While not necessarily in vogue among anime critics lately, it isn’t hard to find rankings of very specific subjects within the community. “Top 10 Strongest Anime Characters”, “Top Ten Anime Villains”, “Top Ten Anime Couples”, etc. And of course, who could forget the perpetually memed “Top Ten Anime Betrayals,” which I don’t think I’ve ever seen created unironically.
However, while overdone, it has never felt like the kind of thing that anime critics do begrudgingly out of some unspoken tax as per the job. After all, anime has a lot of cool shit and fights are no exception. It’s only obligatory so far as such a thing is relatively easy to create and an ample excuse to ramble about things we like. That’s half the reason people like me become critics anyway.
So in no particular ranked order, here are a few my favorite anime fight scenes.
[Minor Spoiler Warning For the Following Shows/ Films]
Swordplay – Nanashi vs Luo Lang, Sword of the Stranger
The most obvious choice should be addressed quickly I suppose. By this point, Masahiro Ando’s 2007 film Sword of the Stranger is a certified classic from Studio Bones. It is practically a cosmic inevitability that any who watch the film will think of one scene in particular when it comes to mind. The final sword fight between Nanashi and Luo Lang.
On a narrative level, the rivalry is alluring by how similar both combatants are. The hero, Nanashi, is revealed to be a foreigner found in a shipwreck as a child and whose red hair made him stand out. The other is also a foreigner raised among Chinese warriors. Both serve or served a lord whom they didn’t necessarily agree with, but whereas the former chose to abandon his clan to wander as a ronin out of guilt for his deeds, the latter stayed, finding joy in battle.
The climactic final battle is brought to life by none other than Yutaka Nakamura, in what has to be his most famous work to date. The two-minute cut, seldom interrupted, is likely what got many people like me to care about sakuga and the art of specialist animators.
Nakamura’s signature, whether it be in service of fight animation, effects animation, or anything else, lies in movement. Even when defying reality, he creates realist character animation to sell the impacts of each hit. Similarly, he plays around with motion to convey the speed of the subject. Many have noted how in his cuts, swords in motion create triangles through the arc of the swing, mirroring the perceived delay in one’s eye processing an object’s movement.
Stranger‘s final fight feels supremely satisfying not only thanks to Nakamura’s dedication but the music as well. Naoki Satou’s soundtrack fits the cold atmosphere of Japan in the thick of Winter while simultaneously harkening back to classic western/samurai films with a heroic orchestral arrangement. The entire film, already rich with great animation, builds up to this ultimate dual.
To this day, I’m not sure there has been a better sword fight put to animation.
Hand-to-Hand Combat – Spike Spiegel vs Vincent Volaju, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
I have often stated to my friends that if I ever made a movie, the essential components would be…
- A fight on a train
- A fight on top of a large tower or structure
- A character being thrown, punched, or kicked through glass or some fragile surface
Any keen reader may have noticed that the previous entry on this list already crossed off the fight on the tower. Well god-diggity-damn, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door had the decency to have all three. Two of them in the SAME SCENE even. Much like Stranger‘s final fight, Bebop‘s final fight was the perfect end to a great film.
Spike and Vincent’s rematch is one of the most adrenaline-filled fights I’ve bared witness to. Atop a tower above a bustling Mars city on Halloween night, the two duke it out while the rest of the characters work to stop Vincent’s plan from achieving fruition. The battle is already won in Spike’s favor, whether the audience realizes it or not, but that’s not important. The fight is purely a formality; payback for Spike’s prior beating and a courtesy from one tortured soul to another.
As soon as “Pushing the Sky” by The Seatbelts starts blasting, the fight is kicked up to 11 right as it has begun. There is this beautiful blend of graceful martial arts and brutal grittiness. I would compare this fight to something like The Raid in its pacing and choreography.
The angles of the shots themselves are also just dynamic enough to create striking moments. Spike goes for a punch and gets trapped in a combo by Vincent early on, leading to a nasty punch to gut, leaving Spike hunched over. But just as Vincent gets close enough, Spike nails him with an upward strike.
Thanks to animation director Masahiro Ando, the choreography is masterful and borrows techniques from martial arts cinema. In the final half of the fight, Spike performs a roundhouse kick and we see the impact twice from two different angles to sell the impact. Additionally, anime is no stranger to using slow-motion to achieve the same effect and the same technique is used here. Martial arts cinematography meets animation in a brutal and beautiful blend
My favorite part is when Spike starts getting the upper hand and the shot holds on him just assailing Vincent with a flurry of kicks. I still remember giggling with glee the first time I saw it. You gotta love action that makes you wince and the sound effects combined with the music made the scene a gift that kept on giving.
The fight goes through the typical arc of a traditional Hollywood action fight, starting with high energy and ending at a slower pace as the combatants become exhausted. However, it’s produced so much better that I would consider this to be the perfect action climax. This and the fight from Stranger serve as exceptional examples of action as a narrative tool, just in two distinct ways: one uses swords, while the other uses fists.
Between the two, I’m honestly torn. On an emotional level, the Bebop fight puts a smile on my face each time. On a technical level though, Sword of the Stranger has a leg up considering its beauty was achieved by one single man. Either way, they are both fights worth watching to the end of their respective films.
All For One (No, not that one) – Everyone vs Shimazaki, Mob Psycho 100 II
Mob Psycho 100 is already a pretty excellent series with no shortage of great fights, but there is only one that I go back to watch again and again. From the latter half of season two, it is the battle between Mob’s entourage and perhaps the second most powerful bloke on the enemy side, Shimazaki.
Lots of characters have teleportation abilities and they’re usually pretty neat. None of them are as cool as Shimazaki’s. I don’t think any other show has utilized teleportation even half as cool as Mob Psycho did at this moment.
And what better way to emphasize the strategic potential of overpowered teleportation than with an all versus one battle. from the moment the first explosion happens, things are already not looking good for the good guys. Shimazaki teleports out of a chokehold, leaving one person to get hit by an ally’s attack. In one of my favorite shots, we witness a POV shot aiming down the sights of a gun, see the character’s aim become desperate, looking for Shimazaki after he teleports, only to realize he is right next to him.
There are tons of super clever shots that you just don’t see anywhere else. At the start of the fight, two concrete walls close up on Shimazaki and in the next shot, he’s already on higher ground behind all of the others. The visual direction wordlessly conveys just how powerful he is without even needing to telegraph his power with flashy particle effects or sounds. Of course, those are present when they need to be, but the sparse use of them creates moments like the above-mentioned.
Scale in a battle can be super important towards conveying the power of the participants, almost more so than the powers themselves. In the beginning, Shimazaki kicks everyone’s asses despite facing off against about eight combatants. In the second half, once Teruki starts turning things around by predicting where Shimazaki will strike, everyone’s combined strength becomes a force to be reckoned with.
The only thing cooler than one awesome superpower is a group of heroes combining their abilities into one. ‘All versus one’ battles like this are a golden opportunity for character building through team attacks. Whether the mob ends up victorious or defeated, the fight is highly memorable.
Pure Emotion – Siegfried vs Karna, Fate/ Apocrypha
Okay, so… Fate/ Apocrypha isn’t great. There are a ridiculous number of characters, a pretty forgettable protagonist, and the premise behind the alternate timeline is hard to follow. However, there are a bizarre few episodes right at the end where suddenly Apocrypha became the talk of the sakuga community.
Episodes 22, 23, and 24 all had their fair share of well-produced, episode-spanning fights, the most epic of all of them being the battle between Siegfried and Karna. It has no right being this good.
For one thing, the fight itself is quite poorly produced in context. The end of the series takes place on a giant floating fortress yet the setting of the fight may as well be one of those big open canyons from Dragonball Z. The sense of space is entirely inconsequential to the intent of the scene which is nothing other than battle.
Take a look at this Sakugabooru page and read the comments to get a bit more insight on who animated what in the scene
Secondly, the animation direction has some serious issues with visual consistency which isn’t surprising given how much time and money was put into the end of the series. During one shot-reverse-shot, the character art changed dramatically in quality, clearly to a different animator’s style. These episodes are a mess… but I genuinely love them
Some background: Sieg, the main character, is a homunculus whose life was saved by and named after Saber of Black, named Siegfried. Whenever convenient to the plot, Sieg turns into Siegfried and fights (it only happens like twice I’m pretty sure though. So upon reaching this final battle, Sieg makes a deal to battle with Karna, one of the strongest characters in Fate cannon.
At this point, it might not sound as though I’m even that excited. Believe me, I am, because this fight is simply astonishing. The nearly ethereal setting is set ablaze almost instantly by the clashing of beams of energy. The colors of this scene alone are characters in the fight. The blue Siegfried hurling beams of light at the warm-colored Karna, clad in black and gold. The battle is color contrast incarnate.
The perception of weight in each attack extends even to the beams of energy as Siegfried brings down an attack so enormous that Excalibur from Fate/ Stay Night looks tame in comparison. I can only imagine what it would be like watching this fight in a big theater because the bass-boosted sound effects are a heaven-sent gift. Every class of swords or explosion drills right into your brain.
As soon as I first witnessed Karna activate Vasavi Shakti, his most powerful attack, I don’t think I closed my mouth until the fight was over, save the moments my move moved once more to exclaim some sort of expletive. It’s like watching a sun spawn in the middle of a canyon. Rock and soil just melt and Siegfried just barely keeps his footing above the molten ground.
If I’m being honest, a big reason why this fight hits as hard as it does, besides everything I’ve already mentioned, is the music. I have talked about Masaru Yokoyama before in my reviews of Black Fox and Sirius the Jaeger, but the man creates songs that not only match the scale of the stories he works on but actively enhances them with his work.
In one fight between two warriors with nothing but respect for each other, there is better character interaction than in most of the series. Karna talks of unleashing upon Siegfried his most powerful attack as an honor bestowed to him and in attempting to counter it, Sieg uses his command seal to try and will himself to victory, proclaiming, “I order this body with a command spell! Now grant me the glimmer of victory that comes from freedom!!!”
It’s some hype shit, my dudes! And when not even that’s enough, Astolfo comes in with Lancer’s Noble Phantasm and saves the day. Sure the ability gets no explanation and doesn’t make sense, but you get the idea that it absorbs Karna’s attack and allows Siegfried the chance to end it all.
I tried to think of another fight that captured my imagination this much and got me re-watching time and time again. Naruto and Sasuke vs Momoshiki from Boruto very well could have taken this exact spot for all the same qualifiers and better visual consistency, but I didn’t include it for the same reason I never voted it to win the ‘Best Fight’ award at the Anime Awards.
Now I don’t mean to throw shade at anyone who likes Boruto but it seems like every time I see a clip with over a million views, its always either Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, or some other random schmuck who is doing something cool. You know, the characters from fucking Naruto. I can’t even be 100% sure the character Boruto even exists.*
(*obvious sarcasm is obvious)
Not to mention, Boruto is already over 140 episodes long and all I’ve gathered is that in-between stuff like the Momoshiki fight, it’s boring as fuck. Apocrypha might be mediocre at best, but at least it had the decency to end after 25 episodes and have more than three memorable fights. So on principle, I have to give it to Fate/ Apocrypha.
If you couldn’t already tell I constructed this list to comment on specific attributes of my favorite fight scenes that make them special. If I had one more to share it would likely be symbolic of a fight that was as impactful as it was because of the narrative context. The fights I’ve mentioned thus far were all impressive on their own, some of them even better out of context such as Apocrypha. But now and again you watch a show that feels like it was building up to on particular moment.
Scenes like these make you shout “hell yeah” way too loud at night when you’re binging a show. While there have been a great many of these, I want to point to just one example that really resonated with me and likely propelled this series to be a 10/10 last year.
A Perfect Scene – Tanjiro vs Rui, Demon Slayer
Binging Demon Slayer in one week was a wild ride and one I am immensely grateful for. It’s vulnerable and frequently emotional cast elicited a lot from me as a viewer with each new battle and subsequent struggle to overcome limitations. It was much the same love of characters that got me addicted to Attack on Titan or Fullmetal Alchemist years prior.
Demon Slayer is another in a long line of popular shows which earned moments like the one I’m about to describe. By episode 19, pretty much all the characters were in a bad way, but especially Tanjiro and Nezuko were in dire straits. A little more than a quarter of the season had been spent in that damn forest fighting the least whimsical eccentric family anime, led by Angsty McSpider boi, otherwise known as Rui.
Things are pretty much looking worse and worse for the two siblings every minute, and the scene plays on the emotional appeal of their bond, both furious at each injury inflicted upon the other. For Tanjiro, it seems that every step forward is met with a new obstacle.
Just as Rui unleashes an insultingly cool stronger form to his deadly threads, Tanjiro is pretty much certain he is about to die. Here, we are treated to a flashback to his father and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful dance animations I have ever seen.
Tapping into an ability of his father’s which he had long forgotten, the water ability which Tanjiro had been known for turns to fire. Now Rui is on the defensive and Tanjiro’s going after him like a boot to a spider. I didn’t think the scene could get better.
And then I remembered Nezuko.
Nezuko, whose most consistent trait has been her silence, finally speaks. Well, technically it’s her internal monologue, but right as she dreams of her mother telling her that Tanjiro is about to die, she gets woke right quick. For the first fucking time in a non-flashback capacity since the first episode, Nezuko speaks and it is to activate a demonic power all her own.
So with the best brother-sister tag team since Alex and Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist, Nezuko explodes all of the blood covering the threads, obliterating them in the process and wins Tanjiro the opportunity to cut that asshole’s head clean off.
And the episode ends right before they can ruin it by saying that he isn’t actually dead… hmm… Well, it’s still pretty fucking cool.
Demon Slayer is just one of many shows that had moments like this that justified an already satisfactory viewing experience. Far be it from me to call this the best of it’s kind, but it’s a pretty solid example in my book.
Hell, while I’m at it, let’s run through some of my other favorites. This will be shorter if only because there isn’t any singular quality that sets these apart. I could watch and admire these fights for hours on end.
Hei vs Contractors, Darker Than Black OVA
Much like the first season, this fight gives me serious Batman Beyond vibes from the aesthetic to the techno music to bad guys with cool superpowers to the guy dressed in all black with grappling hooks kicking 31 flavors of ass. What’s not to love? There’s even a lovely cut by Yutaka Nakamura right at the end.
Kyouka’s Parents vs Assassins, Bungo Stray Dogs Season Three
Finding out that Kyouka’s parents were government agents alone was awesome, but watching them murder a bunch of masked assassins together like something out of Mr. & Mrs. Smith? Priceless. The whole affair ends up being somewhat of a tragedy, but it’s an unforgettable scene nonetheless.
Giga Drill Break, Gurren Lagann Movie 2
It took the already incredible finale, made it even cooler (somehow), and added more nudity.
No, but seriously, fights like this are exactly the kind of thing I was talking about with Demon Slayer. Perfectly encapsulates the talents of Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima and their ability to increase the scale of a story up to the point of sheer insanity without losing the audience. Emotional, beautiful, and completely gratifying.
Survey Corps vs Colossal and Armored Titans, Attack on Titan Season Two
Even knowing what was going to happen, the reveal of the Colossal and Armored Titans’ identities had my heart pounding from excitement. The tension builds so elegantly over the four minutes prior to the fight alone. The titans cavalierly reveal their identities so anticlimactically that it actually contributes perfectly to the eventual tipping point.
The fight reaches incredible heights for the series before anyone has even activated their transformations. From that point onward, it didn’t matter what happened. It was already an incredible fight. Eren channeling Annie to pull of some sick martial arts leg locks was the icing on the cake. A superbly directed battle, years in the making.
The opening scene to the Star Driver movie
Star Driver was practically Bones’ original Mob Psycho. It was an amalgamation of the industry’s best talent making a bonkers action show directed and written by absolute legends. So I should be more upset that the movie just ended up being a big recap with preceded no follow up… but at least we got this scene right?
A heroic anthem straight out of a show from my childhood, gorgeous color and character design, and the perfect amount of destruction animation only made me more disappointed that we never got a sequel. Though I’ll admit I’m not sure where the story would go beyond the show and this opening scene anyhow. It kinda goes back to the problem with Fate/ Apocrypha. It’s awesome, but if I actually understood the context of this film’s opening fight, who knows how my feelings would change.
The beauty of anime is getting to enjoy scenes like this for no other reason than creators having awesome stuff they want to show off. So rather than be disappointed when they try to capitalize on the success and fail, sometimes it’s better to just enjoy what we get.
And so ends my list of some of my favorite anime fight scenes. I guarantee within a week or a month I’ll remember one that slipped my mind and feel immediately stupid. Until then, however, feel free to validate me or tell me why my favorites are trash in the comments below. Also, I wanna hear what your favorite fight scenes are.
Also, don’t be surprised if I miss a week here and there. At the very least I still plan to post bi-weekly. A bit of a bummer I know but hey, on the bright side, I was on a roll there for quite a while.
Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time!