10 shonen anime characters who didn't become a villain despite going through hell
One of the most consistently engaging characterization tropes in shonen anime and manga is the hero who has every right to become a villain, but chooses not to. It instantly sets these characters apart from their castmates, naturally elevating them as some of the most altruistic and thoughtful characters in all of shonen anime and manga.
While some argue that it also pigeonholes these characters as never being able to take out their frustrations, this is far from the truth. Characters such as Vinland Saga’s Thorfinn and Hunter x Hunter’s Gon Freecs prove that shonen anime characters can vent this anger and frustration while still being far from villainous.
Here, we take a look at 10 shonen anime characters who didn't turn into a villain despite going through hell.
Disclaimer: This list is subjective and the characters mentioned are ranked in no particular order.
Ken Kaneki, 9 other shonen anime characters who never turned villainous despite having every reason to do so
1) Thorfinn (Vinland Saga)
While Vinland Saga is currently serialized in a seinen magazine, the series was originally published in a magazine aimed at the shonen demographic. Thus, Thorfinn’s tragic journey will be counted as a shonen one here, considering his origins were unfolding as the series was still in a shonen-aimed magazine.
At a young age, Thorfinn essentially became the reason for his own father's death, being forced to sacrifice himself to ensure his son’s safety. This then led to him being forced to live and fight alongside his father’s murderers, being driven only by his hatred. However, his chance for revenge was ripped from him.
Despite all of this, he still chooses to live a life of peace, as seen in the shonen anime series currently.
2) Yuji Itadori (Jujutsu Kaisen)
While Yuji Itadori’s life isn’t as awful as most others on this list, he still has a hellish upbringing and origin as seen in shonen anime series, Jujutsu Kaisen. The series literally opens with his grandfather dying, resulting in him losing the only family he ever knew. The scene then quickly parlays into his actions, which puts the life of his two closest high school friends at harm.
Although this leads to him joining the jujutsu world, things don’t get better from there. He learns that his execution as a vessel of a Cursed Spirit known as Sukuna is a matter of when, not if. Despite this alone being reason enough to become a villain, Yuji still maintains an altruistic outlook and heroic attitude throughout the series.
3) Gon Freecs (Hunter x Hunter)
Likewise, Hunter x Hunter’s Gon Freecs certainly isn’t in contention for most hellish origins on this shonen anime character list. It’s his experiences later on in the series that justify him becoming a villain, something which he chooses not to do. The Chimera Ant arc is especially emblematic of this, as it sees him reunite with childhood savior Kite in an effort to find his father, Ging.
However, his reunion with Kite is cut short by the arrival of the Chimera Ant known as Neferpitou, forcing Gon and Killua to abandon Kite. What’s worse is that Neferpitou strings Gon along under the impression that she can revive Kite, which is eventually revealed to be a lie. Despite this being more than enough reason to become a villain, Gon instead expresses sadness at the finality of his friend’s passing.
4) Ken Kaneki (Tokyo Ghoul)
Tokyo Ghoul’s Ken Kaneki certainly had as awful an upbringing as anyone on this list. After losing his father at just four years old, his mother struggled to provide for them, with most of the money she made going to her sister. Kaneki’s mother took out her resulting frustrations on him, beating and abusing the young boy.
Just when things were finally starting to look up, however, Kaneki made the fateful decision of asking Rize Kamishiro on a date. She then attempted to eat him due to her true identity as a ghoul, but was killed by happenstance in the process. This resulted in Rize’s organs being used to save Kaneki’s life, starting him down the hellish path fans see in the series. Nevertheless, Kaneki never becomes a true villain.
5) Naruto Uzumaki (Naruto)
Likewise, shonen anime series Naruto’s eponymous protagonist also finds himself going through a hellish upbringing. Having lost both parents as a baby and being ostracized by his village as the host of the Nine Tailed Fox, Naruto’s childhood was incredibly lonely. When things started looking up for him, it was quickly negated by his best friend Sasuke leaving the village, even fighting Naruto tooth and nail to escape.
While there were some general bright spots along the way, Naruto’s losses continued in the form of the death of his mentor and one of his closest friends, Jiraiya. Despite these tragedies and more, Naruto never becomes villainous, instead maintaining the joyful optimism that fans know him for so well.
6) Hyakkimaru (Dororo)
Dororo’s Hyakkimaru lived a truly hellish life from the very moment of his birth. His father, Lord Kagemitsu Daigo, made a deal with twelve demons to offer up his newborn son’s body parts and skin in order to ensure prosperity for his land. While Hyakkimaru gained certain demonic powers and essentially superhuman senses as a result, his existence was still hell, with not even skin to speak of at birth.
After being adopted by a man named Jukai who trained him in sword fighting, Hyakkimaru set off to find and kill the 12 demons and regain his body parts. Along the way, he develops ponds with several people, including the titular character Dororo.
However, these too are ripped away from him before he has a chance to fight for his loved ones. It’s a hellish life which forced Hyakkimaru to be a warrior from the start, but he never falters from his heroic, shonen anime protagonist ways.
7) Nico Robin (One Piece)
As the sole survivor of an entire race of people in the world of shonen anime series One Piece, Nico Robin’s whole life has been one of isolation and loneliness, always hiding her true self. Called the Devil Child because she carries the weight of the sins of her people, anyone who offered her friendship was revealed to have just been using her in an effort to get the reward money. That is, until she met the Straw Hat Pirates.
Following her meeting with the Straw Hats, she begins to find true happiness and friendship, wanting to truly begin living. However, this is quickly ripped away from her by the World Government, forcing her to sacrifice herself in order to ensure the safety of her friends.
Thankfully, she’s rescued, and despite having every right to become a villain hellbent on world destruction, she instead chooses to be content with having found true friends.
8) Eri (My Hero Academia)
My Hero Academia’s Eri likely has one of the most saddening and tragic origins in all of new-gen shonen anime and manga. At a young age, she accidentally used her Quirk, Rewind, on her father and unintentionally caused him to vanish. This led to her mother believing her existence to be cursed, making her abandon Eri and giving her up to her grandfather.
Eri’s grandfather then left her in the care of his protege, Kai Chisaki, in order to test and identify her Quirk. However, Chisaki ended up abusing her after eliminating her grandfather, putting her through hundreds of thousands of torturous experiments and blood sample collections. Despite the rampant abuse and abandonment which characterized her childhood, Eri remains a smiling, happy girl, thanks to the rehabilitation efforts of Mirio Togata and others.
9) Trafalgar D. Water Law (One Piece)
More commonly known as Trafalgar Law to fans of the smash-hit shonen anime series, his upbringing as seen in One Piece is nearly unmatched in the series. Similar to Nico Robin, Law is the only survivor of Flevance, which was eventually wiped out due to Amber Lead poisoning, which infected all citizens. Mistaking it for a disease, neighboring countries waged war on Flevance, killing all its citizens and wiping it off the face of the map.
Law was forced to watch his parents, sister, and friends all die, with the World Government knowing that Amber Lead poisoning was not a disease. While the now nihilistic and omnicidal Law wished to kill everything, his meeting with a man named Corazon gave him a new positive outlook on life. However, Corazon was also taken from Law too soon. Despite all of these events, Law never plays the part of the villain, albeit masquerading as one circumstantially.
10) Kakashi Hatake (Naruto)
Finally, Kakashi Hatake is yet another shonen anime character in the smash-hit Naruto series with tragic origins. After his father being vilified and his subsequent suicide due to prioritizing the lives of others over a mission’s objectives, Kakashi swore to become a great ninja who abides by the Shinobi Rules. Eventually, he got his chance to prove this in the Third Shinobi World War.
Teaming with Rin Nohara and Obito Uchiha under Minato Namikaze’s guidance, the three entered the battlefield as fully fledged soldiers. However, Kakashi’s leadership resulted in the death of Obito, something which heavily weighs on Kakashi even in the series’ present.
This was only exacerbated by Rin sacrificing herself by stepping between an attacking Kakashi and an enemy. Despite having every reason to become a villain in the shonen anime, Kakashi remains on the side of good for the entire series.