It’s an unfortunate fact that some anime reduce female characters to little more than eye candy.
We’ve all seen it – fan service is real, and as a trope, it can reduce any character to something less than the complex personality they’re supposed to be.
So as a counterpoint, we’re celebrating the truly legendary women that have graced our screens in anime over the years. From battle-hardened warriors to the sort of friends you couldn’t be without, plus everything in between.
I want to shine a spotlight on the female characters that aren’t just seen, but heard. The characters that influenced generations, adaptations, and dedications through their sheer brilliance.
Note: I’ve tried to avoid any possible spoilers in the list. However, one or two entries necessitated them while talking about the character.
25. Faye Valentine
Anime: Cowboy Bebop
While she’s well known for her femme fatale appearance, Faye Valentine is a character who’s so much more than how she appears on the surface.
Deceptively good in a fight, and more than capable of handling herself, she also shows a side that prioritizes her rag-tag bounty hunter family in the Bebop crew – all while changing the minds of her male partners about having a woman on board at all.
Imagine all of that, while also having to deal with being half a century older than you actually are, thanks to cryo-sleep and the almost total amnesia of her past?
There’s little wonder she’s regarded as such a strong character, physically and mentally.
24. Yuno Gasai
Anime: Future Diary
I know what you’re thinking.
Yuno, the character with the obsessive personality bordering on psychotic? What makes her so iconic?
To put it bluntly – she is the show.
As an undeterred force of nature, the Queen of Yandere has stamped herself onto the hearts and minds of views.
Willing to kill to achieve her goals, her single minded determination makes her impossible to look away from.
While the depiction of mental health issues has been criticized, Yuno is a character who develops – later on becoming more able to keep her cool.
But it’s her immediate impact on the fans that I’m citing as the reason for her being in this ranking, as she’s very difficult to forget.
23. Nana Osaki
Being one of two Nana’s in a show called “Nana”, Nana Osaki is a punk-rock icon in her own right.
As she and her roommate Nana Komatsu chase their dreams from their small apartment in Tokyo, the series revolves around their very individual goals – Komatsu trying to find love and happiness, Osaki trying to make it big in the music world.
Dealing with issues ranging from heartbreak to realizing that some dreams are only ever dreams, Nana Osaki presents not only a well-rounded and well-written character, but a developing and real person who feels infinitely relatable.
22. Asuna Yuuki
Anime: Sword Art Online
This is the most sword-swinging-est healer you’ll ever meet.
Asuna began her stay trapped in the Sword Art Online game… erm, hiding in her in-game lodge.
But after a two-week seclusion, she vowed to not let others decide her fate, and proceeded to beat so many monsters she collapsed from exhaustion.
That’s taking life into your own hands, alright!
With her insane rapier skills and caring nature, Asuna is both an intimidatingly powerful and genuinely kind-hearted character in the show.
Her enduring popularity is reflected in these traits; even in the show, her reputation precedes her.
Asuna is a prime example of how to lead by example.
21. Tohru Honda
Anime: Fruits Basket
Kind, generous, and happy-go-lucky.
Tohru Honda could be forgiven for being a bit of a walkover – if she was one. She’s just too nice!
Thankfully, she isn’t a walkover in any sense. In fact, she not only resolves to break the Zodiac curse that plagues the Sohma family, but she does it without losing any of her character along the way.
Even though she might have a “boy’s name”, Tohru is a complex and deep character that embodies a positive female spirit.
Plus she’s an excellent artist to boot. There’s no way she wasn’t going to be featured here.
20. Konata Izumi
Anime: Lucky Star
As the leader of the Lucky Star crew, Konata might be the smallest in stature, but she’s definitely the largest in spirit and character!
She’s a self-confessed otaku. And Konata also has intelligence and athleticism on her side – even if she is playing games too often to really apply herself.
Plus she’s determined to not let what others think of her bring her down.
And for me, that makes her a character to look up to in her own right.
Konata-chan might be a bit of a geek, but really – aren’t we all?
Anime: Golden Kamuy
Asirpa’s first action on screen in treasure-hunting adventure Golden Kamuy is to fight off a bear.
As far as character introductions go, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Undistracted by the promise of gold, Asirpa is single minded; the treasure she seeks isn’t gold, but revenge for her father’s betrayal.
Asirpa’s hunting and fighting skills make her a formidable ally too.
Her influence reached as far as being the literal poster girl for the British Museum’s anime exhibit, which speaks volumes to her importance as a character far better than anything I could write.
One of the more recent characters to be introduced on our list, Haru is much more than meets the eye.
She’s unafraid to get what she wants, despite years of being bullied and harassed for her sex-positive attitude.
She’s the solo member of the gardening club that proves that despite being treated like a fragile doll, she is in full control of her life without the interference of others.
Haru might have been the focus of one thing by a lot of people.
But her character shows us there’s more to her than just being promiscuous.
In fact, in proving and validating herself to her classmates, she shows a strength that often gets overlooked.
Deca-Dence might not be an all-time classic as far as anime goes.
But it showcases the strength of the main character Natsumi despite adversity.
With a prosthetic right arm, she could be forgiven for relying on others, let alone needing help with being a maintenance worker.
However, she is focused, resolute, and passionate in chasing her goal to be a true warrior.
All despite the setbacks life throws at her.
She’s strengthened by her weakness, making it a driving force rather than a hindrance to her character.
16. Asuka Langley Soryu
Anime: Neon Genesis Evangelion
Few characters on this list have divided opinions quite like Asuka Langley Soryu.
The 14 year old co-protagonist of hit show “Neon Genesis Evangelion” has simultaneously built a reputation for being one of the most popular female characters in anime history… and one of the most annoying.
Perhaps it’s her portrayal as a near polar opposite to male lead Shinji Ikari (when she was actually proposed to be a female lead character by herself) that makes people alternate between the two.
However, there’s no denying her status in the format – she’s the go-to example of a tsundere character, evolving from distant and cold to warm and friendly as the series went on.
Whether you love her or loathe her, it’s obvious she’s iconic and belongs on this list.
15. Sakura Haruno
Being one of Naruto’s closest allies, Sakura may have started life in the show as a love interest – but her character became so much more as the show progresses.
From becoming one of the most valuable medical-nin around, to proving her worth in hand to hand combat, Sakura disproved the myth that she was only good for a romantic sub-plot.
And when she did eventually get married and raise a child?
Sakura maintained that balance of home life and helping the village too – showing that she didn’t lose the balance of her mature character.
14. Kurisu Makise
Kurisu has strength and confidence that seems far beyond her age.
Not only is she one of the most important characters in the show, but she’s also one of the most important female characters in anime full-stop.
Kurisu is initially skeptical of the idea of time-travel put forward in the show.
Later on, this maturity not only allows her to accept and believe it, but to also contribute to its success.
She may meet an unfortunate fate early in the show… but these events kickstart the whole plot.
And thanks to good old time travel, we don’t have to be without her amazing character for long!
13. Winry Rockbell
Anime: FMA: Brotherhood
Here’s a woman who’s kind and pure-hearted, and a beloved character in the FMA cast.
Winry managed to do something not a lot of characters (male or female) can do – break the cycle of revenge.
When given the opportunity to kill the person responsible for her parent’s death, Winry instead chose to let go of the hatred– even going as far as to heal the perpetrator later on.
With her ability to keep Edward and Alphonse on the right path, and her good nature on display at all times, you could do much worse than having Winry Rockbell on your side.
Anime: Wolf Children
Living through hardships through a young life is hard enough.
But to do that while raising two young children after your husband dies?
That takes some power of will.
Wolf Children’s Hana is widowed by her werewolf husband (yes, you read that right) and it presents its own unique challenges in the form of her half-wolf children when she must do her best to raise them on her own.
Working full time as a single mother would be challenge enough.
But factoring in her already tough life, and the nature of her family, Hana takes a very deserved place on this list.
Anime: One Punch Man
This is an S-Class hero of unbelievable power.
Tatsumaki’s psychic abilities and strength just prove that when it comes to saving the world, size doesn’t matter.
Though she’s independent and a little stubborn, Tatsumaki excels at her job as a hero, dispatching monsters with an ease that few other characters can manage.
Her feats in the show and the manga are legendary (at full strength she’s capable of lifting entire cities into the air!). And she does it all with seeming ease.
Tatsumaki is truly a legendary ally to the Hero Association.
Anime: Fate Series
Saber is possibly one of the most popular female characters of all time, and is a mainstay of the Fate series.
Initially her gender is hidden from the world due to her claim to the throne. And she’s told that if she draws the legendary sword Caliban, she’ll be the ruler of Britain and take on the responsibly of all the people.
She does it without even taking time to think about it.
Being cold by choice to protect the people of Britain, even to her detriment, Saber is as selfless as they come – and a shining example of a true leader.
When she gives up the throne, her fighting skills and determination prove that a crown doesn’t definer this character – her strengths do.
9. Chihiro Ogino
Anime: Spirited Away
Learning that you have to be careful what you wish for, Chihiro doesn’t start her adventure off as a sympathetic character.
If anything, a lot of people might have thought she was a little brat!
However, despite being a small girl alone in a (sometimes) terrifying world, Chihiro demonstrates smarts and courage far beyond her years.
This is also one of the first anime protagonists a lot of anime fans might have encountered.
Chihiro’s transformation from selfish and scared to deserved hero of the day is something that any anime fan will remember – and I hope most won’t disagree that she deserves a place in this ranking.
8. Android 18
Anime: Dragon Ball Z
If you can go toe-to-toe with Saiyans, you’re already noteworthy.
If you can do that and keep Krillin relevant?
You’re on the list!
Such is the case of Android 18, the female twin of Android 17, both of whom start their android existence being programmed to kill Goku.
When that failed (not before she beat the hell out of Vegeta) she changed her tune and became a member of the main cast.
Android 18 was an inspiration for many young girls watching the show.
With her insane strength and fighting skill, not only was she a match for some of the most powerful characters in the universe… but for a long time she was the only female character who was.
That alone makes her place here justified.
Anime: Princess Mononoke
Being raised by wolves with a lot of fight in her, the Princess of the Forest might just be one of the most important female characters in any anime – let alone any work by Studio Ghibli.
Fierce and passionate about retaining her land, San teaches us that not only is protecting the natural world important, but that we have to be heard and seen to do it.
We have to fight for it!
San is never reduced to a mere romantic object. And she’s an inspiration that won’t back down from saving the thing she loves.
Quite a few other characters could take notes…
Tsukuyo is the leader of the all-female law-enforcement squad “Hyakka”, and she defines what it is to be a strong female lead.
She took to protecting outlaw courtesans who she had been ordered to assassinate, to then welcoming them into the ranks of the Hyakka, and faking their deaths at great risk to herself.
She’s a highly-skilled ninja who literally scarred herself to walk the path of a protector.
If nothing else, Tsukuyo is a true warrior who puts others first and stands up for what’s right.
Anime: One Piece
Eiichiro Oda’s long, long running series has introduced several armies-worth of memorable characters over the years.
But Nami stands head and shoulders above all the female characters in the show.
She was initially looking to double cross the Straw Hats. But Nami had a change of heart and joined the crew as their navigator.
Since then she has been an inseparable part of the family, willing to put her life on the line to help them find the One Piece.
Tough, smart, and brave, Nami epitomizes what a character should be when it comes to going on an adventure – and what a character should be to make a successful anime!
4. Misty Williams
Misty is possibly one of the most well-known characters in this list by name alone (first name alone, at least!)
And if you’re a fan, you know Misty proved to be both a remarkable friend (if hot-headed!) to Ash, and a caring trainer to the Pokémon she encountered.
Her achievements in becoming a Gym Leader speak for themselves – and it’s proven that she isn’t all tough attitude either.
Whether it was looking after her Togepi, or looking after Ash and Brock, Misty is a balanced character that shows what it means to have strengths and weaknesses – as we all do.
3. Usagi/Serena Tsukino
Anime: Sailor Moon
We all saw this one coming, right?
With an iconic a look and a transformation sequence you can never forget, the face of the Sailor Senshi proves that even a reluctant warrior can make a world of difference.
She’s able to see the good in anyone, whether she’s in human form or taking the form of Sailor Moon.
But Usagi always has heart to spare – and develops into an undisputed leader throughout the run of the show, despite sometimes being the most immature of the group.
Even with the many censorship changes made when the show released in the West, the “Rabbit of the Moon” maintained her popularity with fans of the anime – and proved without a doubt that she was a character worth looking up to.
2. Mikasa Ackerman
Anime: Attack on Titan
As the top rated soldier in the 104th Training Corps before joining the elite Survey Corps, Mikasa Ackerman is nothing short of fearsome.
There’s very little she can’t do through tactical smarts or sheer force.
This makes her both a formidable opponent, and an incredible ally.
One character in the show notes that she’s worth “100 soldiers”.
And it’s easy to see how true that is, just watching her take down Titans with an almost graceful ease.
1. Motoko Kusanagi
Anime: Ghost in the Shell
It wouldn’t be possible to have a list like this and not feature The Major, would it?
Despite her sometimes cold exterior, her “ghost in the shell” (her human soul in her cyborg body) keeps her caring for her colleagues and friends.
And she’s an insanely talented hacker, fighter, and occasionally lover.
Motoko proves time and time again that she can outperform the rest of her unit (Section 9) all by herself.
She’s unafraid of anything – sometimes to the point of having to be told not to “do anything stupid”.
I mean, she’s willing to sacrifice herself if it means she’s protecting the public.
I can’t think of a much better example of a character to showcase what this list is all about.