Being iconic means more than just being popular at a single point in time. It means being able to stand the test of time. Beyond that, it means being a part of something so major that it changes the way everything is done afterwards. In anime, that can mean a character from a series where afterwards there are dozens of clones, or popularizing a genre altogether.
Of course, even the definition of iconic can vary from country to country. There are characters in Japan that never got big in America, and there are characters and series in America that never blew up in Japan. But some characters aren't limited by any kind of cultural barriers, and are well-known everywhere, with both niche and mainstream fans alike.
10 Yugi Is The King Of Games (Yu-Gi-Oh!)
Yu-Gi-Oh! is one of the most popular anime series of the 2000s. Everyone has seen at least one episode, and automatically knows what it means when someone says that they’ve “activated their trap card.” Yu-Gi-Oh! went from being just a manga about games in Shonen Jump to becoming one of the most played card games in the world, and an anime franchise that’s lasted twenty years and counting.
A large part of that came down to it’s leading man Yugi and Atem, two sides of the same coin. Where Yugi was compassionate and reached out to his opponents, Atem came in to deliver the smackdown when people got out of line. They worked well together, and had one of the best dub voices in all of anime.
9 Amuro Ray Is The Original Gundam Protagonist (Mobile Suit Gundam)
Amuro Ray is the defining mecha protagonist for the genre. While mecha had been around for years before Amuro, Gundam itself was a unique idea. It took the concept of mecha anime and made it about man’s struggle against itself—making the giant robots more like mass-produced weapons. And fans got into the series through the lens of Amuro Ray, a genius teenager who just happened to get stuck on White Base.
8 Roy Mustang's Character Development Made Him A Compelling Watch (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)
As cool as Edward Elric is, it’s hard not to find Roy Mustang the more memorable character. From his appearances in the original 2003 series as someone obsessed with puppies for their loyalty and constantly lording his authority over Ed, to the character arc he went through in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Roy’s ability to switch from being a comedic character to being serious made him a compelling three-dimensional hero fans fell in love with.
7 Spike Spiegel Is The Epitome Of Cool (Cowboy Bebop)
Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter aboard the Bebop, a ship that flies through the solar system looking for bounties to take down to keep gas in the ship and food in their stomachs. Cowboy Bebop is a classic series in no small part to it being one of the anime Adult Swim has aired the longest, so multiple generations of anime fans have seen it over the years.
It’s even better then that Spike is such a compelling protagonist—laidback, yet capable of handling any trouble that comes up. And no matter how cool he tries to play it, it’s obvious there are some problems from his past just waiting to surface again.
6 Kirito Is The Protagonist That Put Isekai On The Map (Sword Art Online)
There have been dozens of look-alikes, but there’s only one Kirito. The character started the trend of normalizing overpowered protagonists, and has visually defined what isekai protagonists are meant to look like. Not only that, but Sword Art Online is an anime so popular it’s defined the most popular genre for the last decade. That’s the definition of iconic, and Kirito was the protagonist that led the series the entire way. He's a character beloved not just by his fans, but by every female character within a mile radius of him.
5 Luffy Has Been Going Strong For Over Twenty Years (One Piece)
The lead character of One Piece, Luffy is one of the only rivals Goku has for being one of the most popular shonen characters of all time. Eiichiro Oda’s epic story of the quest to discover the One Piece and become the Pirate King has been going on for as long as some anime fans have been alive.
What makes Luffy such a likable character is his determination combined with his desire to stand by his friends no matter how dire the situation. Luffy is one of the few characters who’s able to win his series’ popularity polls consistently.
4 Yusuke Is The Original Bad Boy Shonen Hero (Yu Yu Hakusho)
Yusuke is one of a handful of shonen protagonists that aren’t just a clone of Goku. His goal isn’t to constantly fight stronger opponents, he’s not dense, and he isn’t innocent. He’s smart mouthed and will fight dirty if he has to, and generally would prefer not to fight at all.
What makes him so memorable is his legendary smack-talk. While most protagonists stick to being above-it-all, Yusuke doesn’t care about any of that and is all too happy to tell all of his opponents how much of a jerk they’re being during their fight.
3 Naruto Is A Hero Fans Watched Grow Up (Naruto)
Another character from the “Big 3” of shonen action anime in the West, Naruto Uzumaki gave viewers the story of a kid with a single goal who’s willing to do anything to achieve it. And while Luffy is a very similar character, the big difference there is Naruto actually achieved his goal.
In the current stories, he is the Hokage, giving viewers the closure they were looking for after over a decade of watching and reading the series. Though he’s very much a protagonist in the vein of Goku, what separates him is that he’s not as much about the love of fighting, so much as being recognized for being a talented ninja.
2 Lupin Is The Original Gentleman Thief, Staying One Step Ahead Of Everyone (Lupin III)
The timeless gentleman thief, Lupin has been around since the 1970s. In the series, he’s supposedly the grandson of Arsene Lupin, and the most wanted thief in the entire world. He spends most of his time trying to pull off increasingly ridiculous heists, with the only one in his way being Inspector Zenigata. And while having a collection of talented associates helps, in the end it’s always Lupin’s genius that helps them steal the treasure and get away from the cops.
1 Goku Is One Of The Most Well-Known Anime Protagonists Of All Time (Dragon Ball)
Goku is so iconic that people kept begging for Nintendo to break their rules and place him in Smash Bros. He’s what people think of when it comes to anime outside of Japan, aside from perhaps Pikachu. He’s one of the shonen protagonists that people watched grow from a child into a man with children of his own through Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. He literally defined the primary character type for male shonen protagonists—in the decades since his introduction, only a handful of characters have ever gotten popular without being a lot like him.