Ryuu, Chun-li, Guile, and the rest of the Street Fighter franchise’s iconic figures.
Ryu and Ken Masters are martial artists.
And this adaptation is the closest we have to the arcade game’s hype-inducing matches.
Street Fighter II V — yes, two roman numerals — includes a variety of fighting styles ranging from Muay Thai and kickboxing to Shotokan karate and ninjutsu.
Seeing these guys fight will never get old.
11. Kenpuu Denki Berserk (Berserk)
Is it really necessary to introduce Berserk at this point?
This dark fantasy has always gone all out in terms of spectacle and fear as one of the most famed anime and manga ever.
There have always been rivalries in anime, but few can compare to Guts and Griffith.
This is an epic that does not yet have a conclusion. You may say that Guts has gotten overpowered and unrealistic.
However, the utilization of flip strikes, excellent postures, and just superb melee combat is noteworthy.
Please, however, do not watch the 2016 sequel.
It’s simply not excellent in comparison to the 1997 TV series or even the feature trilogy (The Golden Age Arc).
If you’re looking for more Berserk, check out the manga.
Shigurui’s vicious nature is an understatement.
Elfen Lied and Higurashi When They Cry pale in comparison to the meticulous, even beautiful violence of this 2009 series.
The plot is straightforward.
You follow two gentlemen as they compete in a competition using actual swords rather than wooden swords. One has only one arm, while the other is a blind samurai.
It’s aimed at children, but I can’t recommend the series more highly.
Despite the presence of sword battles, the style is not for everyone.
Let’s just say it takes a more “artistic” approach than the typical fast-action moments.
It’s more of a slow burn, with visuals of decapitation and gut-spilling sticking with you longer.
9. Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou
Forget about the 2018 sequel, Basilisk: Ouka Ninpouchou. Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou didn’t require a sequel that missed what made the first so amazing.
Even though its fighters possessed magical talents, the first series felt realistic – it was like Naruto for grownups.
Its first episode was outstanding, establishing the tone for the rest of the show: two tribes battling to the death.
Basilisk is a battle royale done correctly, with plenty of exciting and heartbreaking moments.
You never know how each death will play out, and it’s quite astonishing how powerful they can be.
I just said Basilisk is Naruto for grownups, but that doesn’t imply the latter isn’t good – far from it.
Naruto, along with One Piece and Bleach, is one of the “big three” shonen anime.
The main tale is ended (after what felt like an eternity of filler arcs), but that doesn’t diminish its accomplishments.
Naruto continues to serve as a gateway to both anime and martial arts animation.
Rock Lee symbolizes taekwondo, whilst Neji uses a combat style similar to Chinese martial arts known as Pakwachang.
Of course, Naruto, like Dragon Ball, contains a lot of boxing and kickboxing. So there’s something for everyone here.
7. Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
As you may have observed, I have a lot of ancient anime on my list.
However, this is a tribute to the success of titles like Fist of the North Star.
Furthermore, I can’t deny the visual attraction of vintage anime.
This Toei Animation masterpiece, released in 1984, depicts a post-apocalyptic scene.
However, it is undeniably a martial arts anime through and through.
Kenshiro, the main character, is skilled in Hokuto Shinken, a fictitious martial art type from ancient China.
Consider Naruto’s Negi doing his Gentle Fist taijutsu that targets crucial places.
6. Grappler Baki (Baki the Grappler)
To be honest, the appearance of the characters in Baki the Grappler made me nervous at first.
They’re all these hulking combatants with frightening eyes. I admire the realistic muscles, but it felt scary.
Baki the Grappler is still a beast of an anime.
It all comes down to becoming the finest boxer in the world, and Baki will not budge.
In almost every fight, Baki seemed to be on the verge of losing.
Every next opponent seemed to be more muscular than the one before.
Nonetheless, Baki the Grappler reminds us that strength is nothing without intellect.
5. Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple)
Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple is my favorite comedy, well surpassing Ranma 1/2.
Although I like the latter as an anime, Kenichi provides more in terms of practical martial arts.
For 50 episodes, you may see Kenichi grow from a weakling to a fearsome adolescent warrior.
You get to accompany him to his tough dojo sessions, where you will study everything from Muay Thai to Chinese martial arts.
Is it the most visually appealing martial arts anime? No.
Can it entice younger viewers and inspire them to pursue martial arts? More so than the majority of the entries on my list.
4. Seirei no Moribito (Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit)
Seirei no Moribito, like Kurozuka, is based on a book.
In particular, the first book in Nahoko Uehashi’s book series.
It’s just 26 episodes long, yet it’s jam-packed with memorable weapons-based martial arts.
Is there any other anime that focuses on spear martial arts?
Balsa Yona, armed with her trusty spear, is one of anime’s most formidable female characters.
Moreover, despite being a 2007 anime, it looks far superior to a more contemporary series owing to Production I.G.
I’m sorry, but I thought Katanagatari was part of Shaft’s Monogatari franchise.
For starters, it’s from White Fox.
Second, it is devoid of all head tilts.
Katanagatari, on the other hand, is essentially Sword Fights: The Anime.
But here’s why I like it so much: the guy uses a fighting style in which he has to use his own body as a sword.
That’s correct. Shichika Yasuri, like a dog on its leash, is both the weapon and the weapon wielder.
It also has a distinct aesthetic appearance, like a cross between Western and Japanese designs.
2. Sword of the Stranger
Sword of the Stranger is the finest martial arts anime film for a multitude of reasons.
This award-winning film does not sacrifice its plot to generate magnificent set pieces and brilliant cinematography.
I have no complaints about this film.
It’s well-paced and trims out the bloat, offering a straightforward tale with a feast of sword fights.
Despite this, our samurai MC swears not to wield his sword. Isn’t it intriguing?
It is, indeed, violent.
But it’s not gratuitously violent.
Sword of the Stranger has a lot of heart, and it shares my No. 1 pick’s feeling of remorse and atonement.
1. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan (Samurai X)
In my opinion, whether it’s anime or not, it’s a classic piece of art.
In reality, the live-action film adaptations much exceeded expectations.
You’re certain to see some of the finest anime moments of all time, whether it’s the prologue OVA (Trust and Betrayal), the ending OVA (Reflection), or the expansive 94-episode series.
Kenshin has a reverse blade katana that he may use to bash his foes.
His romantic interest Kaoru has received kenjutsu sword instruction.
Aoshi and Hajime are both skilled with the kodachi and katana swords.
Then there are individuals like Sanosuke and Anji who can fight with their bare fists.
Edo-era Japan? Check.
A masterpiece soundtrack? Check.
A legendary character? Check.
Shishio Makoto and Seta Sojiro, iconic villains? Check.
One of the greatest redemption tales ever told?