Anime is one of the most popular entertainment mediums in the world, with a long history and rabid fandoms — so picking the most popular anime of all time is a challenging exercise. There are certified classics that have captured American audiences since the late ’90s and new school series that have reached heights never seen before. These are some of the most popular and essential anime of all time.
1. 'Dragon Ball Z'
After almost four decades, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z is arguably still the most influential and popular anime of all time. The series is synonymous with anime, especially in the U.S., where it was the gateway to Japanese animation for many young people in the late ’90s or early 2000s. The sequel series to Dragon Ball set the standard for battle anime, influencing and inspiring many of the tropes and story beats that are still used to this day.
The insane action, fight scenes and epic moments are what hooked audiences years ago and what continue to do so for new fans today. Its iconic characters and unmatched main character, Goku, are still in demand, with new series and films always around the corner. It’s simply one of the most popular anime of all time and it will continue to be for years to come.
2. 'One Piece'
One Piece is an epic adventure that is one of the most popular anime series of all time. Anime fans have been following Luffy and the Straw Hat Pirates’ journey for over 20 years, and it’s still booming in popularity, regularly trending on social media. Eiichiro Oda’s pirate adventure series made its anime debut in 1999.
Luffy’s journey to become King of the Pirates is ingrained in anime culture. Netflix’s recent live-action adaption of One Piece is one of the streamer’s most-watched shows of the year, introducing its world to even more fans worldwide. The anime is ongoing, with over 1,000 episodes. Despite the enormous number of episodes, the sheer popularity of the series drives newcomers to get in on what is really an incredible and epic adventure.
3. 'Naruto'/'Naruto: Shippuden'
Naruto is another one of the giants alongside One Piece and Dragonball Z. The wildly popular ninja series, created by Masashi Kishimoto, follows the story of Naruto, who wants to become his village Hokage so that he can gain acceptance and recognition as an outcast. It spans over 700 episodes and has a sequel series, Boruto, that is ongoing and continuing its story.
The series is a lot of anime fans’ introduction to anime and is generally beloved by a generation of Shonen anime fans. Naruto is the typical misfit main character who wants friends and acceptance, and it’s the big reason why viewers are so invested in his story. The story of the underdog is always good when done right, and Naruto’s journey is anime’s gold standard in that category.
4. 'Hunter x Hunter' (2011)
Hunter x Hunter takes the typical anime trope of a young, gifted boy on a journey to fulfill his ambitions of a different level. The series created by Yoshihiro Togashi follows Gon, a kid setting out on a journey to become a Hunter, an elite individual with vast resources that can pursue their dreams. The show uses this familiar story beat to elevate the genre and introduce a crazy amount of death into its characters and world-building.
The 2011 anime brought the series to new heights of popularity, sporting some of the most high-quality animation ever in this series genre. It’s an iconic anime with characters, world and style that has influenced everything from massive popular series like Naruto to a new sensation like Jujutsu Kaisen. Fans are still asking for more Hunter x Hunter, with its story still ongoing in Manga form, although frequent health issues from its creator have limited the series from getting another anime.
5. 'Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood'
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has it all. It has a complex and emotional story, great character arcs and incredible animation. Created by Hiromu Arakawa, FMAB tells the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two brothers on a journey to get their bodies back after losing them, and trying to bring their mother back to life using alchemy.
The series in some ways is standard Shōnen, following its young protagonists as its POV characters, but it’s also a political conspiracy thriller with a complex plot and mystery that govern the story. It is dense with characters and stories, with emotional payoffs and truly epic moments. FMAB is a classic and remains one of the most popular anime ever.
6. 'Attack on Titan'
The most recent anime series on this list, Attack on Titan, created by Hajime Isayama, has been a sensation since its debut in 2013. It is set in a world where the last of humanity live in a city surrounded by three gigantic walls that keep the “Titans,” humanoid giants that live only to eat humans, at bay. We follow Eren Yeager on his journey to fight back against the Titans in an act of revenge after his life is upended after the Titans breach the walls.
The series is ongoing and in its fourth and final season, and its popularity is reflected by the sheer hype and anticipation of its conclusion. It has gained even more of an audience captivated by its complex and dark story, cementing it as one of the most popular modern anime series. Its final episode is set to air on Nov. 5, which is one of the most anticipated days of the year for fans who have been waiting patiently for the series conclusion.
Gundam began in 1979 and has been a staple anime series ever since. The military science fiction series is one of the most iconic Mecha series of all time. The basic concept of the many entries in the series is exploring soldiers (often children) piloting giant robots called Gundams and fighting in geopolitical wars in space and on Earth. The series is renowned for its commentary on war and innovation in the mecha genre, with several classic iterations in its long history.
Stateside, most folks’ introduction to the franchise was more than likely Mobile Suit Gundam Wing in the early 2000s. The angsty series followed five teenage soldiers leading a revolution against an authoritarian government, and it was another gateway series for burgeoning anime fans. 2015’s Iron-Blooded Orphans is also a fantastic place to start or get back into the series, especially if you are familiar with Gundam Wing.
8. 'Neon Genesis Evangelion'
Another classic mecha anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion, has stuck with anime fans since its debut in 1995. The events of Evangelion take place 15 years after the Second Impact, a global apocalypse that primarily affects Tokyo-3, a futuristic walled city. The main character is Shinji Ikari, a young teenager recruited by his father, Gendo, to work for the enigmatic Nerv organization as an Evangelion pilot, a massive biomechanical mecha designed to battle against beings called the Angels. The series is a deconstruction of the genre that dives deep into the emotions of the teenage pilots it follows.
To this day, Evangelion is still pored over by fans, who aim to decipher all the themes, religious imagery and messages that are laced throughout. The original ending was controversial, prompting several remixed conclusions and films to be released in theaters to wrap up the series, with the most recent being released in 2021. It’s still a series that sparks excitement and discussion, as it is an all-time classic, and it remains one of the more popular series today.
9. 'JoJo's Bizarre Adventure'
Hirohiko Araki’s JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has been ongoing since 1987, remaining one of the signature series in anime and manga. The series tells the story of the Joestar family, with each part following another descendant of the Joestar name as they battle supernatural foes on their respective journeys. Each of the six parts is unique and adds new characters while chronicling the Joestar dynasty and their destiny.
The series is extremely stylish through its character designs, which take on inspiration from high fashion and pop culture. The series uses musical references throughout its many stories for inspiration, tapping into icons like Micheal Jackson and Prince, and even to acts like Jodeci, whose “Freek’n You” is the ending theme of its fifth part. From its references to its genuinely unique magical elements, it is a continuously bizarre adventure, true to its name and wildly popular.
10. 'Cowboy Bebop'
Cowboy Bebop is regularly hailed as one of the greatest animated series of all time. The neo-noir space Western follows an eclectic crew of bounty hunters in the year 2071. The series debuted in 1997 and features animation that not only holds up but is still some of the most beautiful animations you’ll see from an anime series. The series is mature, with a mishmash of genres and storytelling techniques that make every episode a unique experience.
Its characters, the space cowboy himself, Spike Spiegel, Jet, the femme fatale Faye Valentine, and Edward are some of the most recognizable characters in anime, and with a series that only has 26 episodes, that’s truly something. The series’ popularity recently spawned a Netflix live-action adaption that premiered in 2022. The characters, themes and incredible Jazz score make Cowboy Bebop one of the most unique anime ever and a true classic.