Top 25 Greatest Anime Characters
Who is the greatest anime character ever? Read our Top 25 list and see who made the cut!
Posted Feb. 5, 2014, 1:40 p.m.
Who are the best characters created in the history of anime? It’s a debate that has been held on Internet forums since Internet forums were invented. We thought it was time to revisit this hotly-debated topic and hopefully bring some new perspective to the conversation, so we’ve compiled a new list of the most original and awesome characters in Japanese animation.
There are many factors involved here: legacy, impact, recognition. But for this list, the most important factor was artistic greatness. We were looking for characters who were something special for their time; unique and powerful in their own way. But, most importantly, we selected characters who changed what we thought anime could be. Characters who weren’t so special didn’t make the cut, even if they’re famous. Sure, there are many anime characters who are wildly famous and provide the engine for a commercial machine, but sales and marketing don’t make a character great. Skillful writing, design, and ingenuity make a character great.
So we’ll be up front. If you’re looking for Naruto, Ichigo, or Monkey. you’re not going to find them here. They are each enjoyable in their own way, and no one can deny their commercial success, but popularity doesn’t always mean quality. Just like blockbuster films don’t always win Oscars, and the top-selling music artists don’t always win Grammys.
We know there will be disagreement here. In fact we’re hoping for it. When it comes to fandoms, anime fans are some of the most deeply knowledgeable types around, and we’d love to know who you’d rank as the best examples of anime star power.
With that said, on to the list!
First anime appearance: Ouran High School Host Club, 2006
The reverse harem anime genre had been done to death by 2006. We knew the tropes, we knew what to expect. But then Ouran High School Host Club introduced us to Haruhi, and new doors were opened. Haruhi isn’t one of those typical anime school girls. She’s super tomboyish, demure, and not at all moe. In a series that often satirizes the usual shojo genre stereotypes, Haruhi wins by just being completely free of typical teen drama.
That’s not to say that Haruhi hasn’t seen her fair share of difficulty in life. She lost her mother, but that tragedy is not treated with melodrama, just a somber nostalgia. She has a great relationship with her father, even though he’s a professional cross-dresser. And she somehow maintains her cool even when her privileged companions are acting like idiots. Haruhi is thoroughly. normal. In many ways she’s the exact opposite of what you would expect out of this type of anime, which is part of what makes her such a great character. She’s down to earth, relaxed, and a perfect contrast to the crazy rich boys in the host club.
First anime appearance: Astro Boy, 1980
One of Osamu Tezuka’s most famous creations, Black Jack introduced the idea of a «medical mercenary» to anime. A brilliant doctor with a mysterious past, Black Jack was like the House of his time, but with a more dramatic fashion sense and less snark. He operates outside of the medical establishment, not even carrying a medical license even though he’s one of the most talented doctors in the world. In the annals of anime, you’d be hard pressed to find another character quite like him.
On the surface, Black Jack is a bit of a shady character. He takes on patients from all walks of life, but he charges insanely high prices that would make even the richest man cry for a single payer health care system. So the word on the street was that Jack is greedy and uncaring. But the reality is much more complex; Black Jack renders his medical services for free if a patient moves him emotionally with the tale of their suffering. And even when he squeezes wealthy patients out of the money, he gives most of the money to charity.
This character did what few characters in anime have achieved: he made an everyday profession into something heroic. Although his stories can certainly be fantastical at times, the tales are really all about how science, medicine, intelligence, and compassion can make a difference in the lives of the sick. Black Jack has had a few anime series over the past 34 years, and although he’s slightly different in each incarnation, at his core he’s always about solving medical mysteries and making the world a little less miserable, one patient at a time.
First anime appearance: Afro Samurai, 2007
The only anime character voiced by one Bad Ass Mother******, Samuel L. Jackson. Afro Samurai was a fresh, modern take on the samurai genre and it featured a man who’s probably the first black male title character in an anime. The series first aired on Spike TV and the stylized battle scenes and Samuel L. Jackson’s unique lead voice talents made it an instant hit.
Some argue whether the series even counts as «real» anime because its development and release involved so many American parties. But the series was adapted from a Japanese manga, directed by a Japanese anime director, and produced by well-known Japanese anime studio GONZO. So it’s definitely anime, and one of the more interesting ones of recent times. Afro himself is the strong silent type, preferring to let his sword do the talking. But when he does speak, the words that flow are spoken with single-minded focus. He’s only got two things on his mind; vengeance, and the Number One Headband: the sacred headband said to bestow great powers upon its owner.
Afro by himself would be an interesting guy, but he’s made even more remarkable by the inclusion of Afro’s alter ego Ninja Ninja, who provides colorful commentary on Afro’s thoughts and actions. Where Afro is mirthless and mute, Ninja Ninja is irreverent and gabby, providing much needed comedy relief in the face of all this slicing and dicing. Ninja Ninja is either a complete figment of Afro’s imagination or some kind of nature spirit guardian thing that is a manifestation of Afro’s repressed thoughts. Either way, through him we get an even more interesting peek at who Afro is and what makes the man tick.
First anime series: Berserk: Legendary Wind Sword, 1997
The horror/fantasy/action anime Berserk was set in a cruel fantasy world so horrible it makes the Game of Thrones setting look like a child’s playground. A brutal place needed an equally brutal hero, and that man was Guts. Born from a corpse that was left hanging from a tree, his life didn’t get any easier from there. Guts goes through so many trials and tribulations it’s hard to keep track. He sees his friends and loved ones brutalized, raped, or killed (or all of the above), and eventually loses an arm and an eye. You have to be a badass or bootlicker to survive in that kind of world, and you can guess which one Guts picked.
But what makes Guts truly great is that, although he does just swing his big ass sword around most of the time, he is actually a thoughtful person. He employs a great deal of tactical thinking in many fights, and in those sparse moments between battles Guts does a lot of talking and listening, and we see the story through the eyes of a man who has every reason to detest the world, but is still fighting to protect the good in it.
Guts served as a template for many heroes that came after him. The ridiculously big sword he wields in the Berserk manga arguably started the trend of big ass swords in anime, which spread to characters like Cloud Strife and Ichigo Kurosaki.
First anime appearance: Hellsing, 2001
There have been many vampires in anime, but none have been as deliciously sadistic as Alucard. He revels in his battles, enjoying every moment of them. He doesn’t sparkle in the sunlight, and he doesn’t make women fall madly in love with him. He’s just a demon who enjoys being given full reign to destroy other monsters in any way he sees fit, which usually involves him playing with them.
Alucard is practically invincible, which would normally be boring. But Alucard uses that invincibility to dramatic effect as he often lets his opponents damage him, only to regenerate and take utter delight in their disappointment when they thought victory was so close. This vampire doesn’t just feed on blood; he revels in the despair of his enemies. It’s fortunate that he’s a «good» guy.
But there are softer sides to Alucard too. He has a great fondness for the members of his team who are devoted to destroying the forces of evil who threaten humanity. Even though the anime version of Alucard mentions that he doesn’t entirely understand humans anymore, he seems happy to work in the service of them, and to protect them from devils who aren’t as honorable as he is.
IGN’s Top 25 Anime Characters of All Time
There’s a brief movement during the Dragon Ball Z saga where Goku goes and dies. (The dying part wasn’t actually all that big a deal, though, since the Z Fighters died and came back about as often as the X-Men, and with as many lasting consequences.) Dead, Goku travels directly to the afterlife, where he greets King Kai – for all intents and purposes, God – and asks for the chance to train in martial arts beneath him, learning directly from the Almighty.
Not long after completing a training session alongside our hero, Kai has a chat with a few of his fellow deities. Goku, reckons the King, is the most powerful being in the universe. He is a match for King Kai himself and then some, able to perfect fighting techniques that Kai never could, and might well destroy all that is if he isn’t very careful with his massive in-born powers.
Japanese animation has given us plenty of bad-asses, but not very many could have beaten up God and then blown up the universe for an encore. Ladies and gentlemen, Son Goku.
His contemporary American reincarnation is just a touch embarrassing, but Tetsuwan Atom is still an icon among icons. He was Japan’s first great modern cartoon hero, on the printed page and the TV screen.
Astro was inspired, of course, by the Pinocchio legend – his creator wanted to build himself an artificial son, a robot who could replace the human child that he’d lost. That’s the emotional center that makes him more interesting than the average action hero. Sure, he fought evil with lasers in his fingers and machineguns in his backside, but he had a real heart and a real personality to go along with all the weaponry. In retrospect, it’s no surprise to see he had staying power, even if he’s a few sizes smaller than the average anime robot.
Yeah, he wore an ascot. It was the early ’60s, though, so you can mostly excuse that kind of thing. And he had a cool car and a monkey, which is pretty hard to beat.
But seriously, folks. The first generation of fans that encountered Japanese cartoons mostly did it through a guy named Speed who talked as fast as he drove, and Speed Racer’s adventures hung around in syndication to have an impact far beyond their original run. In his time, Speed had a totally different style from American animation, too – the influence of Japanese girls’ comics gave him a look that wasn’t like anything else on TV here, and that effect told many years later, when there were at least as many women as guys interested in this thing called «anime.»
We don’t see it done very often, but in some ways animation is the perfect medium for film noir. Robert Rodriguez had the right idea when he filmed Frank Miller’s Sin City comics – the movie may star real people, but break down the whole package and it’s more than half a cartoon. Years before, Shinichiro Watanabe went all the way with Cowboy Bebop, and a fellow who, in his quiet way, became one of the great modern noir heroes.
Spike’s a flashy, funny, violent tough guy, and that’s part of what makes him fun to watch. What really makes Cowboy Bebop work, though, is the story that grows out of his past, and the reckoning that all of that inevitably builds towards. Every key character in the series finds some way to settle things with what’s gone before, except for Spike, who just can’t find a way to let the past go. Given how his story ends, though, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
A classic example of a classic anime type, the peace-loving killing machine. He’s a perfectly decent guy who hides something horrible inside him, which lends a low-level current of suspense to every second of the show he appears in. We know that it takes a whole lot of abuse to bring out the man that Kenshin used to be, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen at almost any time.
The dual nature of the character reflects itself in the series. He can get away with starring in light comedy with no problems – in fact, he’s a first-rate straight man most of the time. When his creators feel like shifting gears down into something darker, though, he can effortlessly turn to a darker tone along with them.
If you follow Shonen Jump’s fan-favorite character polls, Naruto actually isn’t the most popular character in his own series most of the time. Kakashi and Sasuke walk away with it as often as not, and he’s even been squeezed out by a villain or two on occasion.
He’s the engine that powers the franchise, though, that’s pretty hard to argue against. Naruto’s like a bouncing orange perpetual motion machine – just wind him up a touch and he goes. Sasuke may be tougher and Kakashi may be cooler and Deidara may be…well, blonde-er, or whatever it is people see in him, but the show could go without them in a pinch. It couldn’t go on without the would-be Sixth Hokage, though, which is why he snags this spot on the list.
Ed, let us say, has his failings. He is arrogant, he is hot-headed, he has the classic small-man’s syndrome. He has a chip on his shoulder that you could send to the sawmill and use to build a decent-sized garden shed.
On the other hand, he and his kid brother Al make one of the best action-comedy teams in recent memory. The entry here really ought to belong to the Elric brothers collectively – it’s hard to imagine the one without the other, after all. Together, they made Fullmetal Alchemist just about the biggest anime hit of the decade, and with the arrival of their second big TV series, we still haven’t seen the last of them.
Love him or hate him, he’s recognized around the world. At his peak he was probably the best-known, best-loved, and most-often-bootlegged anime character since the heyday of Goku and Dragon Ball Z.
His appeal, of course, is perfectly simple. He has all the best qualities of the domestic housecat – fuzzy, friendly, occasionally silly – but without any of the down sides, like clawing the curtains or shedding all over the couch. He’s unfailingly loyal, too, whereas your average cat would probably eat your throat while you sleep if you didn’t happen to feed him twice a day. Consider Pikachu something close to the ideal pet, just so long as you don’t happen to rile up his electric side.
There were plenty of magical girls before Sailor Moon, and there have been plenty of magical girls since her. Miss Moon, though, struck a balance that few shows before or since have matched. Earlier heroines like Minky Momo were childish and chaste. Her successors have grown ever more cheesy and lurid, appealing to the aging pervert market that she accidentally tapped for the first time.
Sailor Moon went so far and no farther. Her skirt was impossibly short, but you never did see what was under it. Compared to a recent creation like Lyrical Nanoha, she’s a model of restraint.
One also has to recognize Sailor Moon’s massive impact on American anime fandom. Hers was the first show that managed to draw in a measurable audience of real, live girls, who became genuinely hardcore fans thanks to shows like Rurouni Kenshin and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Which led, by a long and twisted trail, to a number of fanboys unexpectedly finding a way to lose their virginities at conventions some years down the line. They may not quite know it, but they owe you one, Sailor Moon.
Rei is a hugely influential character concept. Since Eva made the big splash back in 1995, we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of anime heroines written almost exactly like her – pliable, passive, emotionless objects, perfectly suited to a timid geek’s favorite fantasies. Rei has about as much personality as a Real Doll, and possibly that is not a coincidence.
Or does she? The difference between Rei and so many almost-Reis is that there might be something behind the façade. She’s a mystery we never really solve, when you think about it. Even after we learn what’s supposed to be the great big secret behind where she came from, that doesn’t necessarily answer the real question. Is there more to Rei than what we think we see?
Like so many things about Evangelion, it’s an awfully interesting argument starter, and it’s nice to believe that it’s what put her on the map. Sadly, the bandage fetish probably had more to do with it, but we are not our fellow fanboy’s keeper.
Strip him naked and Kaneda isn’t much of a character. He’s one of a million lunkheaded teenage delinquents, the kind that have headlined macho beat-’em-up comics in rags like Shonen Champion for decades. Haul him in for disturbing the peace, stick the scrawny punk in prison grays, and stand him in a lineup – would anybody recognize him?
Death Note paid this guy the ultimate backhand compliment. As soon as he left the series, it fell straight off a cliff. The second that L’s no longer involved in the plot, you may as well put it down and find something else to watch.
Perhaps it’s because he made such a sharp and simple contrast to Light Yagami’s megalomaniac ego. L has no ego to speak of, just a constant drive to get the job done. Light wants to be revered as a living god, while L would as soon nobody even knew his name. Each of them made the perfect nemesis for the other, and neither was quite the same without the other to work against.
Masamune Shirow is famous for a particular kind of sci-fi heroine. In a way, you might say that they’re all the same woman, just filtered through a different milieu in each story. Send Dominion’s Leona Ozaki to survive in the wreckage of World War III and she probably wouldn’t turn out entirely unlike Deunan Knute from Appleseed.
The Major’s filtered through a very interesting milieu, though. She is, when you get down to it, just a brain in a jar, although nobody’s going to dispute that it’s one hell of a jar. That makes her a straight line to one of science fiction’s most interesting questions – what is it that makes up a human? Though she may be cool, professional, and mostly artificial, she’s unquestionably human, and following her adventures through Ghost in the Shell was never less than fascinating.
Yoshitaka Amano, of course, is famous for a whole bunch of other characters besides just this one. This is the one that put him on the map, though, a few years before something called Final Fantasy that apparently all the kids are into these days.
He and his crew are justifiable icons. They’ve consistently carried hit productions for more than 40 years now – three classic long-running TV shows and a raft of hot movies and specials besides. A year ago in Lupin III: Green Vs. Red, his creators had such a hard time finding a credible opponent that they had to pit Lupin up against…well, himself.
As lovable rogues go, there may be none greater. Think of him as Japan’s answer to Bugs Bunny, in a way – he never fails to come up with an outlandish scheme or a smart one-liner to top it all off with. Lupin brings a classic supporting cast along with him, too. There’s no such thing as Lupin without the Lupin Gang, after all, or good old Inspector Zenigata in hot pursuit.
And he couldn’t have done it without Jubei, the fictional incarnation of an almost-as-deadly historical figure. He’s arguably not the principal actor in the movie – he spends an awful lot of Ninja Scroll being hurled around at the whim of greater powers – but like any great action hero, he takes a beating and comes back every time.
Some might say that Vash isn’t much of a character. (Others might go farther and call him a bald-faced knockoff of a character who lives a couple of entries further down this list.) As a character design, though, he’s one of the all-time greats. Yasuhiro Nightow is an excellent artist any day of the week, but he outdid himself with the hero of his most famous comic strip.
Most fans were sold on Trigun before they even watched the show. Vash the Stampede just had the look – the long coat, the spiked hair, the custom six-shooter, like a blazing red version of all the great gun-slinging heroes of Westerns past. That look worked on a couple of levels, too, once we found out exactly what was hidden underneath the famous duster.
Remember the bit a few entries back about unmitigated bastardry? Here is the undisputed heavyweight champion, a narcissistic mass murderer with absolutely no regard for any other human being alive, unless he might be able to use them for a while before he crumples them up and throws them away.
For a while, though, he was mesmerizing, there’s nothing else to it. Death Note probably tried to run a bit longer than it actually had the fuel to carry itself, but at his peak, everyone wanted to know what Light was going to try next. He could plot and scheme like nobody else before or since, and he just about managed to pull it all off…but then again, probably best for all concerned that he didn’t quite make it.
We were worried she might wipe out the universe if we didn’t let her into the top 10, but it’s a chance we’ll just have to take. With luck she’ll forget about it and wind up fixated on something else in the morning.
A lot of people read very deeply into Haruhi Suzumiya, and it’s true that there are some interesting philosophical implications to the notion of a neurotic teenage girl with unconscious godlike powers. The show doesn’t need any hidden meaning to work, though – Haruhi’s hilarious whether or not you take her seriously. What she does, on a number of levels, is make interesting things happen, and while that might make life a little frightening for the characters around her, it makes for a show that was magnificent entertainment from beginning to end.
He has a big sword. No fooling. You would not believe the size of this guy’s sword. And when he does that whole thing where he hollers «BANKAI!» real loud, the sword gets even bigger. It’ll give you such a zetz, this sword…
Okay, okay, okay, we kid. There’s more to Kurosaki than just a big sword. In fact, he’s the thinking man’s Shonen Jump hero, a bright and inquisitive young kid who just happens to get saddled with the image of a dopey delinquent goon. Sometimes the action in Bleach moves a bit too fast and furious to let him show off his full range, but at his best, there’s a lot more to Ichigo than just a big sword. And in a pinch, well, the sword can still get the job done all by itself.
Before so many others picked up the same gimmick, he was the original unmitigated bastard. When you wonder about the appeal of a Light Yagami or Lelouch Lamperouge, consider that the prince of the Saiyans was a fan favorite years before they came on the scene. Vegeta’s so arrogant he reckons himself superior to most of the population of the galaxy, and he’d probably look down at the rest of the universe if he happened to meet anyone from that far away.
He came around a bit, though, which is a big part of his appeal. He never quite became Mr. Nice Guy, but Bulma certainly did her best to civilize the big lug. There’s something to be said for a hero with just a touch of a bad guy in him, and by the end that describes Vegeta to a tee.
Some characters work for relatively complicated reasons. Other characters work because they hit people really hard. Luffy, most would agree, belongs to the latter category.
That might be selling the rubber man a little bit short, though. Plenty of tough-guy anime heroes can dish it out all day, but Luffy can take it, too, which is a somewhat rarer quality. Hit him as hard as you can and he’ll just bounce right on back – in fact, it’s hard to think of a meaner counter-puncher, not since Joe Yabuki from nigh on 50 years ago. He’s done Shonen Jump proud for many years now, and there’s no reason to expect he won’t keep going for plenty of years more.
It’s hard to come up with a «hero» who is more unabashedly, unashamedly evil. Seriously. Lelouch is a liar, a thief, a manipulator, and a mass murderer with a body count…possibly up in the seven figures, depending how you do the counting, by the time the Code Geass saga is finally over. At some point or another, he finds a way to betray or kill almost everyone he has ever known.
In spite of it all, though, he had his reasons. He meant well, in his supremely screwed-up way. And in the end, he was ready to pay for it, and pay for it he did. Say this one thing for Lelouch, he never did a damned thing halfway, and he made Code Geass a heck of a ride all the way to the end.
Hayao Miyazaki has invented enough lovable characters to fill a whole list of his own, from the mighty flying pig who took the lead in Porco Rosso to the quirky little coal-demon from Howl’s Moving Castle. One of them stands out above all the rest, which becomes especially obvious if you ever happen to visit a Japanese Toys R Us. In his home country, and even abroad to a degree, Totoro is eternal.
The interesting thing about Totoro, as heroes of children’s stories go, is that he isn’t completely…safe, might be the word. He’s cheerful and friendly and fuzzy, true, but he’s huge and loud and wild, too. He’s a spirit of nature, with all that entails, and that might be what’s helped give him serious staying power over the decades since.
Shinji, to quote a famous fanboy one-liner, is a giant wuss. He cries, he whines, he cowers, he chants a constant mantra about how he «mustn’t run away» before promptly running away several times throughout Neon Genesis Evangelion.
We love Shinji, perhaps, not for what he is, but for what he could be. For all the many times where the guy completely drops the ball – including at the climax of the entire Evangelion saga, with the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance – there’s a couple of outings where Shinji really is every last bit he could be. When he beats the Third Angel to death with its own rib bones, it’s hard not to love our boy Shinji.
Or maybe we just love Shinji because we wish we could be in his shoes, because we know we could do the job so much better ourselves. And shack up in a pad with no parents and two gorgeous girls besides.
Japanese animation has been around a long time now. We’ve only been aware of it in America for so long, especially when it comes to shows besides G-Force and Speed Racer, but it’s been nearly 50 years since the first black-and-white Japanese TV animation hit the airwaves. Since then, Japan has taken animation in more directions than any other popular culture, creating a broader range of classic characters than even we in America can claim.
In recognition, we thought we’d have a shot at coming up with a list of 25 all-time classic animation stars. It’s hard to harvest just a few of our very favorite characters out of shows airing over five decades, but we gave it a go anyhow, and here are the results.
Our criteria for selection involved a little bit of everything – each character’s lasting fame, the impact they had on the medium and their particular genre at the time, the depth and quality of their realization on screen, and of course, a little bit of personal taste. Everyone out there has their own damned opinion, of course, so have a look at ours, and then feel free to share yours afterwards.