When it comes to superhero cartoons, My Hero Academy is the main series that is likely to appear in the minds of fans. However, there are still many other anime series about superheroes, or people with special powers and costumes to fight crime. While it’s tempting to say that the best superhero cartoons are adaptations of Western Comics, this overlooks many unique properties that are entirely their own.
Superheroes don’t seem to be the first thing that fans think of when they think of anime, but the DNA of classic comics is closely intertwined with modern anime. Most modern Tokusatsu can actually trace its roots back to a Japanese Spider-Man TV series, which is odd, and there’s a reason heroes like Goku are often compared to Superman. However, the best superhero anime takes the basics of superhero stories and gives them a fresh perspective that sets them apart from their western analogues.
10 Astronomical Boys
It is impossible to have a list of Japanese superheroes without mentioning Astro Boy. Created by the forefather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy was one of the first anime to exist, even if it was very different from the modern version. Set in the distant future in 2013, Astro Boy begins with Dr. Tenma, who lost his only son in a car crash and recreates a cyborg in the boy’s image, Atom. While Dr. Tenma eventually betrays Atom, the young cyborg soon finds a new mentor, Professor Ochanomizu, who encourages him to use his powers for good. Astro Boy was revolutionary and world famous, inaugurating a legacy of more than 60 years. As one of the earliest successful anime, it’s no exaggeration to say that anime wouldn’t be what it is today without Astro Boy.
Inspired by the Ultraman series, SSSS.Gridman is a giant robot and a superhero in equal measure. Yuta, a young boy in an unfamiliar city, wakes up with no memory of his life, and quickly realizes that he now has access to an old computer, which he then shows up as Gridman, a Super Agent responsible for protecting cyberspace. Yuta and Gridman fend off the Kaiju’s attack as Yuta tries to regain his memory, unraveling the city’s mysteries in the process. Despite its short, the series is thoroughly engaging and a clear tribute to Japanese superhero series like Ultraman.
Heroman is not an adaptation of a Western property, but it was created by a prominent character in the Western Superhero novels: Stan Lee. The film is about an orphan boy living on the American West Coast, Joey Jones, who longs for a robot named Heybo. He finds a broken one and fixes it, but then the heybo is hit by lightning causing it to turn into a giant robot. It is now up to Joey and the new cyborg, named Heroman, to protect Earth as evil aliens known as the Skruggs begin their assault on the planet. The series is, without a doubt, a bit goofy, but it’s still worth checking out for superhero fans as a unique project by a legend. The series was also animated by Bones, the same studio as My Hero Academia.
Zetman is a darker, more serious superhero than most other entries on this list. Zetman opens with the conflict between two superheroes, ZET and Alphas, before returning to discover how it all turned out. ZET uses beast transformation to become a superpower character, like Hulk, while Alphas uses technology to fight crime, more like Iron Man. Both are tasked with protecting the city from attacks by the Players, monsters created through unethical scientific experimentation. The series is rife with twists and turns, resulting in a series that certainly succeeds in making a difference.
Charlotte is set in a world where a comet (officially known as Charlotte) approaches every 75 years and grants children superpowers. However, these superpowers are very limited in their application, either due to the effort required or only a hard limit on the amount of time the energy can be spent. For example, series protagonist Yuu Otosaka has the ability to possess others, but only for five seconds. As a result, Charlotte has one of the most unique uses of superpowers in anime, as their limited nature requires the characters to work together to succeed, even if they normally don’t get along.
5 Darker than Black
Coincidentally made by Studio Bones like My Hero Academia, Darker than Black begins when a strange place called Hell’s Gate appears in Tokyo and Heaven’s Gate appears simultaneously in South America. Certain individuals, known as Contractors, have been affected by the appearance of Hell’s Gate, granting them incredible powers at the cost of their emotions and conscience. The existence of Contractors is kept secret from the public, but governments around the world have no problem using these superpowered individuals as spies and assassins. Darker than Black has a rather unique approach to superpowers, as each contractor has a special price they pay after using their powers; sometimes it takes the form of compulsion, such as the need to crack one’s fingers, or it can trigger automatically. Hiei and those around him must answer what it means to be human as they deal with threats and uncover the mystery of Hell’s Gate.
This little-known series from the early 2000s is a strange anime about mutants that suddenly appear, like the X-Men. An unexpected disaster turned a part of Japan into a territory known as the “Lost Land”, which incidentally caused a small percentage of the population born in this situation to develop strength. These individuals, known as Alternate Users, can gather matter and energy around them and use it to transform into Alternates, a manifestation of their powers. The abilities the User can change are wild and unpredictable, such as turning any car pink, clairvoyance, or Green Lantern-style energy structures. The ability to change also evolves over time, allowing the character to develop new powers. The series’ conflict relies not so much on good and evil but on order versus chaos, making both protagonist Kazuma and villain Ryuuhou very relatable characters.
3 tigers & rabbits
Set in a futuristic city, Tiger & Bunny sees special individuals born with powers, called NEXT, become heroes and use those powers for good…ish purposes. Strengths in this series tend to be a bit more conventional, but only slightly; what really sets Tiger & Bunny apart is its setting, the city of Sternbild. Sternbild straddles the line between utopia and utopia, with its heroes forced to work under the Hero TV banner, seeing funding and ratings as key factors complicating their ability to fight crime. In that sense, it’s arguably one of the more realistic movies about superheroes, as most superhero media completely covers up how crime fighters finance their operations. Kotetsu, AKA Wild Tiger, the main character, struggles with this the most as he has a reputation for causing a lot of collateral damage – a fact that he eventually finds him paired with Barnaby, AKA Bunny. Tiger & Bunny captures its characters brilliantly, with the second season particularly focusing on the importance of relationships.
2 big O’s
What if Batman used a giant machine instead of a hood to fight crime? Big O, very consciously modeled after the ’90s Batman: The Animated Series, answers that question by putting wealthy negotiator Roger Smith in the pilot’s seat of Big O, a mysterious machine that answers his calls through a special wristwatch. Roger lives in a strange place known as the Model City, a town with no past and its future constantly on the brink of destruction. Big O even has something of a gallery of rogues, with opponents as varied as Alex Rosewater or Schwarzvald taking on roles comparable to Western comic book villains, like Lex Luthor or the Joker. Despite its brazen imitation of Batman, The Big O sets itself apart by focusing on big ideas like the meaning of memory and the importance of identity, and these big ideas dominated the series with its ending.
1 man one punch
While it may end up being a satire about overpowered heroes who can easily solve any problem, One-Punch Man is actually a pretty awesome superhero show. The show features a wide variety of heroes, from the street Mumen Rider, who has no powers other than conventional sports and a bicycle, to the powerful S-class, which includes characters with incredible abilities like Tatsumaki’s superpowers. Protagonist Saitama is a surprisingly interesting character, in that his power makes him feel bored all the time… but he still begins to use it to help people in need, even if it’s never as enjoyable as he hoped. With a new season 3 of the One-Punch Man anime on the horizon, there’s never been a better time to dive in and get hooked, especially since the manga will be adapting fans who wowed with its quality last year.
While there are plenty of other anime series that feature characters that could be considered superheroes, such as the entire magical girl genre, the series above best fits what Western viewers would recognize as superheroes. Each also manages to make a difference with My Hero Academy by focusing on different aspects of what makes a superhero story a superhero story, from freaky mutants to badass regular guys with a mechanic’s key.