In a medium where high school students have magical powers and don neon hairstyles, can good ol’ martial arts even exist in anime?
Well of course!
From sword fights in medieval Japan to hand-to-hand combat, the diverse forms of martial arts abound in anime.
So my goal here is to find anime that highlight the art of combat in the best possible way. Making martial arts a significant element of the show.
With that in mind, here are my top picks for the best martial arts anime of all time. Grab your black belt and strap in!
21. Afro Samurai
I get it. You’re probably wondering why Afro Samurai is here, especially when the voice cast includes Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman no less.
Well, it’s still anime — and it’s one of the slickest ones ever.
Afro Samurai is bloody, unapologetic, and oozing with style.
This goes for both the series and the movie sequel Afro Samurai: Resurrection.
Did you imagine an afro samurai facing ninjas and a fellow samurai wearing a teddy bear mask?
Afro Samurai is drenched in neon colors, hip-hop, and over-the-top sword fights. And I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Still, this is pretty much style over substance. Which is why it’s it’s just breaking in at the start of my list.
I won’t blame you if you thought this was Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress due to the MC’s appearance and its combination of blades and guns.
But Kurozuka came out eight years earlier, and has vampires instead of undead hordes.
Also unlike most of the entries here, Kurozuka isn’t adapted from a manga.
It’s an adaptation of a Baku Yumemakura novel. So it goes from around the Heian period to a dystopian future of Japan.
Martial arts isn’t that prominent here, but it pops into frame for all the main action scenes.
19. Hunter x Hunter
I don’t actually mind whether you watch the original 1999 adaptation or Madhouse Studio’s 148-episode epic 2011 adaptation.
What matters is that you understand why so many fans like me are willing to wait literal months for a new manga chapter.
Granted, Hunter x Hunter is filled with shounen moments.
But it’s definitely a martial arts anime.
For example, Killua and Gon do the Flowing Dance, a martial art exercise.
It’s a sparring technique that comes from kumite, a main aspect of karate. Also Isaac Netero taught the kung fu style Shingen-ryu.
It’s a long watch, but trust me It’s worth it.
There’s a good reason why it’s one of the highest-rated series on MAL.
18. Tiger Mask W
Is wrestling considered martial arts?
Many people today think of martial arts as an Eastern concept, and that it’s unrelated to boxing and wrestling which the West is more familiar with.
But traditional martial arts is also known as folk wrestling.
And Tiger Mask W is all about wrestling shenanigans.
If you thought WWE was real sports entertainment, you’ve yet to see the twists and turns here.
This is loaded high-flying action with just enough ridiculousness to boot.
To get a quick taste, I recommend checking out the fight between Tiger Mask and The Third who does suplexes, chops, and powerbombs.
It’s alright if you’ve never heard of Yawara.
While it was a ratings success in Japan(against my next entry on this list) it didn’t do as well outside the country.
But still a really great anime to check out!
Yawara stars its titular character who’s basically a Judo master.
She doesn’t want to live like one. What Yawara wants is a normal life where she can express her femininity and just be with a guy.
Unluckily for her, Yawara often dips into obstacles in her everyday life that force her to use her hidden talent.
16. Ranma ½
In sheer contrast to the death and blood in Afro Samurai is the comedy classic Ranma ½.
This aired way back in 1989, but there hasn’t been a comedy romance like it ever since.
Think of it as Martial Arts: Slice of Life.
Ranma ½ revolves around the lives of Ranma Saotome and Akane, and they’re engaged.
It’s a delightful watch — and it has 161 episodes for you to marathon.
Along the way they meet people like Ryouga and Shampoo, the latter of whom is from China and is part of the Joketsuzoku who are trained in body manipulation and pressure point strikes.
15. Dragon Ball
If you thought Ranma ½ was old, get a load of Dragon Ball from 1986.
Arguably one of the all-time most popular anime alongside Pokemon, the series is the granddaddy of shounen and super-powered MCs.
From Dragon Ball to Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Kai, you get a saga featuring insane fights.
The series eventually becomes more about explosions and energy attacks. But you can still see bits of martial arts along the way.
The franchise has seven schools of martial arts and there’s also the World Martial Arts Tournament.
As for Goku, he’s excellent in boxing and kickboxing — with his kicking style reminiscent of taekwondo.
14. Juubee Ninpuuchou (Ninja Scroll)
Juubee Ninpuuchou is the first movie entry on this list.
Premiering back in 1993, this Madhouse project is set in feudal Japan and follows a swordsman named Jubei.
He’s got no time for all the political strife, but he also has to deal with a bunch of supernatural ninjas.
It’s like Shigurui in that it’s not safe for kids, but it thankfully has much less gore.
The fights against the Devils of Kimon are gorgeously choreographed — the fluid animation is timeless. If you can find a copy or find it streaming online, do give it a try.
13. Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer)
Nobody expected just how popular Kimetsu no Yaiba would become.
As 2019’s undisputed top anime, it inspired memes and led to a surge of Zenitsu, Tanjiro, and (most especially) Nezuko merch sales.
But apart from its emotionally engaging story and lovable bunch of characters, Kimetsu no Yaiba proved why Ufotable is still a top-tier studio: It knows how to craft top-notch action sequences.
Set in Japan’s Taisho era, the acclaimed series pits the protagonists against a whole slew of demons, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Just like Afro Samurai, this show relishes in sword fights.
But it also adds in a whole set of sword-fighting styles called breath styles — and it is an absolute visual delight.
12. Street Fighter II V (Street Fighter II: The Animated Series)
This list wouldn’t be complete without Ryuu, Chun-li, Guile, and the rest of the iconic characters in the Street Fighter franchise.
Ryu and Ken Masters are literally martial artists.
And this particular adaptation is the closest we have to the arcade game’s hype-inducing matches.
Street Fighter II V — yes, two roman numerals — features a variety of fighting styles ranging from Muay Thai and kickboxing to Shotokan karate and ninjutsu.
Seeing these guys fight each other will never feel old.
11. Kenpuu Denki Berserk (Berserk)
Does Berserk even need any introductions at this point?
As one of the most infamous anime and manga ever, this dark fantasy has always gone all out in terms of spectacle and terror.
Anime has always had rivalries, but only so few can compare to that of Guts and Griffith.
This is an epic that we don’t even have an ending of yet. You could argue Guts has become OP and less realistic.
But the use of flip strikes, proper stances, and just impressive melee combat is worth noting.
However please don’t watch the 2016 sequel.
It’s just not good at all compared to the 1997 TV series or even the film trilogy (The Golden Age Arc).
If you really want more Berserk, read the manga.
To say that Shigurui is violent is an understatement.
Shows like Elfen Lied and Higurashi When They Cry hold no candle to the detailed and even beautiful brutality of this 2009 series.
The story’s simple.
You follow two guys as they participate in a tournament where real swords instead of wooden swords are used. One only has a single arm while the other is a blind samurai.
It’s definitely for kids, but I also can’t put the series any higher on the list.
Despite featuring sword fights, the style isn’t for everyone.
Let’s just say it takes a more “artistic” route instead of the usual fast-action sequences.
It feels more like a slow burn — scenes of decapitations and gut-spilling linger with you more.
9. Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou
Forget about the 2018 sequel called Basilisk: Ouka Ninpouchou. Basilisk: Kouga Ninpou Chou didn’t need a sequel that clearly forgot about what made the original so special.
The original series felt realistic even if its warriors had special abilities — it was like Naruto for adults.
Its first episode was excellent, setting the tone for the rest of the show: Two clans fighting to the death.
Basilisk is a battle royale done right, featuring tons of exhilarating and heart-wrenching moments.
You’ll never expect how each death unfolds, and it’s honestly amazing how affecting they can be.
I did just say that Basilisk is Naruto for adults, but that doesn’t mean the latter is bad — far from it.
As one of the “big three” shonen anime alongside One Piece and Bleach, Naruto has done it all.
The main story is over(after what felt like endless filler arcs) but that doesn’t erase its achievements.
Naruto remains as a gateway to not only anime, but also martial arts anime.
Rock Lee represents taekwondo while Neji has a fighting method reminiscent of Chinese martial arts called Pakwachang.
Of course, much like Dragon Ball, Naruto has loads of boxing and kickboxing too. So there’s something here for everyone.
7. Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
As you may have already noticed, my list contains quite a lot of old anime.
But that’s a testament to the achievements of titles like Fist of the North Star.
Plus, I can’t deny the aesthetic allure of old anime.
Released in 1984, this Toei Animation classic presents viewers with a post-apocalyptic landscape.
But it’s undoubtedly a martial arts anime through and through.
The main protagonist, Kenshiro, is proficient in Hokuto Shinken, a fictional martial art form from ancient China.
Think of it as Naruto’s Negi when he does his Gentle Fist taijutsu that targets vital points.
6. Grappler Baki (Baki the Grappler)
Admittedly I was initially unnerved with how the characters looked in Baki the Grappler.
Like, they’re all these super muscular fighters with menacing eyes. I respect the detailed muscles, but it was a bit creepy.
Still, Baki the Grappler is a beast of an anime.
It’s all about being the best fighter in the world, and Baki won’t stoop to anyone.
Almost every fight, it feels like Baki is about to lose.
Every new opponent looks extra-muscular than the one before.
And yet, Baki the Grappler reminds us that brawn is nothing without brains.
5. Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple)
Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple is my top comedy entry, way higher than Ranma ½.
I like the latter more as an anime, but Kenichi offers more in terms of actual martial arts.
For 50 episodes you can witness the rise of Kenichi from a weakling to a formidable teen fighter.
You get to follow him in his rigorous dojo sessions, learning everything from Muay Thai to Chinese martial arts.
Is it the best-looking martial arts anime? No.
Can it appeal to younger audiences and motivate them to try out martial arts? More so than most entries on my list.
4. Seirei no Moribito (Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit)
Like Kurozuka, Seirei no Moribito is adapted from a novel.
Specifically the first entry in Nahoko Uehashi’s book series.
It’s just 26 episodes long, yet it’s packed with standout weapons-based martial arts.
Plus, is there any other anime that highlights spear martial arts?
Balsa Yonsa, with her trusty spear, is one of the most fearsome female characters in all of anime.
And despite being a 2007 anime, it looks much better than more recent shows thanks to Production I.G.
This is kinda embarrassing, but I thought Katanagatari was part of Shaft’s Monogatari franchise.
For one, it’s from White Fox.
Second, it lacks all the head tilts.
Instead Katanagatari is pretty much Sword Fights: The Anime.
But here’s why I love it so much: The guy literally utilizes a fighting style where he has to use his own body as if it was a sword.
That’s right. Shichika Yasuri is both the weapon and the weapon wielder, like a dog holding its own leash.
Plus it’s got a unique visual look — like a hybrid of Western and Japanese styles.
2. Sword of the Stranger
The best martial arts anime movie is Sword of the Stranger for a variety of reasons.
This award-winning film doesn’t compromise its story to create some stunning set pieces and clever cinematography.
I can’t fault this movie.
It’s well-paced and gets rid of all the fat — presenting a clear-cut story with a smorgasbord of sword fights.
And yet, our samurai MC has an oath not to use his sword. Intriguing, right?
Yes, it’s violent.
But it’s not over-the-top kind of violent.
There’s a lot of heart in Sword of the Stranger and it shares this sense of guilt and redemption with my No. 1 pick.
1. Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan (Samurai X)
Was there any doubt that Samurai X would be my top choice?
It’s a classic work of art in my book — anime or not.
In fact, the live-action movie adaptations turned out much better than expected.
Whether it’s the prequel OVA (Trust and Betrayal), the concluding OVA (Reflection), or the sprawling 94-episode series, you’re guaranteed to witness some of the best anime moments of all time.
Kenshin can beat up enemies with a reverse blade katana.
His love interest Kaoru has kenjutsu sword training.
Aoshi and Hajime have mastered the kodachi and katana swords, respectively.
And then you have guys like Sanosuke and Anji who can duke it out with bare hands.
Edo-period Japan? Check.
God-tier soundtrack? Check.
Legendary protagonist? Check.
Iconic villains like Shishio Makoto and Seta Sojiro? Check.
One of the best redemption stories ever? Absolutely.