The Best 'Pretty Boys' Anime – And Why They're Worth Watching (2024)

More commonly known as ‘bishonen anime’ -- although some definitions distinguish between the ‘pretty boy’ and the ‘bishonen’ based on androgyny -- ‘pretty boys’ anime have populated the medium for many years now. Originally consisting of shojo and josei titles, their adherence to a specific genre has been set aside as pretty boys anime have become associated with action and sports stories too. As the name suggests, these anime usually star a group of good-looking young men and focus on the relationships between them.

While they can sometimes be disparaged because of their tendency to bet on aesthetics rather than narrative, a lot of pretty boys anime -- even some of the classics -- have more to offer than handsome men and ‘yaoi baiting.’ While it is true that they normally attract an almost completely female audience ready to be baited into ‘shipping’ most of the characters together, they also allow for the investigation of freedom of expression, friendships and LGBTQ+ themes. Many recent works have managed to cater to a wider audience thanks to their exploitation of other genres, especially sports. Here are a few of the best.

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Ouran High School Host Club: The ‘Pretty Boys’ Anime Archetype That Still Holds Up

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Any discussion of bishonen anime pretty much has to start with Ouran. While it may not be the first example, it is the oldest one that still holds value. In Ouran High School Host Club, young female protagonist Haruhi Fujioka is forced to join a club where a group of stunning boys entertain their classmates for fun. As the show progresses, in addition to the comedy gimmicks, a strong emphasis is put on the bonds between Haruhi and the boys and how she helps each of them grow in various ways.

On top of offering remarkable examples of great character writing, Ouran also featured one of the first examples of a gender-fluid or non-binary protagonist. While it is never made explicit, Haruhi’s unwillingness to define themselves as male or female speaks volumes. Likewise, the other characters in the show have no qualms about dressing like women or playing with their freedom of expression. The beauty of Ouran comes from the openness this group of young people shows about gender, expression and sexuality. Not to mention how outstanding it is that the anime first aired in 2006 and the manga dates back to 2002.

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Bungo Stray Dogs Proves 'Pretty Boys' Doesn’t Have to Mean Slice-of-Life

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Bungo Stray Dogs shines for many reasons, including Studio Bones’ impeccable animation and the show’s peculiar premise. In modern-day Tokyo, characters with superpowers called ‘gifts’ work for an Armed Detective Agency tasked with fighting criminals. What makes it unique, however, is that each character bears the name of a famous writer, whose life or works serve as inspiration for their superpower. The anime is an action-packed, literary fantasy, where Dazai Osamu fights against Dostoevsky and Edogawa Ranpo is himself a brilliant detective.

Every character’s design is exploited for maximum appeal: haircuts, uniforms and attitudes are stylish, outlandish or cute, but always attractive. Beautiful men aside, what makes Bungo Stray Dogs stand out is the care given to the intricacies of its plotlines, the depth of its character backgrounds and personal histories and the literary flavor, which never fails to surprise. With each new character introduced, the audience is invited to find the connection between their opus and their ‘gift’ as well as their story. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the anime is a fast-paced, action-packed visual feast.

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Sports Anime Where Pretty Boys Shine: Free!, Sk8 the Infinity, Yuri!!! on Ice

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Nevertheless, the genre that has become almost synonymous with pretty boys anime is sports anime. From Haikyuu!! to Blue Lock, it seems like these shows -- almost exclusively male-dominated -- cannot escape the temptation of turning their protagonists into Adonises. A prime example of this is Kyoto Animation masterpiece, 2013’s swimming anime Free!. The studio must have known what it was doing when deciding to write a sports anime about swimmers, who are inevitably half-naked much of the time. Surprisingly, however, the show’s appeal doesn’t end there.

For an anime about a sport that exalts the individual, Free! overcame a nearly unsurmountable hurdle when it succeeded in becoming a show about friendship. And yet, that’s exactly what this series is -- through practicing together and forming a relay team, Haru, Makoto, Nagisa and Rei overcome past trauma, grow as people and as friends, and support one another through it all. While retaining all the excitement of competition, Free! has a certain soft quality about it. There's a gentleness when dealing with characters and their relationships, and taking time to explore and develop them. It’s a heartwarming watch with the added benefit of sublime animation.

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A more recent work, 2021’s Sk8 the Infinity shares some of Free!’s gentleness while exploring other themes as well, with evident LGBTQ+ undertones. In Sk8, high-schooler Langa moves to Japan from Canada and becomes friends with Reki, a boy his age who teaches him how to skateboard in dreamy, sun-kissed Okinawa. While the underground skating races offer a major source of entertainment, the show is really about Reki and Langa’s blossoming bond. In addition to exploring a journey of self-discovery for Langa, who seems to be falling in love with Reki, the show isn’t shy about supporting free self-expression. Everyone in the anime is an outcast of some kind or is living a double life. Skating, therefore, becomes the place for freedom, self-discovery, joy and youth.

Finally, perhaps the show that managed to conjugate all elements to include an explicit same-sex romance, Yuri!!! on Ice released in 2016 and instantly earned cult status. With its moving story about a young skater on his way to redeeming himself from past failure, the show exploits ice skating to talk about passions, relationships, life-changing choices and reaching adulthood. Arguably, it’s one of a few sports anime that really pay homage to the sport as it is, accurate to a fault. But it’s also a romance and a story about choosing the kind of person one wants to be and the life one wants to lead, values and all. Given its LGBTQ+ main characters, beautiful animation and emotional character journey, it's little surprise that Yuri!!! became a classic so quickly.

There are more series worthy of a list about pretty boys anime, old and new, but it’s clear that these shows are a lot more than mere eye candy. Whether they’re about friendship or freedom, whether they mix action and history or make groundbreaking choices, all have something to add to the genre -- so much so that sometimes the pretty boys' element is just an added bonus.

The Best 'Pretty Boys' Anime – And Why They're Worth Watching (2024)

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