Did you know that some of the most popular and most enduring TV shows of all time are actually anime series? Shonen anime series, to be exact.
The shonen genre involves anime series that primarily target adolescent boys, with heavy emphasis on action scenes, adventure plots, and epic stakes. However, there's a huge variety of anime within the shonen genre, and many of them appeal to those who aren't young and aren't male.
In fact, no matter who you are, it's pretty much guaranteed for there to be a shonen anime series that you'll love, if for no other reason than the fact that there are so many of them out there.
And that's partly why it's so hard to list the best and most influential shonen anime of all time, let alone crowning one as the king of kings. It's a genre that includes most of the highest-grossing anime titles of all time, after all.
For this list, our criteria for best shonen animes comes down to three main factors: the lasting influence of the show, how well it balances tropes and conventions, and the overall quality of animation and narrative.
5. Fist of the North Star (1984–1987)
In many ways, Fist of the North Star was the prototype that paved a way for the world's most celebrated anime and manga of all time.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the series follows the adventures of Kenshiro as he seeks justice in a lawless world, complete with Kenshiro's ability to strike an enemy's vital points and make them explode in gory glory.
While the plot and characters are basic by today's standards, Fist of the North Star helped popularize the shonen genre and influenced a whole generation of artists and writers in Japan. In fact, Berserk, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and Vinland Saga were all directly inspired by this classic anime!
4. My Hero Academia (2016–Present)
For six seasons now, My Hero Academia has continually made itself known as one of the best anime series ever made. Each season brings a whole new level of hype, and yet it somehow delivers every time (for the most part).
Set in a world where the vast majority of humanity has some form of superpower (called Quirks), My Hero Academia explores how a premise like that would really change people and impact society.
For starters, there are entire schools set up to help people become superheroes, with costumed heroes being this world's analogue to the entertainment celebrities of our own world.
But what makes this show truly special is its balance between action and drama, primarily around teenagers who are learning to control their powers (among others who only seek to abuse theirs).
The relationships between students and mentors is key, with characters like All Might, Eraserhead, and Endeavor each passing their torches onto the new generation of heroes who come after them.
3. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (2012–Present)
Few shows have the kind of tonal shift that we got in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The early episodes are very Victorian-era drama, with Jonathan Joestar's rivalry with adoptive brother Dio front and center.
However, by episode four, Dio is an immortal vampire thanks to an Aztec ritual mask, Jack the Ripper is a ghoul climbing out of a horse's severed head, and Jonathan is learning the mystical power of the sun—all of this before the show even introduces its signature "Stand" abilities.
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is constantly reimagining itself, with each season following the adventures of the next generation of the Joestar clan, which have included psychic dogs, sentient plankton in the form of a woman, and the greatest vampire story ever told.
This long-running shonen anime is unashamedly strange, with a great collection of heroes to cheer for.
2. One Piece (1999–Present)
One Piece is one of the longest-running manga and anime series in existence, with over 1,000 episodes of pirate adventures to enjoy.
At its core, the show is about Monkey D. Luffy's desire to become king of the pirates, but the show offers a wonderfully nuanced take on modern politics as the power dynamics are always shifting between those who are in control and those who are seeking freedom.
For more than 20 years, One Piece has remained one of the most popular shonen anime ever made, outlasting other long-running hits like Naruto and Bleach, without ever straying from its fun, entertaining, and incredibly well-animated identity week after week.
Any other series that ran this long would be full of cheap fillers and weak narratives, but One Piece has rarely fumbled. The episode count might be daunting, but once you start watching One Piece, you'll be hooked—plus, you'll never be in danger of not having something to watch.
1. Dragon Ball (1986–1989)
Dragon Ball wasn't the first pioneer of the shonen genre, but nobody can deny the influence of this show on anime's global popularity.
The adventures of Goku as he strives to find new levels of power and strength is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. In many parts of the world, the characters in Dragon Ball are way more popular than America's favorite comic characters, including Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
And it's not just that Dragon Ball was popular, but it was the source of so many of today's defining shonen tropes: power level transformations, unlocking powers mid-fight, a protagonist who remains static while the characters change around them, etc.
While the anime has some pacing issues, its influence alone makes it the greatest and most important shonen anime of all time.