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Best Samurai Anime

Adventures inspired by Japan's own turbulent history

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Before "Japan" and "anime" were synonymous to most ears, "Japan" and "samurai" were just as synonymous, if not more so. Japan routinely digs into its own history and mythology for its entertainments (see: any of Akira Kurosawa's historical epics), and anime is no exception.

Here are some of the best samurai-themed anime out there, each with a slightly different approach to the material: some as comedy, some as tragedy, some which simply use the samurai milieu as a starting point to tell an entirely different kind of story. All titles are in alphabetical order.

1. Basilisk

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Fūtaro Yamada, one of Japan's most prolific 20th-century authors, fused martial-arts action with supernatural fantasy and even a dash of science fiction for his many ninja-themed novels. The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (1958-9) was his take on Romeo and Juliet, as filtered through the ninja-vs.-ninja intrigue of the early 16th century. It's been fodder for other adaptations before, but none as striking as this -- itself an adaptation of Masaki Segawa's gruesome manga creation.

The star-crossed lovers here are the scions of two feuding ninja clans, Kouga and Iga, both of whom sport spectacular powers but at the cost of being shunned by society as a whole. It's violent, stylized, and spectacular -- but also features a remarkably heartfelt story undercutting and giving weight to everything that happens.

2. Blade of the Immortal

Scarred swordsman Manji is virtually unkillable thanks to a curse placed on him by a mysterious old hag: he must slay one thousand evil men before he can once again have the privilege of dying. (Just because he can't be killed doesn't mean he can't be hurt, which makes this particular brand of immortality a mixed bag.) When he's enlisted by the waifish Rin to help her seek revenge on her father's murderer, at first he's indifferent -- but then he learns his opponent might be just the battle he's been looking for his whole life.

Hiroaki Samura's original comic is regarded as being one of the best in print in any language or genre, which makes it a tough act to follow. The show makes a valiant attempt to preserve both Samura's trademark art styles, and does capture some of the original's mordant black humor, but it's best if not compared too closely to the original and just enjoyed on its own as a darkly stylish samurai-themed revenge story.

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3. Katanagatari

© NISIOISIN, Kodansha / Katanagatari Committee. Courtesy NIS America Inc.

In the abstract, this is your standard quest story: a mismatched pair of adventurers go on a search for twelve swords of legend. In the details, most everything about Katanagatari is unusual. Neither of the two heroes wields a weapon: for one, her weapon is her mind; for the other, it's his body. And the swords they find more often than not aren't swords as we've come to know them.

Most everything about Katanagatari is experimental, but in a good way: the experiment almost unilaterally pays off. The story's adapted from prolific Japanese pop novelist Nisioisin's novel cycle of the same name, and grows from a mere frivolity into something wider and eeper. Also, instead of the stylized gritty realism that's usually used for visually depicting these sorts of stories (see Blade of the Immortal for more on that score), the whole thing's been visualized in a pop-art style reminiscent of Western graphics designers Seymour Chwast or Milton Glaser. (The designs are all actually patterned directly after the illustrations in the original novel, courtesy of illustrator take.) If you're looking for something genuinely offbeat, begin here.

4. Ninja Scroll

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Before anime had its own section in Suncoast and its own channels on cable, Ninja Scroll (like Akira before it) was widely bandied around between sci-fi, horror, fantasy and "adult" animation fans, acquiring a quasi-underground word-of-mouth reputation that it did its darndest to live up to.

The convoluted plot can be boiled down to one sentence: Bad-ass swordsman Kibagami Jubei meets one outlandish enemy after another and duels them to the death. Most everything else is just an excuse to hustle the audience along from one action scene to the next -- or to show one variety of stylized, outlandish violence after another. The top-notch animation was directed by long-time anime legend Yoshiaki Kawajiri (also of the Animatrix compilation). A short TV series, with only a tenuous connection to the movie (mainly the title and the personality of the main character), was also produced, although it is out of print.

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5. Otogi-Zoshi

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A magnificent show that doesn't get nearly enough attention, Otogi-Zoshi flashes back to Heian-era Japan -- the 1100s, when a decadent aristocracy was losing out to the rising warrior class. There, a young princess disguises herself as her dying brother, an accomplished swordsman, and sets out to collect five supernatural artifacts that will bring harmony to a land convulsed by unrest. Along the way she picks up a slew of cohorts, many of whom are based loosely or not so loosely on figures from Japanese history and mythology.

The second half of the show isn't as impresssive, in big part because it's not a samurai story anymore. It casts the same characters in present-day roles, and puts them into a storyline that has only the most tenuous relationship with the first half. But it's still far more absorbing than most of the competition.

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6. Rurouni Kenshin

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Easily the best-known and most widely-loved of samurai anime, Kenshin is actually set after the end of Japan's samurai era -- in the Meiji period of the 1870s, during Japan's early years of modernization. Its hero is a former assassin turned wanderer, his sword now symbolically reversed to demonstrate how he's sworn off killing. Soon he casts in his lot with a female fencing instructor, her feisty student and a ne'er-do-well streetfighter -- all friends he's obliged to defend against people from some very dark corners of his own past.

The show is an adaption of most of the (also excellent) manga of the same name, and despite a rather arbitrarily-written third season which has nothing to do with the source material is still worth the effort. An excellent prequel OVA, a less-than-excellent sequel OVA, a middling feature film set during the continuity of the show, and an also-middling OVA retelling of the second arc of the story (released in 2012) round out the picture.

7. Samurai 7

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An intriguing concept: Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai (a great movie in any genre), adapted for animation and transposed int a vaguely futuristic setting but with most of its core conceits intact. The original idea, widely imitated since, is still the same: a village under the threat of attack from bandits goes in search of warriors to protect them -- men who will defend them for nothing more than a few meals a day and the thrill of battle. If you're familiar with the original, the way it's been reworked is intriguing; if you're not, it's still a cracking good story of honor, courage, and slicing spaceships in half with swords. Yes.

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8. Samurai Champloo

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East and West not only meet but collide head-on, fuse, and produce a new life form. A cool and detached ronin crosses paths with a hotheaded, feisty brawler -- only to have both of them bailed out from the brink of death by a slightly ditzy teahouse waitress, who employs them on a mission to find someone from her past.

Everything in the show -- the club-flyer-style title cards, the graffiti in the backgrounds, the characters' own outfits and attitudes -- is a mix of samurai tradition and hip-hop attitude, two styles you'd think couldn't be less compatible but have been brilliantly mixed here. Western "b-boy" or urban street culture has long been a influence on fashion and style in Japan, and this show is one of the more striking artifacts of that kind of cross-pollination. Fantastic soundtrack, too.

9. Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings

Imagine a series about World War II, where Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Hirohito and Mussolini all duelled each other with lightsabers and flew steampunk zeppelins. Sengoku Basara has the same mad spirit of invention to it, except instead of WWII it's about Japan's sengoku period -- the late 1500s, when various colorful and heavily mythologized warriors led their respective armies into battle against each other to conquer all of Japan.

Don't expect a wholly accurate history lesson. Do expect some of the most feverishly gung-ho, raucously macho and consistently over-the-top action scenes ever committed to a TV screen. And while you're at it, also expect a story that accumulates a surprising amount of heart and soul, and becomes more than just a delivery mechanism for wide-gauge battle sequences.

10. Shigurui: Death Frenzy

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Two samurai, each sporting grotesque wounds that should have ended their respective careers, face off against each other. How they came to be mortal enemies is explored in this clinically-precise, beautifully-made and amazingly morbid series. It's absolutely not for the faint of heart, stomach, spleen or liver, but it's also been made with consummate craft and skill, and stands on its own just by dint of being so completely uncompromising. If David Cronenberg (The Fly, Scanners, Videodrome) had directed a samurai film, this might well have been it.
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11. Sword of the Stranger

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An animated throwback to the all-out samurai action adventures of yore (Hidden Fortress, Goyokin), with set-pieces that might well not have been possible in a live-action film to begin with. The story's rather rudimentary: wandering swordsman gets mixed up in protecting a young kid who's being chased by various baddies for who knows what reason. But the plot scarcely matters when it's used to set up and play off one truly stunning set of visuals after another. The fact it's an original story for the screen -- not an adaptation of a comic, as might typically be the case -- is even more of a surprise.
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