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.
25. Haruhi Fujioka
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.
24. Black Jack
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.
20. Vash the Stampede
First anime appearance: Trigun, 1998
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. His vow to never take a life provides plenty of drama in the series 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.
First anime appearance: Death Note, 2006
Every good lead character needs a challenge, and L provided the opposition that the Death Note series required to captivate fans. L was an oddball, for sure. Unkempt hair, a disdain for shoes, and a penchant for crouching on chairs and eating junk food. He wasn’t exactly the image that brings to mind “master detective”, but geniuses often are quite eccentric, and L certainly was a good contrast to Light’s sociopathic personality and the mask of perfection he wore. L was weird, a little creepy, and badly in need of some sun, but he was the good guy, and the pretty boy was the one trying to kill everybody.
L was every bit as brilliant as Light, and the battle of wits between them created a dramatic tension that just keep fans starving for more. If it hadn’t been for Light’s supernatural help, L might have won in the end.
18. Lelouch Lamperouge
First anime appearance: Code Geass, 2006
The first of the maniacal and murderous masterminds on this list (but not the only one), 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.