Cutting Through a Forest of Swords: a Survey of Swordplay Anime

gundam 0079 m3 char vs amuro fencing

[This post has no spoilers, pic somewhat related]

As I’ve said recently, one thing that interests me almost as much as mecha anime is samurai anime. If there are swordfights, I’m somehow interested. In this post I’m going to give short impressions, or rather what I took away from the anime I’ve seen with hand-to-hand weapons action. This is not by any means a comprehensive survey (I have not seen Bleach, Soul Eater, or Naruto). I’m an amateur appreciator in every way, but I will try to be clear in what I appreciate in each show.

Before I begin, let me state my bias for ‘real samurai’ anime (to draw an analogue between real robot anime). I mean this to describe shows that have an apparent dedication to plausibility in both the narrative elements, as well as the combat action, with emphasis on the latter. I think that a foundation on realistic elements allow for the fantastic elements in the show (or manga) to shine, or rise to the foreground like high relief. Given that most of these narratives are tall-tales and/or fantasies in themselves, this approach makes it very enjoyable for me.

Note that I won’t say much about characters, plot, or story; as it would take too many words to discuss them adequately. My impressions here will be limited to the combat elements. In no particular order, here is a sample of the shows I’ve seen:

Rurouni Kenshin/Samurai X

This was a big tease for me, especially the OP. Every episode I would hope a little more of the fearsome Batoussai would show up, but in general the whole thing is very tame. Also, I would classify this show as a ‘super samurai’ show, wherein there is a fetishization of power techniques that are animated with bright flashes and even explosions (at times the attacks are called out too). A lot of these attacks are physically improbable to a very very high degree. Nonetheless, it can be enjoyable up to the end of the Yokohama arc. Beyond that you’re on your own.

Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal

rurouni kenshin trust and betrayal batoussai tomoe

This is very, very enjoyable for me. Gone is the attention paid to special attacks. Gone is the fancy trick moves. What’s left is what seems to be practical swordsmanship, and it is much more lethal than anything from the TV series. This really satisfied my thirst for the Battousai within the Himura Kenshin character. The animation of the battles and duels is very fluid and slick, the colors are muted — even Battousai’s hair is darker,  even if still improbably red. This show is very violent; blood flows freely and casualties casually pile up.

Shura no Toki

shura no toki shura artist vs yagyuu jubei

A very interesting premise: a secret line of weaponless martial arts masters who best even the most skilled swordsmen throughout Japanese history. I would say that the action is well choreographed, but ultimately this show suffers from low frame rate action scenes. It just doesn’t look as impressive after watching a few fights. It’s a shame, because it also provides a bird’s eye view of Japanese martial history, as well as giving cameos of famous swordsmen.

Samurai Champloo

A whole lot of fun, and has very inventive swordfights and duels. The inventiveness comes from the character Mugen, whose style looks like breakdancing — flair sweeps, lots of jumps, all combined with slashes from unusual directions. This is balanced by the character Jin, whose style is very orthodox. Whether duels with other masters, bands of enemies, or each other, very fast passes of fluidly animated action is abundant. I recommend it.

Ninja Scroll

ninja scroll screen shots

A movie straight out of the ’90s, and one of the shows that broke my world and expectations of what anime can be. Jubei’s duel against the blind ninja in the bamboo thicket is still one of the best ever. This show is my introduction to the period swordfight genre. Violent, gory, and sexually graphic, I loved this as a teenager. Fantasy elements abound, since the conflict is mostly against demon ninjas. However, the conceptualization and direction of the fight scenes holds up and doesn’t age much. I would love to watch this remastered and in HD.

Basilisk

Covering similar material as that of Ninja Scroll, you’ll see a lot of weird ninja powers here. The fighting is less grounded in reality compared to Ninja Scroll, but what remains is still very interesting and entertaining. It is very violent and has a significant body count. Each death among the featured characters tries to be interesting and novel, and most of the time it succeeds.

Shigurui

Lots of mood and atmosphere, and adheres to the ideal of the ‘perfect strike.’ There is an economy in fencing, that is one strike should be clan and powerful enough to finish the job. While this should make for rather uneventful duels, the show compensates in part by going into the minds of the duelists, where they play out the exchanges as they imagine or anticipate them. This allows the show to indulge a lot of bloody violence. That said, the actual executed scenes are gratuitously bloody. However, this style tends to use fewer frames, and the animation is not fluid.

Sengoku Basara

This show features elements of the ‘super samurai’ categorization in the least off-putting way. There are big explosions, tornados, lighting bolts, fireballs, all supposedly delivered by sword strikes. It makes up for it in my eyes through it’s very fast pace. Fights move very quickly, and are layered on top of each other (different fights are going on at the same time, and focus shifts from dramatic moment in one fight to cliffhanger instance in another). The overall feel is zany, which makes the nuttiness easier to take. Also, I actually argue that the action isn’t the big draw here, but rather the abundance of manly rhetoric that makes the otherwise caricatures of characters… awesome.

Seirei no Moribito

Warning, this is not an action show. However, the action it does have, in a few desperate fights, are some of the best in tv series fare. Very fluid animation, inventive choreography, and done in a very dignified air (I seriously think so) that contributes to an overall gem of a show. The fights involve spears, which aren’t that popular a weapon for duels, but the spear wielding here is other-worldly. I particularly enjoy how the animation shows the spear’s shaft bending before impact, adding another layer of fluidity beyond that of simple addition of frames. These fights look pretty.

Sword of the Stranger

sword of the stranger blu-ray cover

The only other full length feature in this list, Sword of the Stranger is my favorite. The swordplay in this anime is excellent. It has a lot of things going for it: fluidity due to a generous amount of frames per second, excellent fighting choreography, superb use of environments to highlight the action as well as interact with the fighting, and speed — the fights happen very very fast. While I say that the fights happen very fast, it doesn’t mean that they resolve quickly. The best duels, in any case, can get protracted and desperate. This allows the show to highlight structural damage, wear and tear on the weapons (the nicks on the swords after all that blocking and parrying is excellent use of detail), lots of interesting attacks, and visceral cuts and bloody wounds. It’s one show where I really enjoy watching people get cut up.

Some remarks:

Again, very little of what happens in this show is realistic. These fights are highly stylized and are choreographed for maximum entertainment value. That said, those fights that seem most realistic are what I find the most entertaining. As for the Gundam image at the top of the post, yes Amuro and Char did indulge in some fencing during the battle of A Baoa Qu. I don’t hesitate to indulge in mixing Gundam in this post because mobile suits are often armed with beam sabers and other melee weapons. Swordplay is a big deal in Gundam and some other mecha. The Vision of Escaflowne comes to mind.

Further Reading

I begin the conversation on ‘reals’ and ‘supers’ in discussing manga aesthetics in Vagabond and Shigurui [->]

Shigurui and atmosphere [->]

Why I really think you should watch Seirei no Moribito [->]

Breaking down final fights in Samurai Champloo (spoilers) [->]

Sengoku Basara and GAR [->]

Manly Rhetoric? What is this I don’t even [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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42 Responses to Cutting Through a Forest of Swords: a Survey of Swordplay Anime

  1. Cuchlann says:

    *gasp* No love for Utena? The shame, the horror of it all!

    I enjoyed Kenshin, but I have nothing to compare it to at the time. It might be the LAST thing I would ever re-watch, even though I don’t hate it, exactly.

    • digitalboy says:

      LOL Utena, hard to actually think of that as a sword-fighting anime. The fights were 100% symbolic, anyway. But maybe that means they deserve mention even more.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Utena is on my watch list. Given its reputation and the considerable virtual ink spilled for it, I’ll probably want to write about it too. I had no idea that fencing was involved though. Definitely this year.

      • super rats says:

        I wouldn’t watch Utena to see well animated sword duels. There are other reasons you might want to see it, but not for the duel animation. Mechanically, the fighting animation in Utena was recycled so heavily to the point of comedy. Maybe I’m just a knuckle dragging mouth breather.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Wwww “knuckle dragging mouth breather”

          I rofl’d.

          Gotcha.

        • adaywithoutme says:

          Well, the recycling of footage for the sword duels actually plays a role in the storyline – yeah, I’m sure they didn’t mind it cutting down on the cost, but not recycling stuff would’ve taken away from the overall symbolism present in the series.

          • yes. Utena does everything on three levels, I think – a level where it’s ‘our budget sucks’ a level where ‘we are parodying shoujo cliche’ and a level where ‘this is somehow symbolic’. The swordfights are a culmination of these.

            But they are pretty fun for the unique angles they take on as the show progresses.

  2. digitalboy says:

    Sword of the Stranger has what I’d call the outright best fights in anime history. That final battle is simply glorious beyond all reason. I sort of got into anime in the first place on samurai and swords, and recently have been trying to re-enter the genre ever since I FINALLY got a real sword.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Amen. It is quite a spectacle. I really like it how blondie mixes his strikes (elbows and kicks) into his flurries.

  3. animekritik says:

    interesting read. on the whole reals vs supers, do you think that you can put all shows in one of the two categories, or are there more? i’m talking for example of mecha. Real mecha, super mecha…

    don’t worry about soul eater for swordfighting, though. it’s very peripheral to the series.

    • ghostlightning says:

      The duality is more like a continuum or at least a sliding scale. Also, I’d rather talk about this in terms of shows rather than individual mecha. It’s because if we go that way, every robot can have a case for ‘real-ness’ IMO.

      However, specific anime have more or less a clear aesthetic that leans on one more than another.

      For example:

      FLAG and VOTOMS are as real as it gets, with Macross shows being unlikely followers (because Macross is kind of goofy).

      Recent Gundam shows like 00 will be closer to the super side of the continuum, the the base aesthetic is ‘real.’

      On the super side, but closer to the real side of the scale would be Neon Genesis Evangelion.

      Shin Mazinger Z Shogeki Hen would be at the extreme super side of the aesthetic scale. After all, Mazinger Z is the first robot to coin the term Supaa Robotto (from the original OP: supaa robotto majingaa zetto!).

      What’s different from this way of distinguishing things compared to say, how Super Robot Wars fans do it, or how Vendredi does it [->] is that the individual robots are classified. I’d rather categorize shows, because shows like Gundam (Wing, G, 00), or TTGL may have both kinds while their aesthetic clearly favors one over the other.

      To transpose this to samurai shows, I would say Shigurui would be an example of a ‘real’ that is closer to the border of ‘super.’ While the two Kenshin shows are as different ends of the sliding scale.

      What’s important to me is that 1) It’s not a classification of specific characters and their sword styles; and 2) it’s more a categorization of shows based on my perceived aesthetic of theirs.

  4. JELEINEN says:

    Have you seen Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran? It’s a fun show with sword fights that are fairly impressive for TV level animation.

  5. kadian1364 says:

    Bamboo Blade, anyone? That’s a show that kind of goes for the sports-and-school angle, but it definitely deserves merit as a ‘real’ sword-fighting anime.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I see the sense in your suggestion, but it’s so different from all these shows that it doesn’t really belong in my comparative survey. I think it’s a good show though. I like it a lot.

      • kadian1364 says:

        Right, I only thought it deserved some passing mention, since Utena cropped up somewhere in the conversation, and that’s really out there.

  6. gaguri says:

    Shigurui I loved. Trust and Betrayal was a masterpiece. Samurai Champloo doesn’t have the impact of Cowboy Bebop but still extremely satisfying. Ninja Scroll is a kickass old school movie. Other titles there do not interest as much but Sword of Stranger is very high on my list.

    Hmm I don’t have anything to recommend except Utena, which is mentioned before…Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is a pretty awesome amano-inspired movie, has few swordfights (but mostly supernatural oriented fights). Escaflowne has robots wielding sword but I guess thats more of mecha fights…yea, I got nothing :/

    • ghostlightning says:

      I like Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, that was quite an awesome show, in the sense that it looked gorgeous from start to finish. The Vision of Escaflowne is quite the show too. It was a favorite of mine at some point, also due to the magnificent score (parts of which I used in my wedding ^^). I considered it for this list, but somehow I stuck with the Samurai and Ninja.

      I strongly recommend Seirei no Moribito though, you get much more than seeing less of well-made fight scenes.

      • gaguri says:

        Ah, forgot about Seirei no Moribito. Actually it is one of those titles that I think is overrated, no doubt it’s a quality work, just not as brilliant as some people make it out to be. But still, had some of the best choregraphed and fluid swordfighting in animation.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Well, I somehow think that it’s the smoked cheese lol. Just finished it recently. I don’t think it’s terribly ambitious, but it’s quite excellent at what it did. It took me a long time to finally watch it, because it didn’t call out to me strongly at first, but I’m very happy I watched it and now it’s upsetting my top 10 favorites table. That will be my next post (which I talk about the recency bias for the most part).

          • kadian1364 says:

            Top 10 list? Funny thing you mention it, because I’ve been recently revisiting my ‘Favorites’ list and rewatching them all (the ones I have on DVD anyway). I can’t pin down #10 atm, but I’m looking forward to seeing your list and how old/new shows rank on it.

          • ghostlightning says:

            Tomorrow! WRL publishes at exactly 00:00 GMT every other day. Funny enough #10 seems the most difficult to slot. In my case it went from a lack of candidates, to suddenly OMFG how could I have overlooked all of these?!?!

  7. vendredi says:

    Samurai 7 might have a spot on the list; while there certainly is a lot of run-of-the-mill mook carving, there are certain duels here and there that are pretty nicely choreographed.

    Animekritik might be on to something when he notes a wide disparity between “real” and “super” – I think this applies quite strongly in the case of most anime that falls more on the action side of the genre, where calling out special attacks and using secret moves, techniques, or equipment is the game of the day.

    I’d probably have to give it more thought (and maybe a post-length treatment), but what strikes me is that there are different ways we think of “realistic” anime: there’s outright plausibility, which is – would this actually make sense in real life? Given the nature of animation, most of the time plausibility is barely there (mecha are not likely to find their way into the armed forces soon), so it’s rather verisimilitude we look for, the illusion of reality.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Yes versimilitude, I was never confident using that word so I shied away from it lol. I tried watching Samurai 7 on TV but got real bored, it didn’t help that Kurosawa’s film was very fresh in my mind then.

      I stand by Shigurui being close to the middle of the sliding scale. There is a fetishization of techniques, quite a high degree (and these techniques are quite ridiculous), but there is versimilitude, so it works out quite well.

  8. schneider says:

    Shura no Toki looks interesting, lols.

    There’s also Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto, which is set during the Bakumatsu (duh). However, I only saw the first episode, so I can’t say much on the samurai aspect. Feels supernatural, though.

    I remember Yaiba, too, but it was more about the Dragon Spheres than straight-up swordfighting.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Oh yeah, I actually watched this, but I dropped it near the end because I was watching it for the samurai action, instead I got a lot of demons and kabuki. It’s even a Sunrise show, strange. It has some interesting swordfights, but they happened too few and far between for me at the time and I got bored and pissed off.

      LOL Yaiba. I watched a bunch of episodes of that too back then. There was hardly any anime on TV at the time lulz.

  9. otou-san says:

    I have sadly seen very few of these, although Ninja Scroll totally shaped me as a fan (like it did so many other people). The only other one I’ve seen the whole way through is Champloo. I’m curious where you see that on the real/super scale: it’s bizarrely plausible to imagine a guy fighting like Mugen, but Watanabe makes no real attempt to be anything other than fantasy in the show overall.

    Shigurui and Stranger are both on my watch-soon list.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Champloo is on the ‘real’ side of the scale, quite safely too, even if Mugen is a super robot (srsly, he is – his A/T field can allow him to withstand explosives like nothing), not to count the blind spear lady, the dude who went to China, and a few others. They are firmly balanced by Jin and most of the others, including Sunflowers-dono.

      I’m still kind of pissed how Jin has a mutant healing factor (either that or his internal organs know kung-fu and can dodge swords plunged into his innards), but by and large this goofy fantasy of a show is dedicated to plausibility in its depiction of swordfights, doesn’t obsess itself with named techniques, doesn’t call out attacks with bright explosions and sparklies, and really somehow wants you to believe this can all happen.

  10. Martin says:

    The whole swordplay thing in anime never really interested me – I’ve heard good things about Trust and Betrayal though. Maybe it’s the slow frame rate of a lot of anime that ruins it a bit for me.

    Sword of the Stranger is an exception though. Not only is it really smooth and well-choreographed, the fights are an integral part of the plot. It’s formulaic in some respects but the movie in general is a great piece of adventure. The most bad-ass dog in recent memory too.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Yeah, it’s hard to get into swordfights when there’s hardly any animation going on. Also, I actually watched Sword of the Stranger after reading one of your posts that mentioned it, so thanks!

  11. DonKangolJones says:

    I read & read & read. And I was wondering if I was ever going to see it & didn’t. Le Chevalier D’Eon. Samurai? No. But knights are involved, not the heavy armor carrying kind, and I highly recommend you check it out for the pretty insane plot alongside the beautiful action animation. This is the one show that I saw that really showed off fencing. No offense to Rose of Versailles or Utena. It was done by Production I.G. after they finished G.I.T.S. S.A.C. As for the other anime listed…

    I’ll always have special place in my heart for Rurouni Kenshin, the show & the OVA. The show for showing how utterly ecstatic I could be about a swordfightm, and the OVA for showing me how depressed and weeping I could get after watching a good show. Champloo will always be a fun watch that I can pick up anytime. Ninja Scroll had the same impression on me that it had with you. A pure and violent wet dream for a teenager’s imagination. I put it up there with Cowboy Bebop as one of those shows that will never be outdone by anything that tries to follow in it’s footsteps. I haven’t really checked out much of the other shows. Sword of the Stranger is high on my “must watch” list, though.

  12. SWORDS says:

    Its really amazing how swords are work especially those sharp samurai im really impressed on that even on video games…

  13. Xin says:

    You are a talented reviewer, remaining objective in your criticism and giving good reasons for and against the different series. I’m quite interested in some of them, moreso now because of the helpful feedback you provided.

    Just one typographical flaw! In your review for Shigurui you mispelt “clean”, writing clan instead. Great work!

    • Thank you! I didn’t set out to review these series — only present them from the perspective of someone looking for swordplay action. You will find that most of the posts in this blog aren’t reviews. Nonetheless I’m glad you find this post enjoyable or useful. Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Solo Life says:

    Great…search for long time for this picture.

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  17. Kiriks says:

    I’ve seen everyone of these! With the exception of Moribito which has been on the top of my must watch list for a while. I suppose i should just break down and watch it. I cant agree more with your assessments. Although Shura No Toki holds a special place in my fav anime list, so I can’t fault it for the shitty frame rates especially considering its age. I too am constantly looking for swordplay in anime. I saw somebody suggest Kazemakase Tsukikage Ran, which I gotta give credence to. Watch it and enjoy the sword swinging drunkard. Although I’ll warn ya its as old as Shura No Toki

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