A great male main character is one that is hard to find.
They’re not the manliest of men, but neither are they complete pushovers either. These characters are the ones that have drive, that have charisma, the ones that are interesting, engaging, and push the story forward. It is through them, that we experience the anime we love, and are a major reason as to why anime tend to go down in history as some of the best.
And these, are my personal favorites among the bunch.
10. Edward Elric (Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood)
The Full Metal Alchemist is a fantastic protagonist, one who, in my mind, is one of the best “action-adventure” anime characters of all time.
Edward is a runt–a small guy, but one who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Only 15 years old at the beginning of the series, if he’s not making a sassy remark to his superior officer, he’s off with his brother Alphonse, to figure out an alchemic way to get their bodies back. He’s caring, intelligent, and sarcastic, and more–but that’s all part of his charm.
However, Shorty here isn’t one of my favorite protagonists simply because he’s a guy with an immense amount of personality–rather, he’s just such an amiable, relatable character.
Despite the amount of attitude that Edward has, his interactions with those he cares about feel surprisingly sincere. He is an individual that has gone through a lot, worked hard to get to the point he currently is at, and his story isn’t afraid to show that. The fact that, despite that, he retains his personality, his all-around kindness, and above all, his unrelenting determination, is rather inspiring, and makes for some fantastic character relations throughout FMA.
Of course, the fact that Edward, throughout the series, is portrayed as a freaking badass, doesn’t hurt either.
9. Saitama (One Punch Man)
This is a character that breaks the mold in every imaginable way, but somehow, paradoxically, found himself thrust into the spotlight of one of the biggest action anime of recent memory.
The One Punch Man himself is, intentionally or unintentionally, one of the most hilarious anime protagonists of all time. With the strength, speed, and reflexes to do basically anything he damn well pleases, Saitama ends up completely breaking the mold of the world he lives in. Whereas other heroes must train their hardest, find new, hidden depths to their characters that allow them to overcome unprecedented challenges, Saitama finds himself breaking this story line.
Saitama is the character I think of when I think of a “fun” experience. His very design, by nature, finds joy in a sense of contrarianism, that I personally appreciate heavily. In one moment, Saitama is a bald dork with a stupid jumpsuit, and in another, he is portrayed as a muscular, badass, physical god. It’s fantastic.
Through the existence of the Caped Baldy, the superhero genre of stories is flipped on its head, and I find that idea, while being immensely hilarious, also kind of brilliant. Saitama’s natural “good-guy,” relatively selfish, fame-seeking attitude makes him the perfect character for such a subversive, comedic story, making him not only an entertaining character, but one that fits perfectly, the story which he is helping to tell.
What can I say? Saitama’s a great character. It says something when one character’s existence helps to subvert an entire genre.
8. Yami Yugi (Yu-Gi-Oh!)
Okay, cut me some slack, I have my personal preferences too.
Yami Yugi, the dark spirit that lives inside the Millennium Puzzle, is, throughout the series, an enigmatic figure. At first appearing to be simply an alternate personality to the regular kid, Yugi Muto, Yami ends up distinguishing himself as a unique entity, with a mysterious past, somehow rooted in Ancient Egypt. Of course, as the series goes on, we learn more and more about his past, while he learns more and more about the value of friendship.
And of course, he carries the title of the King of Games, beating all his opponents in a children’s card game all the while.
Yami Yugi is a character that, in my mind, represents the best of the 90s anime protagonists. He was engaging by nature, a badass who, in every way, always knew how to pull out a win. His cool, sharp design, his presence in the show, and his unwavering confidence at all times was, and honestly, still is a pleasure to watch, not harmed whatsoever by Dan Green’s phenomenal performance in the English dub.
However, lots of characters at that time were engaging–what made Yami special, above the rest, was a sense of personality, a genuine sense of mystery to his character that, ironically, solidified him as an individual. The struggles he faced were myriad, and tested him in far more varied, personally impactful ways than most. Dealing with his own sins of wrath, as well as those in his mysterious past life, Yami had enough backstory to be interesting, as well as enough personality to be freaking engaging on top of that.
He’s one of the great heroes of anime to me–and time hasn’t changed that.
7. Goku (Dragonball Z)
A contender for one of the most famous anime characters of all time, I can’t really say much about him that hasn’t been said before.
Goku is for many, the epitome of a lovable, yet heroic protagonist. Rather naive and narrow-minded, mostly defined by his unrelenting passion for fighting, Goku can’t be said to be the sharpest tool in the shed. Despite this, he is relied on time and time again to save the world from all sorts of threats, and, due to his childlike faith in himself, is able to rise to the challenge every single time, eventually growing strong enough to confront even the gods of his world.
Honestly, what can I really say. Goku’s a lovable protagonist through and through–his unrelenting good nature, his love of fighting, food and friends–he’s freaking Goku. And I think a huge part of what makes him appealing is how he is able to put some personality into what many people would consider the stereotypical “masculine” hero.
When you think of a badass who can beat down gods, adrenaline-pumping, supersonic fights, and power that could destroy galaxies, you don’t think of a lovable idiot. Rather, my immediate thought turns to images of strength and power, which in turn makes me think of a hero who is above it all, a Superman, or some other such heroic, masculine man. But of course, we don’t get that with Goku.
Rather, we get some guy whose biggest concerns are getting as strong as he can, breaking his limits, and taking care of his friends. The heroic part just kinda comes with the deal.
And that’s pretty refreshing, no matter how old-school Goku is.
6. Lelouch vi Britannia (Code Geass)
Perhaps the hammiest protagonist in all of anime, Lelouch is…quite the character, to say the least.
Given the power of Geass by happenstance, or perhaps fate, the exiled prince Lelouch vi Britannia, is also handed an opportunity–the chance to rule the world, with the power of Kings. Of course, it doesn’t come easily. Lelouch, posing as the Japanese rebellion leader, Zero, has a long ways to go, and many demons to overcome before he can achieve his ultimate goal–but along the way, he also has the chance to display his amazing intellect, determination, and undeniable sense of theatrical style.
It’s pretty great.
Lelouch vi Britannia stakes a claim as one of the most engaging protagonists to ever grace the animated world, and for good reason. His dramatic arm movements, passionate speeches, and ability to make miracles happen on the battlefield, all contribute to a character that, in every sense, draws attention to himself. He is Zero, he is the to-be-Emperor of the World, he is the Miracle Worker, and it is a pleasure to watch, as he claws his way up to the positions of leadership that define him as a character.
That being said, however, I enjoy Lelouch for more than his dramatic exploits.
He’s not portrayed as the most compassionate hero–in fact, he is incredibly pragmatic, willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of his goals. However, he has his moments of humanity–moments when the stresses of his leadership get to him, when he begins to miss his friends, and it is in these moments, where I really appreciate Lelouch as a character. “Zero” is not a perfect man. And it is in the differences between the symbol that Zero is, and the flawed man that Lelouch is, that really get me to sympathize for Lelouch, in a way that not many characters have been able to do.
Perhaps I just haven’t seen enough anime to compare, but Lelouch to me is the first great example of a “great leader,” from his soaring highs, to his deepest lows. And man, it’s a joy to watch.
5. Tomoya Okazaki (Clannad)
In my eyes, Tomoya is probably the closest thing to the ideal rom-com protagonist.
A natural troublemaker at first, Clannad starts by acknowledging Tomoya’s colorless world. It is a world without meaning, a world without goals, and as many young adults end up experiencing at some point or another, Tomoya feels lost, and apathetic. However, upon meeting new friends, helping others when he can, and eventually, growing to love, Tomoya’s life is given color. We get to see Tomoya as he lives his life, nurturing a family, working hard, and dealing with all that life has to offer.
It’s an inspiring tale–but one that is made all the more real, by being able to experience it through Tomoya’s life in particular.
What I love about Tomoya, compared to any other rom-com protagonist I’ve seen so far, is how he is acutely aware of the problems of real life, and how we see him wrestle with them. When I see a cynical, apathetic protagonist in any romantic setting, my natural expectation is that, through the events of the plot, we see that protagonist growing to become a better person for the sake of his beloved person. The drama exists in the romance, and how the protagonist challenges himself for the sake of his romantic interest–Your Lie in April’s Kousei jumps to mind.
However, with Tomoya, romance is only the first step. Romance doesn’t solve his fractured family relationships. Friendship doesn’t stop him from falling into depression, doesn’t stop him from suffering from the same addictions his father dealt with. Tomoya remains cynical for much of the show, and his development, his gradual acceptance of hope, is a lot slower, a lot more believable than many anime I’ve seen.
I love it. It makes Tomoya one of the most intensely relatable characters I’ve seen yet, by reflecting how real people have to struggle with their personal pains, how real people have to fight for years to get past their demons.
And for a rom-com protagonist, that’s pretty dang good.
4. Nagisa Shiota (Assassination Classroom)
Perhaps this is a fringe pick. A strange one, by most people’s standards. But dang it, Nagisa is a character that captured my attention from the very beginning.
The first thing one might notice about Nagisa is that he doesn’t appear very masculine. He’s tiny, his hair isn’t exactly “guy-ish,” and even in demeanor, he is reserved, nervous, and insecure. Nagisa, by all means, shouldn’t stand out in ANY respect, except for one very unique talent.
Nagisa is a natural assassin.
See, the format of Assassination Classroom is such, that every character tends to get a chance to shine. Although Nagisa is not focused on much, relative to other main characters on this list, something about how Nagisa’s talent is displayed keeps him in the spotlight. He is able to push through situations when he needs to in a believable, in-character sort of way. Nagisa’s talent naturally makes him the focus of the story, and I think that’s a fantastic thing for a character to be able to do.
However, what makes him a favorite of mine, personally, is how he takes the “wimpy protagonist” stereotype, and flips it on its head.
It’s quite obvious that he’s kind of a wimp. He has insecurities, a rather strong sense of who he is, and what he doesn’t like about himself, and acknowledges them. But, unlike many other, more stereotypically depicted protagonists, he very evidently, gradually, and realistically grows to confront those feelings, and by focusing on what he can do well, he moves past his weaknesses, to do absolutely crazy things.
And with his awkward innocence, masking his ruthless killing intent, Nagisa ended up being, for me at least, one of the most engaging anime protagonists I’ve seen in a while.
Nagisa’s rather unassuming at first sight, an odd pick for one of my favorite protagonists. But I think that just adds to his charm, wouldn’t ya say?
3. Spike Spiegel (Cowboy Bebop)
The slick, composed, fucking cool bounty hunter of the Bebop, Spike Siegel is my third favorite anime character of all time, and do I even need to say why?
Spike is a badass, through and through. And his personality shows it, in such a pervasive manner, that it just becomes a defining part of his character.
The thing about Spike, is that although we are shown a great variety of his character exploits, we are shown next to nothing of his personal ideologies, personality traits, and other beliefs that normally define a character. He doesn’t break down, he doesn’t explain his ideals (or lack thereof), and he doesn’t feel the need to talk about everything that bothers him. Rather, he lets his actions do all the talking–and it is through his actions, that we learn of who Spike is.
He’s a lazy, carefree, apathetic smoker, indicated by his borderline indifferent attitude on the Bebop, and his natural tendency to smoke rather often. He’s slightly interested in martial arts, and is, to some extent, a rather caring human being to those who he sympathizes with. He is, beyond all this, someone who is living a shadow of a life–haunted by his past, not knowing what to do to move on, unsure of how to think about this mysterious woman, Julia.
Spike has some of the stereotypical traits of a protagonist, from his general charisma, to his occasional selfless actions for the people he cares for–but it is all framed in a unique way, that I’ve never seen in any other anime. These generally good traits are presented in the context of a man who is dealing with apathy to an extreme degree. A man who, for all the extraordinary skills he has, is just a man, wrestling with emotions, regrets, and pain.
In the end, Spike feels like a real man. And there’s something to be said about that.
2. Kikuhiko (Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu)
Calm, composed, and very distant. This is the Rakugo master, the professional among professionals, the true god of the stage. He’s old, wizened, and despite being successful, is jaded to the idealism of the world. This is the protagonist of a certain Winter 2016 anime, known as Kikuhiko. However, with his age, his unrelatable position…hat doesn’t make for a very relatable, engaging main character, does it?
Well, you might be surprised.
Kikuhiko, or Yakumo Yurukutei, has quickly risen the ranks to become my second-favorite anime character of all time for some astounding, fantastic development, that made a figure I couldn’t even imagine liking, to one that was immensely relatable.
I’m not normally a fan of old-master-types, as I believe they can too easily fall into the trap of being wise “just because,” given a simple backstory to justify their wisdom. It’s simple, and can be very effective for a story to have, but in a character, I usually just can’t enjoy it.
However, what Kikuhiko does, is break down that sort of character–give him an intensely detailed, rich history, one that feels real in all the right ways. Similarly to Spike Siegel, Kikuhiko feels like a real man, but instead of hunting bounties and struggling with the monotony of his existence, he lives a natural, believable life. Working part-time jobs, making good friends, finding romance, the story of Kikuhiko is one that is, honestly, very simple, but shows exactly how the distant master became who he was.
Kikuhiko, in my eyes, is one of the most believably developed characters in all of anime. And that’s a freaking achievement.
He’s a man, through and through. And because we can know how human he was, despite his harsh appearance, Kikuhiko is certainly–at this moment at least– my second-favorite character of anime.
1. Light Yagami (Death Note)
I kind of, kind of hate myself for putting Light at this spot.
Light is a rather iconic character–in fact, one could argue that he’s one of the most famous characters in all of anime, and for good reason. And because of this, the contrarian in me wanted to give Kikuhiko this spot, as my favorite anime character of all time.
But ya know, something about Light just makes me want to talk about him.
His story is one that has become legendary in the world of anime: a genius high school student finds a “Death Note,” and, sickened by the depravity of the world, gives himself a mission, one that he believes only he can do. Setting himself up as Kira, the “God of the New World,” he embarks on a mission–to eliminate all crime in the world, all the evildoers that make the world a terrible place. Starting off with a crusader-like mindset, truly thinking he was doing something right, eventually, Light started to slip. Caught up in his self-perceived status as a God, he became narcisstic, arrogant, believing that he was the right. That he alone had the authority to decide good and evil.
And of course, it ends up costing him.
Light Yagami is my favorite character in anime for a variety of reasons, but if I had to boil it down to one idea, it would be this: we all know that the world is a pretty messed up place–it’s just that Light decides to do something about it.
We’ve ALL had that thought before. We’ve ALL looked at poverty, crime, and hate, and thought that the world could be so much better. And of course, there are stories that address this. Lelouch vi Britannia does his best to rule the world, only to save it, Spike Spiegel lives in such a world, simply dealing with what it throws at him, and Tomoya struggles to find hope, in a world that simply feels unfair. These struggles are relatable–they appeal to a basic desire, to learn about people who have to live in a tough world.
What Light’s character does then, is acknowledge this desire, and take it to its logical limits.
We see Light’s megalomaniac desires grow throughout the series, until, by the end, he has grown from an idealistic boy, to a ruthless, misguided man. The thing is, however, his intentions were never truly bad, and theoretically, his plan would have worked fine. In fact, in regards to the amount of crime in the world, his plan DID work fine–people weren’t committing crimes nearly as often, with Kira acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
So, what takes Light’s character above and beyond all others in my eyes, is not his engaging personality in the anime, not his mind-boggling intelligence. It’s not his unique development, not his growth from a boy to a man throughout Death Note, nor is it how he single-handedly carries the series on his back.
He is my favorite male character in anime because of how he, in trying to play God, showcases the basic sins of humanity more effectively than any story–yes, any story, in any medium–I’ve seen yet. He is a prime example, from his motivations, to his ultimate fate, of the corrupt nature of humanity, an embodiment of the discontent we have all felt at some level, with the world we live in.
At least. That’s what I think.
I ended up letting this post earlier, before I was totally done with it, so I’m sorry about that, for those who saw it! But regardless. Here it is, the final list. What do you think? Any protagonists you feel deserve a mention? Leave a comment down below!