"Action!" Who doesn't get a tingle when they hear that word—especially when it brings to mind all the great anime they've seen that do full justice to the term? Here's a rundown of the most exciting and action-packed anime out there, from major hits to older classics and hidden treasures. (Note that for the sake of balance, a few longer-running shows have been pushed further down the list in favor of shorter, more accessible ones.)
All shows are listed in alphabetical order.
If Romeo and Juliet were ninjas, they would be the star-crossed lovers of Basilisk. Their respective clans have been ordered to duel each other to the death, and they do so with an array of weapons, fighting techniques and outright brutality that has to be seen to be believed. Even better is the care and attention paid to the storytelling and characterization, which puts all the violence in context, and gives it an impact and an emotional depth it rarely has. Even the bad guys—who, by the way, are truly vile; be warned—are worth the time and attention they get.
2. The Big O
This is what happens when an anime studio pays homage to DC’s animated Batman (among other things), and it’s an absolute treat. After an epidemic of amnesia rips through Paradigm City, it’s up to Roger Smith, his female robot sidekick R. Dorothy Wainwright, his butler Norman, and his giant robot Big O to set things a-right. Eventually the action in the show is complemented by an increasingly complex storyline, but that only raises the stakes and makes what Roger’s fighting for all the more important.
3. Black Lagoon
Rei Hiroe’s manga Black Lagoon was a cheerfully shameless exercise in excess, a synthesis and distillation of every Hollywood and Hong Kong action-movie cliché of the 1980s and 1990s. The anime series is all that and more, if such a thing is even possible. Hapless corporate stiff Rokurota is dropped feet-first into a lawless South Asian country where only the strong survive. Somehow he ends up finding shelter (and employment) among a crew of mercenaries, and has to duck bullets from both friends and foes alike. The line between the good guys and bad guys gets very, very blurry in this series—but in its own perverse way, that’s part of the fun.
The first is a short film of barely an hour, with dazzling digitally-assisted animation, about a girl stalking vampires on an American army base in Japan during the Vietnam War, and it belongs in any decent collection of standalone anime titles. Blood +, the follow-up TV series, expands enormously on the concept and provides plenty of amped-up action but also a greatly-enriched gallery of sympathetic and fascinating characters. Also look for the remarkable live-action adaptation.
A unique take on medieval fantasy. When the land is plagued by monsters, a secretive organization creates an army of half-human, half-monster hybrids—“Claymores”—to hunt them down. What starts off looking like a stock monster-of-the-week story quickly turns into something far more ambitious and emotionally absorbing. The heroine, Clare, ranks among the very best female protagonists yet produced by anime—and you don’t want to be anywhere near her when she starts swinging that sword. A great example of how a show can be a crowd-pleaser, and still aim for loftier things.
6. Cowboy Bebop
Nominally Bebop is filed under “space” or “drama” (or “comedy”, even) but “action” is just as fitting a label for this future tale of bounty hunters who get into and out of endless trouble kicking around the solar system. Obviously the action’s a high point for this show, but there’s just as much humor, pathos, and drama to go around—and if the Butch & Sundance-style ending doesn’t kick you in the gut, chances are nothing will.
7. DragonBall Z
Well, of course. But it’s the little things as well as the big ones that makes this show so compulsively watchable: the “how can they possibly top this?” plotting, the sidelong humor and in-jokes, and—most crucially—the way so much of the action is tied directly into the characters themselves. The revised DragonBall Z Kai trims out the fat but keeps the steak, so it’s an even better way to savor the show’s end-to-end boisterousness.
You’re not likely to find a better recent example of an action-oriented anime than Alchemist—and you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better recent anime, period. Edward Elric, the youngest of the State Alchemists, embarks on a quest to restore both his body and that of his brother, Alphonse, after the two of them are crippled in a magical accident intended to bring their dead mother back to life. The original Alchemist series deviated strongly from the original manga's storyline; Brotherhood sticks with it religiously and is all the better for it, but both are still exhilarating experiences.
9. Giant Robo
In the near future, the world’s been radically transformed by two things: a clean energy source that promises the world limitless power, and a radical faction of super-powered terrorists who use giant robots to attack and destroy. Up against them are the equally super-powered Agents of Justice—who count among their ranks young Daisaku and the “Giant Robo” of the title—but the armies on either side of this conflict have more in common than they think. The eye-popping action in every episode is complemented by a terrific, compelling story. They don’t make shows like this much anymore, and that’s a crying shame.
10. Gurren Lagann
“Over the top” is the kindest and most modest way to describe this genre-busting fusion of giant robot action and far-future space opera. It’s the scope of the action here that is flabbergasting: it starts in a claustrophobic underground community, heads to the surface, reaches out for the stars and then goes so far beyond that you’ll need surgery to get your jaw to close properly once it’s over. And it features a cast of characters who are every bit as impassioned and feverishly gung-go as the material demands.