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Best Sword & Sorcery Fantasy Anime

See how animation from the East does fantasy from the West

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Newcomers to anime are sometimes surprised to find how anime reprises many Western genres. Sword-and-sorcery style fantasy, for instance, which came out of the work of writers like Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard -- and which has garnered a solid fanbase in Japan as well. Consequently, Western-style fantasy also exists in anime, and in some remarkably interesting incarnations.

Here's a list of some of the best Western-style fantasy anime, both in and out of print, in alphabetical order. Note that if you're interested in samurai stories or Japanese-themed fantasies (which could nominally be considered fantasy), check out our other list of samurai anime.

1. Bastard!!

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When the Kingdom of Metaricana is attacked by the Four Lords of Havoc, there's only one way to fight back: awaken the slumbering wizard Dark Schneider. Unfortunately, the cure may be worse than the disease, as Dark Schneider's more interested in scoring with girls (and, oh yeah, taking over the world for himself) than fighting any pansy-wansy evil dark lords.

The fact that the creator of Bastard!!, Kazushi Hagiwara, is a massive heavy-metal and Dungeons and Dragons fan should be blatantly obvious even to the casual viewer, as the show's littered with references to both (e.g.: Dark Schneider = Udo Dirkschneider, lead singer of the 80s metal band Accept; Metaricana = Metallica, etc.).

That said, nobody watches something like Bastard!! for the plot, as its storytelling is disjointed and anarchic. They watch it to see what someone as unhinged and dangerous as Dark Schneider does next (hint: it's a lot), and in that respect the show delivers completely. Its other biggest problem is, like so many other OVA productions of its era, it ends right in the middle of the action as the money ran out and the final two episodes were never completed.

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2. Berserk

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Swordsman Guts was born of a dead mother, murdered his own mentor, and now sells his skills as a fighter to the mercenary crew known as the Band of the Hawk. He's come under the spell of the Hawks's charismatic leader, Griffith, and soon both are in battle for the heart of a fellow female soldier, Casca. The repercussions of that jealousy may do more than tear apart the Hawks; it might well bring about the end of the world as we know it.

"Dark" is the politest word that can be used to describe this adaptation of the first dozen or so books in the long-running, still-ongoing, near-legendary manga series by Kentaro Miura. It's unforgiving in its view of human nature, brutal in its violence, and ends on a note of unrelieved despair. But it's also gripping, brilliantly told, and features three of the most powerfully-depicted characters you're likely to find in all of anime.

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3. Claymore

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Monsters known as youma stalk a land reminiscent of medieval Europe. These creatures do worse things than feed on humans -- they can impersonate the ones they've killed, and humanity seems all but helpless before them. The only defense are the Claymores, hybrids of human women and youma, who channel the power of their inhuman side to fight the monsters. (They also use giant honkin' swords, which helps the show fit that much more into this list.)

Among the Claymores is Clare, a low-ranking member of her organization forced to rise through the ranks when one challenge after another to her fellow Claymores decimates their ranks. But it's not training and strength alone that will give her what she needs to survive -- it's the respect and support of a young man, Raki, whom at first she spurns but soon finds is indispensable to her survival.

This show actually hews slightly closer to horror than fantasy in some respects -- the biology and (ahem) life cycle of the youma are straight out of your worst monster-movie nightmares -- but its setting, atmosphere and many elements of its story are pure sword-and-sorcery material

4. Guin Saga

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A wanderer awakes in a dark forest, a freak-thing with the body of a man and a head of a leopard. He has no memory, no possessions, not even so much as a name -- but after he saves the last two descendants of an endangered royal lineage, he gains something more important than just a name: a purpose and a mission.

So begins the story that lasted for over one hundred and twenty books in Japan, published since 1979. Adapting a story of that size would be impossible, so the creators of the Guin Saga TV series wisely stick with the first twelve or so books, which form a more or less complete story arc unto themselves. It's high adventure in the best pulp-fantasy tradition, with heroes (Guin is one with a capital H), clashing agendas (just the thing for fans of A Game of Thrones), wide-gauge landscapes, giant battles, mysticism and sorcery, and much more. Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu supplied the appropriately epic music, and while the animation occasionally buts up against budgetary limitations it's still an impressive creation.

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5. The Heroic Legend of Arslan

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An excellent, if incomplete, adaptation of Yoshiki Tanaka's ongoing series of fantasy novels from Japan (it's surprising how many Western-themed fantasy novels Japan has produced). The Arslan of the title is a crown prince whose armies have been devastated by a rival nation, and who must now travel incognito to avoid assassination. His mission: to find others loyal to him or his cause, and to rebuild his nation. (Tanaka is no stranger to wide-gauge epic stories, as he also wrote Legend of the Galactic Heroes.)

All of the standard low-fantasy trappings apply -- massive armies clashing, political subterfuge, magic as a dangerous and capricious thing -- but they're all deployed here with strong writing and characterization, amazingly good animation (especially compared to today's productions), and a rousing symphonic score.

Unfortunately, with the demise of Central Park Media, the series is now out of print. Worse, many editions are English-audio only, the voice work on the English dub is weak, and the video transfer is subpar to boot. If anything on this list deserves a remaster, it's this title.

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6. Magic Knight Rayearth

Magic Knight Rayearth 2 - DVD Volume 2 - Image Courtesy of Media Blasters
Image Courtesy of Media Blasters

The all-female artistic collective CLAMP created this wild, stylish fantasy about a trio of high school girls thrown sideways into the world of Cephiro, where they embark on a save-the-world quest of ... you knew this was coming ... epic proportions. Most intriguing in the story is the way hope and despair are themselves magical forces: with them one can create allies or spawn monsters, and the one who has the greatest willpower can impose his vision on the rest of the world. No prizes for guessing that if you conquer such a villain (assuming he is a villain), you have to also take over their job...

The original TV series runs 49 episodes and follows the original (manga) story fairly closely, but a three-part OVA also exists with a radically reworked interpretation of the material -- one more "inspired by" than "based on".

7. Record of Lodoss War

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On the continent known only as Lodoss, the "accursed island," a power struggle that will span generations and lifetimes is playing out. A young hero, Parn, seeks to restore his family's honor by undertaking a quest that will lead him and his friends into and out of one adventure after another. Eventually they discover how much of what has happened is a delicate game engineered by a malevolent higher being to keep the balance of power on the island ... and keep everyone else subjugated.

Lodoss's two anime incarnations - a TV series and shorter OVA series -- take two entirely different approaches to the same source material. The 26-episode TV series (Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight) is more faithful to the novels, but is missing major chunks of story; the 11-episode OVA is more internally consistent, but is clearly a cut-down and heavily reorganized version of the original storyline. (Both are, sadly, out of print.)

If the story sound like like the transcript of someone's tabletop Dungeons and Dragons game, you wouldn't be far from wrong. The source material for the series was a game -- a tabletop RPG setting that hews very closely to classic D&D in its flavor, and was since ported by its creator, Ryo Mizuno, into a series of novels -- a la Ed Greenwood's recasting of his D&D setting of "Faerûn" into the long-running and best-selling Forgotten Realms franchise.

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8. Scrapped Princess

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The "scrapped princess" of the title is fifteen-year-old Pacifica Casull, abandoned (hence "scrapped") at birth due to a prophecy that dictates she will be "the poison that destroys the world." Under the tutelage of the court wizard who saved her life, she slowly comes to realize she is not in fact the source of the world's doom, but its only possible salvation -- and she must rally her strengths to combat the mysterious Peacemakers who hold all the world in their sway.

Courtesy of some of the same production team (Bones) behind Cowboy Bebop, this fantasy sports better-than-average animation, some remarkably adult themes (in the sense of "worldly concepts", not "X-rated"), and even veers into something resembling SF towards the end although never completely abandoning its fantasy roots. A few volumes of the original novels are also available in English courtesy of Tokyopop (although they are now out of print no thanks to that company's demise).

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9. The Slayers

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There are a great many incarnations of The Slayers, but they all have the same basic premise: Feisty sorceress Lina Inverse wants two things out of life, money and respect, and she will go to just about any lengths to get either one. The end result is a fantasy whose emphasis is on lowbrow and high-concept comedy, and which even dares to enter slightly more serious territory from time to time. In theory the whole thing (five TV series, a smattering of OVAs) should be watched in chronological order, but there's no pressing need to do so. Watch for flavor -- and for laughs.

10. Sorcerer Hunters

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In a world where sorcerers use their powers to enslave and dominate the weak and powerless, cadres of sorcerer hunters (hence the name) rout them out and bring them to justice. Tira Misu and her sister Chocolate, along with their companions, the brothers Carrot Glace and Marron Glace (and the perpetually attention-hungry Gateau Mocha) use their peculiar combination of powers and abilities in their sorcerer hunts. Most striking is Carrot's power: normally he's a halpess, skirt-chasing idiot, but the presence of magic causes him to become a monster of stupefying power.

As with Slayers or Bastard!!. this isn't a plot-centric show -- that is, there is a larger plotline, but it largely takes a backseat to one deliberately outlandish situation after another -- and to some risqué visual elements (e.g., the stripper-style outfits that Tira and Chocolate sport when they go into battle).

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