There’s never been a better time to be an anime fan. Long gone are the days of paying $50 for a VHS of three episodes of your favorite show. The proliferation of streaming services and popularity of anime have made it a golden age for fans who want to enjoy anime new and old alike.
Which leads us to this list. Being able to watch all of our favorite shows has gotten us thinking about the best anime characters of all time, from deep-cut faves to the classics who shaped anime as we know it.
Before we get to our list, here are a few ground rules on how we landed on this selection. Each character has been selected for their lasting impact, their place in anime history, and, of course, how much we love them here at IGN. Picking only 25 was one of the hardest tasks we’ve undertaken, but that’s the kind of sacrifice we make for you (plenty of favorites just missed this list, from Shotaro Kaneda to Char Aznable to Alucard). Our anime experts put their heads together and made the hard choices so that we could celebrate the best of the best.
So keep reading or swipe through the slideshow to see our picks for the top 25 anime characters of all time!
The Top 25 Greatest Anime Characters of All Time
25. Astro Boy (Astro Boy)
One of the oldest anime characters in existence, Astro Boy first appeared on television screens in 1963, helping to usher in the phenomenon now known worldwide as anime. Created by Osamu Tezuka, the “father of manga,” the original Astro Boy was a mix of the classic Pinocchio tale with the science and zeitgeist of the post-war Atomic Age (in Japan, Astro’s name is Tetsuwan Atom). In the original story, Astro was created by Dr. Tenma to replace his own son, who had died in a car accident. Out of that grief was borne the bright-eyed robot boy named Astro, who then became destined to use his X-ray vision, rocket-booster feet, and 100,000-horsepower arms to protect humanity from itself.
Astro Boy’s design is quite childish, and there’s no question that he has appeal with kids. But beyond those long lashes and that cute smile is a character who portrayed stories for Japanese children who had seen war (even Astro’s “father” Dr. Tenma goes insane from the grief of losing his son). Astro, a boy who was both more than human and less than human, guided kids through complex morality tales where the characters had complicated motivations, social problems didn’t always have easy solutions, and people had the capacity to perform both great acts of kindness and of evil.
24. Vash the Stampede (Trigun)
Ever the reluctant fighter, Vash was a living contradiction. He’s gifted with superhuman fighting abilities, but also a superhuman capacity for compassion and kindness. He’s a character who suffered countless scars and wounds to his own body to protect others, even the very villains he was trying to stop, and his vow to never take a life provides plenty of drama in Trigun as his enemies use his virtue against him.
Vash is called “the humanoid typhoon” because utter destruction tends to follow him wherever he goes, and there’s a huge bounty on his head. But in reality, he’s humanity’s secret guardian angel on the distant, wild planet of Gunsmoke. As a “Plant,” he’s a being with power that few can comprehend. He’s the greatest gunman on the planet, and all the criminals he faces don’t stand a chance against him. But Vash’s true challenge is in saving the world from his “brother” Knives, and it’s this conflict that brings out Vash’s real heroism. The tale of Vash’s childhood and his mother figure Rem is a great story, as is the story of how Knives ended up being the polar opposite of Vash. Although Vash is often portrayed as a childish goofball, in reality he’s a very complex and tortured character who is doing his best to save people who never even know what he’s done for them.
23. Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass)
Lelouch was one of the best examples of a hero gone astray. As often happens in dramatic stories, his good intentions paved a road to a dark place. The words “the ends justify the means” were his mantra, but his desire to right wrongs and create a better world for his sister led him to become the exact kind of despot that he was trying to fight against. His rise and downfall is almost Shakespearean in nature, as his own pride and arrogance cloud his judgment and he misses out on what was truly important.
But at least he did it all with a sense of dramatic flair! His alter ego Zero, complete with mysterious helmet and flowing cape, was an iconic tool to secure a place in the psyche of both his enemies and his followers. But it wasn’t just a costume; slowly Zero becomes a persona for Lelouch until eventually the hopeful boy he was starts to fade away. In the end, Lelouch’s plans are successful, though not in the way anyone ever expected.
22. Light Yagami (Death Note)
Diabolical, calculating, and determined to remake the world in his own image, Light Yagami was the force that drove Death Note and made it a phenomenon. The manga was incredibly addictive; it was absolute can’t-put-it-down material (largely due to author Tsugumi Ohba’s masterful use of cliffhangers). The story heavily relied upon Light’s cleverness, and the layers upon layers that comprised his plans. Light started out as a good kid, doing well in school and heading to a bright career in police work like his father. But when he gets possession of the Death Note, he begins a remarkable transformation into a disturbing mastermind who becomes judge, jury, and executioner for the entire world.
But Light’s character remains complicated throughout the story. His ultimate goal is to make the world a happier, safer place; a noble goal but perhaps misguided. His idealism and nobility still shine through when he doesn’t have the Death Note. When he temporarily relinquishes ownership of the Death Note to throw L off his trail, Light loses all memory of it and he reverts to his normal personality. His sense of morality returns and he shows more compassion for those around him. He even refuses to use Misa Amane to get information out of her when L asks him to. These qualities help to create a complex character who ends up being a detestable villain, yet you still kind of root for him to come out of this story as a winner. Light’s progression through the series is marked by his brilliance. He’s got a mind that would make Machiavelli jealous, and the power of the Death Note adds a callousness that makes him free to use people in whatever way necessary to accomplish his goals. It’s highly entertaining to see his intricate plans play out. But Light’s ego is just as big as his brain, and that arrogance ultimately leads to his tragic downfall.
21. Dio Brando (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)
The arch-nemesis of the Joestar family and the first of two JoJo’s entries onto our list, Dio Brando is a delectably detestable villain. Raised by an abusive father, at an early age Dio dedicated himself to destroying the Joestar family after being taken in as an orphan. From tormenting the family to torturing their pets, Dio’s evil only grew once he found the Stone Mask, a relic which turned those who wore it into vampires — a fate he would later meet himself. At one point Dio even used it to create an undead army of followers including diabolical figures like Jack the Ripper, showing just how evil he really was. One of anime’s greatest antagonists, Dio also later became a Stand user, adding to his terrifying and terrible powerset.
20. Gon Freecss (Hunter x Hunter)
Father figures loom large over some of our favorite anime characters, and none more so than Gon. The young boy’s life has been defined by the absence of his father, Ging, and it inspires his quest to become a hunter, and sends him on an epic quest when he realizes his “dead” father is actually alive. Raised in the forest by his aunt, Gon is closely attuned to nature and animals, making him a skilled hunter. But despite these skills, he’s still just a kid who can be impatient, impetuous, and ill-tempered. That rarely gets in the way of his determination to become the best Hunter he can be, though. That juxtaposition of coming of age story and fantasy make Gon and Hunter X Hunter one of the most relatable and fun anime series – and protagonists – ever.
19. Motoko Kusanagi (Ghost in the Shell)
Major Motoko Kusanagi is the driving force behind the Ghost in the Shell franchise. The story often descends into long dialogue full of political drama, but Motoko keeps things interesting. She’s not just a participant in all the political intrigue, she’s a master of it, proving that she’s more than a pretty face behind a gun. She’s also a very capable detective, often going solo to root out the truth behind the cases she’s working. And she does it all while surrounded by a male-centric supporting cast. Motoko was a stunning example of a strong female character that didn’t need to have her feminism make a statement. She simply was who she was, and everyone respected that without question. But her greatest use is as a platform to speak on the nature of humanity in a technological age. She’s a human mind that has been stuck in an artificial body since childhood, and her life and trials bring up the age old question, “What does it mean to be human?”
18. Levi Ackerman (Attack on Titan)
Though he’s seen by those within the walled world of Attack on Titan as a hero, Levi Ackerman’s brutality isn’t only directed at the giant monsters that he hunts. It makes sense that he’s a complex character as he was modeled on one of pop culture’s most infamous – and violent – anti-heroes: Rorschach from Watchmen. A strategic superpower, Levi is one of the smartest and most clinical thinkers in anime history. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Attack on Titan has been something of a cultural phenomenon, but Levi is the only character who made it onto our list. That’s because his powerset, dedication to protect his people, and his complicated yet morally driven heroism make him an unforgettable addition to the anime canon.
17. Kakashi (Naruto)
It’s tough to outshine a lead character in his own series, but Kakashi pulled it off and often outranked Naruto in popularity polls. He’s a complex character, with an iconic design and a laid-back attitude that just exudes cool. He’s the kind of teacher everyone wishes they had: smart, relatable, chill, and utterly devoted to his students. He’s saved Naruto’s bacon countless times during his journey to maturity, and where Naruto himself was formulaic and predictable, Kakashi had many surprising traits that helped him steal the show (including his habit of reading erotic love novels). Kakashi has a storied history that’s full of sadness, loss, and retribution. Some of the most poignant stories in the Naruto lore involve Kakashi’s past. From the story of Kakashi’s father’s suicide, to the tale of how he aquired the Sharingan and his eye scar, Kakashi has always proven to have many tales to tell despite his quiet demeanor. He’s got enough interesting back story to have a series of his own (which many Naruto fans would no doubt love).
16. Guts (Berserk)
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 or killed (or both), 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.
15. Arsene Lupin III (Lupin III)
In the early ’70s, anime was still gaining a foothold as a legitimate and profitable form of entertainment. It was still largely seen as a vehicle for either dramatic stories, or children’s tales, but Lupin brought adult comedy anime into the forefront. Although his adult-oriented themes took a while to catch on, eventually his lecherous antics and suave handling of epic heists brought grown-ups firmly into anime and proved to Japanese studio execs that this kind of title could make them money. From Rome, to Paris, to Rio, Lupin traveled far and wide in search of booty… both kinds. It was Lupin’s love of women and his dirty mind that provided much of the comedy in the series, and it was the first time racy humor found itself in popular anime.
But the most beautiful part of the anime version of Lupin is that he’s much more chivalrous than his manga counterpart. The anime version of the character was much more appropriate for the times and fir his role as a leading man of anime. Lupin was regarded as the world’s greatest thief, and with his gang of pals he went about stealing the world’s most valuable things. But he enjoyed the stealing much more than the keeping, and often he just gave away the things he stole. And he wasn’t just a thief for the sake of thieving; he often used his skills to help people in trouble, and to right injustices. He was almost like a modern Robin Hood in a way, but with much more style and panache.
14. Jotaro Kujo (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusader)
The impact of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure can’t be understated, and that’s why more than one of the cast has made it onto our list. Jotaro Koju is a particularly notable addition to the fantastic series by Hirohiko Araki, as he is the first of the heroic family line to be introduced with a Stand. The superpowers (which are visual manifestations of a wielder’s soul) would go on to play an important part in the greater lore of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Jotaro Kujo’s Star Platinum Stand helped to make him a vital character. Like the rest of the Joestar family, Jotaro Kujo is a dramatically stylish figure who has become a fan favorite and also happens to be the most recognizable member of the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure cast.
13. Roronoa Zoro (One Piece)
Is there any cooler character than Roronoa? It’s hard to think of many, seeing as he’s essentially a samurai pirate with green hair, epic scars, and his trademark three swords. But that’s only part of why he made it onto our list. One of the Straw Hat Pirates’ most formidable fighters, he’s also a loyal advisor to Luffy. His reserved nature hides a serious and sincere soul who will stand by his leader. But that doesn’t mean he’ll always be happy about it. His signature over-the-top temper marks the only time he truly lets loose, aside from when he’s fighting of course. Like the best cantankerous characters, Roronoa has a sweet-hearted side that often appears when it comes to helping those in need – even strangers.
12. Tanjiro (Demon Slayer)
Like many of the most impactful heroes, Tanjiro’s story begins with a great tragedy. As a young boy, his life was destroyed when the King of Demons killed his whole family… well, almost all of them. In a final slight, his sister was turned into a half-demon. It was then that he vowed to become a Demon Slayer, cure his sibling, and defeat the Demon King.
Even in the face of his grave past, Tanjiro is compassionate and sweet, his heroism driven by love as well as vengeance. His empathetic nature gives him an upper hand as he can even find connections with the monsters he kills. Though Demon Slayer is a relatively new series, it has become a near-instant smash hit, not least because of the dynamic, kind, and heroic character at the center of its story.
11. L (Death Note)
Every good lead character needs a challenge, and L provided the opposition that the Death Note series required to captivate fans. L is an oddball, for sure, with unkempt hair, a disdain for shoes, and a penchant for crouching on chairs and eating junk food. He isn’t exactly the image that brings to mind “master detective,” but geniuses often are quite eccentric, and L certainly is a good contrast to Light’s sociopathic personality and the mask of perfection he wears. L is weird, a little creepy, and badly in need of some sun, but he’s the good guy, and the pretty boy is the one trying to kill everybody. L is every bit as brilliant as Light, and the battle of wits between them created a dramatic tension that just kept fans starved for more.
10. Himura Kenshin (Rurouni Kenshin)
Arguably the template for other characters on this list like Vash, Kenshin brought to the anime scene a unique trait: He was a killer who wouldn’t kill anymore. After years of being a hired sword and killing countless foes, he makes a vow to never deal in death again. But his vow is tested time and time again as less virtuous people endanger the country’s peace.
Kenshin was a refreshing change of pace in the samurai genre of his time. He was quite feminine, often mistaken for a woman by viewers who weren’t in the know. He was also one of the most polite characters in anime history, frequently putting others before himself and speaking to them with the utmost respect and patience. On the surface, he’s a model nice guy, the kind of person you’d expect to be a teacher or a florist, not a warrior trying to atone for years of bloodshed. But woe to those who keep pushing his buttons, because underneath that serene exterior dwells a ferocious beast. When Kenshin’s hand is forced, he can go to a dark place and fall back into the habits that made him known far and wide as the most fearsome swordsman in the land. Although Kenshin’s momentary lapses make him a complete badass and set the stage for some of the most epic sword battles ever animated, he always goes back to his sweet persona once the danger is gone. But in his solitary, quieter moments, he’s gripped by his greatest fear – that one day he will permanently revert to his former self and become a manslayer once more.
9. Shinji Ikari (Evangelion)
Heroes are often what we to be: powerful, capable, beautiful, confident, selfless, and with some carefully added flaws to make them relatable. But Shinji was different; he wasn’t who we wanted to be. Instead, he provided an uncensored look at who we are. He’s hated for being a wuss – scared, whiny, creepy, and hopeless. But what 14-year-old kid wouldn’t be given what he’s had to deal with? He’s a character that challenges the audience by not giving them a superficial, vicarious power fantasy like so many other anime. He is pathetic, but that is what makes him great – and a genuine work of art.
Hideaki Anno, writer and director of the Evangelion series, went through a serious bout of depression while making the show, and like a true artist, he poured all of that emotion and despair into his work. Each of those characters is a piece of him at his worst, immortalized in media. And no character represents his emotions more than Shinji. Through the boy Shinji, who is tasked with defeating giant demons that are trying to destroy his world, we get an intimate peek at the man behind the production trying to defeat his own personal demons. Shinji is a mirror of all the things depression teaches a person to hate about themselves. He’s not an exit door to a fantasyland. There’s nothing wrong with escapist fantasy, but it’s not the only thing anime can be used for, and Shinji’s legacy is that he was perhaps the most emotionally true-to-life character in anime history.
8. Sailor Moon (Usagi)
For many American kids, Sailor Moon was one of the first anime characters they met, and her impact has never lessened. It might be the combination of her unforgettable catchphrase “In the name of the Moon, I’ll punish you!” and her delightfully recognizable costume, but Sailor Moon (or Usagi, in her non-magical form) has become one of the most beloved anime characters of all time. She’s powerful, funny, and incredibly relatable. The reluctant teen heroine can be found snacking and napping as often as she’s kicking cosmic butt, and that’s part of the reason she’s found such a long-lasting fandom. It doesn’t hurt that creator Naoko Takeuchi designed some of the coolest and most dynamic characters in all of animation history too – led by Sailor Moon.
7. Vegeta (Dragon Ball Z)
Prince of the Saiyans, but forced to play second fiddle to Goku ever since his Google Glass told him that Goku’s power level was Over 9,000!, Vegeta was often the true outlet for creator Akira Toriyama’s creativity. Goku’s path as the leading hero and shining light of goodness was pretty straightforward, but Vegeta progressed along a different road with many twists and turns. He started out as the typical bad guy, but over the course of his history he switched sides and became first a hesitant ally, then a frenemy, and also a loving father. Still, he couldn’t quit being bad cold-turkey, and there were times when he went back to his old ways. But at the heart of his wicked deeds was a deeply rooted inferiority complex; he was the prince of the Saiyans, and yet overshadowed by Goku at every turn. His ego couldn’t take it for years, until finally he matured and realized he didn’t have to define his life that way.
6. Spike Spiegel (Cowboy Bebop)
Combine Bruce Lee’s martial arts, a little Lupin III, a heavy dose of film noir, and a dash of cool, and you’ve got Spike Spiegel. Spike was an amalgamation of influences, and the result was a creation greater than the sum of its parts. In a series like Cowboy Bebop, which was itself a combination of cultural influences from around the globe, Spike was the essence of the story. Voice actor Steve Blum sent his career to new heights when he gave the performance of a lifetime in the English dub of the series, giving Spike a sense of smooth, effortless cool that many argue surpassed the original Japanese version. Spike proved to be a versatile character; he was an expert pickpocket, a gearhead who worked on his own spaceship, a clever detective, a badass fighter, and even a bit of a philosopher. But what made Spike most interesting was his past as a gangster – and a man hopelessly in love. His relationship with Julia, and the tragic end of that relationship, haunts him throughout the series and shows us what truly mattered to Spike all along. When Cowboy Bebop reaches its powerful conclusion, Spike goes out in a blaze of glory that is unmatched in all of anime.
5. Goku (Dragon Ball)
Arguably the archetype of modern shonen anime lead characters, Goku was somewhat of an innovative creation back in his day. When the plucky, pint-sized kid Goku first appeared in Dragon Ball, the trend for male heroes was to have larger than life muscle heads (which Goku ironically turned into in his adulthood). Speaking of which, Goku actually grew up, which was another drastic change in a time when characters rarely changed much.
But Dragon Ball Z is where Goku truly earned his fame. Goku isn’t even the most popular character in DBZ sometimes, but he is the foundation of the series. His heroism, strength, and dedication make him the perfect core for a kids show where the themes are meant to be pretty simple. He may not be the most complex character in anime history, but he’s perfect for the goal he was meant to accomplish. But Goku isn’t ranked so high here as much for his complexity as for his influence, which cannot be denied. He was, in many ways, a character that bucked the trends of his time and defined the direction of shonen manga/anime for decades. The creators of Naruto, One Piece, and many other manga/anime have openly admitted that Goku heavily influenced their stories and character designs.
4. Johan (Monster)
Often called the greatest villain in anime history, Johan was a serial killer who would fit in well in any blockbuster thriller. Monster told the story of a man who had truly become monstrous – a charismatic, intelligent sociopath with no other goal than to kill everyone else in the world. He didn’t just kill people, he made other people into monsters just like him. This skill of corruption is first displayed in his youth, when he used stories to convince the other boys in his orphanage to kill all the staff – and each other.
Johan is often compared to Light Yagami of Death Note, but the two are quite different. Light’s fatal (and genius) flaw is his own ego, which leads him to put his own life above all else, even his goal of changing the world. But Johan isn’t afraid of death. He welcomes it. He’s perfectly willing to put his own life at risk, and one of his signature traits is how he challenges people to shoot him. Johan is also a masterful manipulator. Where Light had to resort to supernatural means to get what he wanted, Johan just used his own wits and knowledge of human nature. He’s most frightening because he exposes the base human nature of his victims. Monster’s remarkable story was almost entirely due to Johan.
3. Naruto Uzumaki (Naruto)
If you’re of a certain generation, Naruto was synonymous with anime. Massively popular and so influential that it even inspired its own run, the story of the titular young ninja desperate to gain the acceptance and support of his community has been a fan fave for years. And it’s really because of Naruto himself. The spirited, ramen-loving orphan is one of anime’s most recognizable and highly thought of figures. Though he started his journey – like many of us – as a beginner who struggled to find his footing, thanks to his dedication he became a powerful ninja. It doesn’t hurt that he can access the chakra of Kurama, a legendary nine-tailed beast who takes Naruto’s abilities over the top. Despite his connection to the powerful creature, Naruto also worked hard to become one of the best ninjas of all time – and turned out to be one of the best anime characters ever along the way.
2. Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Wildly ambitious, wickedly smart, and wise beyond his years, the precocious Edward Elric entered the stage with a fresh take on the modern shonen anime hero. Unlike those who came before him, he wasn’t the lovable but dim-witted guy with a heart of gold. He was smart, calculating, arrogant, and shrimp-sized. But most daring of all was the fact that Edward is technically disabled, having had both an arm and a leg lost in a tragic accident fueled by love and hubris. In Edward we had a character who was truly multidimensional. He could be comedic and pull off wild takes and sight gags. He could be placed in the most tragic circumstances and portray the deepest kind of sadness. He could be a complete badass, but he could also be the nicest guy on the planet. And most of all, we saw Edward discover harsh truths about the world – and learn that he didn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did.
1. Monkey D. Luffy (One Piece)
In 2022, One Piece became the best-selling manga of all time. So it’s no surprise that the lead character of such an influential title and its massively successful anime adaptation tops our list. Many 2000s kids discovered One Piece – and Luffy – thanks to the series’ inclusion in the FoxBox programming block, introducing a generation to the joys of anime. With his instantly recognizable straw hat, blue pants, and red jacket, the young leader of the Straw Hat Pirates is a powerful fighter and comes from a line of revolutionaries. His bravery and recklessness both endear and endanger those around him. But they’re also what make him such a maverick pirate and so successful in his epic adventures. For all of these reasons and many more, Luffy is our number one pick when it comes to the best anime characters.
Note: This story was updated on 8/17/2022. It was originally posted in April of 2018.