Good music helps sell the tone of a movie or television show; the same is true of Japanese animation. Whether a top-notch opening to set the show’s tone or a captivating ending to close out the week’s episode, music in anime can often become as significant a cornerstone of the show as the animation itself.
The genres for the compositions are just as diverse as the shows they accompany, ranging from freestyle jazz orchestras to classic J-pop sound, reflecting not only the eras they debuted but also coinciding with some of the most popular shows the industry has seen. Find here the defining anime theme songs that helped fans fall in love.
1. “Makafushigi Adventure!” Hiroki Takahashi – Dragonball
The birth of a global phenomenon needed an equally captivating opening to kickstart Goku’s adventures in animation, and singer Hiroki Takahashi did just that with “Makafushigi Adventure!”
Starting with a pulsating beat and perfectly capturing the Dragonball franchise’s initial adventurous tone, the pop-style theme came about as part of an arduous audition process for prospective composers for the then-upcoming series, ultimately landing in the lap of eventual composer Takeshi Ike. “Makafushigi Adventure!” never charted but saw numerous cover versions emerge over the decades as the Dragonball franchise became a worldwide phenomenon, particularly in the United States.
2. “Catch You Catch Me” Hinata Megumi – Cardcaptor Sakura
Cardcaptor Sakura prided itself on being a breezier take on the magical girl genre, unconcerned with villains or ‘end of the world’ stakes for the most part while exploring the kind nature of its title heroine.
“Catch You Catch Me” takes that premise to heart, with lighter J-pop sounds that had become more prevalent by the end of the 1990s. The opener fittingly possesses a bouncy beat, befitting the calm, playful tone of the series and the animation by Studio Madhouse helps sell the tone.
3. “Nazo” Miho Komatsu – Case Closed/Detective Conan
The long-running Detective Conan series (Case Closed in the United States for trademark reasons) saw many different musical themes for its openings and endings over its near-thirty-year run. But its third opening theme, “Nazo” rather fittingly invokes the air of mystery and noir that permeate the series.
Over fifty different singles have opened the series, many of which have become charting-topping hits in Japan all on their own, but “Nazo” holds a special place in the history of Detective Conan, seeing a new cover by pop group La PomPon in 2015 to commemorate the franchise’s 20th anniversary.
4. “Rain” Sid – Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Anime themes convey more than the series’ tone as a whole but are just as often utilized to represent the tone at a certain point in the series’ storyline. “Rain” comes in as the fifth opening to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
Serving as the final opening theme for the series, where the plot comes to a head and all the various factions throughout the series begin to converge, “Rain” positions itself as an ending theme rather than a traditional opener. Moody and atmospheric but still maintaining an essential rock sound, “Rain” is a fitting theme for the definitive interpretation of Hiromu Arakawa’s steampunk fantasy.
5. “Go Speed Racer Go” Peter Fernandez – Speed Racer
Taking the original musical composition from the racing anime Mach GoGoGo, producer and voice actor Peter Fernandez rearranged the sound and crafted the lyrics for the show’s American adaptation. Fernandez’s resulting song would become one of the first anime songs to make a memorable impact on its viewers, helping turn the retitled Speed Racer into a worldwide fan favorite.
While the song does show its age, heralding from 1967, “Go Speed Racer Go” captures the thrill of high-octane racing from a bygone era and remains the definitive example of the English version honoring its Japanese roots with the reverence that it deserves.
6. “Flyers” Bradio – Death Parade
Sometimes, but not always, an anime’s opening theme can paint a completely different image than the show’s actual content. Case in point: the psychological drama series Death Parade, whose premise contrasts with its opening song, “Flyers.”
Rather than invoking the moody, afterlife premise of weighing the souls of the dead in bar-based “Death Games,” “Flyers” is an upbeat, pop-funk bop that only subtly hints at the show’s melancholic themes. While Death Parade itself isn’t discussed as highly as other shows mentioned on this list, and the song itself is the perfect case study of tonal dissonance, Bradio’s single more than lives up as a track that can stand on its own.
7. “Lum’s Love Song” Yuko Matsutani – Urusei Yatsura
Urusei Yatsura became a breakout comedy classic for its off-beat characters, absurd sci-fi comedy, and gorgeous animation, with Yuko Matsutani’s debut song crystalizing the series ethos back in 1981.
A breezy synth tune with a light calypso beat, “Lum’s Love Song” is sung from the heroine Lum’s perspective and has seen covers emerge over the past forty years, from established J-pop acts to original Lum voice actress Fumi Hirano herself. The song continues to crop up occasionally, even emerging briefly in the season one finale of Urusei Yatsura’s 2023 remake as a nod to longtime fans of the franchise.
8. “Ru-Ru-Ru-Russian Roulette” Meiko Nakahara – Dirty Pair
One of the great opening themes of 1980s anime, “Ru-Ru-Ru-Russian Roulette” still serves as the perfect introduction to the explosive antics of “Lovely Angels” Kei and Yuri. Befitting the series’ take on a sci-fi future, the theme mixes electric pop with rock n’ roll flair, and the bonus of horns to the composition helps punctuate the all-ready lively beat.
For a legion of retro anime aficionados, Dirty Pair is a pristine slice of ‘80s animation where a part of its charm can be found in its earworm of an opener.
9. “Smile Bomb” Matsuko Mawatari – YU Yu
The second single from Matsuko Mawatari’s second album, “Smile Bomb” delivered a new wave dance anthem to the supernatural action proceedings of Yu Yu Hakusho. Much like how “Ru-Ru-Ru-Russian Roulette” epitomized a set point in the 1980s, “Smile Bomb” does the same for the early 1990s, creating a J-pop beat that highlights the style and camaraderie that made Yu Yu Hakusho so beloved.
The English variation of the same song, created for Funimation’s dub, makes for a delightful counterpart to its Japanese cousin and remains fondly remembered for those growing up with the Adult Swim and Toonami blocks.
10. “Blue Water” Miho Morikawa – Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Before Neon Genesis Evangelion captured the world’s attention, Studio Gainax splashed onto television screens with their Jules Verne-inspired steampunk adventure Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Its opening track, fittingly named “Blue Water,” captures the wanderlust of adventure throughout the series with a soaring J-pop drum rhythm.
While not as famous as the series that succeeded it, especially in terms of music, “Blue Water” is a delightful discovery and a taste of Gainax’s eclectic ear for hooks.
11. “Berserk -Forces-” Susumu Hirasawa – Berserk
A dark, gritty fantasy epic needs a suitably epic music track to complement its vast scale, and none in Berserk’s original 1997 anime soundtrack has captured the brutal tone quite like “Berserk -Forces-.”
While never used as an opening or ending theme for the show itself, relegated mainly to battle sequences, “Forces” sells itself by its bombastic metal drums, electric keyboard, and suitably eerie chanting from singer/composer Susumu Hirasawa. Hirasawa’s eclectic tastes in electronica don’t sound like they’d fit the medieval-inspired world of Berserk, but the haunting incidental compliments the series’ graphic depiction of warfare.
12. “Butter-Fly” Koji Wada – Digimon Adventure
Whether the comparison is fair or not, the Digimon and Pokémon franchises have always been seen on some level as rivals for children of a certain age, especially as they both began their anime adaptations around the same time.
While Pokémon’s definitive sound appears later in this list, “Butter-Fly” became the quintessential soundtrack of Digimon and singer Koji Wada’s signature single. The original version of the song debuted as a ballad to accompany the Digimon Adventure prologue short film, but its renowned rock variant for the television series proper became a massive hit outside of its animated context.
13. “Cha-la Head Cha-La” Hironobu Kageyama – Dragonball Z
“Cha-La Head Cha-La” not only remains the definitive Dragon Ball Z theme, but it continues to represent the franchise as a whole for generations of fans. Compared to the original Dragon Ball theme “Makafushigi Adventure!” this theme kicks the music up a notch by focusing on the high-octane, pumping up the audience for the spectacular fights that would define the series going forward.
The intense, rousing rock ballad contrasts the more mature-oriented Z with its child-friendly predecessor while complimenting how the overall upbeat Dragon Ball had begun. For many DBZ fans, “Cha-La Head Cha-La” is a welcome dose of nostalgia.
14. “Colors” Flow – Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
The band Flow continues to pop up as a steady supplier of anime theme songs, with their most prolific output emerging throughout the mid-2000s. However, “Colors” from the Code Geass franchise ranks among the top-tier in their discography.
Starting with a chorus of horns and a mighty shout, “Colors” makes for a lively pop-rock single that fits its era while complimenting the unique Sunrise/Clamp mix of mecha action and eye-catching character design. Code Geass remains a beloved example of the mecha anime genre, and no doubt “Colors” had a small part in the series’ staying power over fifteen years after its debut.
15. “Cat’s Eye” Anri – Cat’s Eye
Japanese pop singer Anri was already hugely successful when she recorded the first title track to the anime adaptation of Tsukasa Hojo’s crime heist series Cat’s Eye back in 1983. A perfect blend of psychedelia and city pop sound, “Cat’s Eye” ushers in the allure of the titular thieves with opening imagery that feels like the early ‘80s but also out of step with its era all at once.
The result feels like a slice of pristine electric pop, epitomizing a bygone era in Japanese history. These days, audiences will find “Cat’s Eye” as a staple of city pop/vaporwave playlists worldwide, with Anri herself experiencing a new phase in her career with an international acceptance previously unreached.
16. “Pokémon Theme (Gotta Catch ‘Em All!)” Jason Paige – Pokémon
There are rare instances where the English version of an anime’s theme music can capture the world’s imagination so thoroughly that even the native language variant pales in comparison.
A pop-rock anthem punctuated by the franchise’s signature slogan, “Pokémon Theme” takes the perspective of a brand-new Pokémon trainer eager to take on the world and “catch ‘em all!”
A vital part of the initial phenomenon at the start of the millennium, the song has transcended its original purpose as a simple English rework to become the unofficial anthem of Pokémon as a whole, popping up in official video game trailers and as a musical riff in the live-action Detective Pikachu.
17. “Theme From Lupin III” Yuji Ohno – Lupin the Third, Part II
The first Lupin the Third anime series lacked a proper opening soundtrack to telegraph the sort of tone and style that the production aimed for, but not so for the thief’s second series. Jazz musician Yuji Ohno was brought on board to craft an opening track that would encapsulate the Lupin gang’s international adventures and the rush of an exciting heist.
The original 1978 track laid the groundwork for not just the tone of Lupin the Third going forward musically but also provided Ohno with a truly enduring character to work off of in the decades to come. Whether reimagined as a piano standard or a rocking guitar riff, “Theme from Lupin III” is as malleable and timeless as Lupin himself.
18. “Roundabout” Yes – Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
English translations of original Japanese song compositions for the Anglosphere are nothing new, but it’s rare for an English song to become integral to an anime’s identity as initially written.
For JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, no song has become so ingrained in its audience as its first ending theme from the English rock band, Yes. Original mangaka Hirohiko Araki listened to “Roundabout” constantly as he wrote the initial manga chapters, and JoJo’s striking imagery perfectly complements the song’s psychedelic guitar strings. The song became an online sensation thanks to its appearance in JoJo, particularly in conjunction with the “To Be Continued” meme that continues to make its way into corners of the internet. It’s not too shabby for a song from the late 1970s.
19. “Go!!!” Flow – Naruto
Probably Flow’s most beloved single and one of the Naruto franchise’s enduring openings, “Go!!!” epitomizes early 2000s J-pop rock. With a trashing drum beat and an equally shredding guitar, Naruto’s fourth opening soundtrack invokes the same youthful energy as its cast of young wannabe ninjas, complimenting the exuberance of Naruto himself.
Due to the song’s inclusion amidst the growing popularity of Naruto, “Go!!!” became a live staple at Flow’s concerts and served as the starting point for the band’s continued contributions to the anime industry, including the previously mentioned “Colors.”
20. “Just Communication” Two-Mix – Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
It’d be remiss not to include a musical theme from the decades-long Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, and “Just Communication” was not only the first single from the pop duo Two-Mix but, for many Western fans, the first music theme they were exposed to when watching Gundam for the first time.
Fittingly electropop, “Just Communication” combines the traditional war drama with a hint of the operatic tone that permeates the Wing iteration of Gundam. Numerous Gundam series have emerged in the almost thirty years since Wing’s debut, but none have gripped audiences from the get-go quite like Two-Mix’s breakthrough track.
21. “Moonlight Densetsu” Dali – Sailor Moon
Most modern anime theme music constantly rotates for new acts and their singles, giving an air of variety to any given show as time passes. Still, only a rare few are so definitive to a show’s identity that it becomes the only theme the series ever needs.
Sailor Moon’s “Moonlight Densetsu” is one of those tracks, being the central opening theme for the series up until its final season. A fitting anthem to anime’s original magical girl heroine, the song gradually matures as the series progresses, just as Usagi Tsukino gradually warms to her role as Sailor Moon.
Whether it be in the original Japanese vocals or the reimagined superhero theme it became upon its first English release, “Moonlight Densetsu” remains a quintessential magical girl tune.
22. “Get Wild” TM Network – City Hunter
Most anime theme music, particularly those of the 1980s, are often defined by their appearances in visually striking openings, but City Hunter’s first ending theme remains the franchise’s most famous track. The pop-rock band TM Network had already made strides in the mid-1980s, but their contribution to the anime adaptation of City Hunter became their signature track.
Combining a solid drumbeat, synth keyboard, and pulsating bassline, “Get Wild” captures the series’ stylish action and fits the dangerous world of Ryo Saeba to a tee. The song continues to appear throughout the franchise, either through new takes by TM Network themselves or as covers by other artists, becoming the definite ending music among anime theme songs.
23. “We Are!” Hiroshi Kitadani – One Piece
If ever a song perfectly captures the rousing spirit of pirate adventure, it would be Hiroshi Kitadani’s first opening theme for One Piece, “We Are!” Ever since the song’s debut in 1999, “We Are!” has defined the series as a whole, becoming the show’s signature song and popping up for momentous occasions, including as a revamped opening theme for the anime’s landmark 1000th episode.
Even as recently as Netflix’s live-action take on the material, reimagined as a leitmotif, “We Are!” continues to beckon audiences to set sail with Luffy and the Straw Hat Pirates and will no doubt make appearances in every medium One Piece finds itself.
24. “Tank!” Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts – Cowboy Bebop
Just as celebrated as its neo-noir and space western style, Cowboy Bebop remains widely acclaimed for its jazz/blues-fused soundtrack, and no track from the series is as iconic as its opening, “Tank!”.
An almost pure instrumental big band jazz number, “Tank!” invokes the sounds of the Sean Connery-era James Bond films with a hint of Latin bop for stylish flair. With a simple invitation of ‘let’s jam,’ Cowboy Bebop became one of the most highly acclaimed anime series conceived in no small part thanks to its opening while ushering in a new wave of interest in Japanese animation.
25. “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” Yoko Takahashi – Neon Genesis Evangelion
One of the most influential anime television series rather fittingly possesses the best opening theme, with Neon Genesis Evangelion announcing its entrance to the world from the back of “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis.”
Director Hideki Anno initially sought to have a piece of classical music serve as the theme for his follow-up to Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, but broadcaster TV Tokyo insisted on an original composition. The result is a mix of operatic and classic J-pop sounds, lyrics that nod to the show’s philosophical themes, and a track that belays the journey of Shinji Ikari yet to come.
“A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” escaped the confines of traditional anime-centric themes to become a popular karaoke tune in Japan before again gaining a new lease on life through the internet and gradually becoming one of the most famous compositions in animation history.