After a few years of dormancy, high fantasy dramas are currently enjoying a massive popular resurgence thanks to the prestigious new adaptations of both Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings courtesy of House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Whether you prefer cutthroat court drama or era-spanning adventures, it’s an excellent time to be a fantasy fan, and I can only hope these series inspire more top-shelf adaptations of classic fantasy.
In the meantime, if you’re hungry for more fantasy selections, why not sample some of the rich lore that anime has to offer?
Anime has traditionally been more associated with science fiction, but the medium’s limitless ability to bring otherworldly imagery to life makes it a perfect venue for ambitious fantasy dramas. Over time, a variety of fantasy subgenres have established footholds in animation, offering experiences ranging from pastoral romances to grim tales of doomed kingdoms. Today I’ll be highlighting a diverse sampling of these subgenres and hopefully guiding you toward your own preferred melding of anime tropes and fantasy drama.
Without further ado, let’s celebrate some great fantasy anime!
One of anime’s most venerable fantasy subgenres is the classic fantasy world. By this I don’t mean the recent wave of dramas which tend to draw more from roleplaying game convention, I’m talking about the original wave that typically involved female heroines being whisked away to a land of magic and mystery. My own favorite entry in this genre is the classic The Vision of Escaflowne, but equally beloved is the sprawling Fushigi Yugi, which sees a young girl from the present age transported to a thrilling version of ancient China. If you’d like to get acquainted with the original incarnation of fantasy worlds either show is a great place to start. If you’d like a more fantasy-tinged articulation of the newer model, Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions offers a tense and beautifully realized fantasy experience.
Alongside fantasy worlds anime has long exhibited a vibrant strain of dark fantasy dramas. Standing tall in this arena is Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, a manga that has inspired countless successors and imitators from similarly brooding manga to the monsters of Dark Souls. Berserk is a brutal and expansive tale of betrayal and renewal, with both classic and more recent adaptations to choose from such as Berserk: The Golden Age Arc – Memorial Edition. For a more recent companion to Berserk consider checking out Claymore, which tethers dark fantasy stylings to a more approachable monster-of-the-week format. Most recently of all, the ongoing Vinland Saga continues to demonstrate the narrative brilliance of writer Makoto Yukimura who manages to draw timeless themes of identity and ambition out of his tale of Viking warriors.
I’m not exactly sure you could call it a subgenre, but I would be remiss to avoid mentioning anime’s fondness of “Spunky Red Head Girl Living in a Fantasy World” features. I can even split these delightful productions down into further subgroups. For a fablesque fantasy centered on a woman connecting with the ancient spirits of the world, try out The Ancient Magus’ Bride. If you’d rather your adventures involve a bit more globe-trotting and action, you’d do well to check out Yona of the Dawn. And if you’d like to amp up the romance a notch or two Snow White with the Red Hair is probably right up your alley.
Speaking of which, the fusion of fantasy and romance might be my own favorite fantasy-adjacent anime subgenre. If you’re similarly sentimental, I cannot recommend the acclaimed Spice and Wolf enough. The story of traveling merchant Lawrence and his wolf god companion, Horo, is one of anime’s greatest romances while also providing a more grounded perspective on the trials of everyday life in medieval society. If you haven’t gotten enough warm fuzzies from those two, Maoyu is a series that reunites Ami Koshimizu and Jun Fukuyama (Horo and Lawrence’s Japanese voice actors) in a similarly romantic tale of a hero and demon lord finding love…and maybe saving the world.
Anime is brimming with fantasy tales of all shapes and sizes, offering stories that draw on a wide range of influences from tabletop games to ancient Chinese legends. I haven’t even touched on anime’s variable adaptations of Journey to the West (the central literary inspiration for Dragon Ball), the various incarnations of Lodoss War, or Gen Urobuchi’s dazzling puppet drama Thunderbolt Fantasy. Whatever your preference, there’s surely some fantasy anime that will appeal to you and guide you toward a whole realm of fantastical productions. I hope you’ve found a show or two that grabs you among my selections. Let me know your own favorite fantasy anime in the comments!