The Best Sword and Sorcery Fantasy Anime

Animation from the East Meets Fantasy from the West

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 J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard — garnered so much attention in Japan that anime companies released numerous fantasy series in the 1980s through 2010s.

Western-style fantasy exists in anime in some of the most remarkably interesting incarnations. The following list offers 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 — you might want to check out more features in the samurai anime sub-genre instead. 

In this dark animated series, 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 a battle for the heart of a fellow female soldier, Casca. The repercussions of that jealousy may do more than tearing 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.

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. As an example, Dark Schneider is based on Udo Dirkschneider, lead singer of Accept.

That said, nobody watches something like "Bastard!!" for the plot, as its storytelling is disjointed and anarchic. Instead, 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 — that it ends right in the middle of the action as the money ran out and the final two episodes were never completed. So be warned — it literally doesn't end well.

Monsters known as youma stalk a land reminiscent of medieval Europe in "Claymore." These creatures do worse things than feed on humans, though — they can impersonate the ones they've killed — and humanity seems all but helpless before them.

Mankind's only defense is 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.

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 — "Guin Saga." Adapting a story of that size would be impossible, so the creators of the TV series wisely stuck 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 clashing agendas, wide-gauge landscapes, giant battles, mysticism and sorcery, and much more. Even "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.

An excellent, if incomplete, adaptation of Yoshiki Tanaka's ongoing series of fantasy novels from Japan, "The Heroic Legend of Arslan" is not to be missed. In the show, the titular Arslan 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.

All of the standard low-fantasy trappings apply — massive armies clashing, political subterfuge and magic as a dangerous and capricious thing. But here they're all deployed 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.

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 which one can create allies or spawn monsters, meaning 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" — both of which are definitely worth checking out.

In "Record of Lodoss War," a power struggle that will span generations and lifetimes is playing out on the continent known only as Lodoss, the "accursed island." 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.

The two anime incarnations of the franchise — a TV series and shorter OVA series — take entirely different approaches to the same source material. The 26-episode TV series "Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knightis more faithful to the novels, but is missing major chunks of the story while the 11-episode OVA is more internally consistent, but is clearly a cut-down and heavily reorganized version of the original storyline. 

If you think the story sounds like the transcript of someone's tabletop "Dungeons and Dragons" game, you wouldn't be far from the truth. 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.

The "scrapped princess" of the title is fifteen-year-old Pacifica Casull, abandoned 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. She learns 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 behind "Cowboy Bebop," this fantasy sports better-than-average animation, some remarkably adult themes — in the sense of "worldly concepts," not "X-rated" scenes — and even veers into something resembling science fiction 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 thanks to that company's demise.

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 and a smattering of OVAs — should be watched in chronological order, but there's no pressing need to do so. Instead, watch for flavor — and for laughs.

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 ability: normally he's a hapless, 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. Fortunately, it also features some risqué visual elements like the stripper-style outfits that Tira and Chocolate sport when they go into battle that are sure to entertain that type of thrill-seeker.

Strictly speaking, this isn't sword-and-sorcery — there is little violent action, and the supernatural is confined to the presence of a single godlike entity — but the aura of the show is still very much the same. It takes place in an analog of medieval Europe, where a wandering merchant finds himself partnered with a fox-god that's outlived her usefulness. Her heightened senses and his merchant's instincts allow the two of them to get the upper hand in most every deal they cut — well, almost every deal.

Aside from the more generic fantasy aspects, the show's real charm is in the way it tackles economics — yes, economics — as an ongoing theme, and uses each of their encounters as a mini-lesson of sorts. It sounds unlikely, but the result is consistently interesting in a way that just watching someone plow through legions of monsters or hordes of demons isn't.

A twist on the "girl thrown into another world" concept, with at least as many elements from mecha anime as from heroic fantasy, "The Vision of Escaflowne" follows high school student Hitomi into the world of Gaea where a great war rages between the conquering empire of Zaibach and its neighboring territories. Hitomi finds she has psychic powers that are amplified by her presence in Gaea and joins forces with Van Faneln, a young man piloting a craft that's more like a dragon than a conventional fighting robot.

The story also muses about the way magic and science are often freely mistaken for each other — or the way one is used to masquerade as the other — but doesn't skimp on the swashbuckling action or a broad palette of quirky supporting characters.

Further bonus points are awarded for the presence of the ever-excellent Yoko Kanno on the soundtrack. A much darker feature-length movie retelling, "Escaflowne: The Movie," makes major changes to the characters and storyline to fit them into a 100-minute running time, and is best checked out after you've digested the TV series.

Say it: "oo-ta-wa-re-roo-moh-noh." It means "admirable things" in Japanese, but serves as an admittedly confusing and not-very-compelling title for such a remarkable series whose plot is actually closest in spirit and concept to "Guin Saga." 

In this series, a stranger with no memory and a mask he cannot remove finds himself dropped into the middle of a war between competing races. He soon becomes the commander of the people who took him in, but he and the audience shortly discover that things are far more complicated and morally ambiguous than they may have first appeared.

The show's biggest flaw is the out-of-nowhere ending, which detours abruptly into science fiction for no particular reason except to give us a way to provide an exterior set of motives for everything that's happened so far. But up until that point, it's well worth it, and it grows in genuinely unexpected ways as it unfolds.