The pages of Japanese manga grace readers all around the world with distinctive heroes with many qualities and journeys that each have their respective appeal. There are some who travel the world to seek enlightenment, and there are others who choose to stay close to home to protect their loved ones. They all define the themes of their stories along with their strong supporting cast members. In addition, their rivals and their villains define them as well. So who are some of the top heroes of manga? Read our list to find out!
As a disclaimer, since this is a top 10 heroes list in relation to manga, we are trying to have as many as manga exclusive characters as possible but with a few notable exceptions.
10. Punpun from Goodnight Punpun (Oyasumi Punpun)
- Author: Inio Asano
- Genre: Psychological, Slice of Life, Drama, Seinen
- Volumes: 13
- Published: Mar 15, 2007 –Nov 2, 2013
Putting aside his silly name and being drawn as a whacked up bird, Punpun kicks off our list because he’s pretty much a character that many readers around the world, including many of whom, are from non-Japanese countries can relate to. The fact he isn’t given a face is meant to have readers project themselves onto him. The series portrays him in a 10-year span from 11-years-old to 21. Punpun deals with realistic issues as he grows up. He is a witness to domestic violence, becomes a child of divorce, and then he deals with all of this as he goes through the trials of puberty.
The readers are presented on how his upbringing affects himself in a very realistic manner and you see how this consequently shapes him as an adult. Even though he isn’t exactly heroic in a traditional sense, what makes him an addition to this list? In a lot of ways, his life is an example of what some of our lives can be shaped by our upbringing. He is the ultimate study on whether or not as adults, should people be responsible for their actions, or is blaming the upbringings of some people just an excuse? Through Punpun, readers can dig deep into these very questions.
9. Naofumi Iwatani from The Rising of the Shield Hero (Tate no Yuusha)
- Author: Yusagi Aneko (story), Kyu Aniya (art)
- Genre: Fantasy, Drama, Seinen
- Volumes: Unknown
- Published: Feb 5, 2014 – present
Naofumi was just a shy 20-year-old university student until he finds a book about Four Heroes. So what does this book do? Send him to a world of fantasy! Naturally, he is initially cynical in regards to his situation after being backstabbed by people who were supposed to help him and the rest of the world, but instead, they trap and brand him as a criminal.
Thanks to his arsenal of shields, he is able to keep up with the other heroes when necessary. His Curse Weapon is the sin of wrath, which temporarily gives him super strength whenever he is enraged. He eventually overcomes his adversities and makes the best of his situation. While he may seem cold-hearted, deep down inside, he’s a really nice guy but just don’t piss him off.
8. Ageha Yoshina from Psyren
- Author: Toshiaki Iwashiro
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Psychological, Superpower, Game, Romance, Supernatural, Sci-Fi, Shounen
- Volumes: 16
- Published: Dec 3, 2007 – Nov 29, 2010
Ageha Yoshina is an energetic high school boy who is good-natured and yet very emotional. He is willing to help you deal with your problems such as bullying but at a cost of 10,000 yen. After answering a ringing pay phone and discovering a mysterious red card, he finds himself in the mysterious future game of Psyren, where he must fight monsters called Taboos. And after getting involved, he is given mysterious powers called PSI, which are based on his emotions.
Ageha is someone who is capable of adapting to every situation and once he learns how to use his powers and its limits, and he is a very capable warrior thanks to his natural fighting abilities. While his motivations are rather greedy, he comes to learn to appreciate that friendship isn’t something that can be bought, but is earned as well as the stake in the future. But with whatever friends he already has, he does everything possible to protect them and ensure those bonds.
7. Keiji Kiriya from All You Need is Kill
- Author: Ryosuke Takeuchi (story), Hiroshi Sakurazaki (story), Takeshi Obata (art)
- Genre: Action, Military, Sci-fi, Seinen
- Volumes: 2
- Published: Jan 9, 2014- May 29, 2014
You’re probably familiar with the Hollywood version of this Japanese hit through Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise. His character is based on Keiji Kiriya, who is nicknamed Killer Cage by the Americans and this naming does influence the Hollywood adaptation. While William Cage in Edge of Tomorrow is a demoted public affairs officer, Keiji, on the other hand, is a new recruit fresh out of boot camp. Other than that, a majority of who you see with William Cage in Edge of Tomorrow also happens with Keiji in All You Need Is Kill, where he repeatedly dies only to come back to life and uses those experiences to become a better soldier in the war against the mimics.
Eventually, he meets another soldier who has been subjected to his situation and they band together to fight this war but only to end in tragedy. While nobody can come back from the dead, Keiji does demonstrate the need for people to learn from their mistakes in order to make things right, which is why he is a great hero.
6. Shogo Kawada from Battle Royale
- Author: Koushun Takami (story), Masayuki Takeuchi (art)
- Genre: Action, Psychological, Drama, Horror, Seinen
- Volumes: 15
- Published: 2000 - 2005
Some of you are familiar with the controversial 2000 Japanese film starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, but are you aware of the manga? If so, in this edition, Shogo Kawada once again is the true hero who takes action to end the Battle Royale program once and for all. In all source materials, he is a previous winner of a Battle Royale only to coincidentally be a contestant once again. Due to his past experiences, he is a heavy favorite to win by the government officials who are observing the program but he has gained some new skills to work around the system. He is heavily invested in protecting Noriko because she reminds him of a past girlfriend he had to kill in order to survive and win.
In his younger years, he was an assistant at his father’s clinic so he has medical training and experience, which is demonstrated when he treats Noriko. With the help of Noriko and Shuya, they defeat Kiriyama, a detached lunatic who went on a killing spree but at the cost of his life. In his final moments, he helps fake Noriko and Shuya’s deaths by removing their collars so they can stage their assault and escape on the government officials.
5. Kenji Endo from 20th Century Boys
- Author: Naoki Urasawa
- Genre: Psychological, Sci-Fi, Historical, Mystery, Drama, Seinen
- Volumes: 22
- Published: Sept 27, 1999 – Apr 24, 2006
If manga had a hero that represented Generation X, look no further than Kenji Endo from 20th Century Boys. At the start of the series, he is a failed rock musician who has turned his family liquor store into a modestly successful franchise convenience store and is raising his niece. In his childhood, Kenji and a group of friends started their own club and just for fun, they created their own prophecies on how the world will be brought to ruin.
In the year 1997, many of those prophecies are coming true by a mysterious cult figure known only as Friend. Kenji starts his own rebellion against Friend as his influences progress, but at great cost. In the end, he uses his old dream of being a musician to fight the power and rally people to his cause by showing that sometimes the power of music is all you need to start and win a rebellion.
4. Ogami Itto from Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami)
- Author: Kazuo Koike (story), Goseki Kojima (artist)
- Genre: Action, Sakura, Historical, Seinen
- Volumes: 28
- Published: Sept 1970 – Apr 1976
If anyone can be called the OG samurai in manga, it would certainly have to be Ogami Itto, a man who is mostly action and little with words. For many years, he served as the chief executioner of the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, jealousy by another clan led them to murder his wife leaving him to wonder what to do with his infant son.
Furthermore, he is also framed for conspiring against the Shogun. In order to clear his name, Ogami goes on a journey bringing his son with him. While Ogami is the ultimate assassin, he is still a man of principle. After he kills someone, he always goes to a temple to pray. Despite being a killer, he is also always willing to defend the innocent and is capable of displaying mercy. By the end of the series, he manages to accomplish a huge majority of his goals and he lets nothing get in his way.
3. Kenshin Himura from Rurouni Kenshin
- Author: Nobuhiro Watsuki
- Genre: Action, Samurai, Historical, Drama, Shounen
- Volumes: 28
- Published: Apr 12, 1994 – Sept 21, 1999
One hero we cannot deny is Kenshin from the hit Rurouni Kenshin saga. While his ending in the anime has been met with mixed reception and strong criticism from Watsuki-sensei himself, fans can still see his true ending in the manga. One of the themes of this series expressed through Kenshin is redeeming yourself of your sins. In Kenshin’s teenage years (despite his appearance, he is actually 28), he fought as an assassin of the Boushin War that paved way for the Meiji Era. After losing his wife, he vows to never kill again but her death is the driving force of the final main villain, her brother Enishi who wants to avenge her.
In the famous Jinchu arc of the manga, Kenshin faces his greatest threat yet. He is not fighting a group of people who want to take over Japan and throw over the government, he is facing a group of individuals who have legitimate grudges over him despite his changes since his time as an assassin. This is the story arc that defines his final path to redemption and ultimately finding happiness with Kaoru.
While Enishi, the final villain, does manage to temporarily drive Kenshin to despair, Kenshin once again picks up his sword and defeats Enishi without having to kill him but at the cost of his own body not being able to use the Hiten Mitsurugi style again. Throughout his journey, he does show mercy to his opponents to repent their sins and that they always have the chance to start over. The fact that he is willing to risk his life to help his enemies makes him one of Japan’s greatest heroes in fiction.
2. Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken)
- Author: Tetsuo Hara (art), Buronson (story)
- Genre: Action, Martial Arts, Sci-Fi, Drama, Shounen
- Volumes: 27
- Published: Sept 13, 1983 – Jul 26, 1988
At a very close second is one of the top macho heroes from the era of 1980’s style masculinity, Kenshiro. Kenshiro is the master of the Hokuto Shinken fighting style, where a single touch at the right pressure point will have the opponent explode to pieces. If anything, this manga was doing fatalities long before Mortal Kombat made them a hot topic for the US government and other censorship groups. While the main purpose of his journey across the apocalyptic wastelands of 199X is to reunite with his girlfriend Yuria, he still finds time to protect the innocent.
While Kenshiro may be powerful, he can’t save everyone due to being out numbered and weaker allies willing to sacrifice themselves for the fight. Due to these tragedies, Kenshiro always sheds tears, which probably popularized the notion of man tears. The fact that someone as manly as Kenshiro is willing to cry shows that it’s ok for men to cry. Last, while Raoh was his greatest rival and wanted to conquer the world, upon emerging victorious, Kenshiro and Raoh embraced and acknowledged each other not only as true warriors but also as brothers.
1. Son Goku from Dragon Ball
- Author: Akira Toriyama
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Super Power, Martial Arts, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Shounen
- Volumes: 42
- Published: Nov 20, 1984 – May 23, 1995
If there is one character we can’t deny whether it would be manga or in anime form, it would certainly have to be Goku from Dragon Ball. He was one of the very few heroes in fiction who starts as a child and has his story ending with him becoming a grandfather. At the time, aging characters was never considered, but Toriyama-sensei made him an adult because it would make drawing the action scenes much easier despite objections from the publishing staff. While Goku’s journeys throughout Dragon Ball took him throughout the world and ultimately the universe, he is still the same innocent boy that Bulma first meets. As the series progresses into Super, he is still full of childlike wonder and curiosity, but he has his own unique development and maturation.
With the Saiyan arc, Goku finally learns his origin story and he initially denies the last of his people and chooses Earth as his home. However, after learning that the Saiyans were only pawns only to become victims of Freeza, he embraces his Saiyan heritage and becomes their salvation and takes their proud warrior spirit. There have been moments he has shown selflessness such as willing to stay dead after the Android/Cell saga because people who want revenge against him could threaten the safety of the Earth. However, the threat of Majin Buu brings him back to life again to fight for freedom. While he does destroy Buu with the help of the universe, he once again demonstrates a pure heart when he wishes for Buu to come back as a good person.
Just like a good portion of our lists, we can’t deny that making this list was rather difficult, which is why we would like to make some honorable mentions to Duke Togo from Golgo 13, Miyamoto Musashi from Vagabond, Baki Hanma from the Grappler Baki series, Guts from Berserk, and Thorfinn from Vinland Saga.
I am sure all you readers here have your own ideas of the best heroes from the pages of Shounen Magazine, Shounen Jump, Shounen Sunday, Shounen Champion, and so on. So if you have your top list, please share yours in the comments.