10 most essential shonen anime series of all time

Shonen jump 40th anniversary art (Image via Yusuke Murata)
Shonen jump 40th anniversary art (Image via Yusuke Murata)

There are plenty of shonen anime out there, some might say too many! Shonen anime has become quite popular in the past few decades, to the point where a few are used on lists for beginners despite being hundreds of episodes/chapters long.

Shonen anime is focused on and targeted towards a young male demographic, typically featuring bombastic action sequences. Fans of this genre tend to cite the fight scenes, the determination of the protagonists, and the stories they tell as reasons why they love this type of anime.

This means that everyone has their favorites or most essentials that need to be watched. These essential shonen usually give a good idea of what anime targeting that demographic entails. This article will attempt to give 10 examples of such anime.

Note: This article represents the author's opinion alone. It may contain some spoilers for all the anime listed.

10 iconic shonen anime series of all time

1) Dragon Ball Z

Dragon Ball Z's main cast (Image by Toei Animation)
Dragon Ball Z's main cast (Image by Toei Animation)

The iconic action series that started in the 90s and practically defined the shonen battle genre for years to come, Dragon Ball Z catapulted anime into the mainstream across the world.

While Dragon Ball may have been a good start, many a shonen fan cannot go anywhere or discuss shonen anime at all without Dragon Ball Z coming up and being an inspiration for many series.

Dragon Ball Z has been parodied, referenced, and has a ton of merchandise, including several amazing video games and movies. The story shows no signs of ending soon, with Dragon Ball Super being the continuing story of Goku fighting evil alongside his comrades.

Many shonen hero and rival tropes originated or at least were popularized with this anime, such as the villainous rival becoming an anti-hero.

2) Fullmetal Alchemist (2003 and Brotherhood)

For a more mature-minded and character-focused shonen anime, there's Fullmetal Alchemist. It not only focuses on the adventures of the Elric brothers and their quest to regain their bodies, but it also depicts many other themes like anti-imperialism, genocide, human experimentation, and other huge heavy subjects.

Both the 2003 and Brotherhood versions may go in very different directions, with former having a rather bizarre ending and Brotherhood being more faithful to the manga's more upbeat conclusion, but fans of fantasy and darker anime should watch both.

Interestingly, Brotherhood still holds the number one ranking on My Anime List despite being well over a decade old.

3) Naruto


The ninja-focused fantasy anime Naruto focuses primarily on the young ninja Naruto, but gradually branches out to focus on everyone else. Why on this list? Well, aside from ninjas and scintillating action, it plays up the fantasy element moreso than Dragon Ball Z, and deals with themes of generational trauma, war, interpersonal relationships and PTSD.

Like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto has a worldwide reach, plenty of video games, and a large fanbase consisting of millions. It has kaiju fights for giant monster fans, plenty of intrigue, and multiple characters to root for besides Team 7.

This shonen anime is essential if one is a ninja fan or just curious as to what all the hype is about. It has popularized a few tropes of its own like the inner demon.

4) One Piece

The iconic shonen pirate adventure anime, One Piece, has the obvious allure of rebellion and high seas adventure. This should be enough to entice people to watch, but what really gets the ball rolling in One Piece is its humor. Its over-the-top humor is akin to Looney Tunes-style antics, featuring pirates!

While the story does go places, particularly when the audience dives into the backstories of many of the other members of the Straw Hat crew, the light-hearted sense of adventure and exploration never truly fades.

It also happens to be one of the longest running shonen anime with over 900 episodes and 1,000 manga chapters, which is a crowning achievement for any media.

5) JoJo's Bizarre Adventure


Yu Yu Hakusho may have originated the supernatural fusion with action elements, but JoJo's Bizarre Adventure perfected it. This shonen anime is essential and unique for being a generational show. Basically, every part starts off with a different member of the Joestar family line (sans Giorno in Golden Wind) in an interconnected story.

It's slightly more grounded than the above shonen anime, as its violence and scenarios are slightly more realistic. It also runs through many genres, from horror in Phantom Blood to globe trotting in Stardust Crusaders to crime drama in Golden Wind and prison stories with Stone Ocean.

Every JoJo fan has their favorite season, though Stardust Crusaders is arguably the one that catapulted it into the mainstream with the addition of Stands.

6) Haikyu!!


Sports! Not every shonen anime needs to be an over the top action fest, case in point - Haikyu!!. It is a sports anime about volleyball. The main character is Shoyo Hinata, a high school freshman considered too short to play volleyball. What Hinata lacks in height, however, he makes up for in terms of agility and being an excellent jumper.

This is probably one of the better sports anime out there right now, and essential to anyone who loves a good underdog story. It is pretty popular and highly recommended for sports fans.

It features fantastic character development and some of the best sports action seen in shonen anime, not to mention showing that you don't need to be the biggest to accomplish great things.

7) Gintama

Do you like parodies? Do you like it when tropes are turned on their heads? Then you'll love Gintama! The series comes particularly recommended, if not essential, for those that love to poke fun at the staples of shonen anime.

The lead character is a lazy bum who wants to read manga all day, while the supporting characters have to help him run a business in an alternate era of Japan that was ruled by aliens.

Right off the bat, there's antics galore from Gintoki himself being an absolute wreck of an adult to the police chief always cosplaying. The humor is top notch and nothing is above lampooning, from older manga to Dragon Ball. It's also a long one, with 10 seasons in the series itself.

8) Attack on Titan


War, heartache, shock and death. These are four words to describe Attack on Titan. This anime revolves around the desperate struggle to survive against insurmountable odds and the seemingly gargantuan Titans that seek humanity's end.

It features ongoing mysteries, bloody action, and a lot of desperate choices. Furthermore, the endgame has several twists that not a lot of fans saw coming.

While the endgame twists and turns may have put off audiences, particularly the manga's ending, the series itself is still worth watching and is practically essential to catch up before the anime adaptation ends in 2023.

Despite deaths and blood, Attack on Titan is at its heart, a story of humanity and how bonds of love can see people through the harshest of challenges. It also features a revenge-obsessed character in Eren Yeager going full villain by the end, which is a twist on many a shonen hero's direction.

9) Death Note

Death note cover image (Image via Studio Madhouse)
Death note cover image (Image via Studio Madhouse)

If you were intrigued by Eren's turn to villainy in Attack on Titan, and wondered if there was a shonen anime starring an actual villain protagonist? Look no further than the horror/thriller Death Note and its protagonist Light Yagami.

Light is the son of a police officer who, upon stumbling upon the titular Death Note, gains the ability to kill people simply by writing their name down.

There aren't many villain protagonists in shonen anime, so Light Yagamai stands as an icon in that respect. When you add in the fact that nobody, from Light, to L, to the SDF, to L's replacements later on, plays by any sort of fairness or rules in this cat-and-mouse game,

10) My Hero Academia

My Hero Academia cover (Image via Studio Bones)
My Hero Academia cover (Image via Studio Bones)

Superhero media has dominated the pop culture landscape for well over the past decade. So, naturally, anime has its own take. For Seinen fans, there's the parody One Punch Man which focuses on the deconstruction of the over-the-top aspects of many of the above anime and superheroes in general. For shonen fans, there's My Hero Academia, which presents a more idealized take on superheroes.

My Hero Academia is essential for fans who feel as though superheroes should act like heroes. There are more than enough deconstructions of superheroing where the heroes are inimical or straight-up villains like One Punch Man, The Boys comic and TV show, and Watchmen to name a few.

While My Hero Academia does put a spotlight on the flaws of a superhuman society, and how society often kicks down those it deems "useless," the heroes save people, the characters feel like friends, and there's generally a sense of optimism even when the villains triumph.

Bonus mentions


Who says romance is dead? This romance-based shonen anime comes recommended as essential viewing for those who are tired of the same 'defeat the big bad with more power' style plots.

This is more low key, focusing on the efforts of two friends trying to play matchmaker and end up falling in love with each other. The shenanigans are aplenty, and the love is real.

Gurren Lagann


Giant robots! Universal stakes and destruction! Loud and proud protagonists and rivals to match! Gurren Lagann comes recommended courtesy of longtime mecha anime fans, as it pays tribute to all those that came before it while making its own mark on the anime landscape.

The robot combinations, large weapons, and the final fight against the Anti-Spiral lend this anime a lot of staying power.

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Edited by Sijo Samuel Paul