Whether it’s anime, Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong, or Korean cinema, action as a whole is a wide spectrum with sub-categories that each qualifies as their own distinguishing articles (in which some are going to be). In some instances, it’s fights with bare knuckles, firearms, and/or non-firearm weapons such as swords and blades and whatever the imagination can come up with. In other instances, action is expressed through sci-fi and there are those where the mystic arts or some form of the supernatural is applied.
Some sequences are balls to the walls to excite the audience, some are strategic in nature for the audience to keep guessing what’s going to happen next, and some you have to see for yourself to believe. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, an action scene is essentially a small play, but played seriously, and a majority of action in anime does a great job of portraying that notion. In the end, an action sequence tells a story of struggle and overcoming the odds and a large body of anime does an excellent job of utilizing that ultimate rule.
Overcoming the Odds
Though this can also be expressed in sports oriented anime, the ultimate story of what an action sequence is supposed to tell is overcoming the odds. The hero has to face a strong opponent, or face an army of skilled opponents in a big battle. The situation can be for their very lives, to save a friend, or save the world. Due to these conditions, not only does it add a sense of purpose, but a sense of engagement.
Boku no Hero Academia (My Hero Academia)
- Episodes: 63+
- Aired: April 3, 2016 – Ongoing
Izuku Midoriya, the main character, is your classic underdog. He lives in a world where everybody and their mama has a superpower and despite being born to parents with superpowers, he’s a genetic exception to not having any. However, after proving his worth to All Might, the hero of all heroes, he inherits his superpower, or quirk (or “kosei” in Japanese), One For All.
Of course, applying that power is a fight in itself and adds a fresher dimension to overcoming the odds. Whenever Izuku is in a situation, he is putting himself at risk since every time he uses One For All, as he causes severe injury himself to the point that no insurance company (at least in America) would want to cover him (maybe an article on the American health care system in the world of anime would be an article at some point in time). When he fights, he has to do so in a very conservative manner and make it count. Despite how great his power is to the point that he can overcome most opponents (that is once he masters it), the odds against him are not stacked due to the quality of his opponents, but how he can gravely harm himself as well.
Due to this stipulation, it puts more weight into the stakes that Izuku has to overcome and it adds more danger to whatever action he’s involved in because he’s forced into damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. Sometimes, the greatest opponent one faces in life in themselves and My Hero Academia finds its own original way of displaying that through its action sequences. Sometimes, you just have to take the risks or else you’ll be stuck and Izuku is a great metaphor through that with his adversities.
A Sense of Danger
Somewhat going hand-in-hand with overcoming greater odds, action sequences have to present a sense of danger. If you have a Gary Stu with lets say Steven Seagal in all of his movies where he can beat any opponent just by kicking them in the balls and throwing them over with wrist manipulation, that would get boring quick. You can’t have an invincible hero. Even Superman has to have his weakness or have opponents that can still go toe-to-toe with him like Darkseid and Doomsday. When you have a sense of danger, it adds an element of unpredictability and sucks you further into the action.
Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)
- Episodes: 49+
- Aired: April 7, 2013 – ongoing
Throughout the duration of Attack on Titan, you don’t know who’s going to die or get severely injured next. While Attack on Titan is primarily something akin to warfare in context to its universe, it still has a sense of action that only the imaginations of manga creators can have. As stipulated by the title, our heroes have to fight titans and they want nothing more than just to eat humans for what it seems for the thrill of it. Due to their superior size and feral nature (especially depending on the titan that has unique abilities such as crystallizing their bodies or emitting hot temperatures from their pores), it adds a sense of danger in more ways that one.
In actual combat, you have to act fast. If you freeze, you’re dead and this anime does an outstanding job of showing that. A lot of times, the heroes have to work in teams and stick to a plan and if the plan goes wrong or if a key member gets offed for whatever reason, in many instances, the battle is lost so failure is NEVER an option and there is no plan B. When you watch this series, each battle has a set of stakes to it where it means everyone’s lives and there’s no bigger sense of danger than that.
Mind over Muscle/the Supernatural
Fights are genuinely fought with fists, feet and with weapons. Sometimes, supernatural elements need to come into play with some action titles. Some characters have the ability to let’s say shoot fireballs from their hands due to the manipulation of ki in their bodies. Along with that gimmick, it adds more of an element of strategy to the battles since they can only be used sparingly or the combatant will lose energy and give out.
Yuu Yuu Hakusho
- Episodes: 112
- Aired: October 10, 1992 – January 7, 1995
Though some of the previous anime we just shared do share these elements, when it comes to the strategic and tactical aspects of expressing action in anime, no anime does it better than Yuu Yuu Hakusho and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, thanks to its supernatural elements that allow them to emphasize and expand on the mind games of action. When it comes to strategy oriented action titles, Yuu Yuu Hakusho is the OG in that. Yusuke and Kawabara may have started out as mindless brawlers but when they gain their reiki, or spiritual powers, they find ways to direct it in a more clever setting when fighting in the underworld tournaments.
However, the tactics expressed in this anime are rather on the spot instead of planned beforehand. Yusuke and his band of brothers are reasonably seasoned fighters so due to their experiences and training, they find ways to improvise. If their opponent is superior in strength, then naturally the other combatant just needs to concentrate on their advantages such as superior speed and agility in order to win.
JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
- Episodes: 139+
- Aired: October 6, 2012 – Ongoing
Though Yuu Yuu Hakusho has supernatural elements, JoJo just takes it to a level of creativity you just have to see to believe. With its color scheme and poses that resembles the pop art work popularized by Andy Warhol further complimented by in your face references to progressive rock, what you get from JoJo is an acid trip like no other. Long-time manga fans have always praised it for its action and in anime form, it just makes it fresh for both long-time fans and newbies alike. Even before JoJo introduced stands, it always had an unpredictable and yet effective element in context to the strategy. When you see young Joseph in action in the second story arc, he uses bizarre mind games to get into his opponent’s head and manipulate them to say what he just said. When he beats the Pillar men, it’s really hard to put into words. All we can say is that it’s clever and funny at the same time, and it really makes you think.
When stands are introduced into the series, well, that acid trip dials up to over 9000 to the point that you might wake up in 1969 Woodstock when it’s all said and done. To put the action of JoJo in a nutshell, in the immortal words of James Brown, I may not know karate but I know crazy! Due to the unique abilities each stand has, it adds unpredictable and surprising elements that keep the series fresh and still going for another 30 years. Not only are you getting crazy action sequences that are difficult to verbalize, some of the battle cries and voice commands may feel trendy in Shounen, but this novelty just further emphasizes the identity of the series as a whole. Without Jotaro and Dio respectively screaming “ORA ORA ORA ORA ORA” or “MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA” whenever they throw a barrage of punches, it would feel empty.
You can fight bare fisted, or with super powers. In some action sequences, you can use weapons. Those weapons can be with blades and/or firearms. Some firearms can be lazy or cannon oriented, or be based on real ones like an M-16 or a glock. For those with blades, they can be samurai swords or laser energy beams like the lightsabers from Star Wars. So with the imaginative world of anime, weapons can be just about anything.
- Episodes: 94
- Aired: January 10, 1996 – September 8, 1998
When it comes to sword fighting, no other anime series does it better than Rurouni Kenshin. So, what makes its action great? Not only is it super fast and furious, it emphasizes on the technical side of sword fighting despite its gimmicky nature. The series does a great job of showcasing and explaining how the techniques work based on grip, posture, footwork, and your emotional state. So, what does your emotional state have to do with it? To the trained eye, when you read your opponent’s expressions, you get a better idea of their intentions and it provides you a better control of the outcome. When it’s all said and done, Rurouni Kenshin is an action series that shows that you don’t need to be the bigger and stronger guy to win, but just have overall better technique and emotional control.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: April 9, 2006 – June 25, 2006
When it comes to guns, there are numerous titles to choose from that portray them both in a more realistic and exaggerated sense. When it comes to the realistic side of things, Black Lagoon is probably one of the most exciting as it adds a sense of comedy. When you see Revy in action as she holds firearms in both hands, we see how confident and bad ass she is. You see she’s highly trained and experienced and she relatively takes out her opposition with ease.
Then, there are anime that can just mix it all up. It can have blades, guns, dog fights, and pure hand-to-hand combat. If there’s any anime that does an excellent job of portraying those qualities, look no further than Cowboy Bebop. Though Spike is excellent with a gun, he adept at Jeet Kune Do, the fighting art Bruce Lee developed. In addition to Spike, you have his rival, Vicious, who prefers using a blade. Through their fights, you get an excellent cinematography as to how their styles clash. As they say in boxing and MMA, styles makes fights, and Cowboy Bebop does an amazing job of conveying that saying in its own unique way.
To be quite honest, we could talk forever about what makes an action anime. Heck, it might as well be a book! So for those of you reading, you’re reasonably wondering why there’s no mention of Dragon Ball Z or mech anime? Thankfully, we’ve broken some elements down to other sub-genres where we can get more into detail in which such titles can be highlighted so please stay tuned.