Pirates are among the most influential themes in the entertainment industry, and their presence is so widespread it’s felt all around the globe, even in anime and manga. While they might not always resemble the swashbuckling romanticized characters you might see in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, they’re endlessly eclectic and full of inspiration from the theme in their own way. The best pirate anime series or movies are the ones that set themselves apart and captivate the viewers with promises of adventure, great stories, and fun characters.
Best Pirate Anime Series
There are some truly unique, diverse stories to be found in this anime niche, carved out by some incredibly heavy-hitting franchises including one of the most popular, long-running anime ever made. But below are some of the best pirate anime series and movies, ranked in no particular order:
Sol Bianca: The Legacy
Throwing a curveball at the start of the list, this is technically a pirate anime, but in space. An all-female crew of space pirates encounter May, a stowaway on their starship, and learn that her parents are on the lost planet, Earth. They embark on a journey to find the girl’s parents and learn more about Earth’s past and secrets, a pirate adventure with sci-fi elements. This series is beloved by fans and is a relatively concise viewing experience consisting of 6 episodes. This concise storytelling is the mark of a true miniseries, unlike the anthologies peddled by Emmy-hungry prestige networks.
Space Pirate Captain Harlock
Space Pirate Captain Harlock is part of a long line of sci-fi and pirate manga and anime created by Leiji Matsumoto and among the best of the genre, as well as the most iconic. Meant to portray a spacefaring future Earth 1000 years in the future (as imagined in the 1970s when it was created) it features the titular character who sets out to free mankind from the planet’s oppressors. The series features an individualistic hero as its protagonist who stirs up hope in his fellow rebels and had a far-reaching influence, with tons of sequel series, retellings, and even a live-action film in 2014, but it’s worthwhile to see the 1978 original.
Emeraldas is a revision of a character who is featured in Captain Harlock and is another of Matsumoto’s works. Realistically, an entire separate article could be filled with his works, but this is a particularly memorable selection. The series received a 1998 Original Video Anime (OVA) adaptation of the space pirate who fights against would-be conquerors of the galaxy. You won’t have to have watched other entries in the Harlock series to enjoy this, either, and it’s another concise experience with 4 episodes.
Gram River and his friends are living on Mars in this series, finding life difficult with a rough economy and a heavy-handed government. It’s due to these conditions that Gram joins the most notorious pirates on Mars who are pursued by the government, and he finds their cause to be just one, over time. It’s yet another space pirate series, but this one is full of adventure, likable characters, great animation, and even mecha elements for fans of the genre. It has a 26-episode run, making for a fun, decently long viewing experience, first aired in 2004.
Elemental Gelade is a seriously underrated anime series. The first one on this list to feature a pirate who doesn’t sail the stars, this series follows the adventures of Coud Van Giruet as he escorts Reverie Metherlence to Edel Garden. Reverie, as it turns out, is an Edel Raid (creatures who can join with humans and become living weapons) that Coud discovered whilst looting, with her being an especially powerful one, making her a prominent target for the villains. The show develops as a love story between these two protagonists and is an engaging, 13-episode experience. It doesn’t hurt that the opening song is a bop.
One Piece Film: Red
It should be clarified here that One Piece will feature more than once on this list. But it’s for a worthwhile reason, as the series has had a number of film adaptations that have performed to varying levels. It’s a testament to just how ubiquitous and memorable the pirate anime series has become, and how dominant its movies are.
Red has become the highest-grossing film (not just anime) of 2022 in Japan since releasing on August 6, 2022, already on track to become one of the most successful movies of all time in the country, while raking in millions worldwide, especially with the North American November 4, 2022 release. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also an excellent viewing experience bringing Red-Haired Shanks, one of One Piece’s best characters, into the forefront with the introduction of his adopted daughter, Uta.
Bodacious Space Pirates
Despite such a name, this is not any form of fanservice anime with the sort of gratuitous content that has appeared in recent years. It is a 2012 anime adaptation of a 2008 manga, receiving heaps of critical praise as a science fiction show depicting a future where space has been colonized and wars have come and gone. Space pirates were recruited to fight in these conflicts, but over the years of peace that followed, their status faded to legend.
Marika, the protagonist, learns about her father, Gonzaemon, who was the pirate captain of the Bentenmaru, making her the heir to the title and vessel, sending her on a great adventure. The series had a solid 26-episode run and is a recommended show for anyone wanting a memorable pirate anime series without having to spend months catching up.
This anime is far more grounded conceptually than others on this list, featuring a modern 1990s backdrop with genuine, seafaring pirates in the crime-ridden fictional town of Roanapur, Thailand. Dealing in a more gritty environment, this series is decidedly more bloody as far as pirate series go. It has been compared favorably to Cowboy Bebop with excellent animation, violent action, distinctive characters, and a unique, mature style.
The show follows Rokuro Okajima who, while on a business away from his company in Tokyo, gets taken hostage on the titular pirate vessel, Black Lagoon. He is essentially abandoned by his company, and falls in with the pirate crew, becoming their negotiator. The series ran for 2 12-episode seasons as well as 5 OVA episodes and is highly recommended for mature audiences.
Castle in the Sky
While not specifically a pirate film per se, Castle in the Sky is one of the most celebrated films by Studio Ghibli, with this movie being written and directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. It is easily one of the most influential steampunk films ever made, with glorious visual design and the signature Ghibli animation attached, and is adored and cited by legions of fans as one of the studio’s best. The film follows Sheeta, a mysterious princess kidnapped by individuals looking to exploit her connection to a mysterious floating castle, Laputa, and the young boy who rescues her, Pazu.
While the pirates are more of a secondary figure in this film, they become increasingly important as the plot carries on, a group of airship brigands known as Dola’s Gang. In fact, their leader, Dola, evolves from a typical greedy pirate figure into a sympathetic mother figure to Sheeta, who reminds her of herself when she was young. The bonds built between the protagonists and Dola’s Gang are wholesome and part of what keeps this film so engaging, along with a fantastic adventure to stop the film’s villains from overtaking the flying castle and weaponizing it for evil deeds.
The most popular pirate anime of all time, and certainly among the best, One Piece features many of the best aspects of other anime and movies in this list. It features lovable characters en masse, a grandiose, engaging plot, surprisingly violent fights, and a love for adventure and freedom from oppression. Its protagonist, Monkey D. Luffy, is one of the most interesting and beloved pirates ever seen in anime, and after over 1000 chapters of the manga, it has become as synonymous with the pirate genre as Naruto is with ninja anime.
One Piece’s legacy is broad, with successful video game adaptations, high-grossing films, and outlasting all other shonen anime of its era despite having relatively little filler. It’s tough to say just how much One Piece has affected the overall anime zeitgeist, but it is a potent reminder of just how relevant and malleable the pirate genre is, and how outlandish it can be while sticking to the seas instead of space or the skies.
But the best pirate anime series, ultimately, is the one that gets you into the genre, with some of the best characters in the medium and tons of adventure. If you’re new to pirate anime or anime in general, any of these are a solid way to jump in.
- This article was updated on November 7th, 2022