Any anime fan should be acquainted with the term “Big Three”, which refers to the three most popular and influential anime series of the 2000s. These three shōnen manga received anime adaptations at almost the same time and all three of them, despite their completely different evolutions, marked a whole generation. Yours truly was part of that generation and this article is going to be a love letter to a whole concept that not only influenced the world of anime in general, but also a whole generation of people around the world.
The term “Big Three” refers to three major shōnen anime series that premiered during the early 2000s. They are Tite Kubo’s Bleach, Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, and Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. These three anime series redefined the perception of anime around the world and made the whole genre globally popular, raising its viewership and revenues.
The rest of this article is going to introduce you to the “Big Three” anime in more detail. We’re going to talk about each of them a bit, as well as answer some relevant questions related to their influence and their legacy. The “Big Three” anime have truly defined how anime is perceived today and are historically so important that they absolutely deserve a whole article to themselves.
Which anime series are part of the “Big Three”?
The term “Big Three” refers to the three main anime titles of the early 2000s. They are Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece. We are going to introduce them in this section.
Bleach is a shōnen manga written and illustrated by Tite Kubo. It was published in the weekly Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine of the publisher Shūeisha from August 7, 2001 to August 22, 2016 and is compiled in 74 volumes as of November 4, 2016. With 120 million volumes sold, it is one of the best-selling manga in the world.
The story begins in 2001 in Japan in the fictional city of Karakura. Ichigo Kurosaki, a 15-year-old high school student, has been able to see, hear and touch the souls of the dead since he was a toddler. One evening, his daily routine is turned upside down following his encounter with a Shinigami, Rukia Kuchiki, and the arrival of a monster called a Hollow.
The latter has come to devour the souls of his family and with the Shinigami who came to protect him having been injured by his fault, Ichigo agrees to become a Shinigami himself in order to save them. However, the transfer of power, supposed to be temporary and partial, is complete and does not end. Ichigo is forced to take responsibility for Rukia Kuchiki’s task.
He, therefore, begins the hunt for Hollows while protecting human souls. The beginning centers on a hunt for relatively weak evil spirits, with a simple sword. The story will gradually move towards a vast mystical-political plot after the appearance of the first other Shinigami. The sword battles of the beginning will then metamorphose into epic combats with weapons with surprising and varied powers, and sometimes of gigantic proportions.
The manga was adapted by Studio Pierrot into a 366-episode anime television series under the same title, which aired from October 5, 2004 to March 27, 2012 on TV Tokyo. The anime abruptly ended before it adapted the whole manga, but the final arc is going to get an adaptation, debuting in October 2022. The series is going to continue with episode 367, where the original anime left off.
Naruto is a shōnen manga written and drawn by Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto was published in Shūeisha publisher’s Weekly Shōnen Jump between September 1999 and November 2014. The series was compiled into 72 volumes. Following its success in manga form, an anime adaptation was produced by Pierrot and Aniplex studios that premiered on TV Tokyo on October 3, 2002. The second part of the story also saw an adaptation in the form of Naruto: Shippuden.
The story begins during Naruto’s adolescence, around the age of twelve. An orphan and a great prankster, he does all possible stupidity to get noticed. His dream: to become the best Hokage in order to be recognized by the inhabitants of his village. Indeed, the nine-tailed fox demon sealed within him has fueled the fear and contempt of the other villagers, who, over time, no longer differentiate between Kyūbi and Naruto.
Despite this, Naruto trains hard in order to become genin, the first level among ninjas. After failing the genin exam 3 times, he finally manages to receive his Konoha forehead protector. He is then included in a team of three ninja apprentices, with Sakura Haruno and the talented Sasuke Uchiha who wants to avenge the people dear to him, by killing his brother Itachi Uchiha.
Shortly after, they meet their jōnin (upper class ninja), the one who will take care of their training: the mysterious Kakashi Hatake. At first feared and despised by his peers, Naruto will gradually rise in power and gain the respect and affection of the villagers thanks, in particular, to the epic battles he will win against the most powerful enemies of Konoha.
With over 250 million copies published, Naruto is one of the best-selling manga in the world and one of the best-selling comic books in the world. Due to its success, untold stories were also produced regularly as animated feature films between 2004 and 2015.
One Piece is a shōnen manga series created by Eiichirō Oda. It has been published since July 22, 1997 in the weekly magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump, then grouped in bound volumes with Shūeisha editions since December 24, 1997; 101 volumes have been published in Japan as of December 2021.
The story follows the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a boy whose body acquired the properties of rubber after he inadvertently ate a Devil Fruit. Along with his pirate crew, called the Straw Hat Pirates, Luffy explores the Grand Line in search of the ultimate treasure known as “One Piece” in order to become the next Pirate King.
The rights to the series were acquired by the company Toei Animation, which adapted the manga into an anime; the anime has been broadcast in Japan every Sunday since 1999. The series has more than 1,000 episodes as of February 2022. The license includes 15 films, 11 special episodes, and 1 OVA episode, as well as 4 novels, 1 cookbook, more than 50 video games, more than 5,000 figurines, a restaurant, an amusement park, and a live-action series scheduled for 2022.
One Piece is the best-selling manga in the world. It is also the best-selling series in the world drawn by a single author. The total circulation of One Piece volumes stands at 490 million copies as of July 2021, with 400 million copies in Japan and 90 million copies in the rest of the world (42 countries).
Why are there only three “big” anime series?
The question of why there are only three and not more or less anime in this category is related to the sales and overall influence of these shows, as well as the viewership numbers. If you consider the manga sales, for example, Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece are in the top 12 best-selling manga of all time, with a collective revenue of 860 million copies sold. If you compare the other titles in the top 20, they’re mostly older titles with a larger number of chapters, with two notable exceptions (Demon Slayer and Attack on Titan) that have been published after the “Big Three”. What does this tell us?
This tells us that no other late 1990s/early 2000s titles have even come close to these three manga and that they absolutely dominated the market at the time; the only manga that got even close to them is 1994’s Detective Conan (Case Closed), but the difference between them (in terms of style and idea) is enormous.
This popularity was evident in the anime as well. Namely, Bleach, Naruto (both Naruto and Naruto: Shippuden), and the ongoing One Piece anime have consistently been listed as the best anime in history and had excellent viewership numbers at the time. This is also evident by the number of episodes – Bleach ended its run at 366 episodes (but it is going to be continued in October this year), Naruto with more than 700 episodes, and One Piece is still going strong with more than 1,000 episodes on its tally. Combined, this is more than 2,000 episodes for just three series, which is an amazing feat for a weekly, standard-length anime series.
These three shows were on for decades and the fact that they are still a part of modern pop culture speaks for itself. You also have to note one thing. Namely, the “Big Three” are not the only popular anime series of the time.
You have the Pokémon anime series, which is still active and is one of the best-selling franchises ever; then you have Digimon, which isn’t as lucrative as Pokémon, but has a smaller, yet extremely loyal fanbase that has welcomed changes in the series throughout the years, while retaining the nostalgia for the original anime; other examples like Sailor Moon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and even Detective Conan spring to mind, but there is an essential difference between all these shows and the “Big Three”.
Namely, the “Big Three” all fit into the shōnen category, which is by far the most popular anime category of them all. They arrived at a time when the post-Cold War generation entered their teens. It was a generation of children that was exposed to a globalizing world in a period that sought to erase the boundaries of the Cold War era. So, all three series automatically had a very large audience to attract, and they did exactly that.
All of the other series we’ve mentioned were limited in one way or another. Pokémon and Digimon were aimed towards younger viewers and not teens, while also maintaining a solid outing in other markets (video games, figurines, trading card games, etc.), something that the “Big Three” never focused on (did you even know that, e.g., there were Bleach trading cards sold at one point? Exactly.). Yu-Gi-Oh! was primarily a card game and the anime was a way to make the cards more popular. Sailor Moon and Detective Conan, on the other hands, were limited to mostly female viewers and crime fiction fans, respectively.
As you can see, the “Big Three” not only had the numbers to back up its popularity, it also had the widest reach among all the anime that came out in that time. This is why we’re talking about the three of them, and not more. Or less. The “Big Three” are called like that for a reason.
The only thing we have to explain here, before we move on with the article, is the role of Dragon Ball in the history of anime. Namely, you’ve probably heard the term “Big Four” anime at least once. The “Big Four” is a term that does, indeed, exist, and it refers to what are generally considered to be the best, and most influential anime series in history. Along with the “Big Three”, the list also contains Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. But, that term is rarely used and while Toriyama’s series did influence all of them, it is rarely grouped alongside the “Big Three”.
And while we do have a separate article explaining Dragon Ball‘s situation in more detail, we are going to summarize the story here as well. Namely, the reasons why Dragon Ball is so rarely grouped with the “Big Three” is, firstly, because it is much older than them, and, secondly, because it is conceptually different. Let us address these reasons.
Dragon Ball, the manga, debuted in 1984 and it ended in 1995, two years before the first “Big Three” manga (One Piece) came out. The anime itself premiered in 1986. The 1980s were a completely different time and while Dragon Ball did as much as it could to popularize anime globally during the 1990s, it never had such an immediate impact as the “Big Three”; Dragon Ball was retroactively seen by a lot of people, mostly thanks to the anime boom that came with the “Big Three”.
Now, we’re not implying that the “Big Three” outdo Dragon Ball in that aspect, but the fact is that a lot more people saw Dragon Ball at the same time that the “Big Three” were on, rather than when it originally came out. Dragon Ball, we could say, laid the foundations for the “Big Three”, but it never was part of the same phenomenon as them. That is why it is rarely grouped with them.
The other reason is the structure of Dragon Ball. And while undoubtedly a shōnen work, Dragon Ball came out at a different time. The shōnen in the 1980s was very different from the shōnen works of the 2000s. The world had changed, and with it, the people. And while Dragon Ball undoubtedly shares a lot of similarities with the original “Big Three”, it’s simply a different type of shōnen, which is evident when you compare the works (the original Dragon Ball series is mostly in the line with modern shōnen works, but once Dragon Ball Z kicks in, it was closer to seinen than what is today perceived as shōnen).
Still, the term “Big Four” does exist and there is no doubt that in the post-Astro Boy era of Osamu Tezuka’s first anime phenomenon, there are no four titles like Dragon Ball, Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece. And there probably never will be.
Which anime series are part of the new “Big Three”?
The so-called “new Big Three” is an unofficial term and in terms of actual influence, the “new Big Three” doesn’t really exist, simply because no three anime series have managed to repeat the global influence that the original “Big Three” had. The original “Big Three” are certainly a part of animation and television history, whereas any new grouping is just a measure of popularity rather than anything else. But still, we shall give you the answer to this question.
The term “new Big Three” refers to the three most popular and influential shōnen manga and anime of the current generation, and they are – Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Jujutsu Kaisen, and My Hero Academia. All three shows are currently ongoing, but only the latter manga is still active, with the former two having already reached their final chapters some time ago. These three anime series are nowhere near the original “Big Three”, but they have come as close as one can to their status.
In case you’re wondering why Attack on Titan is not on this list, this is simply because Attack on Titan is not a shōnen anime series. Yes, yes, we do know that it has been labeled as such, but that is just a censorship category in that respect; Attack on Titan definitely isn’t violent or gory or adult-oriented to be seinen, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the traditional shōnen narratives. It is a standalone narrative written for the shōnen demographic group, but is thematically closer to seinen anime. This is why Attack on Titan isn’t on this list, despite being as popular as the “new Big Three”.
Which is the best “Big Three” anime series?
There is absolutely no right answer to this question. On the one hand, the “Big Three” anime were, each of them, so specific and different from one another that is it impossible to compare them adequately; Bleach is a dark fantasy story with jidaigeki elements, Naruto was a jidaigeki story that traditional fantasy and Japanese folklore, whereas One Piece is a pirate story. On the other hand, the three of them share so many common elements that it is likewise difficult to actually differentiate them.
So, which one is the best? All of them! There is no one answer to this question and whichever one you pick – you’re wrong. You can argue one thing or another, but you can’t really rank them objectively unless they all share the same position. It all comes down to your own personal preferences with this question; I personally adore Bleach and it will forever have a special place in my heart, but that is just my opinion. You, ultimately, have to decide for yourselves. Just remember to enjoy all three of them as they are, truly, a piece of history.