One of the coolest and most under-appreciated aspects of anime is the unique opening theme that plays towards the beginning of each episode. Sure, pretty much every western television show has some kind of opening credits, but they rarely have the incredible production value present in most anime openings. Generally shortened to OPs by anime fans, there are countless blog posts and video essays online breaking down animation choices and lyrical significance of the various openings to the most popular anime around.
A good OP can set the tone of an anime and prepare a viewer emotionally for what they’re about to experience. A great OP does all of this and is also a complete headbanger that the anime fandom rocks out to for upwards of decades. As shōnen anime consists of some of the most popular and longest running series in the medium, this genre produces some of the absolute best OPs in the industry. Here are the seven best shōnen anime opening sequences that make some of the greatest anime around even better.
“GO!!” — Naruto
This opening does a great job of using both visuals and lyrics to establish Naruto’s many protagonists as a group of idealistic youths enthusiastically pursuing their goals in a harsh world filled with longstanding grudges. Also, it straight up slaps! “GO!!,” by the Japanese rock band Flow, is a high energy OP that perfectly captures the fun characters and world that made this anime so popular. You’re guaranteed to have the chorus stuck in your head for at least an hour after your first listen.
The animation choices in this OP also highlight the two best features of this anime — the intense fights and the wacky character antics. Each sequence switches between the main characters preparing for a deadly conflict and those same characters going about their daily lives in their ninja village. The brief flashes of the villains Kisame and Itachi hint at the threats that lie ahead for our heroes and telegraphs that many fantastic adventures remain in this anime’s future.
“What’s up, people?!” — Death Note
The majority of shōnen anime openings are cheerful, uplifting, and exude a positive vibe. The second Death Note opening, “What’s up, people?!” by Maximum the Hormone, is none of these things. Instead, it induces a feeling of dread and hysteria with its punk-metal sound. The opening segment of the Light’s face plastered across the screen with nothing but magnified screaming perfectly sets the tone for the protagonist’s slow descent into madness. The anger and quick pace of this opening also denote that this decent is a violent one, filled with betrail and the kinds of choices that would drive anyone to the brink of insanity.
The visuals in this OP also further bolster the physical and emotional strain the many characters endure as the hunt for the serial killer Kira continues. The barrage of shifting colors and different art styles express the turmoil felt by the main characters as they try to uncover supernatural powers beyond their understanding. Meanwhile, the contrast between moving and stock still characters creates the sense that one is hunting the other — whether it be the antagonist on the prowl or the heroes waiting to strike.
“What’s up, people?!” is pure sensory overload and quickly delivers the feeling of dread and engrossment that sometimes takes the show several episodes to nail down. This opening is as maddening as it is beautiful, making it a perfect fit for the supernatural thriller that is Death Note.
“The Hero!! ~Ikareru Ken ni Honō o Tsukeru~” — One Punch Man
Of course, the world’s strongest hero would have a theme song that radiates sheer power. “The Hero!!” is by the illustrious musical group JAM Project and is a power-rock piece that perfectly captures the titular hero Saitama’s life. The closing lyrics, “The lonely hero! I want to be the strongest hero!” describes the protagonist’s solitary life after gaining so much power, and his long-standing goal of becoming powerful enough to defeat any foe with a single punch. Likewise, the lines, “Applause or voices raised in praise, I don’t need any of them” denotes that Saitama is performing heroic feats for his own personal fulfillment, rather than for fame or admiration.
This OP is also equal parts hilarious and intense thanks to some great artistic and editing decisions. Within the first few seconds of the OP, there is a single hidden frame of Saitama’s bald head replacing the sun, and he’s shown as a colossal figure glancing down at the Earth. The anime also contains several sequences of Saitama obliterating various monsters, which are very dramatic out of context but after the first episode, it’s clear these fighters were probably pretty anticlimactic. More than anything, this opening feels like the adrenaline-pumping life that Saitama dreamed of rather than the mundane one he’s currently living, and the juxtaposition between the opening and Saitama’s life make One Punch Man an even more enticing anime.
“JoJo Sono Chi no Kioku ~end of THE WORLD~” — JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
This OP is phenomenal simply because it is so incredibly dense with symbolism representing past and future events in the decades-old series. The very beginning of this beautiful opening summarizes the struggles of the Joestar family as they deal with the direct and indirect actions of their immortal enemy, DIO. The opening then cuts to the Stardust Crusaders as they travel across Egypt and Cairo and battle the Egypt 9 Glory Gods and DIO’s other servants. Ending with a clash that foreshadows the final fight between Jotaro and DIO, this opening even subtly hints at DIO’s ability to stop time, which is a lofty secret for the majority of this anime.
This opening is arguably one of the best pieces of 3D animation in the entire anime industry, and the studio behind it, Kamikaze Douga, clearly went above and beyond in every step of its production. The character models in this opening are more detailed than in the actual series, with lines adding even more depth to each character’s face, and they move with the fluidity that 3D animation allows. Moreover, Stardust Crusader’s second OP even changes its ending following the revelation that DIO’s Stand The World can stop time. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is one of the most influential and prised manga currently in production, and this OP definitely lives up to the lofty standard set by the series.
“Pokémon Theme” — Pokémon: Indigo League
It’s no exaggeration to say that the original Pokémon theme is a defining feature of an entire generation’s childhood. It’s difficult to explain to someone born in the late ’90s exactly how big and all-encompassing Pokémon-mania was, especially considering that social media was virtually non-existent back then. From the games to the trading cards to the anime, Pokémon was huge, and its opening to the first season of the anime captured that scope with a passionate sound that seemed to proclaim that Pokémon was here to stay.
Unlike the other entries on this list, this opening is different from the original Japanese version. The animation sequences contain parts from the original opening with clips from the anime also thrown in, and entirely new lyrics were performed by Jason Paige. From the opening shot of Mewtwo flying through the atmosphere to Pikachu running past the final evolution of the original starting Pokémon, every image and every note of this opening cornerstone of so many ’90s kids’ childhoods. Even if it weren’t one of the most popular OPs ever made, the sheer amount of passion that went into it easily makes the original Pokémon theme one of the best shōnen openings of all time.
“Cha-La Head-Cha-La” — Dragon Ball Z
The many different iterations of the Dragon Ball franchise all come with at least a few different opening themes. However, none of them are as iconic as “Cha-La Head-Cha-La” from the first three sagas of Dragon Ball Z. Light and upbeat, this opening focuses on the my the mythical and sci-fi adventure parts of Dragon Ball Z, rather than the iconic combat. With imagery like Shenron bursting through clouds to soar over a mountain and the construction of the androids, this OP showcases some of the very best elements of DBZ’s fantastical world.
This opening feels like its a lot closer to the overall tone of the original Dragon Ball anime than its successor, Dragon Ball Z. It frames Gohan as the central character of the show and paints the various villains of the series as threats that he will have to face along with his father and their friends. This is fascinating and seems to promote the reading that the first sagas of Dragon Ball Z are meant to form an overarching of Gohan growing from an insecure child into a confident and capable young man. While there are many ways to interpret Dragon Ball Z’s narrative, it’s peculiar that the opening would specifically frame the story in this way and will continue to influence discussion on the series for years to come.
“Feuerroter Pfeil und Bogen” — Attack on Titan
Wow, it simultaneously feels like an eternity ago, and a week ago that Attack on Titan absolutely dominated the anime fandom. The program’s attention-grabbing premise and stellar first few episodes made it a cultural phenomenon, further boosted by a delightfully melodramatic opening. This OP has a rock opera vibe that centers on the devastation and violence of the first dozen episodes of the anime. From the synchronized military combat action to the titans marching threateningly towards humanity, this opening nails the feeling of humanity struggling against an impossibly powerful foe.
There are countless parodies of “Feuerroter Pfeil und Bogen” around the internet, and its Germanic opening is instantly recognizable to even the most casual anime fans. This opening defines a pervasive cultural moment that played a pivotal role in anime becoming more mainstream. This opening is nothing short of iconic because of how it and Attack on Titan forever changed the anime landscape and its place in broader society.