Many Shonen anime arcs could easily qualify for great storytelling awards.
From escalating villains to commentary on the horrors and injustices of war, plenty of arcs have given fans much to ponder. Some are heartbreaking and some are pulse-pounding action, but they all stick out in fans' minds to define their series.
These are just 10 of the most iconic shonen anime arcs of all time.
Note: This article contains spoilers and only expresses the author's opinion.
10 of the most iconic shonen anime arcs
1) The One Year War - Mobile Suit Gundam
The One Year War is considered the defining story arc for all of the stories set in the shonen anime Mobile Suit Gundam's Universal Century, from the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta Gundam up to the recently released Hathaway movie. It's chronicled in multiple media, from TV series to OVAs to video games to theatrical releases.
The One Year War depicted the war between the Earth Federation and Zeon Principality and premiered many concepts and people such as spacenoids, spaceborne humans, and newtypes, humans with psychic abilities. The resulting Earth Federation victory created shockwaves that echoed even 26 years later.
The epic rivalry between newbie pilot Amuro Ray and the two-faced Char Aznable started here, and wouldn't stop until Char's Counterattack over 14 years later. The RX-78-2 Gundam (AKA titular Mobile Suit Gundam) and the MS-05B Zaku (AKA Zaku) debuted here and have continued to be iconic parts of the series since.
2) The Frieza Saga - Dragon Ball Z
When people think of the shonen anime Dragon Ball Z, what do they normally think about? Long charge-up times, majorly strong villains, and Goku getting a new transformation sequence and breaking another power ceiling. All of this, including the Super Saiyan state, got its start here.
Following the Saiyan Saga, the Z Fighters/Dragon Team was in disarray. With many lost to the Saiyans and no Dragon Balls available thanks to Piccolo and Kami's deaths, Gohan, Krillin, and Bulma journeyed to Namek to get their dragon balls and wish everyone back to life.
This arc introduced many staples of Dragon Ball Z, and shonen anime as a whole, from the escalating villains with Frieza to starting Vegeta's change of heart, to Goku constantly having to show up to save the day and the iconic Super Saiyan transformation that would forever affect Dragon Ball.
It's also home to the infamous "Longest Five Minutes," starting a Dragon Ball trend of having long ticking clocks that seem to last forever.
3) The Soul Society Arc - Bleach
While fans have argued over the quality of Bleach's introductory arc and whether it technically counts as a dreaded filler typical of shonen anime, the Soul Society arc is without question the most iconic. When Rukia Kuchiki is captured and sentenced to death by her former comrades, it's up to Ichigo and friends to rescue her.
This arc offers an in-depth look at the politics that govern the afterlife, showing the caste system. It also allows Ichigo Kurosaki and friends to develop their powers, such as having to deal with Hollow Ichigo and master their bankais. There are plenty of twists and turns therein as well.
The story arc raises the stakes of the series, and has one of the smartest anime villains of all time as a shocking twist. It's a rich narrative filled with twists and turns that keep fans guessing until the very end.
4) Egypt arc - JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
This is JoJo's Bizarre Adventure's longest arc to date. This iconic shonen anime arc was responsible for catapulting the series into the mainstream, with the introduction of Stands quickly overtaking the Power System of Ripple/Hamon. It launched a veritable fountain of in-jokes, memorable quotes and memes.
When Jotaro Kujo's mother Holly comes down with a mysterious sickness, Jotaro must journey with his grandfather Joseph Joestar and a band of comrades to fight the returning vampire lord DIO. Getting to Egypt is no easy picnic, neither is crossing the sands to finally confront DIO.
This arc, moreso than the prior ones, has had a ripple effect even well into Stone Ocean. From Dio's actions affecting characters like Giorno Giovana and Father Pucci, to Jotaro aiding in the events of Diamond is Unbreakable and Stone Ocean, it all starts here.
5) The Pain Arc - Naruto
Naruto Shippūden's Pain Arc can be seen as a re-exploration of the second half of the Chūnin Exams, with the stakes astronomically raised. The Hidden Leaf Village is attacked by the Akatsuki and their leader Pain/Nagato, who wreaks untold destruction in his wake.
The battle between Naruto and Pain is one of the most intense matchups in the shonen anime. This saga also depicts the origin of Akatsuki. Major events like the deaths of Jiraya and reinforcing Naruto's path to peace all happen here.
Most importantly, the aftermath of the arc finally sees the series lead Naruto receive love and admiration from his fellow villagers. He's been dreaming of societal acceptance his whole life, so it was a great note to end on. It also leads into darker things down the road.
6) Duelist Kingdom - Yu-Gi-Oh!
When fans think of the shonen anime Yu-Gi-Oh!, this is the season in their minds. It marks the introduction of all the main characters fans love over the series' 200 episode run, the card game aspect that still continues to this day, and the beginning of the major character arcs.
After his grandfather has his soul stolen by the villain Pegasus, Yugi and his friends were forced to travel to Pegasus’ island to participate in his tournament and reclaim it. While there, they discover that in the “Duelist Kingdom,” the rules work differently than what they're used to, where loss and damage mean real harm.
Joey, Yugi and even Kaiba must win as many duels as possible to even think about saving their family members. It’s got drama, memes, and some of the most entertaining duels in the series. Kaiba's change of heart, Joey and Yugi's friendship, and even the concept of the Millennium Items premiere here.
7) Paranormal liberation war arc - My Hero Academia
It was a tough call for the shonen anime My Hero Academia's most iconic arc, between USJ, the Hideout raid, and this one. However, given this is the penultimate arc, it more than shows why it belongs on this list. This shonen anime arc can be summed up as "the villains' victory."
After the formation of the Paranormal Liberation Front, the heroes assemble to confront them before the situation escalates. This arc can be broken down into parts: Taking down Kyudai, Shigaraki's Awakening, the clash between the Villains and the Pro Heroes, and the fall of the Hero sociey.
As if heroes like Midnight dying wasn't bad enough, the war's aftermath is even worse as people lose hope in the system and the hero system ends. The conclusion cements it as one of the best arcs in the series thus far, with plenty darker to come along the way.
8) The Battle for Trost arc - Attack on Titan
When Attack on Titan premiered, the sense of dread the Titans brought to viewers was never too far behind the rookie scouts. The Trost Arc ultimately brought that to a head, as many died during it. Despite the death, however, a glimmer of hope resided in young Eren Yeager.
This arc started everything the shonen anime was and played a huge part in how it ended. From the desperation of the scout division to Eren's epic roar of defiance as he shifts into a Titan for the first time, this arc kicked Attack on Titan into public consciousness and has never stopped. Many mysteries and character arcs got their start in this arc.
Not only that, but it marks the first victory humanity gets over the Titans and the first appearance of Captain Levi Ackerman. It helps that the iconic shot of Eren holding the boulder up will always be in fans' minds.
9) The Dark Tournament Saga - Yu Yu Hakusho
The Dark Tournament is the second saga in the shonen anime Yu Yu Hakusho, but somehow manages to eclipse all the others. In terms of being a shonen anime story arc, this tournament is quite memorable for being, well, darker than average.
The tournament is run by a group of corrupt humans looking to get rich, and the contestants consist of some of the most vile from the spirit world looking to bathe in the blood of their opponents. It's a given that it would be darker than the average arc due to the amount of death being dealt.
As far as its iconic status goes, this is where everyone shines. Kuwabara's spirit sword comes into play, Hiei goes all out with the Dragon of the Darkness Flame, Kurama practically sacrifices himself with his plants to stop his opponent, and Yusuke faces his toughest challenge yet in the form of the younger Toguro.
10) Chimera Ant Arc - Hunter x Hunter
Out of all the storylines in the shonen anime Hunter X Hunter, the Chimera Ant Arc is the darkest, but also the most emotionally satisfying. It tackles heavy topics like life, death, and nuclear war, and even brings Gon to a raging stage that he never quite fully recovers from.
The story's main antagonist, Meruem, the King of the Chimera Ants, begins to question his cruel, pessimistic outlook on life as he befriends a human girl named Komugi. Their relationship set a mournful tone for the saga, growing and blossoming into something more even as they faced their demise.
It's an emotional story arc that pushes the heroes into situations they've never been exposed to before, like hostage situations, complex characters and raging heroes. Gon himself even steadily goes more and more battle crazy as the arc goes on, ending on a bad note for him.