Have you heard of anime (アニメ)? No, we’re not talking about Dora the Explorer and I’m not going to wait for your reply onto your screen before I explain what I mean! Anime is actually the Japanese word for “animation”—a loan word, borrowed from one culture and given to another, hence why the two words sound so similar. Although the word itself doesn’t refer to content coming from a specific region, the term has become popularized worldwide as a synonym for “animation from Japan”.
The impact of anime has continued to grow across the globe with each passing decade, all the more so as dubbing improves and anime streaming websites gain popularity. While anime includes numerous genres (horror, slice of life, comedy, romance, sci-fi, adventure, adult – the list goes on), there are yet commonalities that can be found.
Typical tropes in anime include exaggerated expressions, unique art style, and plot continuity across the series.
Raise your sword in the air if you have heard of the popular anime Naruto! Personally, I love the long-running series centered on the orange-haired ninja. From the use of kuji-in hand signs to the focus on Ninjutsu and Taijutsu and Genjutsu, you would be surprised at how much actual ninja history and methodology is referenced in the series.
My point? Anime can actually take a lot of inspiration and borrow heavily from the world of martial arts. You should be prepared to indulge in at least one of these anime series before your next training session. Meantime, read on for our Top 5 Anime for Martial Artists! (in descending order)
- Ranma ½
- Hajime no Ippo
- Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple
- Samurai Champloo
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Action, Slice of life, Fantasy
Does the thought of a cold shower make you shiver? Well, at least they don’t turn you into the opposite sex! After falling into cursed hot springs while training in China, sixteen year-old martial art prodigy Ranma Saotome is fated to transform into a girl anytime his body touches cold water, a process that only gets reversed with a splash of hot water.
To complicate things even further, Ranma’s father has arranged for him to marry Akane Tendo, a female martial artist with a disdain for boys. Hilarity ensues as many odd-ball characters pop into their lives and wreak even more havoc on their already crazy lives.
The Ranma ½ anime series was serialized from 1989 to 1992 and went on to produce multiple OVAs (Original Video Animation: the anime equivalent to a special episode, sometimes not shown on TV) and even feature films.
If you haven’t seen the martial art comedy, it’s not too late to change that!
Genre: Sport, Comedy, Drama, Action
Shy and cowardly high-schooler Ippo Makunouchi might have spent his entire life being bullied if not for coincidence. After a boxer saves him from a beatdown and introduces him to the sport, Ippo steadfastly takes his first step towards becoming a pro-boxer and finding out what it means to “be strong!”
Based on a manga (Japanese comic book) that has been running since late 1989 and is still going strong, Hajime no Ippo has a lot of material to animate. The popular anime is broken down into three seasons and three TV specials, each with many years between them.
You would be hard-pressed to not get emotionally invested in young Ippo as he grows, meeting new rivals and ultimately becoming a legend. Look beyond the action and emotions and you’ll also find numerous call-backs to real-life boxers and their famed techniques.
The list of boxers mentioned and referenced include greats such as: Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán, “Prince” Naseem Hamed, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Oscar De La Hoya, and many more. Definitely a knockout anime for any boxing aficionado!
Genre: Adventure, Action, Comedy, Ecchi (some adult themes)
Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple (Also called Shijō Saikyō no Deshi: Kenichi) is the classic story following a weakling turn into a warrior; the type of story that fires up the flames of passion in every young ambitious fighter.
Protagonist Kenichi Shirahama is a fifteen year-old high school student who would much prefer to spend his days gardening than fighting. That’s not the preference for the bullies at his school however.
After many years of dealing with relentless bullies along with the requisite beatdowns, he discovers Ryōzanpaku, a dojo housing five masters, each from different disciplines. There is the 100th dan karate master, Shio Sakaki; the kind-hearted Thai Kickboxer with killer moves, Apachai Hopachai; the weapons prodigy who can take out anybody with anything, Shigure Kōsaka; the poetic bone-breaking and bone-setting Jujitsu master, Akisame Kōetsuji; the mischievous master of all Chinese styles, Kensei Ma; and the invincible superhuman and grandfather to Kenichi’s new school friend/crush, Hayato Fūrinji.
Over the course of the series’ fifty episode run (plus eleven OVAs), you see the main hero grow stronger and face far more uniquely dangerous, enemies. A big highlight of the series is how diverse a world of martial arts is depicted. Viewers are introduced to Capoeira, Pencak Silat, Muay Boran, Japanese Jujitsu, Sambo, Savate, and many more styles.
Whatever you train, it is more than likely referenced, if not directly showcased, within this anime. My advice: watch the series and see it for yourself!
Genre: Adventure, Mature (language / adult themes), Action, Historical
Hip Hop and Samurai culture, I now pronounce you husbando and waifu. This mid-2000’s anime married the culture of the East and the West, juxtaposing a soulful hip-hop soundtrack, unique action sequences (B-Boy Samurai moves), and an alternative Edo-period backdrop to create overall, an amazing animated series.
In fact, the name itself references its own creative blend. Champloo comes from the Okinawan word “Chanpurū”, a word commonly used for a signature Okinawan stir-fry but also meaning “Something mixed”–as is the case of this anime and its many stylistic influences.
The twenty-six episode series follows the (mis)adventures of an odd trio, a former waitress accompanied by two indebted samurai with polar opposite personalities, as they set off on a journey across Japan to find the “samurai who smells like sunflowers”.
The characters couldn’t have been better foils for each other. The unique team-up is comprised of Fuu, the light-hearted voice of reason; Mugen, the break-dancing brawler with a blade; and Jin, the stoic swordsman without a master.
The series went on to be critically acclaimed and developed quite the following, its music style being particularly appreciated. Be sure to ch-check it out!
Genre: All ages, Action-adventure, Fantasy, Comedy, Drama
OK. Some might argue that the “Avatar” series is a Western cartoon and isn’t real anime. Regardless of the debate, the series is worth the watch. Originally airing in 2005 on the children’s network Nickelodeon, Avatar quickly captured the hearts of both the young and the old.
The world of Avatar is divided into four nations, each represented by one of four elements—fire, air, water, and earth. Within each region, there exists humans capable of “bending” their respective element. Everybody lived in harmony until the Fire Nation raged war in an attempt to claim the world. The only one who could stop them and restore balance to the world? Aang, a young boy born with a deep spiritual connection and capable of mastering all of the elements.
Avatar: The Last Airbender does many things right. You can find character depth and growth, a simple yet intricate plot, and solid action. What stands out the most, however, is the fighting styles. Each bending style is an accurate representation of a traditional Chinese martial art.
The firebenders have Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, the airbenders use Baguazhang, waterbenders have Tai Chi, and earthbenders use Hung Gar (with one character specializing in Chu Ka). At one point, the series even delves into chakra balancing! Not your typical children’s series at all. Its success led to a 2010 live-action film, a 2012 sequel series, and an upcoming live-action Netflix series (unrelated to the prior film).
Whether you’re a junior or senior viewer, and whether you practice traditional Chinese martial arts or not, I would highly recommend you watch this series at least once in your lifetime.