What makes an impressive action anime? The popular shows from the last two decades seem to follow a similar method of storytelling. The main character is set apart, typically seen as different or worse than their peers. The story continues for a few episodes, slowly revealing the main plot characters. Suddenly, a new development brings forth the first villain — the hero’s first obstacle. The details are of course different, but the formula is there and it works. The better action shows set themselves apart in the action, or specifically the climaxes within their action scenes.
Take the iconic “Naruto” battle: “Gaara vs. Rock Lee.” It’s heralded as one of the greatest anime fights of all time, even two decades later — but why? It showcased the very best of both characters involved. Rock Lee with his iron will refused to give up. He crawled up from being a nobody to fight in the exams. Meanwhile, Gaara was all-talented, unbreakable and quick to kill. The best action scenes are the ones that display the moral clashes between opponents.
That’s where “Chivalry of a Failed Knight” excels. The main character, Ikki Kurogane, is far from normal in his universe. He comes from a famous family of Mage-Knights (the “special” individuals of the universe), but he has no magic abilities. His family shunned him out of embarrassment. Without those abilities, he had nothing but his sword. He put everything into swordsmanship in order to pursue his path to becoming a Mage-Knight.
His family’s influence spread to his education. His school implemented a Mage-Knight ranking system that favored magical ability. Ikki was forced to repeat his first year and was forbidden from graduating through the manipulated school rules. His poor ranking meant he couldn’t fight in official bouts, and other students avoided him. His only glimmer of hope was that the new president of the school gave him an out: become the Seven Stars King to graduate. He would have to be chosen as a representative for the Seven Stars tournament by going undefeated in a school-wide preliminary tournament. From there, he would have to go undefeated again at the Seven Stars against better opponents to be crowned the Seven Stars King.
Tournament arcs are a very common staple in school-based action anime. They’re almost overplayed, but that’s not to discount them. For example, “My Hero Academia” broke into the mainstream during its tournament arc in season two, giving a lot of well-deserved development to several characters. They shine a spotlight on each individual’s motivation to win, and make every fight a clash of ideals.
Ikki’s motivations are clear, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only person at the school who wants to win. Stella Vermillion is a princess from a faraway land who was deemed unbeatable due to her talent without acknowledgement for the hard work she put in. In Japan, she seeks powerful opponents who she can actually learn and improve by facing. Touka Toudou, the student council president, is the reigning number one Mage-Knight at the academy. With her unbeaten sword technique called Raikiri, she seeks to hold her title and avenge her previous loss at the Seven Stars. Ayase Ayatsuji’s father was hospitalized after he lost a swordfight, and all of his disciples abandoned him. As his lone heir, Ayase needs to win and prove her worth to her father.
It doesn’t stop within the school. Under the surface, mysterious forces seek to upset the balance in Ikki’s world. The Rebellion serves as a group who seeks to undermine the socio-political balance and create a world where Mage-Knights rule supreme. Kuraudo Kurashiki is a thug that takes over peoples’ livelihoods for fun. Ikki and his team stand up for the weak, incidentally carving out names for themselves in society.
It’s not perfect. Ikki’s story without his supporting characters is bland. He ends up in a couple of compromising situations. The non-combat animation doesn’t always match today’s standards. But underneath the superficial issues, it’s a gem of a story with really likable characters and consistently impactful climactic moments. The fact that it doesn’t have a season two is a travesty. If you need a satisfying fantasy story to watch, it’s available on both Crunchyroll and Hulu.