As hard as it is to admit, judging an anime is not always about the quality of the writing or animation. More often than not, it brings fans of any age back to the wild tribalism of their middle school lunch room as dominance is decided, not by wit or strength, but by a popularity contest. Which kid had the coolest shoes? Who had a cookie in their Lunchables? Whose dad "works at Nintendo"?
As is constant with the early days of humankind, those who stand at the top are those who are most popular, and this is no different for anime and its characters, where the next casual fan may have their next anime of choice dictated by what they see the most, either in the recommendations of YouTube or on the backpacks and t-shirts of their fellow weebs.
Whether it be the best looking, more intriguing, or most badass character, anime as a medium is one that is often defined by its most popular characters. Whether they perfectly condense all that one loves about a series into a personified form or just absolutely steal the show, anime characters are a performance worth paying for on their own. Bringing things back to the glory days of that middle school lunchroom, this list will be deciding who really is the coolest of the cool, as it runs down the Top 10 most popular characters in anime history (according to the community votes of My Anime List as of this writing).
Updated May 20th, 2020: Much like any other industry, the anime world has a competitive atmosphere whose landscape is constantly shifting. And while the studios may compete for a share of their audience, anime characters themselves also indirectly compete for attention, with the faces of the industry constantly changing within the fans' eyes. As such, this list will be adding a few more faces that have risen among the anime ranks, as well as adjusting for new rankings and votes within MyAnimeList.
15 Kazuto Kirigaya (40,164 Votes)
Sword Art Online has become a behemoth within the anime world for both influencing the isekai boom that fans know today as well as rising as one of the most successful franchises in anime history. And while each member of its eclectic cast has played a part in defining the series, its main man will always be the pro gamer himself, Kirito.
Whether fans are relating to his quiet attitude or just love his various adventures within video games and romance, Kirito is filling up heart containers everywhere with his charisma.
14 Kurisu Makise (42,666 Votes)
Steins;Gate was a pivotal and influential anime in more ways than one, but the area that really counts is in crafting one of the most famous tsunderes in anime. Kurisu "Christina" Makise is the reluctant partner in crime and science to the series' lead (more on him later). Her biting tongue made for some great rapport, and her sweet side helped compliment the famous endearing quality of the series main cast.
While good on their own, these qualities gave some weight to the twist in the beginning that she may very well die in the series. Grabbing the viewers tighter as the series gone on, fans began to love and worry more and more for their beloved Christina.
13 Hachiman Hikigaya (42,723 Votes)
The anime industry has taken a hit with the current crisis, with one of the most infamous delays being for the long-awaited return of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. Perhaps the biggest call for fans' concern is the fact that they'll have to wait just a little longer for anime's king of self-deprecation, Hachiman Hikigaya.
A realist who still selflessly serves the betterment of his fellow students, Hachiman is a strong take on the high school protagonist that fans just can't help but be intrigued by and the people who actually take the time to know him just can't help but fall in love with him.
12 Itachi Uchiha (43,223 Votes)
Sasuke Uchiha is one of the most famous edge lords in all of anime, but he wouldn't be what he is today without the older brother that he probably stole mixtapes and t-shirts from.
Itachi Uchiha is the anti-hero that fans didn't think for a second was bad, as they stared into his dreamy, Sharingan filled eyes. Whether it's his iconic design, mysterious history, or cool moves, Itachi made millions of fans everywhere question why he isn't the Uchiha the series focused on.
11 Killua Zoldyck (48,832 Votes)
Hunter x Hunter is far from being a one-character show. Even now, the series has pivoted across an entirely different perspective, giving fans awe to how versatile and complex this spectacular Shonen can be. If there was ever a character to define how cool and varied this series can be, it would be none other than Killua Zoldyck.
Though the series tries to relegate him as Gon Freecss' sidekick, Killua managed to grab a lot of attention for his mysterious family history, lethal talent, and constant contemplation of purpose and morality.
10 Sakata Gintoki-Gintama (51,200 Votes)
Starting off this list is the class clown of anime who can make anyone laugh or even cry at the drop of a hat. Gintama alone is a series known as the king of anime comedy, infamous for its surreal humor, loveable characters, and insurmountable amount of pop culture references that even put Family Guy to shame.
Leading the series' motley crew of clowns is the "White Demon" himself, Sakata Gintoki. Once a revolutionary during the alien invasion version of Japan's Edo period, Gin now finds himself doing "odd jobs" across town just to make ends meat, whether it's assisting in a sushi shop, solving local detective cases, or fighting off aliens. What helps elevate Gin to this list is his ability to pull off straight faced jokes, ecstatic straight man routines, and endearing, stoic lines, playing cool as both the humble fool and hard boiled badass with such mastery that Gin really sees no equal within his industry.
9 Naruto Uzamaki-Naruto (58,366 Votes)
Sitting at #9 is one the main characters of the infamous "Big Three," the Hidden Leaf Village's "Nine-Tailed Fox," Naruto Uzamaki. Naruto defines the very essence of "started at the bottom," as he began his journey as the incompetent outcast of his ninja school, only for the fans to cheer and cry as they watched him work and scrape to the top, training with the perviest of sages, fighting off the most powerful ninjas, and still finding time to look after his friends.
The #1 Knucklehead became #1 in several anime fan's hearts, as he gave some of anime's best fights, character dramas, and underdog stories. And, just a couple of years ago, Naruto reached that rare breed of shounen protagonist that actually gets to achieve their dreams, as he finally became the 7th Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village, making readers and viewers who followed along the way feel like proud parents.
8 Roronoa Zoro-One Piece (62,906 Votes)
Proving that supporting characters and second-in-commands can be beloved within their own right, the "Pirate Hunter" and first mate of the Straw Hat pirates, Roronoa Zoro, makes this list. In the beginning, Zoro was just a loudmouthed kid who thought that just having more swords meant he was stronger. However with diligent training and the pains of a lost rivalry, he'd go on to master the illustrious three-sword style and mature into the stoic badass that fans love to this day.
On his journey to become the world's best swordsmen, Zoro has paved (in more cases, cut) a path of destruction that has left behind buildings, robots, and some of One Piece's best antagonists. He is the coolheaded bedrock that has supported and guided Luffy as the Captain of the Straw Hats and a trusted companion that has proven to fans in more than one occasion what loyalty really means.
7 Rintarou Okabe-Steings;Gate (64,901 Votes)
Moving away from the more combat heavy series, this list enters sci-fi/suspense/visual novel territory, as it looks into anime's favorite mad scientist and the leader of the Future Gadget Research Establishment, Rintarou Okabe. Rin encapsulates everything that any struggling college/STEM student should aspire to be.
He is a first-year at Tokyo Denki University who's decided to move his operations to Akihabara and open up his own time travel research lab, leading a group of engineers who are more otaku than scientist. Rin draws fans in with his eccentric and over the top behavior but absolutely traps the viewer's attention with his hidden levels of sincerity and intrigue, as the series dives deeper into its own mysteries, putting Rin into a variety of high concept, moral dilemmas that give an already interesting character plenty to work with.
6 Light Yagami-Death Note (68,258 Votes)
On a similar note of high concept, moral questions and suspense is the teenage savior of humanity and punisher of all that is evil, "Kira" Light Yagami. Light was once the good looking prodigy of his high school whose societal and family pressures only made him more and more distant from the mundane elements of every day life, until the opportunity of a lifetime literally fell at his feet, and he would begin a journey of world salvation and mass murder.
Having found the Death Note and entering a companionship with the death god Ryuk, Light now has the ability to kill anyone, anywhere by dictating their name and even cause of death within the Death Note. Taking upon the identity of "Kira," Light uses his newfound opportunity to kill all of the worst criminals of the world, showing closure to some while launching a worldwide conspiracy/mystery to others. With his genius level intellect and eccentric passion, Light has lead fans in one of anime's greatest cat-and-mouse chases.
5 Edward Elric-Fullmetal Alchemist (69,513 Votes)
Acting as the protagonist to one of the greatest Shounen anime of all time, the "Fullmetal Alchemist" Edward Elric has brought fans equal parts spunky, underdog passion and morally conflicted human drama that most, if any, other Shounen protagonists don't achieve.
After an alchemy experiment gone wrong that left him without an arm and his brother's soul trapped in a suit of armor, Ed has lead fans on an absolutely stunning journey of existential and religious drama, political intrigue, heartwarming friendships, and epic, high concept alchemy battles. Despite his arrogant, loudmouthed nature, Edward Elric was the face of an adventure that anime fans everywhere ironically prayed for a happy ending.
4 Levi Ackerman-Attack on Titan (71,809 Votes)
Moving on to a master of blades of a different breed is humanity's strongest soldier as well as the Captain of the Scouting Legion division and the Special Operations Squad, Levi Ackerman. Since his introduction, Levi has earned more than just the fans' love, as he's absolutely taken their respect, as his role as the cold, stern faced captain scares to near Fullmetal Jacket levels but is mitigated by his tactful nature and genuine concern for his mission and team.
Beyond a leadership that even gets viewers standing to attention, Levi is also an incredible fighter on the battleground, as he's showcased some of Attack on Titan's most intense moments fighting off titans and other soldiers alike. Anyone who misjudges this man by his short stature may soon find themselves at the wrong end of a blade.
3 Monkey D. Luffy-One Piece (77,532 Votes)
Appropriately entering in at #3 is the leader of Shounen Jump's "Big Three," the Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, Monkey D. Luffy. The son of an infamous revolutionary and the grandson of a beloved marine, Luffy surprisingly had humble beginnings as just a little kid looking up to his pirate hero, "Red Haired" Shanks. After eating the Gum Gum fruit and being raised by bandits, Luff would go on to lead his own journey to become King of the Pirates, leading a loveable crew of misfits and outcasts that have ingrained the series with tons of personality.
And no other member of that crew has more personality than the captain himself, as the fun loving, simple minded rubber man has made fans laugh, cry, and stare in awe, as Luffy's personal brand of justice and freedom are as provocative as they are endearing. Luffy's just a guy who's hard to hate, which falls in line with being a Shounen protagonist, but his own personal flavor promotes acceptance and dreaming in a way that other Shounen protagonists just haven't done.
2 L Lawliet-Death Note (92,662 Votes)
Surpassing his main character counterpart is Light Yagami's foil and the world's greatest detective, L Lawliet. It's no wonder that L has received as many votes as he did, as he's just an aesthetically distinct character. Whether it's his high level intelligence, eccentric personality, off center posture, or sweet tooth diet, L just leaves an impression on the viewer's mind which certainly adds to the intrigue of an already enthralling suspense series.
Beyond just matching Light in intelligence, L is a perfect foil in aesthetics alone, as his social ineptitude and strange aura allow him to gun past Light's more complex strategic and social reasoning. In the battle of the kid everybody loves versus the outcast that's just hard to look away from, L oddly wins out in a major popularity contest.
1 Lelouch Lamperouge-Code Geass (112,860 Votes)
Ranking in at #1 is a complex character leading complex characters in one of anime's most tightly structured and multifaceted series. Lelouch Lamperouge was at one point a prince 17th in line to the throne who renounced his status after the assassination of his mother and the crippling of his sister. Having been a political hostage in banishment within Japan as a student, Lelouch found his opportunity for revenge and redemption as he stumbled upon C.C., a mysterious girl who grants him the power of Geass, a strange ability that lets him dictate the actions of any person once.
With his newfound gift, Lelouch continues down a path of redemption and destruction as he becomes the leader of the revolutionary group the Order of the Black Knights, lies to and betrays his friends, and kills hundreds and thousands of people in the process. Seeing what type of man he becomes as he comes out the other side is just titillating enough to bring fans across a deep moral analysis and human drama.
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