In this article, we want to take the risk – the risk of upsetting anime fans worldwide, the risk of inspiring the wrath of anime fandom – to share some of our favourite characters from the world of Japanese anime.
There are thousands, if not millions, to choose from, considering that the number of anime produced is somewhere around the thirty-five thousand mark. And picking from among these is an effort in precise selection – and, obviously, massive omission.
So, forgive us. We know that any list like this inspires enthusiasm, rage, and high passions of all kinds. But take it more as a way for beginners to gain a foothold in the world of Japanese anime in order to better navigate it. Rather than a declaration of indisputable, objective quality.
The world of Japanese anime is a huge one and, to repeat, we are going to be leaving out some of your favourites. For example, we don’t have any Gundam or Code Geass in the list!
If you want to suggest your own favourites, comment below!
Firstly, let’s talk about characters. What makes a character great? What makes them likeable, or admirable? And what makes them so memorable that we would watch another anime series – or any other series for that matter – just for the character?
Character, really, is not about cracking fun jokes, being a great warrior, or looking great. All of these things help, for sure – as they bring an immediate interest from the audience – but that’s not usually enough to see one through to the end of a series.
And it’s certainly not enough to make an audience follow a franchise through five animated series, twenty anime movies, a live action film, and countless manga series – as is the case with Dragon Ball.
Rather, a good character needs something else. A complexity, a flaw, and a development – but also a consistency and recognisability across all media and adaptations.
In some way or another – even in a fantastical story – characters need to be realistic. They need a backstory and a personality, a compelling motivation, and a deeply human element to them. This is why consistency matters, because you don’t want a character known as being calm and cool then going berserk out of nowhere (just ask the Game of Thrones writers).
Without this, the characters are just a collection of lines spoken, fights had, or movements made. And that ain’t going to convince anyone to keep coming back.
Anime, fortunately for us, is known for its wonderful characterisation. The most iconic characters will remain memorable for years to come – due to their particular aesthetics, their story arcs, their fully formed personalities, and the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves.
In many ways, this is because – unlike in the West, where animators are seen to work primarily for children – Japanese animation has a very wide audience. This includes all different genders, ages, and demographics.
As such, those working for anime shows and original manga publications ensure that the characters are believable not just for kids, but for everyone. And, as such, the whole development of the animes reaches a higher level of seriousness, cleverness, and subtlety.
So, it’s worth pointing out that, here, we are looking specifically at the anime from Japanese culture. Whilst we in the west associated anime and manga to Japanese pop culture, in that country the term applies to any animation production.
This is one of the reasons why anime is so popular in Japan – but read our article for more!
So, let’s get down to it. Who are some of the most interesting characters in the world of anime? And who are some of the iconic from popular anime?
Obviously, there’s no correct answer. But let’s dive in – in no particular order.
And if you are interested in reading about some of the best anime series in Japan, check out our article on popular anime!
Sakura Kinomoto is the quintessential ‘magical girl’ character from Japanese anime. As the franchise starts, she is nine and still at school, and she grows the age of twelve throughout the series.
The character of Sakura – or rather, her creators – has been the winner of a number of awards, and the series is primarily built around the relationships that she builds with others. Immediately naïve and frankly silly, we see her to be really not that at all.
The iconic ‘magical girl’ anime, Sakura
Attack on Titan is one of the highest-grossing anime series in Japan – and it is known specifically as a shonen anime, meaning one that is aimed at male teens. However, despite its limited target demographic, it has spread across the world – and has inspired all sorts of political interpretations.
The story revolves around territories inhabited by humans, but which are enclosed by massive walls to protect them against the ‘Titans’ who live outside.
Levi Ackerman, the ‘world’s strongest soldier’ is a captain in the Survey Corps, the group that, initially, fights the Titans. Yet, he is a little different to most fictionalised strongmen. He is obsessed with cleanliness – and has an angry streak which makes up one of his most interesting flaws.
Shinji is the main character in the genre-defining franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most influential anime ever made.
As a young boy, Shinji is forced to pilot a mecha, ‘Evangelion’, to fight the Angels that attack a future Tokyo. Understandably, he is not too happy about this decision thrust upon him by his father.
He is one of the most celebrated characters of manga and anime, as he does not conform in the least to the predictable heroic character. Rather, he is a withdrawn, apathetic, and scared high school student. As a result, he has become one of the most compelling characters in anime.
Even those people who don’t watch anime know the figure of Goku – a character who has developed from young, superhuman child to adult throughout the Dragon Ball franchise.
The series – both manga and anime – follow Goku’s pursuits to find the Dragon Balls, which grant wishes to those who find them. Yet, his diminutive, childish appearance and overwhelming naivety – a naivety that is reduced, but ultimately remains throughout the series – has always been seen as a point of departure from the classic masculine heroes.
A really special, loveable anime character.
Goku, from Dragon Ball. (Image from Cleiton Hendges: https://www.behance.net/)
One of the most developed – and another of the most celebrated – characters in the whole of anime is Edward Elric, from the series, Fullmetal Alchemist.
Edward, a young man, is seriously wounded in an alchemy experiment intended to resurrect his – and his brother, Alphonse’s – mother. What happens instead is that Alphonse’s soul becomes trapped in a suit of armour, whilst Edward loses an arm and a leg.
The series proceeds with the two characters searching for the Philosopher’s Stone that will return their bodies. Yet, Edward’s character is a fully three-dimensional hero, evolving and growing as he comes of age.
Cowboy Bebop is a darker style anime intended for an adult audience – engaging themes such as loneliness and the pain of memory.
Spike Spiegel is the central character, whose fake eye and existential angst give him the flaws that make his character so interesting.
The creators of Cowboy Bebop wanted him to be, first and foremost, cool as hell. And sure they achieved it.
Gintama is the story of a freelance (read, ‘unemployed’) samurai, Gintoki, who fights the aliens who have occupied eighteenth-century Japan.
He is an incredibly complex character, with problems with his blood sugar levels, a certain crankiness, and a brilliant talent with a sword.
A character who, from the very beginning of this best-selling film from Studio Ghibli, is burdened by the impending threat of death, Ashitaka is an exercise in self-sacrifice and personal resolve.
A long-suffering leader, Ashitaka is really just a young man lead by a sense of duty – and it makes him one of the most compelling and original characters in anime.
Astro Boy is the most iconic anime character.
Osamu Tezuka invented anime’s recognisable art style: large eyes and wacky hair. And he did it with the character of Astro Boy, or Mighty Atom, who was the title character of the first most popular anime series.
He is one of the great anime characters of all time due to his iconic aesthetic and his moral struggles. A pacifist robot with human emotions who is forced to fight, Astro Boy’s character is one of self-effacement, compassion, and self-sacrifice.