The usual disclaimers: no more than one girl per series to keep the list from becoming too samey. My experience with manga is a bit too limited to justify including them just to add one or two ladies to the list, so I'm keeping it just to anime for now. Obviously I haven't seen everything, and even if I had my preference probably won't overlap with yours as much as you might like, so if there are any other dames you feel deserve their due, feel free to make your own list rather than complaining about mine.
But enough rambling, on to the ladies!
#20 - Urumi Kanzaki (Great Teacher Onizuka)
Urumi, along with a couple of other entries, is a bit younger than my usual preference, explaining her low placement. Still, there was no way I could overlook this brainy beauty; she's funny, witty and passionate but knows how to have a good time, and she grows into someone truly admirable over the course of the series. What more could I ask for? You know, aside from the next 19 entries.
#19 - Haruhi Fujioka (Ouran Highschool Host Club)
Haruhi is what every rom-com protagonist should be. She's sharp and witty, but adaptable and open-minded enough to take the craziness life throws at her in stride. She values hard work and fortitude, always good traits to have, and she manages to be attractive as both genders... the fact that I find that pretty neat leaves me rather inwardly confused, now that I think about it. Moving on.
#18 - Integra Hellsing (Hellsing)
Alucard may be the centerpiece of Hellsing, but Integra is where most of the show's depth comes from. She's hardened but still young and hasn't yet completely given herself to war and strife, which makes her an effective leader with room still for growth. This is true in both the original and especially in Ultimate. She's a badass, but also a thoughtful and charismatic woman with an iron will that puts the world's strongest vampire to shame.
#17 - Nico Robin (One Piece)
One Piece isn't particularly well-known for depth or subtlety, but it does try its hand at something different every now and again, and Robin is arguably the most interesting and complex of the Straw Hat Pirates. It's really endearing seeing her warm up to the rest of the crew, but she can still hold her own among the best of them and is definitely not one to be trifled with. She makes this list quite handily. Did I really just write that?
#16 - Maetel (Galaxy Express 999)
This is another borderline inclusion, because I actually haven't finished Galaxy Express. I'm only just getting into it and have no idea what Maetel might be hiding or what ulterior motives she might have. A part of her placement comes from that air of mystery, but at the same time I'm somehow very confident that once I know what's really driving her I'll like her character even more. She's clearly not all that she seems, but I do believe she's a good person at heart, whatever dark history she may carry.
#15 - Hitomi Kashiwa (Welcome to the NHK)
The first of a few inclusions that'll call my mental well-being into question, when we first meet Hitomi she's arguably the furthest gone out of any of the main characters. However, she's also the first one to take steps toward rediscovering her self-worth and putting her life back together. And then there's that awkward part of me that would've treasured those slow lunch hours of just quietly playing cards and talking about conspiracies together. I'm just weird like that.
#14 - Gina (Porco Rosso)
I had to have at least one of the Ghibli gals on this list, and Gina tends to be forgotten amidst the studio's more well-known works and characters. That's a shame, because Gina is a truly special kind of woman. It's clear that she loves Porco, but at the same time she's built a fulfilling life of her own. She always has a place waiting for him, but she lets him live his own life while she lives out hers, and they're both fine. That's a rare, wonderful strength that puts her in a league of her own.
#13 - Reki (Haibane Renmei)
While Rakka may have been the viewpoint protagonist of Haibane Renmei, Reki is the one whose journey we're truly meant to follow, and it's hard not to feel for her as she seeks to break her curse and find salvation. To me, there's something deeply moving about finding selflessness in selfish actions, in learning to live for others through pure, honest perseverance. That's something I admire, and kind of identify with. She's the heart of one of my very favorite anime, that's more than reason enough for her place on this list.
#12 - Nice Holystone (Baccano!)
This gal is an absolute blast, pun intended. She compliments Jacuzzi nicely, encouraging him at all the right moments, but even without him she'd be a formidable presence. She knows how to have a good time, she's faithful to the people who are important to her, and she's always smokin'. A bit crazy, I'll admit, which keeps her from placing higher, but she's still a helluva fun woman to be around.
#11 - Junko Kaname (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
For a show as talked-about as Madoka, people don't talk about Junko all that much, which is a shame because she's far more important than she's often given credit for. She's too flawed to be a boring "strong independent woman" archetype, and yet she's also a driven and confident woman despite and because of her flaws, and she knows how to bring out the best in the people around her. I'd be her house husband any day.
#10 - Juri Arisugawa (Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Tough but not cold or unkind, refined but not stuck-up or snobbish, she's easily my favorite character from one of my favorite anime of all time. Getting back to the "strong female characters" trend, she can hold her own against the best duelists, and while she does have her own motives she still tries to do the right thing through it all. Okay, she's also a lesbian, so for my purposes I can't place her as high as I'd like, but still a worthy entry.
#9 - Fujiko Mine (Lupin III)
After going on about complex, subtly written, layered female characters we come to Fujiko, who pretty much is what she is. She just happens to be incredibly awesome. She's sexy but not easy and uses her womanly charms to great effect. It's no wonder she's become almost as iconic as Lupin himself. Hell, she even got her own show recently, and it was a damn good show. She's one of the classic anime hotties and it's easy to see why.
#8 - Misato Katsuragi (Neon Genesis Evangelion)
I think I must be twisted. Ah well. Out of all the characters in Evangelion, I found Misato to be by far the most likable. Despite not being an Eva pilot, she goes above and beyond the call of duty to help out when it's needed, which I find admirable. She has some problems to deal with, but she truly does her best to take control of her fate in spite of all that, and to inspire others to do the same. Definitely a great lady to have on any list.
#7 - Shiki Ryougi (Garden of Sinners)
I really am twisted, aren't I? Honestly I'm okay with that. Shiki is a strong lady through and through, but with just enough of a sweet human side to make her endearing beneath it all. She has the resolve to constantly suppress her dark side. Kara No Kyoukai's strongest point, aside from its animation, is its subtle character writing, and Shiki is a great example of a character who's more than meets the eye.
#6 - Holo (Spice & Wolf)
We're hitting the home stretch, so at this point, the entries start to speak for themselves. Spice & Wolf is a show carried entirely by the strength of its leads, so it's no wonder Holo stands out. Witty, perceptive, and knows how to get what she wants, she's definitely a force to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Lawrence is always fun to watch, and I look forward to seeing more of their journey together. To top all that off, she's just good company, plain and simple. That, more than anything, is what this list is all about.
#5 - Celty Sturluson (Durarara!!)
My feelings toward Durarara!! may be mixed, but I still remember many of the characters fondly, most especially Celty. She has an unmatched power and centuries behind her, but she may oddly be the most human of the cast, wanting nothing more than to regain the identity that she's lost and to find acceptance among friends and loved ones. I have a real soft spot for that kind of sincerity, so she definitely comes out ahead.
#4 - Julia (Cowboy Bebop)
Did I just forgo Faye Valentine, the absolute postergirl for fanservice done right? Call me an otaku heretic if you must, but to me Spike's old flame Julia has more of the mature appeal I love while still speaking to my romantic side. She sticks with Spike in the end not out of dependence, but on her own initiative to see an end to the conflict that in many ways she herself started. From the very little we see of her, it's immediately clear why Spike thought she was worth running away with.
#3 - Cher Degré (Wolf's Rain)
Sexy scientist headed for Paradise? Yes, please. Let's face it, anyone who'd travel to the end of a dying world when everyone else is just waiting to die easily deserves a spot on this list. Her role in Wolf's Rain is a minor one, but still definitely a necessary one. She's not without a caring side, though, and if ever any humans deserved to make it to Paradise in that story, she and Hubb certainly did. Now excuse me while I go shed a few manly tears.
#2 - Casca (Berserk)
A fantastic lady of war. Strong female characters are difficult to get just right but Casca hits all the marks perfectly. She lives in a man's world and is constantly made aware of that fact, but she doesn't let it weigh her down and proves she can hold her own among the best of them time and time again. With her fierce spirit and unyielding determination, she commands nothing but the utmost respect from her subordinates and leaves one of the strongest impressions of any anime character I've ever seen, without exaggeration.
#1 - Haruka Shitow (RahXephon)
My top anime crush, bar none. She starts off as a friendly but mysterious figure, and as we unravel her layers it's clear that there is something driving her forward, something she values above all else. What made RahXephon great, for me at least, was the wonderful humanity of its cast and how genuine and honest their interactions were throughout. At its very core, RahXephon is a love story, and what ultimately sets Haruka apart from the competition is her unwavering capacity to love through all the trials and tragedies she's endured. She's charming, genuine, admirable, and well-deserving of the top spot on this list.