My Top 10 Anime/Manga/LN Protagonists (For Now At Least)
Whelp, a discussion on Twitter got me wondering who I’d pick for my top ten favorite anime protagonists. So here’s a list I put together! Note that when I say protagonist, in this case I am referring only to the lead character of a series. I suppose it’s up to debate at times who the main character of some stories can be (e.g. at times you have a “title character” as well as your viewpoint character–it’s my opinion the viewpoint character is generally still the protagonist, unless said character doesn’t actually play a role in the story [i.e. just there to narrate, perhaps?]). I decided to include manga and light novels into this list, though I believe everyone here has actually been adapted into some kind of anime.
One thing to keep in mind for these sorts of lists is the fact that there are still many, many anime, manga, and light novels I have yet to enjoy. Also, there’s always some degree of “recency bias,” though I do try my best to not let that sway my placements on the list too much. But regardless, at the end of the day this is just a blog post–no serious business here. =P
10) Sakura Kinomoto (Cardcaptor Sakura)
When you think “likeable character,” who comes to mind? I had some difficulty deciding on my #10 spot for this list, but in the end I had to go with the loveable cardcaptor Sakura-chan. Isn’t she just wonderful? She’s certainly not perfect, but she’s always giving her all and helping everyone out as best she can. Perhaps what I like best about Sakura is how good of a role model she is for children–and how she simultaneously manages to be a character engaging enough for audiences of all ages to root for her in all her enchanting escapades. Cardcaptor Sakura is a series that I feel has nailed the concept of an everyday student having a secret magical life. And it is not only easy to relate to Sakura in her day-to-day life and her interactions with the rest of the (rather whimsical) cast of characters, but it’s also a lot of fun to just be swept away in the adventure and fantasy so integral to the subgenre the series has so significantly influenced.
9) Keiichi Maebara (Higurashi: When They Cry)
Higurashi is turning out to be the series I just may never finish! I’ve read most of the manga that is available in English, but now I’m gradually working my way through the visual novels… (Perhaps I really should have just watched the anime??) It’s taking a while, but I’m loving the series to death (no pun intended). And one of the best elements of Higurashi is its first viewpoint character: Keiichi. As the mysteries of Hinamizawa first unfold, everything we see is through the eyes of a newcomer to the ominous village. Luckily, Keiichi himself is just as multifaceted as the sometimes-peaceful, sometimes-violent setting. He’s sympathetic, easy to like, funny, good-natured in general, and is in short the type of person who’s lots of fun to hang out with. But on the flip side, there is a darkness in Keiichi that is explored in some story arcs, and the terrors of Higurashi only become more unsettling when you see the protagonist making fatal mistakes, treading too far into dangerous territory, or performing unthinkable acts himself.
8) Rahzel Anadis (Dazzle)
One complaint you sometimes see thrown around regarding shoujo manga is that the protagonists are often bland and uninteresting. But in the case of the fantasy story of Dazzle (AKA Hatenkou Yuugi), I feel we have a heroine who bears little resemblance to the meek, innocent, and eternally optimistic teen girl leads of many manga and anime. What is it that makes Rahzel so unique? She is a strong-willed, opinionated, and independent individual, but not in the way you often see in movies. While she may be the very straightforward and outgoing type, she is still quite caring and always looking out for others. She’s also very funny(!), with a lot of little quirks to keep things from getting too dreary when the adventures turn dark. There’s a lot to like about Rahzel and all the other characters in this series, so I hope more people will check it out!
7) Konoha Inoue (Book Girl)
I’ve read four books in this series of light novels so far, and I’ve been blown away by each one of them. It would not surprise me if the protagonist and viewpoint character, the heartbroken and anguishing Konoha Inoue, will rise higher in the ranks of this list as I progress through the series. Though the stories of each book stand on their own, the characters most certainly grow and develop from one literature-themed mystery to the next, and Konoha himself is the best example of how well the author can handle powerful and emotionally-charged character development. To put it simply, it’s beautiful to see Konoha change little by little. It’s a painful process, and the raw feelings in his troubled heart are expressed so perfectly it directly and immediately affects me, the reader. If you are curious about getting into light novels translated into English, I strongly recommend the Book Girl series. Konoha’s experiences are anything but ordinary, yet I believe that his hopes, his sorrows, his regrets, and his most desperate yearnings can be readily understood by anybody.
6) Rintarou Okabe (Steins;Gate)
What a pleasant surprise Steins;Gate was! I was originally rather iffy about getting into a time travel-themed anime, but it only took one episode for me to get hooked. And as you may guess, it was all thanks to our protagonist, “Hououin Kyouma.” He is mad scientist! Chaos! And invade! In short, he is a likeable goofball, and thanks to some excellent voice acting (and particularly that infectious laughter!) it’s not hard at all to get behind his ridiculous-sounding experiments. As I was pleased to discover though as the series went on, there is actually quite a bit more to Okabe’s character–and impressively, the transition between his joking nature and his more serious demeanor always felt natural. There were a nice variety of heartwarming moments throughout this series, and I grew to really appreciate how well the story handled Okabe’s relationship with the various characters of Steins;Gate’s impressive cast.
5) Ginko (Mushishi)
Mushishi was a truly unique and fascinating series, and the wandering protagonist Ginko somehow felt just as unique and fascinating to me. I say somehow because at first glance he seems to not have a particularly deep or multifaceted personality. In fact, the series doesn’t really get into his head much at all–each episode more or less just has Ginko deal with the mushi spirits and then he’s on his way again. The viewers (or readers of the manga) are left to reflect on the events that transpire by themselves for the most part. There’s a sort of “everyday person” feel to Ginko’s character, regardless of his exceptionally unique circumstances. Perhaps it is how much I felt myself relating to him that helped make Ginko feel that much more “real” of a character to me. He is just trying to make the best of the unusual life he has to live. He doesn’t complain or bemoan his lot in life. Instead he focuses on helping people out and working to understand the mushi he constantly has to deal with. It’s a bit hard to pin down or describe why Ginko has left an impact on me, but perhaps that’s only fitting for a series of stories as pensive and elusive as those of Mushishi.
4) Takashi Natsume (Natsume’s Book of Friends)
I love this anime and manga–it is such a sweet and pure-hearted series, and the protagonist (Takashi) Natsume is as adorable as can be. From the very start Natsume is established as both a sympathetic and a kind character. And in every story that has transpired in this series, I am always hoping that Natsume will be able to make good friends–both amongst his classmates and within the world of yokai spirit creatures. Natsume’s character develops little by little over the course of the series, and it’s just heartwarming to watch his progress in forming bonds with humans and yokai who truly care about him. This is definitely a series where the protagonist and his relationships with the rest of the cast as a whole are much more significant than the sum of their parts.
3) Sensei (Humanity Has Declined)
I became quite excited about this anime as soon as I read its wonderfully zany premise, several months before the first episode aired. The series indeed was as unorthodox and imaginative as I hoped (if not more so!), but the biggest and most pleasant surprise was just how wonderful our nameless protagonist was. I always referred to her as Sensei (as other characters called her in the first episode), but ultimately the name is not what’s important. Sensei may be intended as a “blank slate” representative of humanity in a thematic sense, but her personality is far from plain or hollow! Here we had a protagonist who truly had her wits about her–at first she is shown as not only a caring and dutiful individual, but also an exceptionally down-to-earth and crafty protagonist. Her multifaceted nature is fleshed out well over the course of the series. Though her observations may often be cutting, she’s not a truly pessimistic person. Her actions may often be self-serving, but she’s neither cruel nor spiteful. And while she’s clearly a cunning and intelligent character, things rarely go as planned from one story to the next. Sensei’s misadventures with whimsical fairies, anthropomorphic space probes, and headless chickens somehow ended up feeling pretty easy to relate to!
2) Kino (Kino’s Journey)
The more times I watch the anime of Kino’s Journey, the more I find myself fascinated with the series’ eponymous and androgynous protagonist. Kino is perhaps the most mysterious character on this list–the sort of character who you just have to wonder about. What is the meaning behind all of Kino’s actions? Where will all these travels ultimately lead this character? What is the nature of Kino’s identity to begin with? (Even after Kino’s backstory is revealed, what conclusions can we really make?) How are we to interpret the fact Kino speaks with a motorcycle–which speaks back? (Does it actually talk?) Is out protagonist truly just an observer in all these fable-like episodes? What others roles is Kino playing in each of these stories? What feelings does Kino hide beneath the mask of a blank, placid expression? To what extent are Kino’s journeys just a metaphor of daily living, and how much is there to glean from each of the peculiar places Kino visits? With all this in mind, it’s easy to see just how unique of a character Kino is, and depending on how you interpret the character, can become someone you truly find yourself relating to.
1) Oz Vessalius (Pandora Hearts)
If you visit my blog at all, this should really come to no surprise. I absolutely love Pandora Hearts. It’s the best, that’s all there is to it. There are many reasons why I love the anime and manga for this series, but one of the central reasons is definitely how well the main character is handled all throughout the (extraordinarily elaborate) story. Amongst a cast of exceptionally multifaceted, unique, and conflicted characters, Oz manages to stand out as the most engaging, sympathetic, and surprising one of them all. The entire series is devoted to mysteries within mysteries within mysteries, and Oz is somehow in the very center of all of them. Who is Oz? This is practically the underlying question of the entire story, and in turn the central theme of “Who is (an individual)?” is consequently presented to the reader to analyze and ponder over. All throughout our lives we struggle to understand who we really are, even if we never actually give the subject any thought. The events of Pandora Hearts play out in truly fantastic ways, and the interactions between Oz and the rest of the fascinating cast have left me more to consider than any other story ever has. What do we actually know about ourselves? What do we truly need to understand about ourselves? How can we ever manage to better ourselves? What is it that ultimately determines who we really are? Perhaps it all sounds esoteric here, but I will recommend taking a good look at the manga if you get the chance. The story won’t click with everyone of course, but if it does for you, I hope you will be able to see what it is that makes Oz such a special character. For me at least, he’s something more than just a sympathetic, likeable, and relateable protagonist.
There is my list, which took a lot more effort to put together than I planned! I hope it was not too predictable though.
Looking back at the list, I notice several recurring themes and similarities amongst many of these protagonists. For example, they are all from stories that are fantastic in nature (to varying degrees). Many of them deal with loneliness as a major personal struggle. Several of them play the role of an “observer” (though they ultimately do more than just observe, of course). You may notice a few protagonists who are traveling around, or trying to figure out their place in the world (which traveling is often a metaphor for in the first place). And a number of these characters are struggling to connect with others and form meaningful friendships. The events of my own life undoubtedly affect which characters I connect with most and the stories I find most engaging.
Feel free to share some of your favorite protagonists here in the comments. (Or if you so desire, create your own blog post and I can link it here!) What is it that makes a protagonist interesting to you? How similar do you find yourself to the protagonists you like? Are there any significant commonalities amongst the main characters you like most? And are there any characters in my list who you also are a fan of?