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10 Iconic Anime Heroines

The Ladies of Anime Have Their Day

By Thomas Zoth     January 19, 2010

Top 10 Iconic Anime Heroines
© Mania/Bob Trate

One of the most enduring riddles of anime is why Japan, a country with strictly defined gender roles, has so many strong female characters.


Because these women are always sexy and often underdressed, one theory suggest that their appeal can be reduced to simple voyeurism. However, if that were that simple, why not keep the sexy heroine in a mere supporting role, as a damsel in distress or as a spunky Bond girl? Why center the focus of dramatic tension on the heroine's questions about her own humanity? The following 10 heroines influenced countless others. Through their stories, you can treace the development of women in anime, and formulate your own theories about their importance.


10. Rei Ayanami

Her story: In distant 2015, the world faces a threat of attack by mysterious alien begins known as Angels. To combat this threat, special agency NERV has constructed biomechanical mecha units known as Evangelion. Inconveniently, these powerful weapons can only be piloted by teenagers. One such teenager, known as the First Child, is the quiet, mysterious Rei Ayanami. Emotionally distant to all but NERV commander Gendo Ikara, Rei is consumed by her mission to defeat the Angels above all else. When Rei is injured in a synchronization test, a new pilot is called in to take her place. The new pilot, Third Child Shinji Ikari, seeks to learn more about the beautiful, distant Ayanami, but Rei is much more complicated than she first appears.
Why she is iconic: Rei Ayanami proved such a popular character that she started a merchandising boom. Shops in Akihabara struggled to keep Rei Ayanami figurines and toys in stock. Other anime series worked to include quiet, mysterious girls in order to capitalize on this popularity. Many critics also credit Ayanami for starting the moe boom in anime, with its reliance on weak, vulnerable characters that the audience would desire to protect.

9. Motoko Kusanagi

First appeared: 1989 in Young Magazine. Ghost in the Shell, by Masamune Shirow.
Her story: While her true name, age and nationality are unknown, one thing is certain: The woman known as Major Motoko Kusanagi is extremely talented. She is squad leader of Public Security Section 9, a section charged with investigating cyber-crime. Kusanagi is the star of three major Ghost in the Shell properties, and her personality differs in each. Shirow's original Kusanagi is a technofetishist pin-up: Brilliant and powerful, while also sensual and irreverent. Mamoru Oshii's movies feature a more angstyl, philosophical Kusanagi who wonders if her artificial, mass produced body leaves her no longer human. In Stand Alone Complex, Kusanagi retains her sly wit, but is not gleefully insubordinate as she is in the manga. In all of her incarnations, she remains incredibly capable in both her investigation, and her navigation of the complex intra-bureau politics in the Public Safety Commission.
Why she is iconic: The Major helped to define the perception of anime heroines abroad: Deadly, efficient, and often completely naked. Both strong and sexy, Motoko Kusanagi embodies the contradictions inherent in anime heroines.

8. Noriko Takaya

First appeared: 1988 in Aim for the Top! Gunbuster.
Her story: In 2032, mankind faces the threat of the menacing Space Monsters. After one of the first battles with the aliens, Admiral Takaya of the starship Luxion goes missing. His daugher, Noriko Takaya, swears to search for him in space. She enrolls at a training school in Okinawa, where she intends to learn how to pilot a Machine Weapon, robotic armor that serves as mankind's most valuable weapon against the Monster invasion. Despite her inability to pilot a Machine Weapon, Coach Ohta picks young Noriko to be one of the two students selected from the school to join the crew of the Exelion. Everyone at the school feels Noriko was picked only because of her famous father, including Takaya herself. Ohta refuses to indulge Takaya's self-pity, and instructs her that she too can become a great pilot with hard work and guts!
Why she is iconic: Gunbuster was an inspired mixture of the schoolgirl angst of tennis manga Aim for the Ace and giant robot schlock of Mazinger Z. Due to the effects of time dilation, Noriko Takaya remains a young girl throughout the series. She matures as a person and a pilot, and grows more self-confident while never leaving her teenage years. As a flipside to this empowerment, Gunbuster introduced the GAINAX Bounce, which has influenced fan service from Plastic Little to Ikki Tousen.

7. Priss Asagiri

First appeared: 1987 in Bubblegum Crisis.
Her story: In Mega-Tokyo, AD 2032, humanoid androids called Boomers have started going rogue, causing massive death and destruction. The AD Police, tasked with stopping and investigating Boomer crime, is unable to meet the threat. Enter the Knight Sabers, a paramilitary group of four young women equipped with armored hard suits which allow them to fight back against the Boomer menace. Although the team's official leader is the wealthy businesswoman Sylia Stingray, the fighting force and driving spirit behind the group is Priscilla "Priss" Asagiri. Leader of the rock band "Priss and the Replicants", Priss also doubles as the Knight Saber in blue. She's also not above using the starstruck AD Police officer Leon MacNichol for leads on the actions of the nefarious Genom corporation, manufacturer of the Boomers.
Why she is iconic: Priss brought a punk-rock attitude to the action heroine. While many other heroines are frivolous, Priss is tough as nails and unafraid to keep Leon and the other Knight Sabers in line. Character designer Kenichi Sonoda would go on to create bounty hunter Rally Vincent, and writer Chiaki Konaka developed android cop Armitage III.

6. Nausicaa

First appeared: 1982 in Animage. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki.
Her story: On a post-apocalyptic earth, 1000 years after the cataclysmic Seven Days of Fire, lives young Princess Nausicaa. Nausicaa is heir to the Valley of the Wind, a small state named for its powerful winds, which keep destructive spores at bay. Secretly, Nausicaa is researching the creatures and plants of the Sea of Corruption, a massive wasteland that comprises a majority of the continent. She seeks to find a way that the creatures of the Sea and humanity can live in peace. Unfortunately, not all humans seek peace, and the Torumekian empire invades the small Valley. When her father is killed by Torumekian troops, Nausicaa flies into a rage and kills her father's murderers. She comes to regret her vengeance, and decides to mediate between the different factions of humanity in order to prevent another destructive war.
Why she is iconic: Inspired by the Greek Nausicaa and the Japanese folktale "The Princess Who Loved Insects," Miyazaki intended to create a character that would appeal to both men and women. Curious and nurturing, but capable in combat and politics, Nausicaa is Miyazaki's archetypal heroine, who can be seen in Ashitaka, San, and Eboshi of Princess Mononoke.

5. Kei and Yuri, the Lovely Angels

First appeared: 1979 in SF Magajin. The Dirty Pair's Great Adventures, by author Haruka Takachiko and illustrator Yoshikazu Yasuhiko.
Their story: In 2141, the police are so overwhelmed with monitoring crime around the universe that private agencies have stepped in to share some of the workload. One such agency is the World Welfare Work Association, or WWWA. Two of their most questionably capable agents are Kei and Yuri, a team called the Lovely Angels. While they always solve any case assigned to them by the WWWA's central computer, it usually comes at the cost of civilian casualties, property damage, and the occasional planetary explosion. But it's not their fault... not entirely, anyway. Due to their bad luck and penchant for mass destruction, Kei and Yuri have been nicknamed the Dirty Pair. Though the two teenage girls bicker, they share a psychic bond that gives them special insight into the mysteries they're given to solve.
Why they are iconic: While the pair didn't invent the girls with guns genre, it started a boom in destructive, deadly young women. Furthermore, although Kei and Yuri are actually wearing full body spacesuits that only happen to be 90 percent transparent, their battle bikini fashion statement was similarly influential. Director Koichi Mashimo would go on to develop similar deadly pairings in Noir, Madlax, El Cazador de la Bruja, and Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom.

4. Cutey Honey

First appeared: 1973 in Shonen Champion. Cutey Honey, by Go Nagai.
Her story: Much like Astro Boy, Honey Kisaragi is an android created by a grieving father. Although he was made in the form of Professor Kisaragi's daugher, he seeks to make her more powerful and perfect than the original. To this end, he installs an Airborne Element Solidifier in her breasts, which allows her to change form and dress. When the professor is killed by the evil Panther Claw gang, Honey becomes the sword-wielding super-heroine Cutey Honey to avenge his death and protect the world. Sometimes she's a television reporter, sometimes she's a martial arts master, and sometimes she's a rock and roll star. But, always, there is the Honey Flash.
Why she is iconic: With Cutey Honey, Go Nagai developed fan service into an art form. The nude transformation sequence, now a standard for magical girls, was pioneered by Honey. Nevertheless, Honey was and is a capable, charismatic heroine whom many young women look up to. Her adventures remain popular in Japan to this day.

3. Oscar Francois de Jarjayes

First appeared: 1972 in Margaret. Rose of Versailles, by Riyoko Ikeda.
Her story: Sixth daughter to the noble de Jarjayes family, Oscar's father decides to raise his daughter as a man and his heir. She proves a natural at fencing and horsemanship, and soon rises to be Captain of the Guard for Queen Marie Antoinette. Androgynously beautiful, she is loved and admired by both men and women. Oscar also finds herself indispensible in managing the intrigue of the court, as well as a potentially ruinous affair between Marie Antoinette and a Swedish Count. Disgusted by the increasing decadence of the French Aristocracy, Oscar finds she must decide between her duty to her Queen and class, or supporting the French people's desire for liberty and equality.
Why she is iconic: Oscar is an evolution and refinement of Sapphire, for older shojo fans. She seeks to remain true to both her masculine and feminine traits, and wants to be an equal of the men of the guard. Oscar's appeal with both men and women introduced both shonen ai and yuri elements to the shojo genre. Her influence can be seen in Revolutionary Girl Utena and Le Chevalier D'eon.

2. Fujiko Mine

First appeared: 1967 in Weekly Manga Action. Lupin III, by Kazuhiko "Monkey Punch" Kato.
Her story: Fujiko Mine first appears to Lupin III as a con woman attempting to ingratiate herself into a wealthy family, and that family's fortune. Lupin was hired by the family to provide security, but soon works with Fujiko to rob the family blind. So begins the complicated relationship between Lupin and Fujiko. As Fujiko tells the young Princess Clarisse in The Castle of Cagliostro, "Sometimes we're allies, at other times we're enemies. Occaisonally, we're even lovers." Unlike the other member of Lupin's entourage, Fujiko is a free spirit, whose love for money and love for Lupin are always in conflict. Named for her assets (her name translates as "The Peaks of Mount Fuji"), Fujiko is a femme fatale with a superb markswoman and master of disguise. Easily Lupin's equal, the master thief crosses her at his own risk.
Why she is iconic: Sexy and capable, the success of any heist can depend on Fujiko's whim. A capricious foil with her own agenda, she is the inspiration for Cowboy Bebop's Faye Valentine.

1. Sapphire

First appeared: 1953 in Shojo Club. Ribon no Kishi, by Osamu Tezuka.
Her story: As a child growing up in Takarazuka, Osamu Tezuka was enchanted by the all-female Takarazuka theatre troupe, where women played both male and female roles. As a tribute, Tezuka created Sapphire, the Knight in Ribbons, or Princess Knight. As a prank, the cherub Tink gave the baby Sapphire both the nurturing heart of a girl and the adventurous blue heart of a boy. This proved to be somewhat serendipitous, as her parents, the King and Queen of Silverland needed a male heir to keep the crown from passing to the corrupt Duke Duralumon. Sapphire is raised as a boy, and fights to keep the kingdom safe from brigands and revolutionaries. Once she falls in love with the dashing Prince Franz Charming, however, she wants to live as a woman. Sapphire must reconcile her duty to the kingdom of Silverland with her own personal desire for Prince Charming.
Why she is iconic: Princess Knight was the first shojo manga featuring an ongoing story, which revolutionized the genre. She was also the first gender-bending hero in manga and anime. Sapphire also served as the inspiration for the heroines of Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena.


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Showing items 1 - 10 of 16
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xanathon 1/19/2010 2:22:38 AM

A little incomplete... What about the catgirls from "Dominion Tank Police", the girls from "Tenchi Muyo (Ryo Ohki)", the girls from Ranma 1/2, the grils from "El Hazard", the girls from "Record Of Lodoss War"? Deunan Knute from "Appleseed"? "Battle Angel Alita"? The "Gun Smith Cats"? And so forth...

al2551 1/19/2010 7:57:27 AM

Despite the fact that I never warmed up to her, I think that this list is incomplete without Sailor Moon. I think that she is the definition of iconic heroine.

Whitelotuspriest 1/19/2010 8:15:50 AM

Great list!! Some character's I would add would be Faye Valentine (cowboy bebop), Sakura (Naruto), Kikyo (inuyasha), Saya (Blood the last vampire), and even though I'm not into that series maybe even Belldandy (Ah! my goddess). I think Rei Ayaname should be higher but then again I'm a huge Evangelion fan! Again, great list!!

Whitelotuspriest 1/19/2010 8:19:20 AM

...And speaking of Evangelion, Asuka definitely should get a mention!!

abynum5 1/19/2010 8:40:15 AM

Really good list.  With so many competent female leads over the years, it's incredibly difficult to nail down any sort of Top 10, but I really enjoyed how you tacked on the notes of which other characters/archetypes these individual personalities inspired in later years.  These characters are iconic because we can easily eye a trail of similarly designed identities in the wake of their critical and/or commercial success... an overwhelming majority of anime heroines produced in the past two decades are composed of elements of the gals on this list.

torvar72 1/19/2010 10:27:32 AM

Where is the police girl from Hellsing??? Faye Valentine should be on the list as should the girls from Slayers. This list incomplete and needs a overhall.

Calibur454 1/19/2010 11:19:42 AM

although the list is ok I agree with some of you that there should be ohters added in.

Saya- blood the last vampire

Rin- Rin Daughter's of mnemouse

Misaki- GhostTalker's Daydream

Belldandy- Ah! my goddess

Chris Beveridge 1/19/2010 12:26:00 PM

Calibur, outside of possibly Belldandy, are any of those truly iconic though?

WarCry 1/19/2010 2:57:07 PM

I think Major Kusanagi should be higher up on the list, but that might be because GitS is the first real Anime movie I watched after I learned to appreciate anime as more than just a cartoon. I'd seen Akira, but didn't appreciate it originally.

The GitS movie, then SAC and SAC2 are some of my favorite sci-fi television, and she is, after all, the star...

Wyldstaar 1/19/2010 3:30:02 PM

There should also be a mention of Nova/Starsha/Trelana from Starblazers.  Sure they were actually three different characters, but they all looked exactly the same.

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