There is no denying that shonen anime has a wealth of fans worldwide, and while they may always be on the hunt for the next series to watch, they should also take a look at martial arts fantasy movies. Not only is there some common lineage there, but both genres share many plot points too.
While the two mediums are different, they share a visual language that makes it easy to move from one to the other. So if you're looking for something a little different to watch, here are some of the best martial arts fantasy movies that nail that shonen feel.
Based on the popular Chinese MMORPG Zhengtu, Double World was a hidden gem in the confusing movie landscape of 2020. While planned to come out in theaters, it jumped online, which is good news for American audiences as it allowed many more people to see it. Directed by Teddy Chan, the movie is set in an ancient Chinese fantasy world, where many warriors are gathering to take part in a grueling series of trials.
The film follows three competitors as their tangled lives and desires clash during the tests. A visual treat, the film is basically a live-action shonen tournament arc, complete with all of the choreographed combat you would expect. While criticized for not doing anything new with the concept, it can't be denied that Double World will keep you gripped from start to finish.
Big Trouble in Little China
This cult classic from 1986 stars Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. When Burton's friend, Wang Chi, finds that a street gang has kidnaped his fiancé, Burton attempts to rescue her. However, he quickly finds himself in the middle of a centuries-long war between two ancient warrior societies, each with its own magically powered warriors.
Soon Jack and a gang of misfits must venture into Chinatown's underground in an action-packed quest to rescue Wang Chi's fiancé. While considered a flop, the film has become a cult classic, and its blend of magic, combat and the fish-out-of-water hero are sure to appeal to shonen anime fans.
The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity
Released at the tail end of 2020, The Yin-Yang Master was directed by Guo Jingming. When an evil serpent threatens to awaken once more, four masters have to venture to the imperial city to seal it. However, this routine job quickly turns strange as a series of mysterious murders occur. Demons appear, and a twisted conspiracy starts to unfold, threatening to shake the city to its core.
The film is beautifully shot, and the characters are wonderfully realized. The mystery at the core of the plot is gripping, featuring some great worldbuilding too. Netflix bought the rights to the movie before it was released, which turned out to be a great move as this is a film that international audiences of all stripes will adore.
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain
Rightly regarded as a classic of the genre, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was directed by Tsui Hark. It follows Dik Ming Kei, an army deserter, who is chased by vampires, only to be saved by an old master. However, when the Blood Devil attacks, Dik and the student of a devil chaser must go on a quest to find the swords needed to kill the beast. The film looks beautiful, and it had a massive influence on cinema, inspiring many different creatives. In fact, many shonen series owe their existence to Zu's excellent storytelling.
When released in America, the film was renamed Zu Time Warriors and featured a wraparound sequence. This sequence implies that the film is a coma dream of a modern-day fencing champ. Tsui Hark hated this, as it was added without his permission, and thankfully later English releases omit this.
Whenever Stephen Chow is involved, you can expect great things, and Shaolin Soccer is no exception. While more modern than many other martial arts fantasy films, this one is no less fantastical. Sing, a Shaolin monk, learns about soccer and decides that this will be the best way to promote the Shaolin arts.
He recruits several of his former training partners, and together they form a team and, using their Shaolin skills, try and win a tournament. Shaolin Soccer is a hilarious romp that features all the over-the-top sports action the title suggests and features loads of shonen tropes as the team overcome their struggles and grow stronger.
The Iceman Cometh
Released in 1989, The Iceman Cometh fuses sci-fi and historical fantasy to create a unique film. It follows Fong Sau-ching, a guard who is determined to track down the evil Feng San. But, when Feng San acquires the Black Jade Buddha, both he and Fong are thrown 300 years into the future. When Fong wakes up in the '80s, he must adapt to this new world and hunt down his target to return him to the past to pay for his crimes.
This blend of sci-fi and fantasy is unique for the period, and the film would influence many later works. The warrior having to adapt to a new, strange world is something that a lot of shonen anime has copied and built on. Plus, fans of fish-out-of-water comedy and lovers of intense fight scenes will adore The Iceman Cometh.
The Forbidden Kingdom
Inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West, The Forbidden Kingdom came out in 2008 to great fanfare as it was the first film to co-star action-legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The story begins with teenager Jason Tripitikas finding a mysterious staff in a store. However, when the store's owner is shot, he tells Jason to return the staff to its owner. Things take an even more unexpected turn after Jason passes out, waking up in ancient China.
Jason is rescued by Lu Yan, a scholar who tells him of the war between the Monkey King and the Jade Warlord. However, the Monkey King was turned to stone, and the Jade Warlord threw the staff into Jason's world. Now, Jason must return the staff and free the Monkey King. Jason makes a great isekai protagonist, and the film contains all of the action you would expect from a fantasy shonen narrative.