So you want to get into anime. Buckle in. From outside, it looks like a big, scary and potentially fatal undertaking. And that’s because it is.
Anime is a medium that contains all the peaks and deep, deep troughs of human imagination. When it’s good, it’s brain-bending sci-fi plots, mirthful belly laughs, involuntary squees and tears upon heartbreaking tears. And when it’s bad, you’ll find yourself head-in-hands, bemoaning the garbage race that is humanity.
Getting into anime is all about avoiding the caltrops and finding the glistening, gold nuggets. I will guide you.
There is so much god damn anime. And if you know anything about anime culture, it’s that its fans are, often, mega-fans. Anime fandom can be intimidating for newcomers. “Oh, you’ve seen this obscure anime? Well, have you watched this one?”, “Have you seen every episode?”, etc., are questions that maladjusted people ask. Not everyone is like that. Ignore those people. Watch what you like. Stop watching what you don’t like, even if otaku tell you it’s “foundational” or “classic.” You have limited free time. Don’t spend it all binging of Evangelion if, by episode 12, you’re screaming, “Shinji: Get in the fucking robot.”
Also: anime is a medium, not a genre—so unlike sci-fi movies or romantic comedies, you simply can’t consume (or enjoy) it all. Sure, there are “anime” tropes like adorable magical pets, high-school transfer love stories and fifteen-episode boss battles, but these are not guiding principles. Think of anime the same way you think of “cartoons.” You might like Adventure Time, but not Invader Zim; Stephen Universe but not Tiny Toons. A cartoon can cover any topic in any tone, so there are extreme differences between shows. The same goes for anime. The main difference is that anime is specifically produced in Japan and bound by some artistic similarities, like large eyes and pointy chins.
What to start with
First, let’s talk what not to start with. The most popular shows, like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto and Sailor Moon, are, a little counter-intuitively, not great places to begin your anime journey. They’re long. They’re a lore-heavy. And they’re kids’ shows for a reason. I won’t throw shade on everyone’s favourite nostalgic programming, but I will say that immediately interesting anime for adults is super easy to find (and is often better-written).
When it comes to where to dip your toes in, it really depends on what you like. I try to recommend shorter series without gratuitous anime in-jokes, alienating fan service or an intended audience below the age of 13. I will gladly break one of those rules for exceptional shows. And there are many.
Movies by Studio Ghibli are good palate-teasers. They are the height of style and beauty that anime can harness: wind-swept panoramas, a bath house for the spirits, a cat bus, two warrior princesses who fight climate change. For our Ghibli recommendations, check out this post. Personally, I recommend Nausicaa and My Neighbor Totoro. I have found, however, that first-time anime viewers will often just watch more Ghibli movies without venturing into the larger world of anime. And we don’t want that! For my top picks for anime movies that aren’t Studio Ghibli, check this post.
Below are my top beginner’s recommendations for each major anime genre along with one-sentence descriptions. They’re all series.
Cowboy Bebop: A rag-tag team of bounty hunters track down criminals and grapple with their sordid pasts in jazz-backed adventures across the galaxy. It’s a sharp, action-packed classic full of James Bond one-liners and wildly creative world-building.
Samurai Champloo: Two samurai—one a breakdancing degenerate and the other, a buttoned-up goody-goody—accompany a scrappy girl on her journey to find a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” It’s a killer combination of Edo-era aesthetics and modern hip-hop culture with hilarious and emotional sequences in equal parts.
Fooly Cooly: An alien investigator in the form of a strange, boundary-breaking woman shakes up a depressed 13-year-old’s life in this punk-backed acid trip of a show. Fooly Cooly is an addictive combination of style and strangeness.
Ruroni Kenshin: In 19th century Japan, a wandering swordsman helps those in need across the countryside after vowing to never kill another person. This anime, and its prequel Samurai X, will immerse you in a beautiful, cherry blossom-filled world where values are stricter and fights are meaningful.
(Disclaimer: Most comedy anime I’d recommend derive their humour from well-trod anime tropes. If you’re unfamiliar with those tropes, this can be a hard genre to get into!)
Ouran High School Host Club: A female scholarship student at a prestigious school encounters a club of six dashing men whose jobs are to flatter women who pay them, and after she breaks their expensive vase, she’s forced to pay it back by being a host, too. This show is over-the-top ridiculous and always puts me in a good mood.
Hetalia: Axis Powers: A ridiculous series of five-minute episodes in which World War II’s Axis and Allied powers are personified (and satirised) as cute anime boys. It’s amazing?
Nana: Two girls, both named Nana, meet on a train to Tokyo—one wants to pursue her ambitions as a punk rock star, and the other wants to be close to her flaky boyfriend. With confidence, I can say that Nana is in my top three anime ever. Its characters are realer than any I’ve experienced in any other media.
Clannad: One sarcastic, mediocre high schooler gets to know six extraordinary girls, all of whom betray their vulnerabilities and talents throughout his journey from delinquency to altruism. Clannad is full of likeable characters and, in the span of an episode, you’ll be taken on a ride through any grab bag of emotions.
My Love Story: A total mench, who has no luck with women and a too-attractive best friend, falls in love with a shy girl who eventually confesses that she loves him in return. This is just such a sweet and adorable show.
Berserk (1997): A wandering mercenary cuts down demons and delves into the darkest parts of humanity in this medieval-themed fantasy. Berserk is intense, deep and incredibly powerful.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: A savant child alchemist and his brother attempt to bring their mother back to life, a major taboo, by joining the State Alchemists and finding the Philosopher’s Stone. This show has everything: political intrigue, magic, religion and love. Its story is full of momentum, pushed forward strong, dynamic characters.
Kaiba: A psychedelic sci-fi romance set in a world where people’s memories are stored on chips, which the rich buy in bulk for entertainment. It is like nothing you have ever seen.
From The New World: Millennia after humans decimate each other with psychic powers they developed genetically, a tranquil school in a bucolic countryside teaches its students how to harness their powers—but not about the human history’s dark history. This is a smart, well-paced show with mind-bogglingly good world-building.
It hurts to not include so many of my favourites, but some things (Perfect Blue, One-Punch Man, Madoka Magica) are just better saved for later.
Where to watch anime
Subscribe to an anime streaming service. Crunchyroll and Funimation, which respectively for subtitles and dubs, have tons of shows, and many new simulcasts. Amazon’s Anime Strike is where I watch my favorite anime these days, but it’s not worth investing in if you don’t already have Amazon Prime. Hulu and Netflix are full of good anime, too.
I suggest paying for anime. Animators make next to nothing. If there are absolutely no other options aside from free streaming services, I don’t know what to tell you. Buy the manga?
How to watch it:
Anime is best enjoyed alone or with a close friend or significant other. Snacks are necessary. A lot of anime breaks boundaries in ways that are rewarding when you can invest yourself in it entirely. So I’m still hesitant to watch my favourite shows with acquaintances. Sneering and judgement are pretty common responses to anime (and a lot of the time, it’s warranted!). I don’t want that maiming my anime experience. Maybe you’re not me! That’s great.
That’s it! Go in with a good mindset, be discerning, choose your poison and run with it. Watching anime can be an incredibly rewarding hobby that brings you to new emotional and psychological heights. But make sure to remember: You don’t have to watch everything.