The Most Popular & Iconic Anime Characters Of All Time (Ranked)This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Learn more).
Do you remember when anime was still a niche genre talked about behind closed walls as to not anger the “you watch cartoons” bullies?
Safe to say that era is largely gone, as anime seems to be as popular as some mainstream TV shows nowadays.
But out of the entire history of anime, which characters are the most iconic?
Well there was a poll done over at MAL on the topic of popular anime characters, and it came with some great ideas. But I don’t think that’s a fair judgement by itself. It basically cuts out all the normies!
So for this ranking I’m taking each character’s MAL score, but then adding bonus points through a much more scientific method (AKA asking my normie friends who they recognize).
Prepare for anarchy.
25. Tanjiro Kamado
Anime: Demon Slayer
Even though Tanjiro didn’t even make the top 50 on MAL’s list, I think he definitely earned a spot on this list.
Demon Slayer’s 19th episode was simply so good that it started trending worldwide, and brought a lot of new eyes to the show.
And in the center of it all is Tanjiro, with his beautiful swordplay, gorgeous animation, and blessed little sister genes.
So even though he might have not been popular for that long, I think that one viral episode alone cemented him as an iconic character in the anime world.
24. Izuku Midoriya
Anime: My Hero Academia
Izuku did make an appearance on the MAL list, at rank 49 (as of this writing).
But that’s way lower than what I would have guessed.
For a few years now, My Hero Academia has been THE show when it comes to gateway anime and widespread success.
And it’s kind of difficult not to pay attention to the central dude screaming at the top of his lungs while breaking his arms or something.
Todoroki actually placed higher than Deku on the list – but considering my friends thought he was some sort of Zuko knock-off, I decided to skip him.
23. Subaru Natsuki
Anime: Re: Zero
Subaru just feels like he could be the mascot for Tumblr, as there are GIFs of him covering every aspect of pain and suffering imaginable.
With that said, some of you might ask “why did you not put Rem on this list instead, you mongoloid?”
Because Rem is not that recognizable, in my opinion.
She’s loved in the anime community. But outside of that, she just looks like a generic maid character.
Subaru on the other hand is a dude in a jumpsuit placed in a fantasy world, and constantly crying in great detail, which tends to leave a lasting impression.
Anime: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
In the show itself, Kamina’s charisma is basically a superpower capable of buffing anyone up. And that definitely translated to the real world as well.
You can show someone a pointy pair of glasses and there’s a chance that they’ll know who you’re talking about.
I mean, even Pewdiepie mentions Kamina and incorporated a similar design for his own figurine.
And if the Swedish king of YouTube knows about Kamina, that adds at least like 100 million 19-year-old points to Kamina’s popularity cause.
21. Kazuto Kirigaya
Anime: Sword Art Online
Kazuta is a bit of a strange one, as I doubt the name Kazuto Kirigaya means absolutely anything to 99.9% of people.
But just say Kirito and there’s a big chance that they’ll know who you’re talking about.
The name basically became synonymous with the phrase “overpowered bland protagonist”. And expressions such as “it’s just another Kirito” come up more often than one might think.
Plus, Sword Art Online itself was a huge hit (at least in terms of popularity), so you know he got a big chunk of that normie pie.
20. Spike Spiegel
Anime: Cowboy Bebop
Spike’s popularity is a double aged sword, as he’s remembered as a “classic”.
On the one hand, basically anyone over the age of 20 will have at least seen this guy – as Cowboy Bebop truly pioneered anime back in the day.
On the other hand, with the constant slew of new anime (half of which is isekai for some reason) my boy is getting buried in the mentions.
He definitely deserves a placing, but can’t stand as tall as he once did.
Anime: One Punch Man
I think that Saitama’s popularity rose alongside a single word: “mood”.
Every scene he’s in, that one word just seems to dominate in my head. And if there’s one thing that I know about modern media it’s that people like to relate to others.
Have you ever had the power of a demigod, but chose to lay around instead? Mood.
Have you ever tried to kill a fly only for it to buzz around the room at one million miles per second? Mood.
Have you ever taken a test, gotten a C despite being extraordinary in certain disciplines, and just shrugged your shoulders?
You get my point, the dude covers at least two generations mentally.
18. Gintoki Sakata
Considering the number of installments Gintama has gotten over the years, I think he’s like a god to some people.
However, I think that his kingdom is largely in Eastern Asia.
A lot of the jokes, although real zingers, are very niche and hard to understand unless you’re either a true diehard anime fan, or extremely involved with Japanese culture.
Hell, my friend even started studying Japanese just so he could get some of the jokes.
And if that doesn’t scream “perfectly objective metric for list making”, I don’t know what does.
17. Dio Brando
Anime: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
I think it’s safe to say that Dio is basically the meme king.
I don’t know a lick of Japanese – but you can bet that I know how to say “I am Dio” in fluent Japanese.
Sure, there are plenty of other JoJo references and memes. But I feel like Dio has always been the most iconic in that regard.
He just has so many good one liners, one of the most known voice actors in the business, and enough cockiness to conquer the world three times.
16. Yuno Gasai
Anime: Mirai Nikki
Love her or hate her, you have to admit that this chick was pretty influential.
Although Mirai Nikki wasn’t the only show that portrayed yandere characters (insert noises of people crying), she was the one that pushed the idea into the mainstream.
And now every other yandere has pink hair.
The countless “Yuki”s, the creepy eyes that give my paralysis demon nightmares, and the overall craziness was just cemented through Yuno – and I think we have to give her a hesitant iconic status for that.
15. Ichigo Kurosaki
Of course this list was going to have characters from the “Big Three”.
Although I think Bleach was the least popular among them, it still made quite the impact.
No child during the 2000s shied away from a show that has literal death gods.
As the main character and face of the show, it’s no surprise that Ichigo became quite a memorable face as well. Plus, the dude just has the most badass forms ever.
I can’t be the only one whose phone backgrounds consisted of cool Ichigo pictures.
14. Hisoka Morow
Anime: Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Hisoka isn’t too recognizable to the general audience, as a kid-loving murder clown doesn’t really have the most positive mainstream ring to it.
But he’s so well known and beloved in the community that I still had to give him a shout-out.
As far as unpredictable antagonists go, Hisoka is one of the best examples – as he can go from kicking your butt to saving your life in a matter of an episode.
His design is also quite distinct and very recognizable, further adding to his popularity.
13. Ken Kaneki
Anime: Tokyo Ghoul
To this day I still believe that Hot Topic was conceived exclusively for this character.
The show as a whole had more teenage edginess than the whole of Reddit, but Kaneki was their crowning jewel.
The second his hair turned white, everyone suddenly knew the lyrics to unravel.
And his ghoulish face, pun intended, was plastered on any black T-shirt in a 100 mile radius.
I’ll admit, I was definitely among that first wave of extreme Kaneki fanboys – and now my knuckles are messed up.
12. Itachi Uchiha
Anime: Naruto: Shippuden
It’s fascinating to think how a character with so little screen time got as popular as Itachi did.
And yet it made sense.
His design is just impeccable and his backstory is among the best in the entire series.
Everyone thought he was cool as hell when he was the villain – and when it turned out he was a good guy, everyone cried and thought that he was beyond cool.
Sure, there’s also a bit of that teenage edginess with him. But that pales in comparison to his brilliant and yet tragic story, which I think a lot of people loved.
11. Killua Zoldyck
Anime: Hunter x Hunter (2011)
Killua just has that all in one package.
He’s extremely cool, as he literally rips people’s hearts out of their chest and then leaves them in a doggy bag by their side. But he’s also extremely sweet.
His relationship with Gon was one of my favorite parts in the show – and every fight that had him zapping around was instantly far more entertaining.
And I truly do think that he’s more popular and recognizable than Gon, because being a badass all the time just makes you shoot up on those charts.
10. Edward Elric
Anime: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Being that Fullmetal Alchemist has been the most critically acclaimed show on MAL for a while now, it’s understandable that Ed was bound to shop up.
I think FMA also suffers when it comes to the general public, as it does deal with heavier topics and might not be for everyone. But I don’t think the situation is all that dire.
In the community, however, it’s like the holy bible. And anyone unaware of the Elric brothers or the show will be publicly executed within a fortnight (or told to watch it until they finally cave).
9. Light Yagami
Anime: Death Note
When asked about their first exposure to anime, a lot of people just default to “Death Note”.
Even though it’s pretty weird that a show with such a premise would be as universally known and beloved as it is today, I am glad it is.
Light was among the very first well-written protagonists, giving us a perspective outside of just “good guy does good things because he is good”.
His maniacal laugh is downright legendary. And his potato chip eating scene will probably be studied by aliens to understand what the hell humans did for fun.
8. Zoro Roronoa
Anime: One Piece
One Piece is just kind of the big daddy of anime, and the absolute king of manga sales.
Being that the show is old enough to vote and has enough episodes to lull you into a coma, it’s to be expected that people tend to know about it.
Zoro is just cool as hell.
Even people who are afraid to get into One Piece have looked at some Zoro’s amazing fight scenes or moments and thought “maybe I can binge it for a year”.
He has all those attributes that we love to see: a scar, a sword, a stoic impression, and a badass full-power mode.
7. Rintarou Okabe
Steins;Gate is just a masterclass show when it comes to writing. And Okabe is at the very tip of the spear yelling how he’s a madu scientistu.
It’s just brilliant.
He also has that Subaru quality where you can express every painful emotion with a GIF, but he also has some downright adorable and wholesome moments as well.
His relationship with Kurisu is among the most beloved in the community.
And he is THE anime mad scientist when it comes to the general public.
He’s just too iconic to ignore.
6. Lamperouge Lelouch
Anime: Code Geass
I’m really glad this came out while mechs were still beloved, as the show definitely deserved all the widespread popularity it got.
Ever since I’ve started watching anime, this has been my prime example when it came to perfect endings.
Lelouch had all those positive (or should I say negative) qualities that made us all love Light – but he also had a kinder side to him.
Plus, the design choice to make everyone in the show long and thin as hell just kind of makes the characters instantly recognizable.
5. Monkey D. Luffy
Anime: One Piece
Like I said, One Piece is the big daddy.
So just one character would not suffice here.
Even though Zoro is cool, Luffy is the literal face of the show, and as such, is vastly more popular.
He even wears the literal straw hat. Ironically I also think that a bit of his popularity is due to the fact that he doesn’t look “too anime”.
He just looks like your average adventure dude that happened to be in 2D.
I say that because while some might be slightly put off when seeing, Code Geass for example, even non anime fans can and do watch One Piece.
Hell, the biggest One Piece fan I know has never even seen another anime besides One Piece.
Anime: Death Note
Let’s be honest here: we all wanted to be like L.
We all wanted to be that person that can just act however we wanted, even when it includes squatting on chairs, and still be widely respected for our intellect.
The massive sugar tooth also added to his relatability.
And I do think that’s the reason why most people associate Death Note with just the first half, as it was L that really made things interesting.
Plus, look at that design. It’s just brilliant.
Anime: Attack on Titan
Attack on Titan is arguably the biggest success when it comes to newer anime spreading into the mainstream.
It had that Game of Thrones appeal, while also having jaw-dropping action and absolute bangers at the start of every episode.
And within the show, Levi was objectively the fan favorite.
Whether it be pictures of him cleaning, or kicking the teeth out of Eren, everything Levi does is somehow an epic moment.
Plus he’s just extremely hot – and don’t you dare act like that isn’t the case.
Anime: Dragon Ball Z
Goku was the sole reason that I decided not to follow the MAL list for this ranking, as he did not even make it to the top 50.
I just think that’s ridiculous, as I have never met a person that has not seen Goku’s face.
I was certain that attempting the Kamehameha was an essential part of all of our childhoods. And yet you mean to tell me that he’s not one of the most iconic characters out there?
Whenever you see someone screaming, it reminds you of Goku.
Whenever you see a character with blue hair, it reminds you of Goku.
Whenever your dad gives the bullies some Red Bull so that they don’t tire out while beating you up, you think of Goku.
1. Naruto Uzumaki
Although he was also number 10 on the MAL poll, there’s no doubt in my mind that Naruto is the most iconic character that anime has produced so far.
Do you know how popular you have to be for an entire way of running to be named after you?
I have never heard of someone Bolt running – but I’ve heard plenty of talk of Naruto runners when the Area 51 raid was set into motion.
Besides just running, I also feel like the entire trope of talking an enemy down has been dubbed “talk no jutsu” in Naruto’s honor.
I find it difficult to believe that someone could know any one of the characters on this list, but somehow wouldn’t know about Naruto.