The Best Anime Heroines

The brave, the bold, the brash and the beautiful

Sailor Moon is on our List of the Best Anime Heroines. Amazon

Heroines in anime are, by and large, no passive types who wait to be rescued. They're sweethearts but also butt kickers and troublemakers, death-dealers and life-savers. Here's our rundown of the most memorable, bravest, brashest and most downright charming heroines in anime.

It's all but impossible to stand in the same room with Belldandy and not feel downright ... well, angelic. And for good reason: she's a goddess, down on Earth to fulfill the complicated conditions of a contract she entered into with her human beloved, Keiichi. That's right, she's taken, and don't even think about coming between the two of them. Not just because of the divine powers, she can fling around, but because she's also a lady of unbending principle -- and one of those principles is absolute faith in her friends and loved ones. It's the fact she's got steel under her velvet that makes her far more than just a doe-eyed cardboard cut-out.

In the world of Black Lagoon -- one where underage twin brother-and-sister serial killers are not the worst things that you can come across -- the fact that you'd get a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, trigger-happy, ex-pat Chinese-American gun-bunny with homicidal tendencies is a good guy is one of the few good things that could happen to you. Maybe you wouldn't want her as an ally, but let's face it -- you want her even less as your enemy. Among the few out-and-out female anti-heroes of anime, Revy not only lives up to (and surpasses) the label but may well be a future template for such characters for a long time to come.

This crack team of cyberpunk mercenaries varies slightly depending on which incarnation of the show you're watching -- the 1987 original, or the 1998 remake -- but in both cases they feature a gang of determined, spry, indefatigable heroines who command some of the most versatile powered armor since Ellen Ripley hung up her power loader. Bonus points awarded for emotional counterbalance between the team members: e.g., the way the moody Priss is offset by the spunky Nene, or the way both of them are anchored by the determined newbie Linna and the melancholic Sylia.

Few shows can boast an almost all-female cast without degenerating into a mere skin parade (Queens Blade, anyone?). Claymore manages to avoid that trap, and pulls another nifty trick on top of it: it gives us a heroine, Clare, who begins icy and remote but by degrees shows a depth of feeling that puts her more immediately emotional teammates to shame. What complicates things further is how such extremes of feeling give her and her cohorts the power to overcome their enemies -- but at the same time puts them all the more at risk of becoming the very things they were brought into this world to subdue. It's Clare's emotional connection to a mere human, Raki, that not only brings her back from the edge but provides her with that much more to define herself as a character.

Too many women in sci-fi end up as either male-substitute combat characters (the only thing different is the body design) or as indifferently deployed set dressing. The dystopian Ergo Proxy puts a female character front and center gives her both brains and reflexes, and also allows her a chance to discover her heart as well. Said female is Re-l Mayer, a detective inspector on the trail of a computer virus that appears to be causing androids to go berserk. Re-l's composure encompasses a lot more than just her carefully applied makeup. (Speaking of which -- as for whether she was modeled after Amy Lee of Evanescence, it's anyone's guess.)

Any list of this sort that doesn't include the Major is missing one of the most iconic female characters in all of anime. Her icy demeanor was first established but not fully developed in Mamoru Oshii's loose feature-film adaptation of Masamune Shirow's cyberpunk manga story; it took the Stand Alone Complex TV series (in two seasons and a follow-up OAV) to fully round out her character. It isn't just that she has a cyborg body and can outgun most any of the men she serves with; it's her great and omnivorous intelligence, her slightly wicked sense of humor -- and her emotional soft spot which encompasses her teammate Batou, but which is only revealed when he's fully earned it.

At first, she seems little more than a lady in a hot dress with a gun (and is a crack shot to boot) -- but across the course of this epic story, as more of Ginrei's troubled past is revealed and her future choices narrow uncomfortably, she matures into a memorable and determined heroine. She also serves as a pillar of emotional support for another main character, Daisaku, and helps him in turn make crucial decisions that decide everyone else's fate -- hers included. (Note that she's shown to best effect in Giant Robo itself -- the Ginrei Special, pictured here, is more of a joke at her character's expense than anything else.)

Bounty hunter Iria is used to tough jobs, but she gets the battle of her life when a ship she's brought in for salvage turns out to have a horrifically deadly alien on board. The bare outlines of the plot don't sound like much, but as expanded into an excellent six-episode OVA, it's a vehicle for one of anime's more unsung heroines. Iria herself is an unpretentious, determined woman, who doesn't expect quarter from either enemies or allies: she's just here to do a job and collect her pay, same as anyone else in her position, male or female. It's exactly the kind of level-headed personality that makes for a good opponent to the even colder and calculating Zeiram (who deserves a slot on any list of all-time best anime villains, come to think of it).

With most female characters in anime being adolescents (or pre-adolescents), it's always refreshing to see a full-blown adult female heroine. Apart from the Major (see Ghost in the Shell above), there's Balsa, the spear-for-hire of Moribito. Tough and worldly, she discovers her protecting side when she's forced to take under her wing the prince of a realm -- and hide him away from the killers who want the spirit that's taken root inside of him. But a good deal of her behavior is motivated at least as much by nascent guilt as anything else, and it's intriguing to watch that much more of her character bubble to the surface between each superbly-executed fight sequence.

Most every Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film features a headstrong heroine with a profound sense of justice. The template for all those girls was laid down back in this eco-parable, the first of Miyazaki's features (and still one of the best). Nausicaä, the titular heroine, may be young and inexperienced -- and sometimes entirely too brash for her own good -- but she earns her stripes by dint of doing many of the things that her more adult counterparts simply don't. She sticks her neck out, not just once but many times -- especially towards the end, when she tries to stop an ecological apocalypse with nothing more than sheer willpower.

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Revolutionary Girl Utena: Utena

When people use a term like "gender-bent" to describe a character, they're missing out if Utena doesn't figure into the equation somewhere. A princess who would much rather be a prince (so to speak), she uses her fencing skills, her honesty, and the strength of her friendship to protect a mysterious classmate from having her peculiar powers exploited by the ruthless and amoral. It's fascinating to watch great complexity emerge from a character so outwardly simple and straightforward, and by the time you get to the end of the series her emotional odyssey has become yours as well. If that doesn't make her a great anime heroine, nothing does.

It's not for how she starts out -- a crybaby with bad grades and furtive dreams of being a hero. It's for how she's given power, grows into it by degrees, and eventually becomes a leader with great capability and courage, setting the tone for a slew of other "magical girl" heroines that have since followed in her wake. And depending on how you're keeping score, she also serves as one of the few female heroines in anime who leads a ​sentai-style hero's troupe. Not too shabby either way.

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The Slayers: Lina Inverse

And now, a dose of infamy. There's barely anyone in the universe of The Slayers who doesn't know the name "Lina Inverse" and run screaming in the opposite direction when they hear it. No surprise why: her grasping greed, her hot-headed flights of fancy and her utterly undisciplined use of magic combine synergistically to create a character you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in the room with -- but as long as she's on the other side of the screen, you can't wait to see what madness she's going to unleash next. Few characters walk such a fine line between being both insufferable and inexplicably charismatic.

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Soul Eater: Maka Albarn

It's been said that a harsh environment either crushes people or forces them to mature that much faster. Maka Albarn is proof of that thesis: between her womanizing, deadbeat dad and the pressures of wielding her partner, Soul, as a living weapon, it's a miracle she hasn't flipped out. But she does more than keeping it together: she ups her game and becomes a pillar of strength for both her team and her (increasingly troubled) buddy. The fact she's still able to smile through it all says something by itself.