When it comes to anime, sometimes a blast from the past is just what you need. Anime can cover a wide range of historical eras, all while mixing in some awesome fantasy and/or exaggerated action elements. The blend of history and magic is a fascinating thing to see.
When it comes to historical fantasy anime, we’ve got everything from the Meiji era of Japan to 1930’s New York. There’s also a couple of things that take place in an alternate setting that’s clearly inspired by a specific historical era in a specific country.
I should note I left out steampunk anime in this list, as I feel that would make a good list of its own.
There’s lots of historical fantasy and action anime out there, so if you have your own recommendations, give them in the comments!
Samurai Champloo (Edo Era Japan)
This popular anachronistic samurai anime is a visual masterpiece, directed by the same guy who did Cowboy Bebop. The premise of the anime is a rogue named Mugen and a wandering, lordless samurai named Jin are recruited by a young woman named Fuu to travel with her and aid her on her search for a mysterious “samurai who smells of sunflowers”.
This anime mashes up the Edo Era of Japan with hip-hop. The Edo era (1603-1868) was a time of full of economic, artistic and cultural growth for Japan, isolationist policies and yes, samurai. Samurai Champloo references several Edo-era historical events and realities, like the Shimbara Rebellion (a peasant uprising in southwestern Japan) and the ukiyo-e painter Hisikawa Moronbu, who makes an appeance. The characters even run into Alexander Cartright, the father of baseball!
At the same time, Samurai Champloo is clearly not intended to be historically accurate, featuring modern elements like characters breakdancing and hip hop singers. The show in general has a heavily hip-hop influenced soundtrack. It also features several over-the-top and unlikely fight scenes. Much of it is fimly tongue-in-cheek.Advertisement
Spice and Wolf (Medieval European Setting)
Spice and Wolf is set in what appears to be an alternate universe rather than a specific era or country, but the setting is doubtlessly inspired by medieval Europe. It follows a peddler named Kraft Lawrence, who encounters a 600-year-old wolf diety named Holo who takes the form of a fifteen year old girl. She ends up traveling with him. While there is naturally magic, this anime tends to focus more on trade and traveling. It’s a good anime if you like historical fantasy but want something a little more low-key.
Rurouni Kenshin (Meiji Era Japan)
Rurouni Kenshin’s alternate subtitle is “Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story”, so the “history” aspect is fimly rooted there. It’s set in the Meiji Era, the era of Japanese history where feudalism came to an end and samurai were slowly phased out. Specifically, the story starts in 1878, when Himura Kenshin, a wandering former samurai and assassin who’d given up on killing, encounterd a young dojo-master named Kamiya Kaoru. He helps her in a fight against a murderer and she invites him to live with her at the dojo. From there, he meets many friends and enemies and gets involved in many adventures.
Rurouni Kenshin is well-regarded for its use of the historical setting- while not always completely accurate, it’s certainly well-researched most of the time. The series mainly focuses on themes of atonement and peace, while still including endless over-the-top fight scenes. These are mainly where the “fantastical” elements of the series come in, with characters appearing to have superhuman abilities.
Baccano! (Prohibition Era America)
Baccano! is an anime that follows a far ranging cast of characters (which include a homunculus, a pair of airheaded-theives, a crybaby gang leader and his bomb-freak girlfriend, an assassin and that’s just scratching the surface) as they are entangled in a plot involving immortals, alchemists and mobsters. It’s mainly set in prohibition era America, though there are flashbacks to the 18th century. There are a couple flashes to the modern day as well. The story is told non-linearly (making it a little confusing as to what’s going on at first).
Baccano is Italian for ruckus and that’s pretty much what this story is- it’s chaotic, explosive (often literally), sidesplittingly funny, violent and brutal, action packed, dramatic and basically all over the map. It’s never boring, but a wild ride from start to finish that somehow all ties together pretty well. The setting is a big part of the fun and the dub is worth seeing just for all the over-the-top Brooklyn mob boss speak there is in it.
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings (Sengoku Era Japan)
As you can tell from its name, this series is set during the Sengoku era of Japan, which was an era of almost constant civil war for the country, stretching from roughly 1467 to 1603. Based off Capcom video games, this anime follows two warlords who make an unlikely alliance to take down the “devil king” Oda Nobunaga. The anime is by no means historically accurate, but there is a lot of inspiration drawn from history. This is an anime about war, so it’s mostly focused on fighting. If you’re a big fan of over-the-top action, you might like this anime.
Porco Russo (1930's Italy)
This is a movie rather than an anime series, but it’s definitely worth watching. Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Russo focuses on an vertan World War 1 fighter pilot from Italy who now works as a bounty hunter. Oh, and he was cursed to be an anthropomorphic pig. He gets into conflict with a conceited American ace pilot and some pirates.
Miyazaki is a master of animation and Porco Russo is another heartwarming and utterly charming tale from the Ghibli library, full of humor, adventure and lots of aviation.
The Story of Saiunkoku (Imperial Chinese Setting)
The Story of Saiunkoku is set in a fantasy world, but one that is blatantly inspired by Imperial China. It focuses on Shuurei, an intelligent young woman who wants to take the Imperial examinations and work in the government, though women are barred from such positions. She is hired on to teach the irresponsible Emperor how to rule properly and through her involvement with Emporer, starts to make headway on her dream of being governor. The story includes several fantasy elements, as the background of the story is that eight sages drove demons away from the country.
Saiunkoku has beautiful art and some really nice character development. It’s heavy on the romance, but the main plot is driven by the protagonist's desire to make political change, even with all the pushback she faces due to her gender. If you like political series with a touch of fantasy, this is a good choice.
Princess Mononoke (Muromachi Era Japan)
Princess Mononoke is another film by Hayao Miyazaki. It takes place in the late Muromachi era of Japan (1336-1563). In the film, a young man named Ashitaka falls victim to a curse. While searching for a cure, he encounters a girl named San, who was raised by wolves and mothered by a wolf goddess. San and the forest spirits are in conflict with Irontown, a village run by Lady Eboshi that is manufacturing weapons and technology to fight the forest gods and spirits. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle.
Mononoke is a powerful tale about the clash of industrial civilization and the natural world, full of breathtaking visuals and tricky moral questions. No one is portrayed as completely good or evil, making for a complex narrative. It also includes little commented aspects of the feudal era, portraying lepers and sex workers as essential parts of society. If you haven’t seen this movie, you should.
Inyuasha (Sengoku Era Japan)
Inuyasha is a little different from the rest of these in that it’s a time-travel story. Ordinary schoolgirl Kagome is able to travel to the past and goes back and forth between feudal Japan and the modern day. But the majority of the story does take place in feudal Japan. It’s focused on Kagome’s relationship with a half-demon boy (the titular Inuyasha). They and their friends battle against the evil Naraku. There’s a lot of demons and monsters based on Japanese mythology.
Inuyasha is a classic shonen fighting series- and it has all the drawbacks those series tend to have (repetitive fight scenes, filler, etc) but it’s definitely earned its place in anime history.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan (6th Century BCE Persian based setting)
In a setting clearly inspired by Pre-Islamic Persia, this story follows Arslan, the prince of the fictional kingdom of Pars (inspiration was taken from the Persian epic Amir Arsalan). After his father, the king, is betrayed, Arslan has to gather allies to take back his kingdom.
Arslan makes interesting use of its Middle Eastern setting and also explores a lot of heavy things like slavery and tyranny. There is magic ad fantasy elements, but they don’t really play a big role, at least not at first.
The Heroic Legend of Arslan is based off some popular novels, so there are actually two versions of the anime. There’s the 1991 Arslan anime, which is a series of six original video animations (basically shorter movies). Then there’s the recentArslan anime which began airing in 2015 with a 25 episode first season and an 8 episode second season. Both of them have their strong and weak points.