A collage featuring anime protagonists (clockwise from top left): 'Ghost in the Shell,' 'Sailor Moon,' 'Cowboy Bebop,' and 'Fullmetal Alchemist'
(Production IG / Toei Animation / Sunrise / Bones)

The Best Anime Protagonists of All Time, Ranked

Writing a protagonist is hard. You gotta make ’em powerful but not overpowered, relatable but not generic, vulnerable but not weak and all sorts of other literary vicissitudes! Many fall short, and are nothing more than vehicles for plot. These protagonists are different.

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10. Violet Evergarden

A young woman stands in the sunlight looking like she's about to cry in "violet evergarden"
(Kyoto Animation)

Violet Evergarden‘s titular protagonist works because she embodies a trope that never fails to win over the hearts of audiences: a character learning to be human. Violet was a child soldier, a pawn used in a violent global war. Now that the war is over, Violet has nothing. No skills. No direction. Hardly any emotion to call her own. It was all crushed out of her in combat. Now she’s gotten a job as an Auto Memory Doll, a professional letter writer who helps people express complicating feelings. Throughout the series she slowly learns to be human again, one hard emotional truth after another. Cue the waterworks at the end of every episode.

9. Jin and Mugen

Jin and Mugen in 'Samurai Champloo'
(Manglobe)

Samurai Champloo‘s Jin and Mugen may appear like simple, perhaps even underwritten characters on the surface. The power of their narrative comes not from what they say, but what they do. They embody the angry young man trope—violent youths who feel they have no place in the world. Their constant thirst for combat isn’t a shallow “I must get stronger” shonen anime protagonist motivation, it’s an excuse for them to die. Mugen, born on a penal colony, was deemed worthless from birth. Jin, a ronin who killed his corrupt master, was made so by his actions by Edo period society. Their risk taking behavior stems from their death wish, and their fierce rivalry with one another is nothing more than an attempt to kill themselves. At the end of the series they stop fighting and stop killing because they are shown that life is worth living.

8. Motoko Kusanagi

An animated person looks into the distance wearing a white glove, a dilapidated building behind them
(Production IG)

Ghost in the Shell‘s Motoko Kusanagi is a certified badass. A strong, capable leader and fierce warrior, she is the perfect choice to command Japan’s top secret counterterrorism unit Section 9. She was one of the first female anime characters to be given the spotlight who didn’t fall under the “magical girl” trope, and opened the door for further mold-breaking anime heroines. She is also a landmark queer character, and is one of the first lesbians to be featured as a major anime character. Breaking barriers and criminal craniums. Win.

7. Kenzo Tenma

Dr. Tenma leveling a gun at the camera while crouching in the rain from the anime "Monster"
(Madhouse)

Unlike other anime protagonists, Monster‘s Kenzo Tenma isn’t special. He doesn’t have superpowers. No chakra. No sword skills. No command over the supernatural. He’s just a man with a moral compass, and an embodiment of the adage “no good deed goes unpunished.” As a young doctor Kenzo lost his job and his fiancée when he chose to save the life of a child over a prominent German politician—because it was the right thing to do. When that kid grows up to become Germany’s most dangerous serial killer, what does Kenzo do? He goes after the bastard because it’s the right thing to do as well. What a stand-up guy.

6. The Elric Brothers

A young boy and a living suit of armor look surprised in "Full Metal Alchemist"
(Bones)

The beating heart of Fullmetal Alchemist, the Elric brothers are one of the most tender portrayals of brotherly love in all of anime. Edward Elric risks life and limb without second thought in order to someday reclaim the limbs and life that his little brother lost. Their adoration for one another allows them to stand against the most evil of foes, and is a testament to the bond that siblings share the world over.

5. Shinji Ikari

Shinji lays in bed listening to music in "Neon Genesis Evangelion"
(Gainax)

Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Shinji Ikari is a welcome departure from the classic shonen protagonist. When commanded by his jerk of a dad to pilot a giant robot mech suit and fight off transdimensional extraterrestrial beings, he responds like any normal child would: with terror. Shinji is a realistic portrayal of what happens when a child is forced to do an adult’s job. He becomes a shell of himself. A lifeless tool weaponized by forces beyond his control. The poor, traumatized kid just needs a break.

4. Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon
(Toei Animation)

The ultimate shoju protagonist, Sailor Moon’s impact upon the genre cannot be understated. She inspired a generation of girls to become anime fans, making Sailor Moon the most celebrated magical girl story ever told. While she begins the series as a vapid teenager, she soon matures into a courageous young woman who believes that even the most evil being is worthy of love. In a medium that favors the destruction of one’s enemies over their redemption, Sailor Moon is a welcome exception to the rule.

3. Naruto Uzumaki

A close-up of Naruto Uzumaki's face in 'Naruto.' He looks determined.
(Pierrot)

Sailor Moon in boy form, Naruto Uzumaki is a ninja who understands the power of redemption. Demonized (literally) from a tender age, Naruto Uzumaki grew up friendless and alone in a violent world. While a lesser person would have become violent in kind, Naruto’s experiences taught him to value love and empathy above all else. Many shinobi have tried to change the violent nature of the world, often hoping that the ends will justify the means. For Naruto, the means are the only things that matters. One must always do right, no matter the circumstance. A better anime role model there never was.

2. Spike Spiegel

Spike aiming a gun at the camera with an intense look in 'Cowboy Bebop'
(Sunrise)

Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike Spiegel is anime’s best antihero. The man is 50 shades of morally grey. A bounty hunter by trade, Spike travels the solar system apprehending criminals and turning them over for money. The irony is he was once a criminal like them. Spike is a man attempting to outrun his past, yet the past just keeps on catching up to him. He is proof that no amount of cool one liners and effortless roundhouse kicks can divorce a person from who they truly are at their core. The past cannot be forgotten, only reconciled.

1. Guts

Guts hoisting a massive sword over his back in "Berserk"
(OLM Inc.)

There has never been a worthy anime adaptation of Berserk, yet the strength of Guts as a character has rocketed the series to legendary status all the same. A protagonist can be many things, but what is the thing that a protagonist must have above all else? The will to go on. Guts is willpower incarnate. Born in blood on the battlefield, Guts survived war and sexual assault to become one of the most powerful swordsmen in the Kingdom of Midland. His fate turned when his best friend sacrificed him, his lover, and their comrades to the malevolent forces of demonkind. Branded for sacrifice to the dark hordes, Guts continues to do what he does best: struggle. Struggle against evil. Struggle against death. Struggle against fate itself. Against insurmountable odds, Guts proves that what truly matters is not victory, but total defiance. There is greater glory in the battle than in reaping the spoils. Good thing too. In the world of Berserk, the spoils are few and far between.


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Author
Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.