As iconic or legendary as shonen anime can be, not all shonen anime heroes have a loving fanbase. In fact, the opposite is true in some cases — some shonen anime protagonists inspire intense criticism or even hatred from viewers.
For one reason or another, these shonen protagonists fell short of expectations. This left viewers no choice but to shift their attention to the anime's side characters, who weren't just more tolerable, but even better than the hero. From edgy shonen like Akame Ga Kill! to harem anime like Love Hina and Rent-A-Girlfriend all the way to the isekai trendsetter that is Sword Art Online, these side characters outshine the protagonists time and time again.
This article contains spoilers for several anime.
10 Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters — The Other Duelists Weren't As Forgettable As Yami/Yugi Muto
The nostalgia for Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters is rooted in The Abridged Series, not the actual anime. Fans are especially nostalgic for Yami and Yugi. In the parody series, Yami and Yugi are two halves of a hilariously snarky duo. In the actual anime, Yami is a boringly nigh-unbeatable duelist, while Yugi is a generically kindhearted kid.
Yami and Yugi aren't the worst shonen gamers out there, but they're easily overshadowed by everyone else. Friends like Joey, Tea, or Mai have more compelling journeys to prove themselves, while the legendary rival Seto Kaiba steals the entire anime. Yami and Yugi are as generic as gaming anime heroes go, so much so that they were supplanted by their parodies.
9 Bleach — Every Other Shinigami Was More Interesting Than Ichigo Kurosaki
When it comes to the heroes of Shonen Jump's Big Three, Bleach's Ichigo aged the worst. While One Piece's Monkey D. Luffy and Naruto's Naruto Uzumaki grew into mature heroes, Ichigo began and ended Bleach as a no-nonsense hero who protected his friends and family. It's because of this stagnation that fans and even the manga's editors gravitated towards everyone else in the cast.
At worst, Ichigo was a sentient and forgettable plot device who kept Bleach's story on track. Meanwhile, the Espada and Gotei 13's soldiers — especially Rukia and Renji — had more going on in terms of looks, motives, and powers. Ichigo tends to fade into the background of topical shonen discussions, but the other Shinigami continue to stand out.
8 A Certain Magical Index — The Railgun Cast Stole Toma Kamijo's Thunder For A Reason
At its core, A Certain Magical Index is a typical shonen battle anime with some mild harem elements. Toma embodied these genres' tropes perfectly, from his spiky hair, involuntary harem, and stock hero persona. Though his ordinary status in Academy City makes sense, he was too unremarkable to lead an anime as heightened as Index.
It wasn't until the spin-off, A Certain Scientific Railgun, that Toma's true calling as a love interest was realized. During Index, Toma met Mikoto Misaka and her friends, who stole the show before headlining their own anime and, later on, the franchise. Toma was at his best during sporadic appearances, not when he was the star.
7 Highschool Of The Dead — The Other Survivors Compensated For Takashi Komuro's Blandness
Given how schlocky it is, Highschool Of The Dead's real stars were the action and fanservice. These were provided by Rei, Saeko, Saya, and the rest of the main cast's women — not by the protagonist. If not for Takashi's shotgun, he would be easily mistaken for a generic harem protagonist.
Highschool Of The Dead is an unapologetic harem anime with zombies, and Takashi being a hyper-competent blank slate only makes this fact harder to ignore. To his credit, Takashi is a lot more proactive than most harem heroes, but his typical heroic drive and romantic indecisiveness are outshone by the women's louder personalities and gimmicks.
6 Sword Art Online — There Were Better Gamers & Characters Than Kirito
Sword Art Online started many of modern isekai's worst indulgences, with Kirito being touted as the poster child of this trend. While it could be argued that Kirito's clones are worse than he is, there's a reason why this criticism was leveled at him in the first place, and it still holds true even in a vacuum.
Besides Kirito being unfairly overpowered, thus making all stakes irrelevant, he's as generic as a wish-fulfilling hero can be. Kirito's only purpose in Sword Art Online is to fulfill the audience's power fantasies, so it's up to side characters like Asada Shino or Kohiruimaki Karen to actually tell interesting gamified isekai stories.
5 Akame Ga Kill! — Everyone Else Emphasized How Misplaced Tatsumi Was
Akame Ga Kill! is one of the edgiest shonen animes of the 2010s, which is what makes Tatsumi stand out for all the wrong reasons. Before he joined the resistance movement Night Raid, Tatsumi was a typical naive high schooler who went to the big city with dreams in his eyes. In brief, he was better off in a school story, not a gory battle anime.
Meanwhile, Tatsumi is surrounded by the likes of the legendary assassin Akame or memorable evil villains like Seryu Ubiquitous. Everyone in Akame Ga Kill! has a heightened personality that's complemented by an equally striking appearance, which are crucial things that Tatsumi lacks as a blank audience surrogate.
4 Future Diary — The Other Diary Users Were More Compelling Than Yuki Amano
Yuki from Future Diary is a bad shonen hero, but it isn't because he's a coward. After all, his fear is exactly the kind of reaction an ordinary high schooler would have in a cosmic death game. Yuki's problem, instead, is that he's equal parts inactive and overpowered. Despite refusing to fight for most of the anime, Yuki is treated like the most powerful player.
Because of how Yuki is treated, viewers divert their attention to the other Diary Users. Not only do the other Diary Users have more vibrant looks and powers, but their motives are more compelling than Yuki's. Additionally, Yuno gradually reveals herself to be Future Diary's true protagonist, and her tragedy is more impactful than Yuki's.
3 Darling In The FranXX — The Other Pilots Lacked Hiro & Zero Two's Impossibly Perfect Romance
In Darling In The FranXX's defense, fans only really turned on it during its last third. The anime sacrificed intriguing character drama and mystery for rushed conclusions and major rip-offs of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Worse, the anime kept pushing Hiro and Zero Two as the perfect couple, to the point that fans were off-put.
Originally, Hiro and Zero Two were just a bit too cutesy. However, since Darling In The FranXX kept insisting that their romance was so perfect that it would literally save the universe, viewers connected more with Squad 13's grounded pilots. The likes of Ichigo, Goro, Kokoro, and Mitsuru aged better in hindsight, while Hiro and Zero Two became too saccharine for some.
2 Love Hina — Keitaro Urashima's Harem Was Better Off Without Him
For better and worse, harem (and even romance) anime owe a lot to Love Hina. Keitaro's love interests codified many of the archetypical love interests that make up today's harems. But while Naru, Kitsune, Shinobu, Motoko, and others can inspire some nostalgia, the same can't be said for Keitaro.
Keitaro harbors the most annoying traits that any harem hero could have, such as his thinly-veiled lust and obnoxious habit of finding himself in the most inexplicably raunchy hijinks. As old-school as their one-note personalities may be, Love Hina's focal women still have a better retrospective reputation than the vehemently hated Keitaro.
1 Rent-A-Girlfriend — Everyone Else Wasn't As Annoying As Kazuya Kinoshita
Harem anime protagonists have a terrible reputation for being annoyingly indecisive and oftentimes lecherous, and Kazuya from Rent-A-Girlfriend is the most recent example of these problems in action. It isn't just that Kazuya is a transparent blank slate for audiences to project themselves onto, but he's so unlikeable that he's been declared the worst male hero of the 2020s.
Rent-A-Girlfriend's saving grace are the four titular "girlfriends," who each have their reasons for choosing this particular line of work and have emotionally charged backstories. The fact that Chizuru, Mami, Ruka, and Sumi don't just have to put up with Kazuya, but also end up falling for someone as immature as he is really got on some viewers' nerves.