12 iconic anime that helped shape global pop culture

From thrilling adventures to heartfelt stories, discover the anime that has captured hearts worldwide and find your next binge-watch.

Cowboy BeBop season 1 | Photo Courtesy: Funimation
Cowboy BeBop season 1 | Photo Courtesy: Funimation /

Anime isn't just a bunch of cartoons - it's a whirlwind tour through worlds where you can fight titans by breakfast and pilot giant robots by lunch, all while dealing with the complexities of high school drama by dinner. Sounds fun, right?

Imagine a universe where your cat could be a secret guardian, your neighbor might be a time-traveling samurai, and that seemingly ordinary notebook? Yeah, it could have the power to alter the fabric of reality itself. That's basically anime in a nutshell – a place where the mundane meets the magical in the most spectacular ways.

But anime is more than just its thrilling plots and unforgettable characters. It's a cultural phenomenon that's zipped across oceans faster than a ninja on a mission, embedding itself into the heart of pop culture worldwide. From fashion lines inspired by anime aesthetics to cafes themed around beloved series, anime has left its mark everywhere. It's in the way we see stories unfold, in the memes we share, and even in the language we use - ever heard someone shout "Kamehameha" at the beach while playing volleyball and hitting a mean serve? It's pretty awesome.

Beyond entertainment, anime has become a bridge connecting different cultures, teaching us lessons in friendship, perseverance, and the importance of ramen and boba tea, which makes up about 90% of my diet. It’s inspired conventions filled with cosplayers, fan art that fills the internet to the brim, and debates over the best "One Piece" theories that could rival academic dissertations.

So, whether you're a long-time fan capable of debating the finer points of "Naruto" vs. "Bleach" or a newbie intrigued by the colorful art and epic stories, know this: diving into anime is like opening a door to a universe where every day is an adventure. In that spirit, let's take a look at 12 anime that have helped shape pop culture and have become a staple in any weeb-in-the-making's anime list.

1. Naruto / Naruto: Shippuden

These two anime shows are where the dream-chasing, ramen-loving, orange-clad ninja, Naruto Uzumaki, steals the show. This isn't just a story about throwing ninja stars and whooshing through trees (though there's plenty of that) - it's a tale of guts, growth, and the kind of grit that turns an underdog into a village hero. Naruto's journey from the mischievous outcast to the Hokage (basically the ninja president) is more than just action-packed, it's a rollercoaster of emotions that has fans worldwide cheering, crying, and occasionally practicing hand signs in their bedrooms (just in case).

But Naruto is more than a ninja saga; it's a cultural titan. It’s invaded our wardrobes with headbands, spiced up conversations with "Believe it!" and inspired countless memes. This anime hasn't just shaped pop culture; it's ninja-kicked its way into our hearts, showing us the power of perseverance, friendship, and believing in our own ninja way.

Dragon Ball Z - Photo Credits: Crunchyroll
Dragon Ball Z - Photo Credits: Crunchyroll /

2. The Dragon Ball series

Hop on your Nimbus Cloud, charge up your Ki, and dive into the world of Dragon Ball. This isn't just any anime; it's the legendary saga that introduced us to Goku, a martial artist with a heart as big as his appetite, embarking on quests that span the Earth to the far reaches of the universe. Whether he's gathering Dragon Balls to grant wishes or throwing down in epic battles that literally break time and space, Goku and his gang have been redefining cool since before most of us knew how to do a Kamehameha wave in our backyards. The love for the franchise is over 9000!

But Dragon Ball is more than just fights and flights of fancy - it's a cornerstone of pop culture. It's taught us the value of perseverance and friendship, and that sometimes, you just need to scream really loudly to overcome your limits. I do it all the time and it's pretty cathartic. From influencing a myriad of other shows and comics to making its mark on fashion, Dragon Ball has shown that with enough training, you can achieve just about anything.

One Piece - Photo Credits: Crunchyroll
One Piece - Photo Credits: Crunchyroll /

3. One Piece

In the wavy world of One Piece, the treasure isn't just gold but the grand adventure of a lifetime with Monkey D. Luffy and his ragtag crew. It's not just a story; it's a journey across the high seas, filled with laughter, tears, and battles that could blow your pirate hat right off. Luffy's not your average pirate - his dream is to find the One Piece and become the Pirate King, and he's stretching his way there (literally, thanks to the Gum-Gum Fruit) with a smile wider than the Grand Line itself.

One Piece isn't just an anime; it's a cultural tsunami that's swept over the globe, teaching us the true value of friendship, freedom, and following your dreams, no matter how crazy they seem. It's inspired countless fans to navigate their own lives with bravery and a bit of that Luffy-style optimism. From epic conventions to endless debates about the best ship (pun intended), One Piece has anchored itself firmly in pop culture, especially with its incredible Netflix live-action adaptation.

Attack on Titan Final Season Part 2 - Photo Courtesy: Crunchyroll
Attack on Titan Final Season Part 2 - Photo Courtesy: Crunchyroll /

4. Attack on Titan

Imagine living in a world where your next-door neighbor could be a 50-foot-tall snack-craving giant. Exciting, right? Yeah, no.

Attack on Titan didn’t just crash into the anime scene - it burst through it like a Titan breaking through Wall Maria. It’s a tale of survival, mystery, and humanity’s relentless fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. With its jaw-dropping twists, heart-wrenching betrayals, and battles that make your every Monday meeting seem like a snooze-fest, it’s no wonder this show has stomped its mark on pop culture. From memes that'll have you giggling at the thought of Titans doing everyday chores, to fashion inspired by the Scout Regiment’s snazzy capes, Attack on Titan has shown us that even in the face of monstrous challenges, humanity's spirit (and creativity) knows no bounds.

5. Death Note

Welcome to the dark and twisted world of Death Note, where a notebook is mightier than the sword (or, well, anything else for that matter). We meet Light Yagami, a genius high school kid with grades off the charts and boredom just as high. Life's a snooze fest until you drop into the deadliest diary dilemma ever - a notebook that offs anyone whose name gets scribbled in it. Cue the dramatic music and the fact every single one of us weebs pretended to have one of those ourselves (don't lie, you did it too.)

Death Note is a cat-and-mouse game on steroids, with morality, justice, and a sprinkle of supernatural shenanigans thrown in. It turned the anime world upside down, making fans everywhere question right, wrong, and whether they'd use the Death Note (admit it, you've thought about it). This show didn't just captivate audiences, it seeped into pop culture like a shadow, inspiring memes, debates, and even a few questionable fashion choices (hoodies and potato chips, anyone?). Death Note showed us that sometimes, the pen (or, uh, notebook) truly is mightier than the sword, especially if it's got a shinigami lurking around. Just don't forget the apples.

6. Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion turned giant mech battles into a deep dive into the human psyche in a world where angsty teens don’t just navigate the horrors of high school but also pilot colossal robots to save humanity from otherworldly beings. Yes, it’s as epic as it sounds.

But Evangelion did more than just redefine the mech genre - it launched a full-scale invasion upon pop culture itself. This isn't just a story about fighting monsters; it's a labyrinthine exploration of love, loss, and what it means to be human, all wrapped up in a package of mind-bending visuals and a plot that twists like a pretzel. From inspiring countless anime and films to leaving fans and theorists dissecting its every frame, Evangelion has become a cornerstone of anime culture. It’s the show that dared to ask the big questions, like "Can you truly pilot a mech if you haven’t sorted out your daddy issues?" and other important things to consider.

Sailor Moon. Courtesy of Pluto Tv. /

7. Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon is where school girls transform into universe-saving superheroes, and talking cats are more than just your average pet. Before "girl power" was a hashtag, Usagi Tsukino (aka Sailor Moon) and her squad of Sailor Scouts were kicking evil's butt, all while juggling homework and crushes. This isn't just any story about magical girls - it's the tale that catapulted the genre into the stratosphere of pop culture, inspiring legions of fans to believe in the power of friendship, love, and a well-timed transformation sequence.

Sailor Moon didn't just set the standard for magical girl anime - it moon-prismed its way into our hearts, influencing fashion with its iconic costumes, sparking the creation of countless fanfics, and making us all secretly wish we could shout "Moon Tiara Magic!" to solve our problems. From inspiring feminist discourse to decorating the walls of coffee shops with its art, Sailor Moon has become a cultural touchstone, proving that with a little magic and a lot of heart, you can change the world.

Cowboy BeBop season 1 | Photo Courtesy: Funimation
Cowboy BeBop season 1 | Photo Courtesy: Funimation /

8. Cowboy Bebop

Imagine a ragtag crew of bounty hunters cruising the galaxy in their ship, the Bebop, each with a past more tangled than your earphones after being in your pocket. It's where cool jazz meets hot action, and every episode is a new adventure - ranging from heart-thumping chases across asteroid belts to philosophical musings in the neon-drenched streets of future cities.

Cowboy Bebop turned into a cultural icon that smashed through the asteroid belt of pop culture, leaving a trail of influence in its wake. With its unforgettable characters, stellar soundtrack, and a vibe cooler than the dark side of the moon, it introduced a generation to the idea that anime could be more than just fights and flights - it could be art. It's inspired countless creators, influenced films and shows, and even made its mark in the fashion world. Cowboy Bebop proves that, sometimes, to find your place in the universe, you just need to OK, 3-2-1 let's jam.

9. Fullmetal Alchemist" / Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

These two gems aren't just a story about two brothers dabbling in ancient magic - it's a rollercoaster of emotions, epic battles, and a deep dive into the price of ambition. Edward and Alphonse Elric aren't your average heroes; they're alchemists on a mission to fix a grave mistake, armed with the kind of determination that makes mountains move (sometimes literally, thanks to alchemy).

But why stop at captivating storytelling? This duo has alchemized pop culture itself, turning the base metal of our everyday lives into solid gold fandom. They've taught us that true strength comes from vulnerability, that "equivalent exchange" is a pretty solid life principle, and that sometimes, the most significant battles are fought within. Cosplay, fan theories, and passionate debates? Fullmetal Alchemist has fueled them all, making it clear that in the world of anime, the Elric brothers are equivalent to royalty. And yes, we're still angry at Shou Tucker and we will never, ever forgive him. IYKYK.

My Hero Academia: World Heroes' Mission Photo Courtesy: Funimation
My Hero Academia: World Heroes' Mission Photo Courtesy: Funimation /

10. My Hero Academia

My Hero Academia is where jumping buildings in a single bound is just your average Tuesday and everyone's got a quirk (aka superpower) that makes life a bit more, well, quirky. In a world teeming with heroes and villains, we follow Izuku Midoriya, a determined underdog with big dreams and zero quirks. That’s right, he’s the only one in his class who can’t shoot lasers from his eyes or morph into a giant. But does he let that stop him? Heck no!

My Hero Academia has evolved into a global phenomenon that’s punched its way into the heart of pop culture faster than you can say "Plus Ultra!" It's inspired millions with its message that being a true hero is about more than just superpowers - it’s about the size of your heart and the strength of your spirit. From cosplay frenzies to fan theories that could rival a doctoral thesis, this anime has us all dreaming of heroics. Whether you're rooting for the lovable heroes in training or secretly cheering for the complex villains, "My Hero Academia" proves one thing: the world needs heroes, and they don’t all wear capes (but it helps if you do).

11. Pokémon

Unless you've literally lived under a rock in the middle of nowhere in the last 28 years, you're painfully aware that Pokémon is where the motto is "Gotta Catch 'Em All!" is screamed left and right and the adventure never ends. This isn't just a show, it's a global craze that turned playground discussions into strategic debates about the best Pokémon lineup and made us all believe we could be Pokémon Masters. Ash Ketchum, our forever-young hero, and his electrifying buddy Pikachu took us on a journey through forests, seas, and skies, battling Pokémon and making friends in every corner of the Pokémon universe.

But Pokémon did so much more than just dominate Saturday mornings: it unleashed a cultural phenomenon. From video games and trading card games that sparked friendships (and rivalries) to movies that packed theaters, Pokémon became a universal language of sorts. It inspired us to explore the world with curiosity, teaching us about teamwork, perseverance, and the joy of discovery. Whether you're Team Charizard or Team Squirtle, one thing's for sure: Pokémon threw a Mega Ball at us and captured our hearts, shaping pop culture with every Poké Ball thrown since.

Photo: Spirited Away.. Image Courtesy Studio Ghibli, Fathom Events /

12. Studio Ghibli movies

Studio Ghibli movies are where every frame is a brushstroke of magic. Imagine a realm where soot sprites hide in dusty corners, majestic forest spirits guard the ancient woods, and flying castles soar through the clouds. This isn't just animation - it's a gateway to dreams, crafted by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki and his team of imagination wizards.

Studio Ghibli didn't just set the bar for anime; they launched it into a whole different dimension. Movies like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke have charmed the socks off not just anime fans, but the whole world, becoming cultural icons. They taught us about bravery, the beauty of nature, and the power of innocence in a way that words alone could never capture. From fashion to film, Ghibli’s influence is as vast as the Catbus’s smile, weaving its way into the fabric of pop culture with a gentle, steadfast presence. Studio Ghibli has given us so much more than just movies - they've given us a heartfelt reminder of the wonders that await when we let our spirits roam free.

And that's a wrap, my friends! Whether you're a seasoned otaku or a curious newbie, there's a whole world of anime out there waiting for you. So, grab your snacks, find your next binge-worthy obsession, and let the anime magic take you on unforgettable journeys.

Next. 5 anime series we’d like to see get a proper live-action adaptation. 5 anime series we’d like to see get a proper live-action adaptation. dark