The explosive popularity of anime in recent years has led to the most popular anime characters, like Dragon Ball‘s Goku, becoming household names even outside of Japan. Interesting and lovable characters help to make a series both memorable and profitable, so it’s in studios’ best interests to create the most appealing characters possible. Not every anime character reaches that bar, of course, but the best of the best aren’t just heroes you can relate to, they’re fully-fleshed out characters with fears, hopes, and dreams, just like anyone else.
While it’s impossible to have a totally objective list of the most popular characters, one of the first criteria must be that the most popular characters are well known outside their own fandoms. Even those not into anime might be able to recognize these characters at a glance, and no anime convention is complete without a cosplay or two of them.
10 Ichigo Kurosaki–Bleach
Ichigo Kurosaki ranks among the sweetest of shonen protagonists, and is certainly among the most popular anime characters. Even though Bleach has been on the market for over 22 years, Ichigo is still a popular character among anime viewers, with that popularity only bolstered by the recent debut of Bleach: The Thousand-Year Blood War. He has the powers of a Quincy, a Hollow, and a Soul Reaper, giving him a wide array of abilities that make Ichigo’s fights among the flashiest out there. One of the main reasons for his popularity, though, is his unique appearance and caring personality. While most shonen protagonists rely on major character shifts towards the end of the series, Ichigo’s personality remains a consistent part of Bleach from beginning to end, even as he grows.
9 Saitama–One-Punch Man
Saitama is an ordinary, relatable guy who just happens to have incredible strength, a combination which easily makes him one of the most popular anime characters ever. With his detached and carefree demeanor, Saitama is the “one-punch man” who has the power to defeat any villain with only a single strike. The only problem is that this leaves Saitama without any challenges in life, leading to a familiar sort of boredom with everything around him. Despite this, Saitama is the kind of guy who’s a hero for fun, and that automatically makes him stand out. He’s the moral core of his series, winning characters over to his way of thinking by living up to his ideals.
8 Eren Yeager–Attack On Titan
Eren Yeager quickly became one of the most popular anime characters due to his distinctive personality and morals. Even though he did not start as a strong character in Attack on Titan, he soon developed into a powerful anti-hero after discovering his Titan-shifting powers. Many of the best quotes from Attack on Titan are attributed to him, as he’s known for his fearlessness in battle. Eren never backs away from a fight, and is always the first to jump into action and lead his group. Above all, however, he is loyal to his best friends Mikasa and Armin, and their friendship is one of the best relationships in anime. Eren’s character does suffer a major change towards the end of the series, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed his popularity all that much.
7 Monkey D. Luffy–One Piece
One Piece has been airing for more than 23 years, making it one of the longest-running anime of all time. One Piece‘s hero, Monkey D. Luffy, has consistently been among the most popular anime characters for almost that entire time. This silly, innocent man is known for his loyalty, goofiness, and trademark smile. He will stop at nothing to protect his friends and their ambitions, and dreams of becoming King of the Pirates. Luffy’s true desire is really to be free, and to explore and investigate hidden corners of the world, a fantasy shared by many. His honesty and courage don’t make him any less fun to be around, and Luffy is one hero that can always be counted on.
6 Naruto Uzumaki–Naruto
Rated the best Shonen Jump anime of all time by Ranker, Naruto always comes up whenever the most popular anime characters are discussed. Fans adore the series’ main character, Naruto Uzumaki, for his relentless drive and charisma. Despite having no family and being rejected by his people as a child, Naruto developed into a respectable and upright adult, defending the very people who bullied him. An amateur ninja at first, failing to pass the Academy three times, Naruto’s initial failures made him relatable. He eventually advanced to the position of Hokage, the strongest shinobi, via training and pure willpower. He is intelligent, entertaining, and a devoted friend, all of which are key to making him a beloved character.
5 Light Yagami–Death Note
The protagonist of Death Note, Light Yagami is one of the greatest anti-heroes ever, in addition to being one of the most popular anime characters. Light’s genius-level intellect makes him fascinating to watch, and despite the series having been over for years, it remains relevant, even parodied on The Simpsons. Even before he discovered the Death Note, Light had aspirations and a desire to improve the world; the Death Note merely gave him a means of doing it. Light becomes Kira, the mysterious figure who executes criminals. Light’s intentions are good, which often wins the support of fans, but his character constantly lingers near the line of going too far, ensuring he remains contentious. Regardless, fans admire Light for his charms and brilliant character traits.
4 Sakura Kinomoto–Cardcaptor Sakura
One of the most iconic magical girls of all time, Cardcaptor Sakura‘s Sakura Kinomoto is a sweet young girl who accidentally released the Clow Cards, unleashing ancient magic on the world. The task of recapturing them and sealing their magic falls to her, even though she’d rather just get on with her ordinary life. Sakura has a relatable sibling relationship with her brother, with the two often teasing each other in a way not regularly seen in anime. Unlike many on this list, Sakura isn’t fearless, but it’s her willingness to courageously push on that makes her worthy of being one of the most popular anime characters.
3 Ash & Pikachu–Pokémon
Without a doubt one of the most recognized and most popular anime characters in history, Ash Ketchum was the protagonist of Pokémon for a whopping 25 years, so generations of kids grew up alongside Ash over that time. It’s impossible to talk about Ash without also mentioning his best friend Pikachu, a loyal Pokémon who never leaves his side, and can often be seen perched upon his shoulder. Ash’s determination is unlike any other anime protagonist, as his quest to become the greatest Pokémon Master often sees him up against world-ending threats and even the literal god of Pokémon. Aside from his determination, Ash is also courageous and never afraid to stand up for what’s right, even willing to look past his own ambitions to ensure good wins.
2 Usagi Tsukino–Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is a wildly successful series, due in large part to Usagi, one of the most popular anime characters ever. Usagi is the everygirl, interested in boyfriends and fashion and not doing her schoolwork. She’s often a reluctant hero, as her magical destiny was forced upon her without her permission. Usagi is the reincarnation of Queen Serenity, ruler of the ancient Moon Kingdom, and is thus given the role of Sailor Moon, tasked with protecting the Earth from evil forces. Usagi is also a good friend, and works well with the other Sailor Scouts when the chips are down.
1 Goku–Dragon Ball
Goku is undoubtedly the most famous anime character ever. He has served as the main protagonist of the Dragon Ball series for 32 years and has kept the show running with his wit, charms, innocence, and power. Over that time, Goku has grown from a slightly bratty young boy into Earth’s greatest defender, having saved the planet time and again from magical and extraterrestrial threats. One of Goku’s greatest assets is his ability to turn enemies into friends, most notably his friendship with fellow Saiyan Vegeta, who went from an unrepentant killer to a family man due to Goku’s influence. Goku’s pure heart, selflessness, loyalty, and dedication are his best traits, and are key to why he’s the all-time most popular anime character.
There are dozens of other iconic characters who could be added to this list, especially if one were to dive even further back into the history of anime, but these ten represent a good sampling of anime’s most popular characters. They earned these positions with years of relatable character development and by proving themselves in their chosen fields. Many of these franchises have been running for decades, and with popular anime characters like these at the lead, it’s easy to see why.