If you love anime, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been thrilled by a great action scene over the years. From comedy to mecha, shoujo to seinen, well-executed action can take a show to another level. Sometimes it shows up in the unlikeliest of places, but when it’s done right it’s always a welcome addition.
So just what makes a great action scene, anyway? Well, the most obvious answer would be sakuga－a word that sets the hearts of serious anime geeks aflutter. The word literally just means “drawing pictures” but in practice, it refers to a dramatic increase in fluidity and expressiveness. TV anime as a medium runs on strict budgets (some obviously more so than others), but series often save theirs for those moments when it really matters (a low-rent project like Baby Steps is a good example).
So, visuals are obviously critical to a memorable action scene－and not just animation. Choreography is critical too, especially when we’re talking about a fight. But it’s more than just production values that might an action scene truly great. Context matters just as much. In order for an action sequence to truly live on in the memory, the characters and story need to matter－that’s why moments in shows like Seirei no Moribito stand out so much more than those in well-animated but forgettable series like Guilty Crown.
Here are a few of the best action sequences in anime history as chosen by yours truly:
This article contains minor spoilers for Seirei no Moribito, Haikyuu!!, Hunter X Hunter (2011), Fate/Zero, and Sakamichi no Apollon. Read at your own risk.
Seirei no Moribito Episode 3
Seirei no Moribito is not an “action series”, despite having some of the finest action in anime history. That proved a problem for some viewers, who expected more spear fights and less character drama. But for me, it’s that other side of Moribito that makes scenes like the spear fight between Balsa and the Hunters so unforgettable. The emotional stakes are huge－I’ve spent three episodes of character development building up to this moment, where Balsa is fighting for her life and that of Chagum.
What can’t be ignored, though, is just how exquisitely drawn and choreographed this scene (and all the fight scenes in Moribito) are. Though it aired in 2007 I’d argue that Seirei no Moribito is, to this day, the most beautiful TV anime of all time (and the best). This is sakuga at its finest, and choreography that would do Jen Wo Ping proud. This scene also highlights another element that’s critical to a great action scene－the background music. Written by the great Kawai Kenji, the track used here amplifies the tension of the moment perfectly and lends an almost dance-like quality to the movements of Balsa and the Hunters.
Haikyuu!! Episode 24
Haikyuu!! is an anime fans of the manga should be grateful for. This is an adaptation that’s first-rate in every respect, and gets every possible ounce of firepower out of the source material. And that certainly applies to the volleyball scenes, which are among the best in any sports anime of all-time. Sports is a genre where action scenes are obviously crucial. and while there are better sports series than Haikyuu, I’m not sure there are any better when it comes to the depiction of athletes in motion.
One could almost throw a dart at any episode that has a game or even a practice and come up with a great action sequence, but I chose Episode 24 because of that context component. The emotional stakes are at their peak in the match between Karasuno and Seijoh – everything in the entire season has built up to this moment. And as we see the ebb and flow of the match beautifully depicted through limitless sakuga, the tension builds with every point – until the climax, where things finally begin to turn irrevocably against Karasuno.
Hunter X Hunter (2011) – Episode 35-36
When it comes to Hunter X Hunter 2011, the embarrassment of sakuga riches is almost beyond belief. It surely ranks among the finest anime series ever in terms of the sheer volume of stunning animation－the consistency over the course of almost three years of episodes is arguably unmatched in TV anime. As with Haikyuu! I think one could almost throw a dart and hit a spectacular set piece worthy of mention here, but I can’t choose anything except the fight between Gon and Hisoka at Heaven’s Arena.
This sequence encompasses all the qualities I’ve talked about－sakuga, choreography, context, BGM－at their very finest. There was so much anticipation for Gon and Hisoka squaring off (especially after their parting in the Hunter Exam arc) and yet, somehow, this fight not only lived up the buildup but wildly exceeded it. Madhouse gave just as much attention and detail to the characters’ faces as to the fight itself, and we can se everything that’s happening internally as well as externally－for Gon this is a test of everything he exists for, for Hisoka a fabulously entertaining joy ride. And the reaction shots of those in the crowd－especially Killua－are certainly not overlooked. Hunter X Hunter in Madhouse’s hands is full of superlative action scenes (Chimera Ant alone) but for me, this is the most indelible.
Fate/Zero – Episode 4
Fate/Zero is a little different than the other series on this list, in that it relies on CGI for a good deal of its visual flair. But while in lesser hands that can detract from the overall experience, in this case it doesn’t. Why? Because ufotable probably does a better job of integrating 3D-animation with hand-drawn animation that any other studio working in TV. While there’s much more CG here than in the other shows on this list, it’s not used in excess－and it’s beautifully executed.
This episode is one of my favorites in that it contains a fight between two characters－Lancer and Saber－trying to battle with honor and chivalry amidst a sea of treachery and moral relativism. And of course they’re both bad-ass in battle, but not only that, they’re the two heroic spirits whose style most lends itself to entertaining single combat (if only the others would have let them get on with it).
Sakamichi no Apollon – Episode 1
Like Fate/Zero, Sakamichi no Apollon makes this list despite heavy reliance on a much-maligned and generally misunderstood animation technique. In this case it’s rotoscoping, where animators trace over subjects frame-by-frame. Shows like Aku no Hana, which present shoddy rotoscoping mainly because it’s something that can be done cheaply give the technique a bad name, but in the right hands it can produce remarkable results.
Happily, Watanabe Shinichirou’s hands are certainly the right ones, and the drumming sequence from the first episode of Kids on the Slope is truly spectacular. This may not be everyone’s idea of an action scene or indeed an action series, but you won’t see dynamic movement done much better in animation. I’m not sure they could have been done without rotoscoping – certainly not this well. And while Sakamichi faded a bit down the stretch, it delivered one of the strongest opening episodes in recent anime history.
Anime fans famously disagree about almost everything, but there aren’t many who don’t appreciate the adrenaline-fueled thrill of a brilliant action sequence. These are only a very few of the many great examples out there, but I think they’re among the very best.
Need some more fight scenes? Check out the 20 Most Epic Anime Fights!