5. Himura Kenshin First Appearance: Rurouni Kenshin Episode 1, “The Handsome Swordsman of Legend,” 1996
A classic example of a classic anime type, the peace-loving killing machine. He’s a perfectly decent guy who hides something horrible inside him, which lends a low-level current of suspense to every second of the show he appears in. We know that it takes a whole lot of abuse to bring out the man that Kenshin used to be, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen at almost any time.
4. Spike Spiegel First Appearance: Cowboy Bebop Episode 1, “Asteroid Blues,” 1998
We don’t see it done very often, but in some ways animation is the perfect medium for film noir. Robert Rodriguez had the right idea when he filmed Frank Miller’s Sin City comics – the movie may star real people, but break down the whole package and it’s more than half a cartoon. Years before, Shinichiro Watanabe went all the way with Cowboy Bebop, and a fellow who, in his quiet way, became one of the great modern noir heroes.
3. Speed Racer First Appearance: Speed Racer Episode 1, “The Great Plan Part 1,” 1967
Yeah, he wore an ascot. It was the early ’60s, though, so you can mostly excuse that kind of thing. And he had a cool car and a monkey, which is pretty hard to beat.
2. Astro Boy First Appearance: Astro Boy Episode 1, “The Birth of Astro Boy,” 1963
His contemporary American reincarnation is just a touch embarrassing, but Tetsuwan Atom is still an icon among icons. He was Japan’s first great modern cartoon hero, on the printed page and the TV screen.
1. Goku First Appearance: Dragon Ball Episode 1, “Secret of the Dragon Ball,” 1986
There’s a brief movement during the Dragon Ball Z saga where Goku goes and dies. (The dying part wasn’t actually all that big a deal, though, since the Z Fighters died and came back about as often as the X-Men, and with as many lasting consequences.) Dead, Goku travels directly to the afterlife, where he greets King Kai – for all intents and purposes, God – and asks for the chance to train in martial arts beneath him, learning directly from the Almighty.
Japanese animation has given us plenty of bad-asses, but not very many could have beaten up God and then blown up the universe for an encore. Ladies and gentlemen, Son Goku.