Martial Arts and Anime - A Combination Worth Fighting For

Surely, you are familiar with the term “anime”. It is both a style of drawing and a reference to animations both digital and/or handmade. Depending on where you live, your idea of what anime is will be different. To those who live in Japan, anime theoretically refers to anything and everything that is animated, or on video – every moving cartoon and every digitally illustrated piece.

There’s the concept of martial arts. Martial arts are systems and practices of combat using the human body as well as different weapons. There are whole arrays of styles of martial arts. There are the traditional kinds, contemporary versions and even combinations of the two. The intent for practicing martial arts can vary, too. One may do it for entertainment purposes, others may do it for self-defense, while some do it to stay fit.

The East Asian Perspective on Martial Arts

Though this does not mean to infer that the use of systemized combat didn’t originate from Asia first, Martial Arts, in its essence, is a term that is not Japanese at all. In fact, the word “martial” has ancient Roman roots what with the Latin word “Mars” being the god of war. Thus, the art of how the god of war practiced his moves in battle was labeled “Martial Arts”.

It’s a cultural bias that leads us to connect the idea of martial arts, firstly and automatically. To those that are Chinese, Korean, or Japanese in nature, such as kung fu, taekwondo and karate. The truth is, any system of fighting can be considered a martial art – but that doesn’t mean that people are going to stop favoring Japanese martial arts over the rest.

The World’s Interest in Martial Arts

By the 1970’s, pop culture saw a boom in interest in the world of Martial Arts. Increasingly, people wanted to learn more about Asian martial arts, and practice the different styles available as a sport or hobby. Perhaps you could attribute the sensationalism of  all the way media has portrayed it in movies and television shows. “The Karate Kid” (1984), for example, is a classic movie that teaches about the lessons and discipline that are involved in learning the Karate system.

Bruce Lee also had a lot to contribute to the surge in popularity of martial arts in mainstream media and live action movies, his footsteps followed by other martial artists such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan. This lead to martial arts being more often used as part of a plot or to pepper fight scenes in the media. Anime would develop to be no exception to this.

The Japanese Celebrate Their Culture and Productions

To understand why martial arts is so common in anime and manga - whether it’s just a special move in one fight scene or the story itself revolves around a specific martial art. One must go back in history to understand the fact of how pure and preserved Japanese culture is combined with a dose of confidence in their country and nationalism.

Until Commodore Perry showed off his technologically advanced weapons to the higher ups in the Japanese politics pre-Meiji period, Japan was very strict about foreigners entering their country and whom they traded with. Because it was a place so closed-off from the world for hundreds of years. They take great pride in their traditions, cultures, products, and practices that originated and were purely cultivated from their country.

They don’t hesitate to incorporate what is inherent in their culture (Japanese martial arts) this in their storylines. Especially companies like Toei, It’s really no surprise that there are so many themes of martial arts in different anime, be it a television show or a film.

The Growing Trend of Anime

Add the fact that you’ve got the steady rise in interest in anime to the mix and you have a larger audience hungry for more content. Though it used to be a niche media and still collaborative efforts of both Japanese and western studio groups to create shows which both cultures can appeal to have blurred its lines as a niche entertainment genre.

It also helps that the internet has made many different anime shows available and easy to watch no matter where you are in the world. This enables anime to expand its reach to different parts of the world not just North America and Europe.

When Martial Arts Finally Meets Anime

Combine the aspects of an anime feature film and martial arts, and you have endless possibilities. Some anime take the time to research about the martial arts moves that they make their characters perform. While others don’t. Either way, these shows are still likely to become hits – probably because they follow the “rule of cool”. The philosophy of the rule of cool when it comes to martial arts goes along the idea of “As long as flying kick looks awesome, form and physical limits don’t matter.”

Martial arts have been used so often in anime that it is considered an artistic license with the way that the martial arts moves are exaggerated. It also has innumerable sub categories of TV tropes. There’s even a trope for when the character in the anime busts out martial arts moves that no one expected him/her to have. Defeating the gloating enemy. That’s just one example – another trope is “Supernatural Martial Arts”, where the character emits a power beyond human capability as they perform the offensive or defensive move.

An Example of A Japanese Animated Movie Featuring Martial Arts

“Juubee Ninpuuchou”, or in English, Ninja Scroll, is an example of a Japanese animated movie concerning martial arts - ninjutsu. It rated a 7.9 on IMDB and a 7.67 on myanimelist. The anime is set in the time when Japan was still feudal. The main character, Jubei Kibagami, is a swordsman with no master. The story begins when Kibagami defends Kagero, a female ninja, from an enemy with the ability to harden his body (Supernatural Martial Arts).

Kibagami doesn’t want to involve himself with the objectives that his newfound friend Kagero is on a mission to complete. One of which is to find out more about the plague that killed an entire village. But, he is harassed by the demonic accomplices of the villain that tried to kill Kagero earlier on, as well as a government spy wants him to help solve the mystery of the plague and corners him into doing this by poisoning Kagero, promising to administer the cure only after the puzzle is solved – all leading up to a revolution against the Tokugawa Shogunate.

This is just one of the many examples of an anime that features a complex storyline, with visual excerpts of ninjutsu added for points in cinematography – skimming along the trope of “rule of cool”. Other famous movies that can be technically considered an anime (in the way that the Japanese understand the word) that involve martial arts are the different Naruto movies, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, Kung Fu Panda, and Tekken: Blood Vengeance.

The Best Japanese Anime Shows about Martial Arts

Naruto and its sequel, Naruto: Shippuden, are famous anime that highlight martial arts moves through a plot that lasts 220 episodes and 500 episodes. To restore peace, Konoha had no choice but to trade his life to contain the beast in Naruto, his son who was at that time, a newborn. Naruto grows up secluded from the village because of his relations to Nine Tails. Naruto finds out this story after he defeats ninja Mizuki with a martial art move called the Shadow Clone Jutsu Technique.

From then on, Naruto becomes a ninja and goes on adventures with team 7. his gang of mission-accomplishing friends. His ultimate passion is to become the Hokage of his village which he goes through some violent twists and turns along the way. Naruto Shippuden is the events that unfolded two years after the first series ends.

Rurouni Kenshin is another massive hit in the anime world. It was a show that involved a lot of sword fighting, an intricate storyline around Kenshin’s bloody past and his will to avenge it. Before he was known as Kenshin, he was called Hitokiri Battousai, a powerful assassin that killed mercilessly during the Japanese Revolution feared by his opponents. As Kenshin begins his reformation to becoming a better person, wandering around different towns aimlessly, he meets Kaoru Kamiya along the way, an owner of a kendo dojo.

At that time, Kaouri was being harassed by someone who called himself the real Battousai. Kenshin helps Kaouri with this menace, and in return, lets him live in the dojo. Kenshin would continue to try to stay true to his newly formed morals as problems and people from his past would make their ways back into his life.

During his fights with his opponents, Kenshin would use some martial art techniques with his sword. One of these would be the Ryu Tsui Sen, where he would spring upwards and make a downward motion slash with his sword. Then there’s the Ryu Sou Sen which is a series of quick slashes in the same motion towards the same point. Ryu Shou Sen has used as a counterattack anything that would be coming towards him from the air. These are just a few of many.

Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z tops the list in terms of some of the most classic anime you could refer to in terms of martial arts. Dragon ball came first, detailing the story of a very young and the super strong Goku, who was a vagabond of sorts. He would soon stumble upon Bulma through a car accident with her, later on finding out she had a Dragon Ball, which was coincidentally what he wanted also. Bulma and Goku would team up to find the rest of the Dragon Balls because having all 7 of them could make any wish of theirs come true.

Just like any story, They were up against Lord Pilaf who was a villain who wanted to rule the world – and set out to collect all the dragon balls for himself. Goku would continue on his goal to find these dragon balls while learning different martial arts moves as he would train to get stronger along with his journey. Dragon Ball Z, the sequel to Dragon Ball, entails the next chapters of Goku’s adult life – this time with his sons, and the new developments among his old enemies and friends.

Fictional Martial Arts in Anime

Also known as the trope “Fantastic Fighting Style”, there are some anime that make up their own styles of fighting that are sometimes ripped off traditional combat systems. Thus, being called fictional martial arts. Sometimes, the moves used here are extremely dangerous or unrealistic and cross between the supernatural martial arts trope. This is evident even in Rurouni Kenshin, where some of his sword fighting styles – particularly the Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu - need extra strength, precision and anti-gravity laws to accomplish in real life.

Then there’s the Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu from Ranma ½. Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu translated means “Anything Goes Martial Arts” a style created by Happosai, a Grand master of this fighting system and school. This is the form of martial art used by Ranma himself and the rest of his family. The way behind Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu is not so much that anything goes, literally. It’s more like, anything goes that will work best, combined with many other techniques that execute well with your style.

Martial arts in anime has inspired many people to learn different fighting systems. Whether it’s for fun, fitness, or self-defense, inspiring people to learn a new skill is always an appreciated result – even if it’s just from watching anime.