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The 28 Best Anime Protagonists, Ranked

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Aniplex of America / Viz Media / Dark Horse Comics

Part of what makes anime so wonderful is just how truly expansive it is. The term doesn't even really refer to a genre; it actually just refers to animated content from Japan. And thus, when we talk about the best anime protagonists of all time, we pull from a vast swath of source material. We can include everything from the coy detectives of Miyazaki films to the ambitious super-powered children that permeate so much of the shonen genre. With this in mind, behold our list of the best anime protagonists to ever grace the big—and small—screen.

RELATED: The 25 Best Anime Movies of All Time, Ranked

28. Astro Boy

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Crunchyroll

‘Astro Boy’

This little robotic tyke is considered an OG of the anime genre as he first came onto the scene in 1952. He's one of the first characters that got me sucked into anime (THANKS, DAD!), which I'm sure is the case for a lot of fans who're now in their early to mid-30s. Astro Boy is such a classic hero - he takes the fight to the evil entities that plague his futuristic world with puts smiles on the faces of the human that entrust their safety to him. That slick haircut of his, those jet-boosted legs he sports, and those machine guns he's got hidden in his hips make him one of the most badass little boys in all of anime. - Elton Jones

27. Ash Ketchum

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The Pokémon Company

'Pokémon'

THAT BOY FINALLY DID IT! After an epic 25-year run as the legendary Pokémon trainer with the funniest pun for a last name I've ever seen, Ash Ketchum is the Pokémon World Champion. Watching that young king (that seemingly never ages!) go from getting washed by a Spearow flock to holding up the grand winner's trophy is so inspiring. Ash has matured into one of the most inspiring anime characters of all time due to his willingness to adapt to his opponents, train a huge number of viable Pokémon, and build up an amazing roster of friends that have stood by his side through thick & thin. "Gotta catch 'em all!" isn't just a slogan - it's a phrase 90s kids say out loud to get them inspired just like my boy Ash. - Elton Jones

26. Emma

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Aniplex of America

'The Promised Neverland’

If I ever found myself in a situation where I'd wanna break out of prison with as little opposition as possible, I'd call upon this little lady. Emma deserves a spot on this list of the best anime protagonists due to her ability to make a master plan come together wonderfully and stay sane for the good of her people while under immense pressure. She's not some child prodigy who can take the fight to people that are 10-20 years older than her - she's a supremely optimistic and athletic little girl who's done an amazing job of securing the safety of herself and others. - Elton Jones

25. Kenshiro

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Toei Animation

'Fist of the North Star’

"You are already dead." MAN, I JUST GOT CHILLS SAYING THAT OUT LOUD! Kenshiro utters that line every time he's landed the finishing blow on the unlucky foe that's dared to try him. I always love watching him calmly and confidently navigating a post-apocalyptic world while performing heroic deeds and beating the breaks off of all the evil forces that rear their ugly heads. Kenshiro is that classic martial arts movie character archetype - he always prevails in the end even when he's taken on arguably more powerful Hokuto Shinken masters and has a super cool walk-off into the sunset once he's completed his latest battle. - Elton Jones

24. Arsene Lupin III

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Sentai Filmworks

‘Lupin the Third’

Arsene Lupin III is about as iconic as an anime character can be, featured in manga, multiple movies, and a couple of TV series. The character is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, a french detective concocted by Maurice Leblanc in 1905, sometimes referred to as the French iteration of Sherlock Holmes. While many may know Miyazaki for more of his nature-focused, world-building fantasy Studio Ghibli work of the past few decades, a standout rendition of Lupin III can be found in his 1979 directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro. - Charlie Kolbrener

23. Vash the Stampede

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Crunchyroll

'Trigun'

Vash the Stampede's slick jacket and signature revolver caught my eye as soon as I spotted him on one of those wall scrolls hanging in the window of a manga/anime store back in the day. Once I spent some time with the series he hails from, I grew to love him even more over time. The dude is equal parts intimidating and goofy, which are two characteristics that I usually like in my favorite characters in any sort of media I consume. His whole pacifist vibes also resonate with me since I tend to believe violence isn't always the answer. But whenever Vash decides to blast some fools for their unforgivable transgressions, I can't help but support his decision to do so. Vash is most definitely one of the best anime protagonists of all time. - Elton Jones

22. Senku Ishigami

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Crunchyroll

'Dr. Stone'

Senku's genius-level intellect resulted in him pushing an ancient civilization toward the modern sensibilities he came to know before a world-altering event disrupted them. The dude is such a lovable guy due to his making a strong effort toward helping his tribe employ evolutionary methods to make their lives so much better. I never thought I'd get so excited to watch a guy come up with so many cool ways to create light bulbs and make ramen out of everyday items in a post-apocalyptic world. Senku's brain has saved his people countless times and I'm down to see him do so much more as Dr. Stone continues. - Elton Jones

21. Yusuke Urameshi

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Crunchyroll

'Yu Yu Hakusho’

It's difficult to understate just how influential Yu Yu Hakusho is. The series would obviously go on to influence Togashi's next work Hunter x Hunter, but it can honestly be viewed as the blueprint for the modern shonen genre. Both the original Dragon Ball and YYH contributed to the contemporary ubiquitous "kid gets strong" narrative found throughout so much of anime. And at the center of it all is Yusuke Urameshi, a brash but lovable scamp who grows on you throughout the entire series. - Charlie Kolbrener

20. Saber

Delightworks

'Fate'

First off, Saber's real name is godlike - Artoria Pendragon. And secondly, the way she does immense damage with that "Excalibur" sword has always astonished me. She's one of the most recognizable characters from the Fate series, has come across my eyesight & Instagram timeline via super dope cosplay displays, and has held me down as a main in both Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel and Melty Blood: Type Lumina. She's cold, calculating, and immensely loyal, which are three qualities that endear her so much to me. Saber's warrior spirit definitely affords her the right to be on this list of the best anime protagonists. - Elton Jones

19. Izuku Midoriya

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Crunchyroll

'My Hero Academia'

At first, I couldn't stand this dude - all that "I WANNA BE A HERO SO BAD!" ish made me look at him as yet another overly optimistic anime protagonist. But over time, I've grown to respect young Deku. The dude has morphed into the perfect vessel for the "One for All" quirk, has gotten strong enough to wield it against some overwhelming threats, and has proven to be a reliable hero/friend for his classmates & superiors. I can't wait for the day when he gets powerful enough to earn the honor of being recognized as the #1 ranked hero in the world. Izuku Midoriya receives all the love in the world from me and deserves a spot here on this lineup of the best anime protagonists. - Elton Jones

18. Gintoki Sakata

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Crunchyroll

‘Gintama’

His silver locks are luxurious. His attire is worthy of infinite applause. And he's pretty easy on the eyes. Gintoki Sakata will always get his proper praise as one of the best anime protagonists since he's responsible for some of the funniest moments in anime history (anytime he and Kagura pop up in a scene together, hilarity ensues in quick succession.) What usually gets me to laugh like a manchild is Gintoki's pervy nature - any dude that has the chutzpah to ask a woman "can we touch your ass or something?" is next-level ridiculous and bold enough to make me appreciate them for life. - Elton Jones

17. Nausicaä

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Toei Company

‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’

I have such an affinity for 80s anime, especially on the film front. I've gotten so much enjoyment out of those super wholesome Studio Ghibli films that every self-respecting anime fan should have in their collection. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is such a classic to me because I have all the respect and love in the world for its lead heroine. Nausicaä is one of those super steadfast, highly committed, and insanely likable anime protagonists you can't help but root for her every step of the way. She's royalty and sure has a way with animals, which makes her such a goated Studio Ghibli character. - Elton Jones

16. Motoko Kusanagi

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Netflix

'Ghost in the Shell'

Fam...do y'all remember where you were when you watched the opening sequence from the first Ghost in the Shell movie? I can distinctly recall my jaw being on the floor for an uncomfortably long amount of time due to my amazement at witnessing what happened. From the moment I saw Motoko Kusanagi freefall down to a window full of shady dudes and take out one of 'em to make their head explode, I was practically in love. "The Major" is the face of the Ghost in the Shell franchise and for good reason - she's a badass commander that can always be entrusted with seeing each and every mission she's a part of to its successful completion. - Elton Jones

15. Tanjiro Kamado

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Aniplex of America

'Demon Slayer'

I've always felt so bad for this dude - from the very first episode, he's been forced to watch his family die, help his sister in her demonic state, and train with the most demanding masters in short order. The more I watch Demon Slayer, the more I've grown to love Tanjiro Kamado. He's caught on so quickly as a member of the Demon Slayer Corps and mastered two elemental styles of sword combat that look so damn gorgeous whenever he pulls them off. Plus he's such a sweet, respectable guy! Tanjiro's also the best big brother in anime, I swear! - Elton Jones

14. Jotaro Kujo

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Viz Media

'JoJo's Bizarre Adventure'

There are a lot of protagonists from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure that could potentially make this list, but the growing consensus is that "Part 3's" Jotaro is the best so far—although Jolyne is certainly starting to make a case. Part 3 is when the show really starts to take off, so it makes the most sense to include Jotaro on this list. - Charlie Kolbrener

13. Gon Freecss

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Madhouse

'Hunter x Hunter'

Gon Freecss is everything an anime protagonist should be. Naruto's creator Kishimoto has confirmed that Gon was part of the inspiration for his titular character, and it adds up. When it comes to the trope of young, perhaps too kind prodigies with surprisingly immense power, Gon is the blueprint. The "Chimera Ant" arc also provides an interesting narrative shift for Gon and it's one of the most interesting developments in all of anime. Watch Hunter x Hunter, seriously. - Charlie Kolbrener

12. Eren Yeager

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Wit Studio

'Attack on Titan'

SPOILERS: Eren is the quintessential antihero. Throughout a lot of the early arcs of Attack on Titan, it seems that he is more of a traditional shonen protagonist, eager to defeat the villains and save his loved ones. But as the show goes on, Eren really unravels into one of the most morally complex characters in the genre writ large. Yuki Kaji does a masterful job with the voice acting for the role, and it is really one of the most interesting and complicated developments not just in anime but in media of all kinds. - Charlie Kolbrener

11. Guts

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Crunchyroll

'Berserk'

Guts is one of those anime protagonists that's been through way too much for any one man to handle. His early mercenary days are fascinating to follow and I feel the exact same way about his interactions with Griffith & Casca. Once he's fully grown and on his own again, Guts becomes his most iconic self. The famous "Black Swordsman" is one of my faves because you just gotta feel for the guy's super depressing backstory. That big-ass sword of his also deserves props for paving the way for fellow massive blade wielders across anime and gaming. - Elton Jones

10. Himura Kenshin

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Liden Films

'Rurouni Kenshin’

Himura Kenshin helped develop my infraction with the whole "lone roaming samurai" character archetype. Anyone that has the capacity to destroy anyone he comes across yet develops a fighting style that's incapable of killing has to be considered one of the coolest MF'ers of all time. Showing that much restraint must be commended. Rurouni Kenshin still holds up so well due to how cool its main character is. Atoning for one's sins by protecting the weak is such a respectable trait, which is why I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Himura. - Elton Jones

9. Shinji Ikari

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GKIDS

'Neon Genesis Evangelion’

Shinji is a really interesting departure from the traditional anime protagonists who punctuate so much of this list. Rather than being an overeager idealist who wants to save the world, he's actually a much more passive teenager thrust into doing something he has no interest in. Despite our love for them, a lot of shonen protagonists are actually fairly difficult to relate to. We wouldn't all necessarily be able to dive headfirst into the high-stakes positions they find themselves in. Shinji, conversely, mirrors the more relatable human experiences of fear, hesitation, and depression. He is such an immensely powerful character because of how we can see ourselves in him. - Charlie Kolbrener

8. Sailor Moon

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Viz Media

'Sailor Moon'

I was one of those 90s kids that watched Sailor Moon religiously before school. And even though she can be quite bratty and immature at times, I still grew to love the leader of the "Sailor Scouts" and her devotion to fighting for the greater good. Usagi Tsukino has to be on this list of the best anime protagonists for three sole reasons:

  1. Her strong leadership skills that come into play during the direst of situations
  2. Her amazing transformation sequence that's been parodied and beloved by many
  3. Her evolution as a heroine whose powers have grown to be more extravagant over time

Sailor Moon and the catchy as hell American theme song that accompanies her 90s series run make her so goated in my eyes. - Elton Jones

7. Spike Spiegel

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Crunchyroll

'Cowboy Bebop'

Spike Spiegel is just so sick. From his trademark suit to his quippy lines and the fact that he only fights with acrobatic high-flying kicks, the man just oozes this sense of cool. His writing, backstory, and development throughout the brief show are also really engaging, concocting a multi-dimensional character who is both lovable and sometimes easy to hate. If we're being honest though, he's so high on this list because of his unrivaled vibe. - Charlie Kolbrener

6. Light Yagami

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Viz Media

'Death Note'

Upon his discovery of the mysterious and fate-changing "Death Note," Light Yagami uses it to become a so-called god-like figure that has the ability to kill anyone he deems as underserving of their life. Watching him try to fulfill his new life's mission kept me enthralled for the entirety of his time on the self-titled show - Light's cunning nature and actions that place him into that morally grey area a lot of antiheroes exist in explain so much of why I took to him so fast. The man's a troubled genius whose plans are disturbing, yet still make viewers go "you know what? I'd probably do the same thing I had that lil' book, too." - Elton Jones

5. Lelouch Lamperouge

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Bandai Entertainment

‘Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion’

Once Attack on Titan is complete, maybe we'll have to rethink the organization of this list. But as of right now, Lelouch is the greatest antihero in the genre. Similar to Eren, he begins the show as a naive hero who wants to do what's best for his loved ones. But as the show continues to evolve into an investigation of fascism and the use of violence, the lines of his morality begin to blur. The show is such an interesting interrogation of whether or not the means always justify the ends, and Lelouch is the vehicle for that ongoing conversation. - Charlie Kolbrener

4. Edward Elric

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Aniplex of America

‘Fullmetal Alchemist'

Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is arguably the best anime on this list, and a lot of the show's success comes down to the writing of its protagonist and deuteragonist. Edward evolves so much throughout the show, but rather than turning towards darkness like some of the antiheroes on the list, he maintains a strong moral compass throughout the series' tumultuous run. Alchemy is one of the coolest power systems in anime, allowing Edward to be simultaneously cool from an aesthetic perspective and from a character development lens. Edward endures so much pain and suffering and has to do some unsavory things, but he and his brother preserve an incredible sense of right and wrong until the very end. - Charlie Kolbrener

3. Naruto Uzumaki

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Pierrot

'Naruto'

For a lot of Americans who don't watch anime, Naruto is probably the most recognizable protagonist from the entire genre. As the center of one of the big three, the naive optimist couldn't live anywhere else on this list. So much of contemporary anime (My Hero Academia, Jujutsu Kaisen, and even Haikyuu) draws inspiration from Naruto and its titular character. Gon walked so Naruto could run. He is simultaneously annoyingly optimistic and an incredible threat. For so many people, when you say the word "anime," this ramen-loving, overactive kiddo pops into their heads. - Charlie Kolbrener

2. Goku

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Toei Animation

'Dragon Ball'

Goku is just such a lovable goof. He forgoes getting a real job at the best of his wife Chi-Chi just so he can train and be ready at a moment's notice for another story arc-spanning series of battles. Following his journey from a young impressionable child to a fully grown man whose power knows no bounds has been so fun to watch since my childhood years. The dude has saved the people of Earth and even Planet Namek on several occasions, upgraded himself to new powerful forms of "Super Saiyan" levels, and sacrificed himself for his son's sake. Sure, he's pretty naive and has a bad habit of wanting to throw hands with anyone that has a power level comparable to his. But I still love the guy and can't wait to see how he uses his "Ultra Instinct" form to embarrass someone next. Goku is tailor-made for this list of the best anime protagonists, in my opinion. - Elton Jones

1. Monkey D. Luffy

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Toei Animation

'One Piece'

The man who will one day be the king of the pirates is also the king of anime protagonists. The trope of an overambitious, annoying but lovable, incredibly powerful protagonist wouldn't exist without Monkey D. Luffy. Part of what sets him apart and makes him such a joy to watch is how his most important asset is actually his kindness and loyalty to his friends. Luffy is barely in the top 10 most powerful characters in One Piece, but he's able to face the most daunting foes of the "New World" because of the love and community he has with his crew and those around him. It is entirely possible the conclusion of the series will reveal that the "One Piece" was actually the friends we made along the way.

It's also just really difficult to watch over 1,000 episodes of his grin and not crown him the greatest of them all. - Charlie Kolbrener

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