The Big Four have reigned supreme as the unchallenged pillars of Shōnen anime for decades and continue to do so to date.
Dragon Ball, One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto are cultural phenomena that have inspired and birthed whole new generations of the genre down the line.
While the former is often referred to as the grandfather of the three, they’re all equally influential and famous worldwide.
But with endless rankings and numerous community wars on who’s the greatest, it’s time to put the Big 4 against each other and see who comes out on top.
By focusing on an anime’s key attributes, I’ll be scoring off the quartet and tallying the total to see who emerges as the GOAT and the absolute King of anime.
Each of the Big Four has distinct plots which highlight a specific element based on the mood of the series –
One Piece and Dragon Ball plays up adventure,as it matches the overall fun-loving feel of Luffy’s dream to become the Pirate King and Goku’s quest to summon the wish-granting dragon, Shenron.
On the other hand, Bleach’s primary objective is humanity’s safety through Ichigo’s battles against the Hollows. In contrast, Naruto’s premise was focused on garnering respect by claiming the title of the Hokage.
With each show having their respective charm, it’s best to focus on their execution of it.
One Piece rules with its immersive lore, enjoyable and sequential build-up, plus neatly placed plot lines that provide resolution for short adventures and set up the future arcs.
Moreover, it elevates a generic goal, courtesy of Oda’s expertise in subtly weaving crucial storylines, to deliver a perfectly balanced narrative of comedy and action.
While the pacing can be inconsistent and plot progression slow, it does compensate with a fair share of exciting moments, lore bombs, or foreshadowing.
Dragon Ball peaked at the original and Z series, all thanks to Toriyama aging up Goku, expanding the world and characters with each instalment, and incorporating tension fuelled cliff-hangers.
The sagas were concise and problem-driven, offering significant milestones in the overarching narrative, making it an ideal laid-back watch.
However, it continued to reuse the world-saving or tournament training formula for every series, thus dulling it down despite moving on from Goku’s primary objective.
Naruto and Bleach also mirrored Dragon Ball’s storytelling style and excelled in building a compact story that fulfilled their protagonists’ goals in a healthy amount of time.
Since both plots were defined by a clear outcome and accordingly tailored their progression to the show’s grand objective, it’s a tie between the two.
Dragon Ball – 8.5/10
One Piece – 9.5/10
Bleach – 9/10
Naruto – 9/10
The Big 4 boasts unforgettable characters that receive stellar development throughout the series.
One Piece and Dragon Ball pride themselves on a diverse and extensive array of characters.
Toriyama’s ingenuity got the ball rolling with his OG cast and their stunning growth –Vegeta’s character arc, Frieza’s power-hungry villainy, Piccolo’s reformation, and so much more.
But while the mangaka threw in plenty of leading and supporting characters, he never developed their story from the start, resulting in most of them being side-lined and downright useless after certain arcs.
In contrast, Oda perfected the iconic shōnen tropes created by the former and built the entire One Piece universe on its incredible characters.
Besides intricately fleshing out a solid main cast for two decades, the mangaka skilfully manages a truckload of characters and still has each one ingrained in everyone’s minds!
Moreover, their interactions are absolutely gold! Be it between villains, heroes, or both. Also, each one has received consistent development throughout the show.
But the defining difference that elevates One Piece’s position is the noticeable growth in its protagonists.
Despite Goku being aged up in the Z series, he didn’t grow out of his naivety and tendency to abandon his family for a fight. Whereas Luffy not only holds the torch of the friendship theme but even learns when to call it quits.
Naruto’s line-up also wins in the engaging and fleshed-out character department, but not so in the looks. The monotony of Shinobi uniforms and their dull black and green hues lose their appeal after a while and pale in comparison to Oda’s wacky and bold designs.
While Bleach’s cast and their growth are equally memorable at first, it soon starts facing problems down the line.
Which is weird since, unlike One Piece and Dragon Ball, which offer the viewer a quick get-away from reality, Bleach and Naruto have relatable characters whose problems and behavior resonate with the vast demographic of teens.
Even though Ichigo exudes edgy vibes that scream typical emo teen, he still falls short as the MC since he has no clear objective.
While his sole motivation of protecting his benefactors and loved ones earn him realism points and counters Naruto and Luffy’s lofty goals, it’s also the reason his growth peaked and could go no further after the Soul Society arc.
Even though Kubo’s designs are fire, the characters’ development of the secondary cast suffered after the Soul Society arc too. In the end, Bleach’s only pride was its villains, particularly Aizen.
Overall, they all have a great start to their characters and initial development. But Dragon Ball and Bleach lose out on consistency, and Naruto in the design department.
Dragon Ball – 8/10
One Piece – 10/10
Bleach – 8.5/10
Naruto – 9/10
3Themes and Depth
While the Big Three are all heavily inspired by Dragon Ball’s theme of loyalty and earnest determination to achieve one’s goals, each one spices it up with their creative twists.
Dragon Ball successfully met Shōnen Jump’s Friendship, Victory, and Effort criteria but ultimately never moved past its jovial feel and continued to reuse its standard tropes.
One Piece betters all its progenitor’s themes and even inspires Naruto with its Nakama concept, as evidenced by Kishimoto ripping off Whitebeard’s speech on betrayal for Kakashi’s rant.
The series is light-heartedness personified with plenty of laughs and heart-warming moments throughout Luffy’s voyage.
But it also balances its overall goofy look with stealthy gut punches to the feels through heart-wrenching backstories and the bittersweet side of companionship and death via its theme of inheritance of wills.
It even maintains its fun-loving feel, despite the horrific issues it discusses.
Although it could be whimsical at times and almost always have its heroes win, it features crushing losses that stick, unlike Dragon Ball’s defeats, which completely desensitizes any sense of dread or tension.
On the other hand, Naruto portrays a grim world with its theme of generational violence and the complex yet violent side of friendship and betrayal.
The pain and trauma of dealing with loss are heavily emphasized here, along with isolation and parental neglect.
Bleach matches Naruto’s gore, but its defining theme of the deep need to protect amidst the threat of inner demons is what sets it apart.
Plus, the mystery of death and the philosophy of existence give it an extra dimension of depth none of the four have reached.
Although Naruto and Bleach’s thematic elements are niche and focused, only the former portrays it with nuance. In contrast, Bleach’s approach is way too obvious and lacks tact.
In the end, Naruto and Bleach do leave a profound impact with their weighty themes. But its execution fails to match the subtly of One Piece’s depth.
Dragon Ball – 8.5/10
One Piece – 10/10
Bleach – 8.5/10
Naruto – 9/10
The Big 4’s surreal worlds are like no other in the anime universe.
While all boast incredibly detailed lore and environments, Dragon Ball and One Piece take the cake with the most extensive and immersive worldbuilding, we’ve ever seen.
The former paved the way for the concept of time travel, the multiverse, space exploration, mysticism, and so much more for shōnen anime.
It also features numerous races, from humans and anthropomorphic beings to monsters, deities, demons, angels, and androids.
One Piece raises the bar with the ingenuity of Devil Fruits and Haki, plus a library worth of info on several species and locations with their individual histories that tie to the overall story.
Toriyama and Oda’s beautifully drawn environments and uniquely vibrant color palette provide an extra edge for both series.
Although Bleach made full use of interdimensional realms by including Soul Society, Hueco Mondo, and Hell itself, its simplistic aesthetic for complex and intangible environments dragged it down.
However, it sports an array of interesting Shinigami and Hollow species, hybrids, and variants of human souls. But their quantity and variety are nowhere near the former two.
Naruto’s universe is only restricted to the various Shinobi Clans, the Ōtsutsuki species, and the multi-tailed Beasts.
Although its lore is equally engaging, it doesn’t inspire a sense of mystery like One Piece and ultimately boils down to an Uchiha vs. Uzumaki war.
While all four deserve props for featuring one-of-a-kind worlds, Naruto and Bleach lose out on extra credits because of the former’s confined world and latter’s dull environment aesthetic.
However, Dragon Ball and One Piece have environmental design and art style points exclusively reserved for them.
Dragon Ball – 10/10
One Piece – 10/10
Bleach – 6.5/10
Naruto – 7.5/10
The Big 4 has blessed the community with vastly distinct styles of animation that blend well with each one’s themes and nature.
Dragon Ball was the OG of stellar animation even before it became a criterion to judge anime.
Besides incorporating complex and dynamic moves at a smooth pace, it also evolved with bombastic action and brutal fight sequences in each series.
One Piece’s outlandish and exaggerated style perfectly matches its characters and their quirky powers. Moreover, it’s been steadily improving, with Toei Animation doing an incredible job with the current Wano Country Arc.
The moves are now more polished, with each power-up colorfully displayed and accentuated with well-defined action scenes. However, the complexity of its characters’ movements still pales compared to Naruto.
Speaking of Naruto, it wins by a mile over the former two with its clear-cut combat sequences and seamless action, courtesy of Studio Pierrot, who also worked on Bleach.
Even though the latter is widely praised for its high-octane action, its static and repetitive moves bog it down. However, with the trailer for the Thousand-Year Blood War Arc being absolute fire, things are definitely open to change.
With all four creatively using their unique art and animation styles, it ultimately boils down to an ever-changing list governed by preference and adjustment.
While hard-core action lovers can bask in the glory of Naruto’s perfectly choreographed battles and Bleach’s well-defined fight sequences, fans wanting a healthy mix of serious and fluid action can indulge in Dragon Ball and One Piece’s battles.
But regardless of one’s choices, Naruto and Bleach’s brilliant animation deserve extra brownie points for creating the best action sequences.
Dragon Ball – 9/10
One Piece – 8.5/10
Bleach – 9/10
Naruto – 10/10
While all four boast staggering scores of fans worldwide who root for their favorite franchise as the best, the Big 3 are dwarfed by Dragon Ball’s worldwide popularity.
Besides influencing the entire generation of the late 90s, it continues to hold the beacon for anime worldwide. Goku was even chosen as the ambassador for the Olympic Games in 2020, despite One Piece’s takeover years ago.
Although Oda’s masterpiece reigns supreme in Japan, it has yet to surpass Dragon Ball’s monumental global reach.
Bleach is a unique icon among the four, but it still can’t reach the level of critical acclaim as the former two. On the other hand, Naruto does much better with its thematic elements, Kishimoto’s relatable characters, and the iconic Naruto run.
While all four have grossed billions in manga sales, merchandise, video games, anime, and movies over the years, only the Dragon Ball series and One Piece stand atop the list for its colossal impact that remains today.
Dragon Ball – 10/10
One Piece – 9/10
Bleach – 7/10
Naruto – 8/10
One Piece – 95/100
Dragon Ball – 90/100
Naruto – 88/100
Bleach – 81/100
The verdicts out! It’s One Piece for the win! With every box on an anime’s fundamental attributes checked and perfected, it’s no surprise Oda’s magnum opus tops The Big 4.
While any list comprising the juggernauts of the shōnen genre is prone to change, it’ll take a miracle to dethrone One Piece, especially with the Wano Country Arc looking to be the best yet.
With Bleach’s final season around the corner, the underdog may have the chance to swap places with Naruto.However, all of it is riding on the show’s much-awaited grand finale.
Meanwhile, Dragon Ball’s popularity isn’t likely to fade anytime soon, thus allowing the progenitor to sit comfortably at second place for the time being.
Regardless, they’ll remain Shōnen Jump’s champions for years, as they’ve reached heights of success that can never be replicated.
Naruto is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto. Its publication began on September 21, 1999, and continued till November 10, 2014, in Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump. The manga has collected 72 volumes in tankōbon format.
Naruto Shippuden is Part II of the anime series, which follows an older Naruto as he attempts to save his friend Sasuke while at the same time – addressing the looming threat of the criminal organization – Akatsuki – who are targeting him for their grander scheme.
Bleach is a Japanese anime television series based on Tite Kubo’s manga of the same name. The anime series adapts Kubo’s manga but also introduces some new, original, self-contained story arcs.
It is based in Karakura Town on a 15-year-old high school student Ichigo Kurosaki who becomes a substitute Soul Reaper when Rukia Kuchiki, a Soul Reaper, puts Soul Reaper powers in Ichigo. They barely manage to kill the hollow.
Although initially reluctant to accept the heavy responsibility, he begins eliminating some more hollows and also discovers that several of his friends and classmates are spiritually aware and have powers of their own.
About Dragon Ball
Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama’s brainchild, came into existence in 1984. It has spawned several manga, anime, films, and other media adaptations.
The initial series follows Son Goku and his adventures when he was a child. It is here that we are first introduced to Goku as he meets Bulma, Yamcha, and others.
He trains in martial arts and participates in the World Martial Arts Championship for the first time in this series.
About One Piece
One Piece is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda. It has been serialized in Shueisha’s Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine since July 22, 1997.
The man who had acquired everything in this world, the Pirate King, is Gol D. Roger. The final words he said at the execution tower were “My treasures? If you want it, I’ll let you have it. Look for it; I left all of it at that place.” These words sent many to the seas, chasing their dreams, headed toward the Grand Line, in search of One Piece. Thus began a new age!
Seeking to be the greatest pirate in the world, young Monkey D. Luffy also heads toward the Grand Line in search of One Piece. His diverse crew is joining him along the way, consisting of a swordsman, marksman, navigator, cook, doctor, archaeologist, and cyborg-shipwright, this will be one memorable adventure.