Jeremy explores many topics as he juggles his passion for writing with his career as a chemical analyst and campus manager.
From irritatingly smug to menacingly evil, writers employ rivals as foils to the heroic protagonists. Fleshing out these characters adds depth and personal elements to any anime, making battles more than just contests of strength. Whether you root for the hero or their jagged counterpart, rivalries are always welcome additions, and here are ten of the best across anime!
10. Aang and Zuko
Despite ongoing controversy over whether it should be classified as anime, Avatar quickly amassed millions of fans after its debut on Nickelodeon. In the show, young Avatar Aang travels the globe to master the elements and defeat the tyrannical Fire Nation. Aang's carefree adventures soon clash with the firebender Zuko, a disgraced and rigid prince seeking to regain his honor.
Aang and Zuko battle several times throughout the series, usually ending in Zuko's sound defeat. However, as things progress, we see Zuko mature not only in combat but in mind, and he ends up joining Team Avatar.
9. Kiritsugu and Kirei
Anime: Fate Zero
Fate Zero, prequel series to Fate/Stay Night, chronicles another Holy Grail War, a modern-day clash between magi and the historical figures they summon as each magi/Heroic Spirit duo competes for the wish-granting Grail.
Protagonist Kiritsugu Emiya is cunning and ruthless, determined to win the Grail and use it to end the world's pain. However, he finds himself unable to predict the moves of opponent Kirei Kotomine, who himself is impressed by Kiritsugu, leading to a mutual interest and rivalry between the two. The resulting battles distort the lines of good and evil while offering engaging action, and I'd highly recommend this series to older audiences.
8. Kenshin and Saito
Anime: Ruroni Kenshin
Set in the 1800s, Ruroni Kenshin details the adventures of Kenshin Himura, a one-time swordsman-assassin now striving to atone for his past self's sins. He does this by protecting the innocent and refusing to kill, though the foes he encounters always test his newfound peace.
Speaking of which, Saito doesn't appear until the Kyoto arc, but his arrival sets up the series' most engaging story into motion. We soon learn Saito and Kenshin are both veterans of the war ten years back, and Saito resolves to draw out Kenshin's killing instincts by reviving his Battosai the Man-Slayer persona. Despite differences in ideologies, the two ultimately unite to battle the nefarious Shishio. This created a unique and memorable dynamic of both characters having to rely on their former enemy to survive.
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7. Ichigo and Grimmjow
In Bleach, Ichigo Kurosaki lives as a normal teenager before being dragged into Soul Society by gaining the power of a Soul Reaper. Ichigo develops numerous frenemy bonds throughout the series; one of the most notable is with the Espada Grimmjow.
Grimmjow completely outclasses Ichigo when they first meet and despises Ichigo's constant faith in himself, birthing a furious rivalry. Over time, Ichigo narrows the gap between the two, and many exciting battles erupt. Despite fighting for different sides, Ichigo and Grimmjow share many characteristics, like confidence and honor, implying the two have much in common.
6. Inuyasha and Sesshomaru
Blending adventure with romance, Inuyasha tells the story of schoolgirl Kagome and her relationship with the half-demon Inuyasha. Despite quarreling, the two deeply care for each other and battle several challenging foes, especially Inuyasha's elder sibling Sesshomaru.
Literally brothers from different mothers, pure-blood Sesshomaru scorns his half-human sibling, and many intense conflicts arise between the two. Sesshomaru's precision and coolness perfectly foil Inuyasha's hotheaded nature, but ultimately the two develop a sort of grudging respect for one another.
5. Ash and Gary
One of the biggest phenomenons of all time, Pokemon exploded in popularity when it debuted, spawning games, trading cards, and several cartoons. In the original anime, rookie Trainer Ash journeys the world with hopes of becoming a Pokemon Master, but always seems to play second fiddle to his once-neighbor, Gary Oak.
With both having begun their journey from Pallet Town at the same time, Gary constantly belittles and outperforms Ash, determined to prove his superiority. While Gary obtains more badges and captures more Pokemon, Ash continuously sharpens his skills, even advancing further than Gary in the Pokemon League. Many episodes later, the two finally settle things with a titanic battle and finally gain a newfound respect for each other.
4. Yugi and Kaiba
Every Yu-Gi-Oh! anime introduces new characters and cards to continue playing and evolving the game of Duel Monsters. While each series features its own haughty rival, fans vividly remember the tension between original cast members Yugi Moto and Seto Kaiba.
Kaiba, a rich and intelligent prodigy, regards himself as the best Duelist ever, winning many matches with his signature Blue-Eyes White Dragon card. He meets his match when Yugi's alter ego repeatedly bests him in duels, and the two develop a keen rivalry. Despite his arrogance, fans enjoy the selfish taunts from Kaiba and cheered as he matured over time.
3. Naruto and Sasuke
Naruto chronicles the adventures of Naruto (shocking, I know), a young ninja-in-training who dreams of one day becoming Hokage, his village's leader, and strongest warrior. Naruto joins a band called Team 7 and there meets his stoic rival Sasuke.
Naruto, Sasuke, and the rest of Team 7 undergo many missions and bond, but traumatic events divide the group, and Sasuke sets out on a bloody mission of revenge. Naruto resolves to bring back his one-time friend, leading to several brutal fights. Despite Sasuke's rank and power, Naruto believes he'll one day defeat his rival, and both ninja gain formidable strength as the series progresses. This was an enjoyable tale that really had fans wondering whether Sasuke would end up friend or foe.
2. Light and L
Anime: Death Note
Light Yagami, an intelligent, handsome, and bored high school student, rekindles interest in life when he stumbles upon a supernatural Death Note capable of killing anyone whose name is written within. Light resolves to ruthlessly kill all criminals with the device, and authorities soon begin tracking down the mysterious killer "Kira." Needing assistance, the police team up with the eccentric genius-detective L.
L quickly deduces Light is Kira, but struggles to prove his findings. Meanwhile, Light struggles to learn L's true name, leading to Light himself joining the investigation Task Force that L leads. In a brilliant game of cat and mouse, both attempt to corner their opponent using deception, mind games, and sheer logic. I highly recommend Death Note and applaud the contrasting yet similar viewpoints of justice between Light and L.
1. Goku and Vegeta
Anime: Dragon Ball Z
Sequel to Dragon Ball and prequel to Dragon Ball Super, Dragon Ball Z introduced many a youth to anime. Martial artist and protagonist Goku defends Earth against several foes, constantly training his body and mastering his ki to wield various energy techniques. Goku soon discovers he's not human but Saiyan, a ruthless warrior race. One of the few surviving Saiyans, Vegeta, attempts to destroy Earth and demonstrate his superiority to Goku.
Vegeta, used to being the strongest of his kind, is horrified to continuously be outdone by Goku. This beautifully reversed the traditional "rival bests protagonist" relationship and often had us rooting for underdog Vegeta despite his more-selfish ways. The two Saiyans eventually warm to each other, but still motivate one another to train, fueling an eternal contest. Even their children, Goten and Trunks, possess a friendly yet fierce rivalry inherited from their fathers.
Though most of these anime have long since ended, we still get to relive old rivalries through new material. For instance, Yu-Gi-Oh occasionally releases new movies starring Yugi and Kaibi, like The Dark Side of Dimensions, and Goku and Vegeta can be revisited in the anime Dragon Ball Super.
Beyond these, anime remains a popular pastime among many, and we can expect more compelling rivalries in future releases. Feel free to vote for your favorite, and I'll see you at our next countdown!
Questions & Answers
Question: What do you think about the rivalry between Midoriya and Bakugou (Kacchan)?
Answer: You're exactly right: these two characters (from My Hero Academia) exemplify another great anime rivalry.
Question: What about the rivalry between Asta and Yuno?
Answer: That is another good set of rivals. To be fair, they're from Black Clover, which was just getting started when I originally wrote this article.
I haven't yet experienced Black Clover myself, but I've heard contrasting opinions, with some fans enjoying it and others believing it borrows too heavily from Naruto and Bleach.
Question: Why is Aang and Zuko on your list? Avatar is not an anime, nor is it Japanese.
Answer: There's some controversy over the meaning of the word anime. Long story short, some believe anime only refers to Japanese-produced animation, while others argue it can encompass other locations if the work fits the style.
I lean towards the latter, and regardless, I'd rather people respectfully debate about which fights are the best instead of whether Avatar counts as anime. So far at least, it seems that no one disagrees about the quality of Zuko and Azula's duel, and I'm still content to include it.
© 2017 Jeremy Gill
Deku and Bakugou on June 28, 2020:
Deku and Bakugou
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on September 04, 2019:
I also enjoy Near and Mello's complex relationship, but I didn't want to double up on rivalries from the same series. Plus, some fans didn't care much for season two (though I still enjoyed it).
mihael on September 01, 2019:
hey what about near n mello from dn their rivalry was pretty cool especially for mellos impulsive and nears calm one
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on September 01, 2018:
I wouldn't say I forgot, just that I selected other options. L and Light are commonly said to share many qualities, but they differ in methods and in beliefs, coming into conflict even during the time where Light loses his memory and truly hunts Kira alongside L. Their battles are more mental than physical, but they even rival each other in strength, as their fistfight reveals.
Who says Ichigo can only have one rival? And rather than complaining that your favorite characters aren't high enough (and third place in all of anime is pretty impressive), celebrate that they made the list at all; as the comments reveal, choosing just ten pairings isn't an easy task.
Anon on September 01, 2018:
You forgot Hikaru(no Go)/Akira and Ranma/Ryoga. I'd easily put them (high) on the list... Instead you've got L/Light, which I don't even see as a rivalry.
Mad on August 07, 2018:
Grimmjow and Ichigo aint rivals.
Ishida Uryuu is the rival to Ichigo since they have this Naruto/Sasuke rivality to begin with.
Also Sasuke and Naruto should be higher up on the list, its one of the greatest rivals in anime.
OldTimeyDude on November 23, 2017:
I like some anime, but the one that got me in to it was DB Z. And have to set my vote on that. Love it, cant deny it. Naruto and Sasuke or what not, is a close second. Gogu an Vegeta, best rivalry/friendship ever
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on September 26, 2017:
Whether or not you like the series, it's utterly absurd to deny Naruto and Sasuke sharing a rivalry.
louis on September 25, 2017:
naruto and sasuke are not rival. also naruto anime is a crap. Why the evils villains from the past are return again in naruto's era? That's an eyesore. And sasuke didn't care about naruto at the very first. Naruto was also disturbing the sasuke. And naruto hate him. Why he suddenly said sasuke as friends while they were apart. Thats impossible. Also naruto series is very following the protagonist. ( Such as if there is no naruto, the world will destroyed). that's over exaggerating. Fuck naruto.
Kakumi on August 19, 2017:
Naruto and Sasuke is my favorite duo.