For over four decades, martial arts oriented media has been a distinguishing sub-genre to action, and that is largely thanks to Bruce Lee. What makes it very distinguishing compared to other action titles is how it can emphasize a specific style, or several styles of novelty martial arts in its choreography/presentation. With Steven Segal’s earlier titles, it showcased his aikido background. For Ong Bak, it put Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, into the spotlight. Or with The Raid, audiences can familiarize themselves with the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat. Such films (including anime), can help promote their culture domestically and abroad.
However, martial arts media isn’t necessarily always about the action. It’s also about the life lessons you can learn from them, which was popularized by the classic TV series, Kung Fu, and The Karate Kid movies. Through martial arts movies and shows, viewers can learn that martial arts isn’t always about defending yourself or wanting to kick ass (or that it sometimes all about that), but has philosophical value as well. So, where does anime help fit into it all this and with its own distinctions?
Culture/A Way of Life
Since the world became widely exposed to martial arts, it naturally came with its cultural appeals. With anime and numerous martial arts are Japanese in origin, it is a great media form to creatively express the two together.
Karate Baka Ichidai (Karate Master)
- Episodes: 47
- Aired: October 3, 1973 – September 25, 1974
One of anime’s earliest martial arts titles is Karate Baka Ichidai, which we have reviewed as an Anime Rewind. It loosely re-tells the biography of one of karate’s biggest icons, Mas Oyama (renamed Ken Asuka for the anime), the founder of Kyokushin karate. Through this classic series, viewers can see how martial arts is a lifelong journey, and that it is a journey you can express through training in isolation, fighting in exhibitions, and sharing it with interested students. Not only does the main character wish to improve himself physically, but spiritually and mentally as well as he occasionally trains in the wilderness.
After training, he travels the world and demonstrates his art, and the responsibility that comes with potentially deadly skills. To the foreign audience, they see how distinguishing karate is compared to western forms of martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. Through this series, viewers can get an authentic look at karate. Whenever Ken does a certain technique in a scene, the series pans to actual footage of the technique demonstrated by actual karate black belts (even Mas Oyama himself) to prove its actual function and effectiveness. However, Ken does make some mistakes in his youth and you see how it shapes him to becoming a better karate practitioner, teacher, and overall human being, and that is what karate is about.
Shijou Saikyou no Deshi Kenichi (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple)
- Episodes: 50
- Aired: October 7, 2006 – September 30, 2007
As portrayed in the cult hit series Kenichi, we still get a very traditional and cultural point of view to the martial arts, but with a contemporary spin. Through this series, we learn that martial arts was designed for weaker people to defeat physically stronger opponents in self-defense situations. Through Kenichi, we get a view on how cross training as popularized by Bruce Lee for the sake of adaptability in a real fight. Bruce Lee both embraced tradition and finding new ways to improve people physically and spiritually, and Kenichi does an excellent job of conveying this notion.
As to how Kenichi demonstrates this adaptability, when he fights a combatant from a boxing background, as opposed to exchanging punches with him, he uses leg kicks which he acquired from his Muay Thai training in order to stop his opponent’s momentum and to maintain range. Not only does he learn to fight, but he gains self-confidence, the ability to become a leader, and discipline, which is what the martial arts is also all about and why it helps define martial arts in a cultural sense.
Martial arts aren’t only cultural, but athletic as well. Due to the technical nature of them, it’s only natural that many of them are sports with their own unique set of rules. Heck, some people like to say that MMA was in the first real Olympics during the time of Alexander the Great, which was then known as pankration. Each martial art has their own unique techniques and competitions that can masterfully display those techniques and anime has done a great job of portraying the sports quality to certain traditional Japanese martial arts.
Yawara! (Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl)
- Episodes: 124
- Aired: October 16, 1989 – September 21, 1992
One notable anime that originated martial arts in sports was Yawara, based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa (which we also reviewed as an Anime Rewind). Through this anime, you see how Yawara who is both gifted and hardworking is struggling to wanting to live up to her grandfather’s expectations of becoming a gold medalist while wanting to be an average young lady.
Through Yawara, you see how competitive judo can truly get, and it helps educate viewers in context to it. Not only do you learn about the throws involved, but you can learn about the rules of actual judo matches. Viewers not familiar with judo can learn what constitutes an ippon, yuko, waza-ari, or shido in terms of the rules and when throwing an opponent. Not only do you learn about the throws, but you learn about how you can also win by submission like in a regular submission wrestling or MMA competition.
Hinomaruzumou (Hinomaru Sumo)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: October 5, 2018 – March 29, 2019
One unique martial arts anime that mixes culture and competition is Hinomaruzumou, as it’s about sumo on the high school level. As we shared in many articles in relation to this series, it’s understandable that most people have this perception of sumo as two fat guys ramming into each other to push the other guy out. While nobody can deny that is what sumo is on a surface definition, but through Hinomaruzumou, domestic and international audiences can gain a better appreciation of it not just as a sport, but as an art.
Through its distinguishing cast, you learn the positive influence that sumo, or martial arts, can have on a person. With each character, you see how they develop through the grueling training and competition. While each member doesn’t always win, you see how they still build the confidence, values, and teamwork. It helps instill the values of hard work and discipline, and that is something that viewers can obtain from this anime as well. While sumo, or martial arts competitions are one-on-one, you can still learn the significance of teamwork as seen in this anime as the sumo members of Odachi High School work together and support each other.
R-Rated Action Martial Arts
Despite the wide popularity of numerous martial arts films between the 1970s and 1980s, many were rated R for their graphic violence. While martial arts films have toned down since those days to make them more family friendly, there are still anime and manga in Japan that still embrace these old school films that pay homage to Jean Claude Van Damme movies where every punch and kick thrown is with bad intentions.
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: June 25, 2018 – December 17, 2018
While incarnations of the anime have been on this past decade, the original Baki manga has been in publication for nearly 30 years and still running upon the drafting of this article! When Baki debuted, it was the closest thing you could get to MMA before the UFC or King of Pancrase promotions made their debuts! However, Baki takes its influences from old school MMA movies such as Bloodsport and Enter the Dragon where fighters of a certain style compete in an underground tournament that would make John McCain (a senator from Arizona who once called the UFC “human cockfighting”) totally freak out.
Granted Baki doesn’t use fireballs and chi attacks (don’t worry, we’re getting to those kinds of anime), it takes the martial arts genre to a higher level of extremity with how it presents its action. When it comes to boxing, some fighters need a jab to initiate their pace and set up the knock out. With Baki, you go for it straight for the start, which shows how hardcore the action is. What also makes Baki distinguishing is how some of its cast are based on actual martial artists, which include Mas Oyama, Rickson Gracie, Oleg Taktarov, Sergio Olivia, Antonio Inoki, Gianta Baba, and Muhammad Ali, all legends from martial arts and professional wrestling for enthusiasts to get a kick out of.
The Internal Arts
There are some martial arts that are “internal” such as tai chi, which can be used more for improving health and relieving stress. Some notable anime and martial arts media as a whole have taken this notion to unique visual levels. If you’re familiar with Wuxia films popularized by Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or The Iron Monkey, you get an idea as to how martial artists utilize their skills to defy gravity and the laws of physics, and anime is no stranger to doing such things.
Dragon Ball Z
- Episodes: 291
- Aired: April 26, 1989 – January 31, 1996
A fraction of martial arts films emphasize on chi/ki, or the mystical side of martial arts, but Dragon Ball Z also takes this notion to a new realm that has yet to be dethroned. Through Dragon Ball Z, you got characters that can create fireballs that can destroy planets, which adds more to the intensity. Not only that, even when they don’t use kid attacks, when they’re coming at each other full force, every punch and kick that collides, they can level mountains and split seas like Moses. The series in its original incarnation is infamous for its long power ups, but if you see qi gong or tai chi, they do have slow movements in order to make the energy flow, which is the point of such martial arts. Whether or not this is the influence, we can’t say for sure but once you put the two together, it does make sense.
Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star)
- Episodes: 109
- Aired: October 4, 1984 - March 5, 1987
Another anime that takes internal arts to another creative extreme is. If you’ve seen the classic Van Damme movie Bloodsport, in order for Van Damme (as the disgraced Frank Dux) to enter the kumite, he must demonstrate the dim mak, or the touch of death. Well, if you want a touch of death, then look no further than Hokuto no Ken. Once Kenshiro touches you at a certain pressure point or punches you 100 times, then you’re going to explode within seconds.
Final Thoughts (Western Martial Arts and Comedy)
Lastly, we have to acknowledge in the world of cinema and anime, you can’t have comedy in the mix as well. For the last three decades, anime viewers have been treated to Tenjo Tenge, Sexy Commando Gaiden: Sugoi-yo!! Masaru-San, and Ranma ½ as the best that comedy has to offer in context to martial arts. Tenjou Tenge is pretty much season 2 of Cobra Kai before that ever existed of how high school is now a mix of karate and The Warriors mix into one. Ranma½ not only mixes comedy and martial arts, but a bit of romance as well. As for Sexy Commando Gaiden, feel free to check it out. While we have reviewed it in the past, it’s hard to put into words, but it has its own unique way of being a martial arts anime in its own right.
In addition, we have the Western oriented fighting arts, notably boxing. For the longest time, there have been disputes of whether or not to consider boxing a martial art because it’s not Eastern in origin, which was the original criteria. However, a good number of experts and enthusiasts believe as long it teaches a form of fighting, then it qualifies as a martial art and modern MMA competitions have helped pave the way for that argument. Even Bruce Lee, the ultimate authority in martial arts, considered it to be a martial art and incorporated it into his personal form of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, or The Way of the Intercepting Fist. With boxing, there is Hajime no Ippo, the ultimate authority on boxing in anime. Through this series, viewers can see how it embodies the martial arts spirit.
As for performance martial arts like pro wrestling (which evolved from catch wrestling, an actual submission martial art), not only do you get to see it in Baki, but in Tiger Mask W as well. Though pro wrestling is “sports entertainment,” some pro wrestlers have been successful as actual fighters, most notably Josh Barnett, Brock Lesnar and Kazushi Sakuraba, so don’t underestimate the fact that wrestlers “fake fight.” So, martial arts in real life and in anime constitutes itself in many angles and definitions. Some are adventure oriented, some are all about the action, and some are about the philosophy, or there are those that are just a bit of everything. Martial arts media and anime for the last few decades have been evolving but still find ways to stay true to its roots and display something creative and exciting, but without a shadow of a doubt anime has been portraying that evolution the best.