Counting down a quarter-century of animation greats.Japanese animation has been around a long time now. We've only been aware of it in America for so long, especially when it comes to shows besides G-Force and Speed Racer, but it's been nearly 50 years since the first black-and-white Japanese TV animation hit the airwaves. Since then, Japan has taken animation in more directions than any other popular culture, creating a broader range of classic characters than even we in America can claim.
In recognition, we thought we'd have a shot at coming up with a list of 25 all-time classic animation stars. It's hard to harvest just a few of our very favorite characters out of shows airing over five decades, but we gave it a go anyhow, and here are the results.
Our criteria for selection involved a little bit of everything – each character's lasting fame, the impact they had on the medium and their particular genre at the time, the depth and quality of their realization on screen, and of course, a little bit of personal taste.
25. Shinji Ikari
First Appearance: Evangelion Episode 1, "Angel Attack," 1995
Shinji, to quote a famous fanboy one-liner, is a giant wuss. He cries, he whines, he cowers, he chants a constant mantra about how he "mustn't run away" before promptly running away several times throughout Neon Genesis Evangelion.
We love Shinji, perhaps, not for what he is, but for what he could be. For all the many times where the guy completely drops the ball – including at the climax of the entire Evangelion saga, with the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance – there's a couple of outings where Shinji really is every last bit he could be. When he beats the Third Angel to death with its own rib bones, it's hard not to love our boy Shinji.
Or maybe we just love Shinji because we wish we could be in his shoes, because we know we could do the job so much better ourselves. And shack up in a pad with no parents and two gorgeous girls besides.
First Appearance: My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
Hayao Miyazaki has invented enough lovable characters to fill a whole list of his own, from the mighty flying pig who took the lead in Porco Rosso to the quirky little coal-demon from Howl's Moving Castle. One of them stands out above all the rest, which becomes especially obvious if you ever happen to visit a Japanese Toys R Us. In his home country, and even abroad to a degree, Totoro is eternal.
The interesting thing about Totoro, as heroes of children's stories go, is that he isn't completely…safe, might be the word. He's cheerful and friendly and fuzzy, true, but he's huge and loud and wild, too. He's a spirit of nature, with all that entails, and that might be what's helped give him serious staying power over the decades since.
23. Lelouch Lamperouge
First Appearance: Code Geass Episode 1, "The Day a New Demon Was Born," 2006
It's hard to come up with a "hero" who is more unabashedly, unashamedly evil. Seriously. Lelouch is a liar, a thief, a manipulator, and a mass murderer with a body count…possibly up in the seven figures, depending how you do the counting, by the time the Code Geass saga is finally over. At some point or another, he finds a way to betray or kill almost everyone he has ever known.
In spite of it all, though, he had his reasons. He meant well, in his supremely screwed-up way. And in the end, he was ready to pay for it, and pay for it he did. Say this one thing for Lelouch, he never did a damned thing halfway, and he made Code Geass a heck of a ride all the way to the end.
22. Monkey D. Luffy
First Appearance: One Piece Episode 1, "I'm Gonna Be Pirate King," 1999
Some characters work for relatively complicated reasons. Other characters work because they hit people really hard. Luffy, most would agree, belongs to the latter category.
That might be selling the rubber man a little bit short, though. Plenty of tough-guy anime heroes can dish it out all day, but Luffy can take it, too, which is a somewhat rarer quality. Hit him as hard as you can and he'll just bounce right on back – in fact, it's hard to think of a meaner counter-puncher, not since Joe Yabuki from nigh on 50 years ago. He's done Shonen Jump proud for many years now, and there's no reason to expect he won't keep going for plenty of years more.
First Appearance: Dragon Ball Z Episode 11, "Trouble on Arlia," 1989
Before so many others picked up the same gimmick, he was the original unmitigated bastard. When you wonder about the appeal of a Light Yagami or Lelouch Lamperouge, consider that the prince of the Saiyans was a fan favorite years before they came on the scene. Vegeta's so arrogant he reckons himself superior to most of the population of the galaxy, and he'd probably look down at the rest of the universe if he happened to meet anyone from that far away.
He came around a bit, though, which is a big part of his appeal. He never quite became Mr. Nice Guy, but Bulma certainly did her best to civilize the big lug. There's something to be said for a hero with just a touch of a bad guy in him, and by the end that describes Vegeta to a tee.
20. Ichigo Kurosaki
First Appearance: Bleach Episode 1, "A Shinigami is Born," 2004
He has a big sword. No fooling. You would not believe the size of this guy's sword. And when he does that whole thing where he hollers "BANKAI!" real loud, the sword gets even bigger. It'll give you such a zetz, this sword…
Okay, okay, okay, we kid. There's more to Kurosaki than just a big sword. In fact, he's the thinking man's Shonen Jump hero, a bright and inquisitive young kid who just happens to get saddled with the image of a dopey delinquent goon. Sometimes the action in Bleach moves a bit too fast and furious to let him show off his full range, but at his best, there's a lot more to Ichigo than just a big sword. And in a pinch, well, the sword can still get the job done all by itself.
19. Haruhi Suzumiya
First Appearance: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya Episode 11, "The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina," 2006
We were worried she might wipe out the universe if we didn't let her into the top 10, but it's a chance we'll just have to take. With luck she'll forget about it and wind up fixated on something else in the morning.
A lot of people read very deeply into Haruhi Suzumiya, and it's true that there are some interesting philosophical implications to the notion of a neurotic teenage girl with unconscious godlike powers. The show doesn't need any hidden meaning to work, though – Haruhi's hilarious whether or not you take her seriously. What she does, on a number of levels, is make interesting things happen, and while that might make life a little frightening for the characters around her, it makes for a show that was magnificent entertainment from beginning to end.
18. Light Yagami
First Appearance: Death Note Episode 1, "Rebirth," 2006
Remember the bit a few entries back about unmitigated bastardry? Here is the undisputed heavyweight champion, a narcissistic mass murderer with absolutely no regard for any other human being alive, unless he might be able to use them for a while before he crumples them up and throws them away.
For a while, though, he was mesmerizing, there's nothing else to it. Death Note probably tried to run a bit longer than it actually had the fuel to carry itself, but at his peak, everyone wanted to know what Light was going to try next. He could plot and scheme like nobody else before or since, and he just about managed to pull it all off…but then again, probably best for all concerned that he didn't quite make it.
17. Vash the Stampede
First Appearance: Trigun Episode 1, "The $$60,000,000,000.00 Man," 1998
Some might say that Vash isn't much of a character. (Others might go farther and call him a bald-faced knockoff of a character who lives a couple of entries further down this list.) As a character design, though, he's one of the all-time greats. Yasuhiro Nightow is an excellent artist any day of the week, but he outdid himself with the hero of his most famous comic strip.
Most fans were sold on Trigun before they even watched the show. Vash the Stampede just had the look – the long coat, the spiked hair, the custom six-shooter, like a blazing red version of all the great gun-slinging heroes of Westerns past. That look worked on a couple of levels, too, once we found out exactly what was hidden underneath the famous duster.
16. Jubei Kibagami
First Appearance: Ninja Scroll, 1993
Jubei is a character who might not be entirely notable not in and of himself, but more for the production that he happened to anchor. He's the vital source of gravity about which orbits two hours of sex and violence that, in their time, were tremendously influential. Yoshiaki Kawajiri may not be remembered very much in the 21st century, but back in the day he introduced a whole bunch of American fans to this thing called "anime."
And he couldn't have done it without Jubei, the fictional incarnation of an almost-as-deadly historical figure. He's arguably not the principal actor in the movie – he spends an awful lot of Ninja Scroll being hurled around at the whim of greater powers – but like any great action hero, he takes a beating and comes back every time.
15. Arsene Lupin III
First Appearance: Lupin III Episode 1, "Is Lupin Burning," 1971
He and his crew are justifiable icons. They've consistently carried hit productions for more than 40 years now – three classic long-running TV shows and a raft of hot movies and specials besides. A year ago in Lupin III: Green Vs. Red, his creators had such a hard time finding a credible opponent that they had to pit Lupin up against…well, himself.
As lovable rogues go, there may be none greater. Think of him as Japan's answer to Bugs Bunny, in a way – he never fails to come up with an outlandish scheme or a smart one-liner to top it all off with. Lupin brings a classic supporting cast along with him, too. There's no such thing as Lupin without the Lupin Gang, after all, or good old Inspector Zenigata in hot pursuit.
First Appearance: Vampire Hunter D, 1985
Yoshitaka Amano, of course, is famous for a whole bunch of other characters besides just this one. This is the one that put him on the map, though, a few years before something called Final Fantasy that apparently all the kids are into these days.
He's not the only vampiric vampire hunter who's ever headlined an anime horror story. (Most fans could name three or four off the top of their heads, in fact.) D has a style all his own, though, born out of Amano's elaborate artwork -- a few parts baroque and a few parts just plain bizarre. Not many others have a gimmick as weird as our man D's sentient hand, and that might not even be the strangest thing about him.
13. Motoko Kusanagi
First Appearance: Ghost in the Shell, 1995
Masamune Shirow is famous for a particular kind of sci-fi heroine. In a way, you might say that they're all the same woman, just filtered through a different milieu in each story. Send Dominion's Leona Ozaki to survive in the wreckage of World War III and she probably wouldn't turn out entirely unlike Deunan Knute from Appleseed.
The Major's filtered through a very interesting milieu, though. She is, when you get down to it, just a brain in a jar, although nobody's going to dispute that it's one hell of a jar. That makes her a straight line to one of science fiction's most interesting questions – what is it that makes up a human? Though she may be cool, professional, and mostly artificial, she's unquestionably human, and following her adventures through Ghost in the Shell was never less than fascinating.
First Appearance: Death Note Episode 3, "Dealings," 2006
Death Note paid this guy the ultimate backhand compliment. As soon as he left the series, it fell straight off a cliff. The second that L's no longer involved in the plot, you may as well put it down and find something else to watch.
Perhaps it's because he made such a sharp and simple contrast to Light Yagami's megalomaniac ego. L has no ego to speak of, just a constant drive to get the job done. Light wants to be revered as a living god, while L would as soon nobody even knew his name. Each of them made the perfect nemesis for the other, and neither was quite the same without the other to work against.
11. Shotaro Kaneda
First Appearance: Akira, 1988
Strip him naked and Kaneda isn't much of a character. He's one of a million lunkheaded teenage delinquents, the kind that have headlined macho beat-'em-up comics in rags like Shonen Champion for decades. Haul him in for disturbing the peace, stick the scrawny punk in prison grays, and stand him in a lineup – would anybody recognize him?
What Kaneda's got, though, is probably the most incredible collection of props a cartoon character has ever been blessed with. Everyone remembers the images from those classic promo posters for Akira -- the bright red biker leathers, the cocked laser rifle, and of course the motorcycle, a legendary piece of mechanical design by Katsuhiro Otomo. Clothes may not always make the man, but they definitely did it for this one.
10. Rei Ayanami
First Appearance: Evangelion Episode 1, "Angel Attack," 1995
Rei is a hugely influential character concept. Since Eva made the big splash back in 1995, we've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of anime heroines written almost exactly like her – pliable, passive, emotionless objects, perfectly suited to a timid geek's favorite fantasies. Rei has about as much personality as a Real Doll, and possibly that is not a coincidence.
Or does she? The difference between Rei and so many almost-Reis is that there might be something behind the façade. She's a mystery we never really solve, when you think about it. Even after we learn what's supposed to be the great big secret behind where she came from, that doesn't necessarily answer the real question. Is there more to Rei than what we think we see?
Like so many things about Evangelion, it's an awfully interesting argument starter, and it's nice to believe that it's what put her on the map. Sadly, the bandage fetish probably had more to do with it, but we are not our fellow fanboy's keeper.
9. Sailor Moon
First Appearance: Sailor Moon Episode 1, "A Moon Star is Born," 1992
There were plenty of magical girls before Sailor Moon, and there have been plenty of magical girls since her. Miss Moon, though, struck a balance that few shows before or since have matched. Earlier heroines like Minky Momo were childish and chaste. Her successors have grown ever more cheesy and lurid, appealing to the aging pervert market that she accidentally tapped for the first time.
Sailor Moon went so far and no farther. Her skirt was impossibly short, but you never did see what was under it. Compared to a recent creation like Lyrical Nanoha, she's a model of restraint.
One also has to recognize Sailor Moon's massive impact on American anime fandom. Hers was the first show that managed to draw in a measurable audience of real, live girls, who became genuinely hardcore fans thanks to shows like Rurouni Kenshin and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Which led, by a long and twisted trail, to a number of fanboys unexpectedly finding a way to lose their virginities at conventions some years down the line. They may not quite know it, but they owe you one, Sailor Moon.
First Appearance: Pokemon Episode 1, "Pokemon! I Choose You!" 1997
Love him or hate him, he's recognized around the world. At his peak he was probably the best-known, best-loved, and most-often-bootlegged anime character since the heyday of Goku and Dragon Ball Z.
His appeal, of course, is perfectly simple. He has all the best qualities of the domestic housecat – fuzzy, friendly, occasionally silly – but without any of the down sides, like clawing the curtains or shedding all over the couch. He's unfailingly loyal, too, whereas your average cat would probably eat your throat while you sleep if you didn't happen to feed him twice a day. Consider Pikachu something close to the ideal pet, just so long as you don't happen to rile up his electric side.
7. Edward Elric
First Appearance: Fullmetal Alchemist Episode 1, "To Challenge the Sun," 2003
Ed, let us say, has his failings. He is arrogant, he is hot-headed, he has the classic small-man's syndrome. He has a chip on his shoulder that you could send to the sawmill and use to build a decent-sized garden shed.
On the other hand, he and his kid brother Al make one of the best action-comedy teams in recent memory. The entry here really ought to belong to the Elric brothers collectively – it's hard to imagine the one without the other, after all. Together, they made Fullmetal Alchemist just about the biggest anime hit of the decade, and with the arrival of their second big TV series, we still haven't seen the last of them.
6. Naruto Uzumaki
First Appearance: Naruto Episode 1, "Enter: Naruto Uzumaki," 2002
If you follow Shonen Jump's fan-favorite character polls, Naruto actually isn't the most popular character in his own series most of the time. Kakashi and Sasuke walk away with it as often as not, and he's even been squeezed out by a villain or two on occasion.
He's the engine that powers the franchise, though, that's pretty hard to argue against. Naruto's like a bouncing orange perpetual motion machine – just wind him up a touch and he goes. Sasuke may be tougher and Kakashi may be cooler and Deidara may be…well, blonde-er, or whatever it is people see in him, but the show could go without them in a pinch. It couldn't go on without the would-be Sixth Hokage, though, which is why he snags this spot on the list.
5. Himura Kenshin
First Appearance: Rurouni Kenshin Episode 1, "The Handsome Swordsman of Legend," 1996
A classic example of a classic anime type, the peace-loving killing machine. He's a perfectly decent guy who hides something horrible inside him, which lends a low-level current of suspense to every second of the show he appears in. We know that it takes a whole lot of abuse to bring out the man that Kenshin used to be, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen at almost any time.
The dual nature of the character reflects itself in the series. He can get away with starring in light comedy with no problems – in fact, he's a first-rate straight man most of the time. When his creators feel like shifting gears down into something darker, though, he can effortlessly turn to a darker tone along with them.
4. Spike Spiegel
First Appearance: Cowboy Bebop Episode 1, "Asteroid Blues," 1998
We don't see it done very often, but in some ways animation is the perfect medium for film noir. Robert Rodriguez had the right idea when he filmed Frank Miller's Sin City comics – the movie may star real people, but break down the whole package and it's more than half a cartoon. Years before, Shinichiro Watanabe went all the way with Cowboy Bebop, and a fellow who, in his quiet way, became one of the great modern noir heroes.
Spike's a flashy, funny, violent tough guy, and that's part of what makes him fun to watch. What really makes Cowboy Bebop work, though, is the story that grows out of his past, and the reckoning that all of that inevitably builds towards. Every key character in the series finds some way to settle things with what's gone before, except for Spike, who just can't find a way to let the past go. Given how his story ends, though, we wouldn't have it any other way.
3. Speed Racer
First Appearance: Speed Racer Episode 1, "The Great Plan Part 1," 1967
Yeah, he wore an ascot. It was the early '60s, though, so you can mostly excuse that kind of thing. And he had a cool car and a monkey, which is pretty hard to beat.
But seriously, folks. The first generation of fans that encountered Japanese cartoons mostly did it through a guy named Speed who talked as fast as he drove, and Speed Racer's adventures hung around in syndication to have an impact far beyond their original run. In his time, Speed had a totally different style from American animation, too – the influence of Japanese girls' comics gave him a look that wasn't like anything else on TV here, and that effect told many years later, when there were at least as many women as guys interested in this thing called "anime."
2. Astro Boy
First Appearance: Astro Boy Episode 1, "The Birth of Astro Boy," 1963
His contemporary American reincarnation is just a touch embarrassing, but Tetsuwan Atom is still an icon among icons. He was Japan's first great modern cartoon hero, on the printed page and the TV screen.
Astro was inspired, of course, by the Pinocchio legend – his creator wanted to build himself an artificial son, a robot who could replace the human child that he'd lost. That's the emotional center that makes him more interesting than the average action hero. Sure, he fought evil with lasers in his fingers and machineguns in his backside, but he had a real heart and a real personality to go along with all the weaponry. In retrospect, it's no surprise to see he had staying power, even if he's a few sizes smaller than the average anime robot.
First Appearance: Dragon Ball Episode 1, "Secret of the Dragon Ball," 1986
There's a brief movement during the Dragon Ball Z saga where Goku goes and dies. (The dying part wasn't actually all that big a deal, though, since the Z Fighters died and came back about as often as the X-Men, and with as many lasting consequences.) Dead, Goku travels directly to the afterlife, where he greets King Kai – for all intents and purposes, God – and asks for the chance to train in martial arts beneath him, learning directly from the Almighty.
Not long after completing a training session alongside our hero, Kai has a chat with a few of his fellow deities. Goku, reckons the King, is the most powerful being in the universe. He is a match for King Kai himself and then some, able to perfect fighting techniques that Kai never could, and might well destroy all that is if he isn't very careful with his massive in-born powers.
Japanese animation has given us plenty of bad-asses, but not very many could have beaten up God and then blown up the universe for an encore. Ladies and gentlemen, Son Goku.
Source: Chris Mackenzie, Top 25 Animated Characters of All Time, IGN Movies, 20 October 2009.