Gintama is perhaps one of the most unique anime of the entire shounen genre both in its approach to developing a narrative to the cast of characters that manage to be hilarious and meaningful all at the same time. Gintama exists in the gray area between your usual anime series and a more episodic creation that is self-contained in each individual episode. If you are looking for an anime with a consistent plot that has a very specific narrative throughout the entire series, Gintama isn’t for you. You shouldn’t, however, assume that Gintama’s silly nature and somewhat episodic feel means this anime has been haphazardly tossed together or that it won’t be engaging enough to pull you deep into its grasps.
In less than 30 minutes, Gintama proves that with the right writing style, a heavy dose of comedy, an outstandingly diverse cast of characters, and a fight over a sukiyaki pot can actually be more entertaining than an ominous plot about how evil doers hope to destroy the world. If you’re looking for an anime that simply has comedy as its main focus but somehow still manages to capture some of the best elements of traditional action anime (while also constantly weaving in great satirical content about samurai-focused series), this is the unique creation you’ve been looking for.
Hunter X Hunter
Hunter X Hunter is not only one of the best shounen anime of all time, but it’s also been deemed a contender for one of the best overall anime of all time. Many shounen anime have to rely on some obvious tropes or entirely too much meaningless filler to properly develop their characters. Hunter X Hunter, on the other hand, has a dynamic cast of both heroes and villains that serve as exemplary ushers for a narrative that is just as layered as the characters carrying it along. Gon, the main protagonist of the series, emerges as the true star of the anime. So many times we see a lackluster protagonist get saved by a fantastic supporting cast that their own frustratingly flat personality is overlooked by hardcore fans of the series. That’s not the case with Hunter X Hunter. The origins of Gon’s story sounds pretty common for the shounen genre — a young boy embarks on an adventure to find his father and learn more about the way of life that essentially stole his father from him. Without spoiling anything, you soon find out that Gon’s complexities go well beyond his desire to learn more about his father and the narrative eventually starts to curve in a way that is refreshing and unexpected.
Hunter X Hunter hits such a wide variety of notes in a successful manner that it’s hard not to fall in love with at least one of its arcs or one of its characters or one of its various genre appeals. This series has something in store for fans of survival, tournaments, and even war and politics. The variety of content in that sense also helps Hunter X Hunter achieve drastic shifts in tone rather frequently. One moment Gon and his quirky crew can have you in a lighthearted, feel good mood and before the episode’s 23 minutes are up you’ll be fully grasped by a more intense encounter that reminds you just how attached you are to these characters.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has two incredible protagonists at the helm of this anime. Edward Elric is the main protagonist and he is the focus of one of the most dynamic character developments the anime world has ever seen. We see the anime explore various levels of Edward’s personality from deep feelings of hopelessness that go beyond your usual pouting of a hero who can’t seem to accomplish what he set out to do to his more surprisingly light hearted moments that lead to uplighting and inspiring scenes that can make even the most gloomy audience members feel reinvigorated with hopefulness. Edward often finds himself questioning the ability of humanity rather than just his own abilities. He struggles with the concept of what humans can and cannot do and doesn’t always believe in his own ability to accomplish the unexpected simply because he is, first and foremost, a human. This ideology is complicated by the presence of his brother, Al, whose soul is now attached to a suit of armor. This anime does a wonderful job of challenging the very definition of what it means to be human and what limitations, if any, actually come with such a title. Another key character that makes the series so special is Winry. Winry is a rather underrated protagonist and she breaks the mold by having an existence in the anime that is not entirely dependent on Edward. She is not the damsel in distress and she is not empowered only by Edward’s presence. In fact, she often appears in this anime to come to Edward’s aid rather than the other way around.
In addition to boasting a dynamic cast of characters, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has exceptional pacing that fills 64 episodes wonderfully, a narrative that challenges your moral compass, and just enough surprising plot points that don’t feel overly complicated and convoluted. There is even more good news for anime fans that hate filler content: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood gets straight to the point and keeps things simple in terms of how it chooses to move the plot forward or introduce the new arc. With so much to praise about this anime, it’s no wonder why it still reigns supreme as the #1 ranked anime on My Anime List despite the fact that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood concluded back in 2010.
My Hero Academia
There is nothing more “been there, done that” than the plot of a school filled with super-powered students, but if there is one anime that takes this concept and does it right, it’s My Hero Academia. On the surface, it’s your usual zero to hero story. Izuku is one of the few people in this universe that doesn’t have a special ability referred to as a “quirk,” but as fate would have it, his selfless ways eventually grant him what he always wanted. He is a new hero with a heart of gold and the determination of your typical shounen protagonist. As simple as it may seem, it’s an entire anime formed around a superhero fanboy who is finally getting the opportunity to fill the kind of shoes he always admired. In the midst of all the silliness that fills this anime, there are epic battles, heartwarming moments, and still room for some tear-jerking. My Hero Academia actually uses humor to build up each character’s personality and force viewers to create a stronger connection with each of these colorful personalities. Overall, My Hero Academia wraps up plenty of action, comedy, suspense, and drama into one anime series without ever feeling like it’s doing entirely too much and without ever falling into the “master of none” scenario.
One Piece is a particularly endearing shounen anime and that’s largely due to the main cast of characters. Many shounen anime feature protagonists that tend to have moments where their arrogance is so frustrating that it distracts viewers from the overall narrative development that’s happening at the same time. One Piece, on the other hand, has an endearing protagonist that is easy to relate to. Luffy is incredibly naive and dim but he is still a lovable idiot at the center of an entire anime that refuses to take itself too seriously. Even in some of One Piece’s most serious moments, you’ll find yourself snickering at a joke or just being tickled overall by the anime’s comedic nature. But the balance between comedy and conflict is spot on with One Piece. While there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the series, One Piece never fails to pull at your heart strings. The supporting cast around Luffy is just as endearing as he is, which causes you to become quite emotionally invested in the anime as whole. With the world of anime offering plenty of copy cats and overused tropes and narratives, One Piece is an impressive series that truly manages to have a tone and feel of its very own.
Fairy Tail isn’t a very innovative anime, but it finds many ways to execute the shounen formula better than many of its counterparts. Fairy Tail does a wonderful job of lacing the entire series with both slapstick comedy and more witty humor while never becoming so silly that it pulls you away from the seriousness of the overall narrative. It’s not meant to be an overly ridiculous anime, and Fairy Tail finds a way to walk a fine line that keeps the laughs rolling in without losing its ability to toy with your emotions in a more solemn fashion as well. One of Fairy Tail’s greatest successes, however, comes in its pacing. To be fair, this is a rather polarizing aspect of the anime, as there are plenty of viewers who hate the quick pacing here. Even if you don’t personally prefer a faster pace, the way Fairy Tail delivers its short arcs, fast fight scenes, and rapidly paced new character introductions, is something worth applauding. There is a surprising amount of in depth content in each arc and characters are actually developed nicely throughout the entire anime despite how many personalities there are to deal with.
One Punch Man
Believe it or not, one of the best shounen anime of all time is literally one long parody about shounen anime. The shounen anime genre usually involves an overpowered hero who, even against all odds, is always able to emerge victorious against the strongest of foes. Even when all logic says our hero should be defeated, they never are. Why? Simply because they are our hero and our hero can’t lose the war. They can lose the battle, but never the war. Well One Punch Man decided to strip away all the smoke and mirrors and create a hilariously powerful protagonist who cannot be defeated. Not only can he not be defeated, but he also has a pretty solid track record for defeating enemies with literally one punch. One Punch Man is easily one of the best satirical anime ever created.
The oversaturated world of anime makes room for many “great power, great responsibility” mantras, but One Punch Man tosses these ideas in a ditch as Saitama steps in to be the hero with all the power, half of the responsibility, and none of the general concern for the safety of others. This is all just something Saitama does for fun. There is no complicated character development or even some thought provoking plot. It’s just a hilarious anime that pokes fun at shounen anime in a light-hearted fashion while also introducing viewers to a protagonist so funny and likable that he has become one of the most popular members on the Internet today.
Yu Yu Hakusho
It’s only fair that this addition to the list begins with a caveat — after the Dark Tournament arc, Yu Yu Hakusho does start to dial back on many of the elements that made this anime such an iconic series in the first place. Even with that being said, however, Yu Yu Hakusho still manages to be one of the greatest anime of all time and easily one of the most impressive shounen anime of its era. Yuske follows the template of our usual shounen protagonist. He is a young boy who will unexpectedly embark on a major coming of age story where he will unlock his true power and engage in countless epic battles as a result. But in a supernatural world filled with demons and magic, Yu Yu Hakusho has a surprisingly humane appeal. Of course many of these emotional appeals are made through Yuske and Kuwabara, the two main humans in the cast, but these elements are also present in demons like Hiei and Kurama. Even when dealing with two beings from another world, Yu Yu Hakusho underscores their humanity and allows them to be easy characters to relate to. From complicated relationships with family to an undying desire to feel loved, these two demons are easy for viewers to relate to.
In addition to having a strong emotional appeal, Yu Yu Hakusho also delivers quality content in terms of action. This anime has some of the most creative battles and finds a way to actually balance out the power of its protagonist. Even if viewers understand that Yuske ultimately has to emerge successful in the end, Yu Yu Hakusho makes it clear that this main hero is not an all power being incapable of seeing defeat. This allows every new encounter to feel intense and also gives many of the show’s support characters an opportunity to become more involved during pivotal plot points.
Sword Art Online
While there is typically some sort of female interest in shounen anime, it’s not often that romance is actually a key driving point for the narrative as a whole. It’s even more unusual that the main female is just as much of a force to reckon with as the male protagonist. Kazuto relies on Asuna in multiple key moments just as Asuna is forced to rely on him. In fact, Asuna often surprises Kazuto with her sheer level of skill in the game. This is one element of Sword Art Online that you can’t help but appreciate, but it also stands as a mere cherry on top compared to the many other ways Sword Art Online manages to deliver quality content.
Kazuto is a protagonist whose development is reversed in a sense from what we usually see of a shounen protagonist. Rather than being a young hero with a lot of potential but an arrogance that steps in the way of his power, Kazuto is a young hero who is in control of his power but needs to find a better motivation for it all. He goes from being a devoted solo player inside a MMO game to being a young man who eventually has an entire family to protect. This complicates Kazuto’s personality by forcing him to think twice about putting himself in danger and actually adding new restraints to his own powers by unlocking new potential for his abilities as a whole once paired with the people he loves. Plenty of plot twists help keep the narrative fresh and a constant cycle of new players coming in and out of Kazuto’s life serves as a reminder of the severity of the situation all these players are actually in.
Naruto is an anime that is pretty polarizing. The vast majority of anime fans love it or hate it, with every few falling somewhere in the middle, but it’s the very same things that make this anime so polarizing that also make it such a tried and true shounen series. Naruto is a young hero in the making who believes his skills are far greater than they actually are, and for many viewers his arrogance can be a major detractor for the series as a whole. But it’s when you start to understand Naruto more and develop a sense of empathy for this troubled soon-to-be hero that the magic of the series starts to really shine through the cracks of his often obnoxious personality. Naruto simply dares to take character development to new heights. Characters in this anime often take a journey from the depths of depression and trauma and emerge through their personal turmoil as a new person — for better or for worse.
Naruto’s journey is a particularly exaggerated one that extends all the way through Naruto Shippuden. We see him grow from an arrogant young child wanting to be far more powerful than he actually is and eventually become a rough-around-the-edges type of leader who wants the best for those he truly cares about. While he often makes sudden, brash decisions, these types of mistakes are more believable considering the fact that Naruto is a character who has had an unquenchable thirst for love and companionship and how he is fighting to protect the people he now identifies as family. Sure there are plenty of overused tropes, but the character development on display throughout the anime, beautifully crafted fight scenes, narrative plot twists, and fillers that are actually still entertaining all come together to compensate for that. All in all, Naruto is a complex, layered series that delivers on multiple fronts.