Dramatic anime run the gamut from school romance to fantasy to historical epic and much more, so even though female protagonists are in the minority in anime, narrowing down our picks for this genre was a tall order. We decided to focus on ladies who stuck out to us as realistic, emotionally engaging, and highly memorable. They’re not just eye candy or token representation, but fully developed people who teach us about ourselves through their actions. Let’s meet them, shall we?
10. Kumiko Oumae from Hibike! Euphonium (Sound! Euphonium)
- Episodes: 13
- Air Date: April 2015 – July 2015
Kumiko’s confusion over what she really wants in life reminds us so much of our own high school experiences. All she knows is her small world of band competitions and petty teenage drama, but the fact that they’re presented as pivotal story elements in this anime helps us understand how much they mean to her.
And she’s just such an endearing character—her desire to reconnect with her estranged friend Reina evolves into an honest admiration and even love for the stoic trumpet prodigy. We never thought we’d cry watching a high school trumpet solo, but it represents such an important moment in their friendship and personal growth that we couldn’t help it. Kumiko’s happiness is our happiness!
9. Motoko Kusanagi from Koukaku Kidoutai (Ghost in the Shell)
- Episodes: 1
- Air Date: November 1995
Who could possibly encompass the ideal of the badass ‘90s action heroine more than Major Motoko Kusanagi from the original Ghost in the Shell? She’s a battle-hardened cyborg with combat and hacking skills that outmatch anyone else in Section 9, and she’s the only one who can take on the enigmatic Puppet Master. In fact, she’s so iconic that the original movie inspired such cultural giants as The Matrix and the works of James Cameron, among others.
But the Major isn’t on this list just for that. What makes her special is the deep philosophical issues she faces as a person piloting an entirely robotic body. Have all of these amazing powers wrenched her away from the very elements that define her as a human being? That question still haunts us to this day...
8. Phosphophyllite from Houseki no Kuni (Land of the Lustrous)
- Episodes: 12
- Air Date: October 2017 – December 2017
While Phosphophyllite and the other gems are technically genderless since they’re basically sentient rocks, she looks and acts feminine enough for us to include her on this list. She’s spent most of her life being a useless slag, but finds her purpose when she discovers that the gems’ beloved Sensei and the Moon People they’ve spent eternity fighting against may be more complex than originally thought.
Phos grows and changes throughout her journey just like any other anime protagonist, but what’s unique is that her struggles are physically represented by her body being torn apart and replaced with substitute materials. It creates a stark contrast between the airheaded, carefree Phos at the beginning and the hodgepodge of despair and conflicting loyalties she’s become by the end of the anime. And the manga only gets more depressing from there...
7. Dororo from Dororo
- Episodes: 24
- Air Date: January 2019 – June 2019
This young thief poses as a boy to survive in warring feudal Japan, but is actually a young girl who lost her parents at a tender age. She serves as the heart of the story, befriending Hyakkimaru and giving him something to live for beyond getting revenge for his stolen body. They become inseparable pals, and with her quick thinking and his superhuman fighting prowess, they make a great team against the demons and deceitful villagers that often come their way.
It’s unclear whether Dororo’s habit of acting like a boy is just a survival strategy or actually a gender identity since she continues to speak in a masculine manner (using the “oira” pronoun, etc.) even after her cover is blown. But either way, she’s a surprisingly mature and relatable kid who deserves her place as the title character of this amazing series.
6. Violet Evergarden from Violet Evergarden
- Episodes: 13
- Air Date: January 2018 – April 2018
Violet isn’t as much of a proactive protagonist who commands attention as she is a consistent player in many other people’s small-scale stories. She’s a cyber-augmented war veteran who never knew a life without combat until this very recent peacetime, so she has no idea how to exist in normal society. But through her new job as a courier for heartfelt letters, she slowly learns the meaning of love by observing what it means to her myriad of diverse customers. It’s rewarding to watch Violet grow as a person through her interactions with strangers, and even though her personal story isn’t focused upon as much as a normal main character’s would be, it works perfectly for this anime.
5. Riko from Made in Abyss
- Episodes: 13
- Air Date: July 2017 – September 2017
Riko is an adventurous soul, and there’s nothing in the hostile Abyss that can stop her from finding her missing mother at the very bottom. She and her new robot friend Reg set off on a treacherous journey into the mysterious gaping maw at the center of their hometown, knowing full well that they’ll never return because of the horrific effects that the Abyss has on the human body. It’s a grim choice for such a young girl to make, but we admire her dedication.
Like Dororo and Hyakkimaru, Riko and Reg grow to care deeply for one another and make up for each other’s shortcomings. Riko has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Abyss’ layout and wildlife, while Reg is better at exploration and combat. One of our favorite scenes is when Riko cooks dinner for Nanachi and Reg after finally recovering from a near-fatal injury—despite her own lingering pain, she teaches Nanachi how to make flavorful meals as a token of gratitude for her friends’ help. She may be physically fragile, but Riko’s emotional fortitude is impressive!
4. Chise Hatori from Mahoutsukai no Yome (The Ancient Magus’ Bride)
- Episodes: 24
- Air Date: October 2017 – March 2018
It might sound like fun to see magical creatures inhabiting every corner of your world, but it ended up ruining Chise’s life. Without any hope left, she comes into the service of a skull-headed mage called Elias Ainsworth who has some deep insecurities of his own and promises to make her his “bride”. The arrangement is rocky at first, but once the two begin to understand one another, they both see that life may be worth living after all.
As far as character transformations go, Chise is nearly unrecognizable after 24 episodes of exploring the magical world and making true friends. She’s still a bit of a shy worrywart, but her confidence in tough situations goes through the roof! We’re just so proud of her for not letting her past drag her down anymore.
3. Onna from Death Parade
- Episodes: 12
- Air Date: January 2015 – March 2015
Death Parade takes place in a bar-themed purgatory where recently deceased people play games against each other to determine whether they get reincarnated or tossed into the void. Overseeing all of this are Decim, the supernatural bartender, and his human assistant who can’t remember anything about her own life (even her name, which is why she’s only referred to as Onna/Woman). She spends her time trying to understand Decim’s reasons for reincarnating or banishing certain people, and why she is the only one who can stay by his side.
We won’t reveal her backstory here since it’s better to experience it firsthand, but Onna turns out to be much more complex than anyone could’ve expected. Her struggle to value her own life strikes a chord with Decim, who dreads his position as an inhuman puppet who judges the worth of real people. It’s heartwrenching drama of the best kind, and we can’t recommend this series highly enough.
2. Mitsuha Miyamizu from Kimi no Na wa. (Your Name.)
- Episodes: 1
- Air Date: August 2016
Wouldn’t we all like to be somebody else for a day? To escape our stale lives and try something new? Mitsuha is so sick of her humdrum rural existence that she asks the gods to make her a handsome Tokyo boy in her next life. And, to her surprise, she starts switching bodies with a city kid named Taki in her dreams! It’s everything she’s ever wanted – the sleepy hometown and stuffy old traditions she hates have been replaced with trendy cafés, fun friends, and packed schedules.
But instead of just a Freaky Friday flip ending with a lesson about the grass always being greener on the other side, Your Name focuses more on developing the relationship between Mistuha and Taki as they experience each other’s lives firsthand and desperately try to find one another in person. She feels like a fully fleshed out character who truly connects with someone so different to her, and that’s what makes her so special.
1. Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket
- Episodes: 63
- Air Date: April 2019 – currently airing
On the surface, Tohru seems too perfect—she’s kind, polite, understanding, exceedingly generous, and always upbeat—all of which make her a helpful healing presence in the Sohma family’s lives. But these positive qualities also eat away at her wellbeing as she sacrifices her own emotional needs for the sake of others without even thinking about it. It’s a double-edged sword that many women in real life carry as well, and that’s why Tohru is so relatable.
She’s our pick for the best female lead in dramatic anime because she has realistic flaws that are buried deep within a genuine desire to do the right thing. You don’t have to have nasty personality traits to be a real, flawed human being. Sometimes all it takes is wanting to help people, but completely forgetting about helping yourself.
So who did you like the best? The down-to-earth relatable teenage girls, the stoic cyberwomen with hidden depths, the gender-defying soul-searchers, or any of the other phenomenal anime protagonists featured here? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!