Rivalries in anime can come in all forms and in almost every genre. It could be in martial arts, sports, jobs, adventure, thriller, action, romance, and so on. They can also be between siblings, child and parent, best friends, and bitter enemies. They all serve a similar purpose to make the main character develop, sometimes the rival, and their relationship as a whole. Some rivalries are just to prove who is the best, friendly competition, to get the girl, to earn the respect of the other, and some are out for blood. In this feature, I will explore some of these multi-faceted rivalries in anime.
WARNING!!! THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!!!!
10. Kim Sang Hyuk and Chan Joon Sang from Winter Sonata
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: October 2009 – May 2010
Based on the hit Korean drama, Winter Sonata is an anime that re-tells the rivalry between Sang Hyuk and Joon Sang, also Joon Sang’s romance with Yujin. While in high school, it is Joon Sang that is jealous of Sang Hyuk because they are half-brothers through the same father. Sang Hyuk is the son of his father and wife while Joon Sang is the result of a one night stand between Sang Hyuk’s father and his mother, a concert pianist.
Joon Sang is jealous of Sang Hyuk because he has their father in his life, while he resents his own as an illegitimate child. Eventually, Sang Hyuk starts to exhibit jealousy towards Joon Sang because he is developing a relationship with his childhood crush, Yujin. Unfortunately, during a snowy night, it is believed that Joon Sang dies in a car crash.
10 years later, Yujin and Sang Hyuk are living successful lives and are now engaged. However, Min Hyung, a co-worked of Yujin’s who bares a strong resemblance to Joon Sang, tears the relationship between Yujin and Sang Hyuk apart and it drives Sang Hyuk crazy. In the end, it is confirmed Joon Sang is Min Hyung due to his mother’s brain washing after his accident in high school, and Sang Hyuk’s father comes forward with the truth that Joon Sang is his son.
With Joon Sang’s life in jeopardy at the end of the series, Sang Hyuk accepts him as his brother and allows Yujin to be with him.
This rivalry feels very genuine based on the circumstances and how illegitimate children are viewed in Korea. Joon Sang and Sang Hyuk hate each other for their own reasons and it is fun to see Joon Sang antagonize Sang Hyuk in a way to make him resort to violence just to exploit him as a spoiled brat. Joon Sang on the other hand is handsome and mysterious and the attention he gets from girls is what drives Sang Hyuk’s hatred for him, especially for hitting on his fiancee.
Despite the circumstances, this rivalry does have a happy ending.
9. Echizen Ryoma and Echizen Nanjiro from Prince of Tennis
- Episodes: 178
- Aired: October 2001 – March 2005
One example of the father-son rivalry is between Ryoma and Nanjiro. Nanjiro, a former world class pro-tennis player, has been training his son since he was crawling and they play a game every evening. Despite Ryoma’s dominance against his peers, he is still no match (or as the Echizen’s would put it, “Mada Mada Da Ne”) against his father who actually just messes around while playing.
However, Tezuka, the captain of Seigaku’s Tennis Team, sees the rivalry between Ryoma and his father as holding him back from his true potential. After a private exhibition where Tezuka comes out the winner, he encourages Ryoma to be Seigaku’s Pillar of Support. Despite a loss to another player besides his father, Ryoma gains a new sense of motivation to play for himself and actually scores a point against his father shortly after the match with Tezuka.
The rivalry is unique despite Nanjiro’s more playful nature, he genuinely cares about Ryoma’s growth as a tennis player, while Ryoma just wants to beat his father. It is never solved and, even though Ryoma is motivated to beat his father, the series develops to Ryoma being his own player based on his own accomplishments as opposed to being in the shadow of his father.
8. Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke from Naruto
- Episodes: 220
- Aired: October 2002 – February 2008
A rivalry for the ages. Naruto is the hard headed give it your all outcast who wants to be everyone’s friend while Sasuke is from a prestigious blood line of great ninjas. Their rivalry covers many grounds beyond just their contrasting personalities and upbringings. They can fight over a girl. They can fight over their jealousy for one another. And their fight goes to a classic conflict of good vs evil.
Despite Naruto growing up isolated, he cares about others while Sasuke only cares about himself. Initially assigned to the same team, there is an instant discomfort but their partnership does grow one bit at a time. Unfortunately, the turning point in which their rivalry goes to the extreme is when Itachi, Sasuke’s older brother who annihilated their family is back in town. Not for Sasuke, but for Naruto. Jealous, Sasuke and Naruto battle to a stand still, and not willing to accept that, Sasuke joins the dark side.
In the end, everything ends well and we are granted one happy ending. But it wasn't the destination that matters but this multi-directional journey with where this relationship takes its turns.
7. Sakuragi Hanamichi and Kaede Rukawa from Slam Dunk
- Episodes: 101
- Aired: October 1993 – March 1996
The foundation of this rivalry is over a girl named Akagi Haruko. Acknowledging his potential as a basketball player based on his physical attributes, Sakuragi joins the team in hopes of impressing her. Unfortunately, he doesn't know the difference between dribbling a basketball and a soccer ball. To make things worse, Haruko has her eyes set on Rukawa, a teammate and rival who has years of experience and accomplishments as a baller, and is just as tough a street fighter as Sakuragi. During the games, Sakuragi would go as far as never passing the ball to Rukawa, just to show he’s not as hot as everyone says he is and can be consequential to the flow of the game.
Despite their physical similarities, their personalities are polar opposites. Any praise of Rukawa fires up Sakuragi and motivates him to prove he is the best. With Rukawa, he doesn't think much of Sakuragi nothing more as a clown but deep down inside, he knows he has great potential but does not often say it.
From Rukawa’s point of view, there is no rivalry. He could care less about girls despite his popularity. He just wants to play, put in the work, and is willing to follow the rules. Sakuragi, being the bad boy that he is, is solely motivated by beating Rukawa even though they play on the same team, but they come to work together. But without Rukawa, a significant percentage of Sakuragi’s motivation is gone.
The chemistry between Kusao Takashi (most famous as Trunks from Dragon Ball Z) as Sakuragi and Midorikawa Hikaru (best male seiyuu ever) as Rukawa, truly makes their personalities and their tension feel real. Kusao does a great job in acting like a Japanese version of Dennis Rodman, and Midorikawa Hikaru as Rukawa plays a cold-hearted recluse with a chilling singular focus.
When they get to the inter-high games in the manga (which has criminally not been animated after 20 years), there is a brief moment in which Rukawa finally acknowledges Sakuragi as a basketball player and becomes a turning point in their relationship.
6. Makunouchi Ippo and Miyata Ichiro from Hajime no Ippo
- Episodes: 75
- Aired: October 2000 – March 2002
As a test to prove that he has fighting spirit, Ippo is pitted against Miyata, a fellow high school student in a three round spar. Thinking it might be easy because they're the same age, Ippo was proven wrong since Miyata has been training since childhood under his father, a former accomplished boxer himself. Despite Miyata’s dominance, Ippo demonstrates he is tough and not willing to give up. Kamogawa acknowledges Ippo’s potential and is willing to train him for a rematch in three months.
Kamogawa puts Ippo through a strict training regiment and after three months, they have their rematch. Ippo gets his revenge in wanting to settle the score in the pro-ring, Miyata leaves the Kamogawa gym in hopes of getting their rematch in the East Japan Rookie Tournament. Unfortunately, due to Miyata’s loss in the semi-finals because of Mashiba’s dirty tactics, they could not have their third fight. After the tournament, they go their separate ways to improve themselves when the time is right to fight.
Ippo goes on to become the champion of Japan while Miyata regains his father’s Pacific title. As the series progresses, each fighter defeats opponents that reflect each other in hopes of tuning themselves up. For Ippo, he defeats Sawamura, a counter boxer like Miyata while Miyata beats Arnie Gregory, a brawler whose KO power equals Ippo’s.
In the “Rising” season of the series, it is addressed why they have not fought yet, because Kamogawa feels Ippo is not ready. Even with over 100 volumes of the manga upon publication of this list, we do not see this rivalry going away any time soon.
The thing about this rivalry is that each character’s fan base has a good argument on why one can beat the other. Ippo has defeated boxers similar to Miyata using cornering tactics while Miyata was able to escape from corners and the ropes against Arnie. Miyata has went toe-to-toe against boxers like Ippo and come out on top, but Ippo has anticipated the counters of Sawamura. When their fight does happen, it will not be because of the money or fame, but to prove who is the best between them.
5. Yagami Light and L from Death Note
- Episodes: 37
- Aired: October 2006 – June 2007
Probably one of the most psychological rivalries in all of anime, their relationship is based on who can out-smart the other. Light’s plan in hiding his Death Note has contingency on top of contingency, while L is always able to maintain at least half a step behind Light. Up until L makes his debut, it can be speculated that anybody, regardless of their own intellect, would take it easy if they had the power of the Death Note. L just manages to look at the patterns going back and seeing that the case started in Japan. He manages to narrow the search there with a TV broadcast in the East Japan area under the impression it was an international broadcast.
The broadcast with L not showing his true face and name is also able to prove that Light needs a name and face to eliminate his victims, thus showing his ability to deduce that legitimate factor. It was a big blow to Light’s ego, not in terms of his intellect, but how he believed that he is a savior of the world. However, Light is able to recover his composure and his father, chief of the police, gives him a helpful advantage in always maintaining the lead, even if just a small bit. L was always suspicious of Light, but unfortunately, he was unable to prove anything and Light showed that he was the lesser man by using others as sacrificial lambs to win.
Beyond just quality story telling, I think of this relationship as a good example of the Japanese cultural concept of honne and tatemae, something that people who live in Japan, or have done business with the Japanese, will certainly understand. The meaning of this is between one’s true feelings (honne) and how they conduct themselves amongst people not in their private life (tatemae). To Westerners, it is natural to conclude that the Japanese are two-faced based on this, especially experiencing it first hand myself and have been frustrated by it.
For example, if a foreigners attempts to speak Japanese and it comes out horribly wrong, the tatemae quality will make that Japanese individual say “Nihingo wa ojouzu desu ne” meaning “You speak good Japanese.” Part of it has to do with the Japanese acknowledging that the individual is taking the effort to learn Japanese, while another part of it is they do not want to hurt that person’s feelings. And naturally the honne will be “Your Japanese is very bad.” The purpose of this is to avoid any conflicts and to maintain harmony within a group such as in this anime, a major investigation where Light and L eventually become the co-lead detectives. Light knows that L is after him while L is always suspicious of Kira. Light’s honne is Kira. As for his tatemae, he is an investigator and he maintains excellent relationships and a powerful charisma in taking the suspicion off of him.
4. Johann Libert and Tenma Kenzo from Monster
- Episodes: 74
- Aired: April 2004 – September 2005
Shortly before Germany’s re-unification, a young and successful Japanese neurosurgeon makes a very difficult choice between operating on a poor boy shot in the head and the mayor who collapsed. The hospital staff wants him to operate on the mayor because he has the skills to save his life, but Dr. Tenma chooses to operate on the child. The good news, the boys is saved. The bad news, the mayor dies. Even more bad news, his reputation is ruined and he also loses his fiancee.
Sometime later, a few mysterious murders occur and Tenma is considered a suspect because he would benefit the most from these deaths. Cut to a decade later, it is revealed that Johann, the boy he operated on, was the true culprit. Feeling responsible, Tenma will go out to make things right as Johann continues his rampage.
Johann, despite his grave sins is a unique character himself. He is very unassuming and a twisted sociopath. What makes this relationship unique is that even though Tenma wants to stop him, Johann actually cares about the well being of Tenma and believes he is helping him. But considering what the audience learns about Johann’s childhood during the events of the series, can anyone really blame him for how he turns out? Are we responsible for the consequences of other people based on our initial actions?
Should Tenma really feel responsible for what happens as a result of saving an innocent child? Is Johann truly responsible for his actions due to his upbringing? Do people really have a choice and free will? These are the questions that makes the audience ponder.
3. Yabuki Joe and Tooru Rikiishi from Ashita no Joe
- Episodes: 79
- Aired: April 1970 – September 1971
Starting out as a runaway teenage con artist, Joe’s antics in the Doya slums by using children in his scams ends up landing him in juvie. As fate would have it, Tange Danpei, a washed up boxing coach who wants to train Joe still makes the effort to train him through letters though he does not take it that seriously. While serving time, he gets into a fight with Tooru Rikiishi, an imprisoned boxer for assaulting a reporter. Not wanting to put up with Joe’s shannanegins, he humiliates Joe with his superior training and experiences. As a result, Joe is motivated to take his training seriously and wants to defeat Rikiishi.
Throughout the first half of Ashita no Joe, Joe and Rikiishi’s rivalry is the driving force of this series. Joe and Rikiishi initially despise each other but the more they fight, the more they gain each other’s respect. Despite not being able to settle their rivalry in juvie, they decide to have one more fight in the pro ring. Joe and Rikiishi go on to be successful boxers and develop a friendship.
In order to fight Joe in a sanctioned bout, Rikiishi, who fights in a higher weight class at 126 pounds, has to cut down to Joe’s weight class at 118 pounds. Rikiishi puts himself through a harsh weight cut to the point that he has no muscle or water in his system. They fight a grueling bout pushing each other to their limits. For a moment, Joe thinks he has the fight won when he scores a knockdown with a haymaker, but Rikiishi comes back in the eighth round to win by knock out. Joe accepts his defeat like a man and attempts to shake hands but as Rikiishi tries to extend his hand, he passes out.
Later in the locker room, it is revealed that the wild haymaker that Joe caught Rikiishi with caused a cerebral hemorrhage which would unfortunately end his life. After this unfortunate tragic accident and realistically feeling responsible and ashamed for killing one of the few people he considers a friend, Joe takes a year off from boxing to go back to his roots of a drifting trouble maker. He eventually makes a come back but the recovery was still a long process.
What makes this rivalry special is that as I summarized, these guys hated each other to becoming the bst of friends. Rikiishi thought of Joe as a punk and Joe thought of Rikiishi as a douce bag. In some of their prison fights, Joe will go as far as putting rocks into his gloves. However, without one or the other, they would not have the drive to seek careers as successful boxers.
2. Amuro Ray and Char Aznable from Mobile Suit Gundam
- Episodes: 43
- Aired: April 1979 – January 1980
The iconic rivalry in mech anime that spans 14 years in the Universal Century of Gundam, Amuro with the Gundam became the first true threat to Zeon’s ace, Char Aznable. Amuro being just a teenager is only concerned about his survival while Char wants to defeat the Gundam to get the biggest kill. Throughout the first two-thirds of the series, the rivalry feels generic on the whole “I must beat you for my warrior’s pride” theme, but new factors are introduced to make it very personal.
In the last stretch of the series, the concept of Newtypes, the evolutionary space human was starting to get exploration. Lalah Sun, a subordinate and love interest of Char was introduced to give a foundational reference to Newtypes. Lalah also develops a friendship with Amuro when they encounter each other at a neutral space colony and he feels a sense of innocence from her. Unfortunately, Char and Amuro’s rivalry would lead to Lalah sacrificing herself for Char traumatizing the two men and would further be the basis of their remaining relationship.
They would briefly re-unite seven years later in Zeta Gundam both serving as mentors to the protagonist of that series, Camille Bidan. They both show they are still affected by the loss of Lalah but are willing to put aside their past conflicts for a better future. Unfortunately, the events of Zeta Gundam (if you want to know what happens to him between Zeta Gundam and Char’s Counterattack, watch the ending of the Zeta Gundam Playstation game on YouTube. It will make a lot more sense.) has shattered Char’s hopes of humanity and he starts his own Neo Zeon faction in the Char’s Counterattack movie to make earth inhabitable with colony attacks.
Not willing to stand by, Amuro is back in action to face Char again for the last time. In their final moments, they continue to blame each other over who is responsible for Lalah’s death.
What makes this rivalry special is that even though it drives the original series, it is relatively trivial compared to other tragedies that happen such as Operation Odessa where both sides take heavy casualties, the solar flare gun that claims the lives of both Duke Degein and Admiral Revil attempting to make peace, and the bio terror attacks on colonies. Ultimately, their fighting solves nothing and that violence only creates more violence.
1. Himura Kenshin and Saito Hajime from Rurouni Kenshin
- Episodes: 94
- Aired: January 1996- September 1998
Initially on opposing sides during the Bakumatsu War which would pave way for the Meiji Era, Kenshin and Saitou would have a few battles with never deciding a winner. As the years pass, their rivalry was never about the politics of the conflict, but about the honor as swordsman in proving who,is the better man.
This rivalry is a prime example that it does not have to be about good vs evil in a cliché sense. It is about proving something to themselves and each other in ways they can only understand. As a matter of fact, their rivalry long after the war is based out of a mutual respect codified by the principles of Bushido.
Their respect for each other is further solidified when they are willing to acknowledge there are bigger problems that will affect the future of Japan and work together. Although this rivalry is never settled in the anime or manga, their rivalry demonstrates something opposite of that between Chad and Amuro, and they know when to put their differences aside for the greater good and to let go of the past.
Ultimately, this was a very difficult list to prioritize into a top ten so some honorable mentions must naturally be included that may be in your top ten. Dio Brando and the Joestar family from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Goku and Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z, Hanma Baki and Hanma Yujiro from Grappler Baki, Heero Yuy and Zechs Merquise from Gundam Wing, and Spike and Visicous from Cowboy Bebop.
My list goes on and on. What is your list? Please share with us!