But for these first few go’s, there’s no worry about missing a bit of cultural context that makes the rest confusing, or about sub-par translations ruining the plot; all have excellent English voiceovers. Each are solid classics of their genre, and if you like animation at all you’ll probably find something in this list to occupy your time.
If you’ve watched any anime at all, you’ve probably already watched these first suggestions. This first collection is for the total newcomers.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
For those who like: Adventure, fantasy
Ha! Yep, you got me. I cheated. Avatar: The Last Airbender is an American television series, not a Japanese one. But it’s one of the best works of television animation ever in this country, an instant classic that jumped headlong into the broad-arc episodic storytelling usually shied away from in other American shows in favor of stakeless slapstick.
Set in a world of elemental magic in which “benders” are born capable of manipulating air, water, earth, or fire, Aang is the reincarnation of the one soul who can manipulate all four. After running away from home and accidentally burying himself in an iceberg for a century, Aang wakes to find himself the last airbender in existence. His homeland and his people were wiped out in a genocide; the Fire Nation is well on its way to subjugating everyone else.
Ostensibly aimed at children, Avatar deals heavily, and successfully, with big themes and especially with morality itself. Genocide, terrorism, bigotry, corruption—Aang’s small cluster of world-roaming allies find and must cope with all of it. Each “bender” realm is at least a superficial portrayal of Eastern or northern Native real-world cultures. The show is immensely successful at portraying its unlikely heroes, all children, as children; the theme of the show is their own growth to adulthood, with war and adventure being the stage that growth plays out on. Each of the characters is both believable and likable. The show values smarts over strength and portrays both cultural differences and physical disabilities as things to be celebrated: Toph, Aang’s eventual earthbending tutor, is a rich, blind, and supposedly frail young girl who uses her earthbending mastery to “see” the world around her, and to deliver stompings to opponents in her secret career as earthbending pro wrestler. If you aren’t intrigued by that sentence I don’t know what to tell you. You might be broken.
This one is a solid watch. Avatar was followed up by a sequel, The Legend of Korra, which didn’t quite capture the same magic. It was also made into an infamous live action movie by M. Night Shyamalan so botched and dreadful that it must never, ever be watched. Ever. Ever.
For those who like: Firefly, crime dramas, film noir
If you miss Firefly, this might scratch that itch. The superb classic Cowboy Bebop follows a trio of for-profit bounty hunters based aboard the slightly clunky spaceship Bebop. It borrows heavily from film noir, mashed up with old westerns, cyberpunk, blues, and jazz. Spike is a skilled, aggressive, and moody bounty hunter who teams up with longtime partner Jet, con artist partner-of-the-moment Faye, and bubbly, manic ultrahacker Edward.
The star of this show is the music, a mostly blues-oriented blend by Yoko Kanno that can tweak itself from psychedelic to ballad as required. The mood is dark; every one of our characters is lost and broken, looking for a redemption that may never come.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
For those who like: Adventure, intrigue, magic, steampunk. But: some gore
Fullmetal Alchemist is a steampunk-infused morality play with punching. And magic. And magic that enhances punching, I guess.
Not for very young children because of some rather intense scenes of bloodshed—and a certain dog—Fullmetal Alchemist follows two brothers who, as amateur alchemists, attempted to bring their just-deceased mother back from the dead via alchemic spell. The rules of alchemy demand equivalent exchange—that whatever be produced in a transmutation be exactly equivalent to whatever was offered as its reagent—and the spell backfires. Edward loses an arm and a leg; Alphonse loses his entire body, reduced to a soul that Edward frantically bonds to a nearby suit of armor.
Fitted with steampunk-inspired prosthetic limbs, Edward soon joins the military as state-sponsored alchemist, using his assignments to travel the nation in search of knowledge that will help him retrieve or recreate his brother’s body. He quickly, however, learns much more than he wants to. The brothers are assisted by their childhood friend and crack mechanic Winry, an “automail”-obsessed tomboy tasked with angrily patching up the metal parts of both after each misadventure.
Fullmetal Alchemist is alternatively dramatic and goofy, comedic and gory in equal measures. It’s also the best representative, perhaps, of the shounen genre, adventure-and-combat serials and animation targeted primarily towards action-seeking boys and young men. As in American entertainment, it’s a perilous genre in terms of quality, and is most known for a few blockbuster, block-out-the-sun hits that you probably have heard of. More on those later.
Now for the tricky part: There are actually two Fullmetal Alchemist series. The first was done while the original manga (serialized comic) was being written and largely invents the last half of its storyline from scratch. The second, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was done later, and follows the manga storyline as the author intended. While the second is the canonical, “true” version preferred by most fans, it is also sillier and perhaps less focused. Both are currently available on Netflix. The English language versions are excellent.
For those who like: historical drama, swords, samurai
For all our pompous talk of let’s delve into the art of non-American culture for a change, neither Cowboy Bebop nor Fullmetal Alchemist has much to do with Japan at all. One is based in space; the other in a European-styled fictional nation. Let’s fix that.
Rurouni Kenshin, rather unsubtly subtitled Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story, isn’t set in outer space or magic-infused fantasy worlds. Set in Meiji-period Japan, the bloody period in the late 1800s in which Japan transformed from feudal factions to a single emperor-led nation, it follows a wandering ex-assassin who has sworn to never again kill. That’s not to say the show does not have plenty of mystical and superhero-esque elements, but its roots are squarely in period fiction.
The Meiji era is the subject of countless works of Japanese fiction, romanticized tales of swordplay and honor and implausible skill that directly parallel much of this country’s wild west nostalgia. This is probably a (ahem) far more down-to-earth portrayal for newcomers than most; if your introduction to Japanese history is the longrunning hit show Gin Tama, bring your aspirin.
Our lead character may have promised to never again take a life, but in an era known for its violence and corruption with a steady stream of challengers not bound by his self-imposed rules, it’s not always clear whether our character is acting out of true idealism or guilt-ridden self-destruction.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
For those who like: The Matrix, cyberpunk, sci-fi, police drama
The Ghost in the Shell franchise consists of much more than Stand Alone Complex, but Stand Alone Complex may be the most, er, standalone chunk of the world it explores. In a near-future world in which cybernetic implants are standard, an elite, secret military force led by the fully cybernetic Major Motoko Kusanagi takes on the most violent and dangerous criminals. Ghost in the Shell may present itself as a mystery-fueled police thriller, but obsesses over where the lines of sentience, and humanity itself, begin and end. How much can be mechanized before a human no longer quite counts as human? And if artificial intelligence produces what appears to be sentient beings—for example, military tanks masquerading as enormous spiders—do they count as alive? What does it mean if they are?
As action-packed police drama, the series will be familiar, but presents a world of technologies both unquestionably foreign and uncomfortably close to becoming near-future reality. The results, as in many works of fiction, are decidedly more dystopian than humanity intended.
If cyberpunk and dystopian futures aren’t your thing, though, you can skip it.
What about these other famous shows?
There are quite a few shows that you probably have already heard of due to their omnipresence on American television screens. Many people looking to dive into anime start with those, thinking they naturally must be the best the medium has to offer. They … aren’t, necessarily. In fact, you may end up not liking any of them.
Most of the shows that get long runs on American television are, with the exception of the fare on Adult Swim, aimed at children. That doesn’t mean these shows aren’t classics if only by virtue of their success and longevity, but be wary; if you’re looking for adult-oriented shows not especially interested in selling you toys, these are probably not for you.
Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!: Everybody knows the Pokémon games. The same pock(et) mon(sters) can be found in seemingly countless iterations of television shows and movies. If you like it, great. As tie-ins to the incredibly popular games, they flesh out the world with more vigor than could be done on the various gaming platforms they have inhabited.
The Pokémon world is one in which children are encouraged to travel the world in order to collect every possible variation of supernatural creature, imprison them, and make them fight gladiator-style tournaments for cheering bloodthirsty crowds. And you thought Cowboy Bebop was dark? Puh-lease.
Pokémon and its cousins are shows for kids with games and toy lines aimed at kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while the writers do manage to sneak in a few jokes for the adults—see: some of Team Rocket’s banter—don’t expect much from these. Similarly:
One Piece, Naruto, Dragon Ball: Battle-oriented shows mostly aimed at rambunctious young boys. Sort of. Mostly? These shounen giants are well-known and have, in the case of the first two, approximately One Million Episodes. The bad news is that half of them might be filler.
The art style of One Piece is innovative bordering on spectacular, and (but?) only becomes more willfully outlandish as time goes on. There’s no denying that Naruto has a truly interesting world with interesting premises. Dragon Ball is basically the hunt for the Infinity Gauntlet, but with marbles. It’s older than, more famous than, and even more universally beloved than the other two.
But this genre of shows saddle viewers with what’s now become one of the more infamous tropes in anime: They drag. Oh, how they can drag. A Naruto battle might start with the challengers squaring off in one episode, planting their feet and preparing their first attacks. Then they will earnestly tell each other about their viewpoints.
In the next episode, we will get some relevant backstory about this latest challenger.
In the episode after that, we might get some relevant flashbacks from the protagonist on the attack they are contemplating next using.
In the episode after that, somebody might move their feet and begin the attack they were building to in that initial episode. After reusing Standard Attack Animation #13 from two years back, they emerge victorious. Cue more backstory, probably.
It’s not always that bad, but it’s sometimes that bad. If these shows are your cup of tea, good news: You’ll be well-stocked not just through the rest of this pandemic, but for 12 of them. But viewers run across these kid-oriented blockbusters as introductions to Japanese animation and are a bit disappointed, thinking the repetitive nature of these battle-of-the-week shows is the best the studios have to offer. Many or most of these sorts of shows also have … problems … in their depictions of their own female heroes, primarily through sheer laziness.
The inclusion of Dragon Ball—a beloved classic—is going to get me in trouble here. But it still might land in the “not the best introduction for newcomers” bin. As does:
Neon Genesis EVANGELION
This show is a famous, influential, and widely popular classic that made it to America and … was a bit of a gamble as an introduction to even its own genre. Among the most impressive of mecha shows in which angsty teenagers pilot gargantuan humanoid robots to battle alien monsters, our hero Shinji is a hard-to-like maudlin little whiner who lets the plot unfold around him while doing, mostly, absolutely nothing to detach himself from any of it. The animation is superb, and the themes of adolescent angst, tortured crawls towards adulthood, and the universal agony of wishing it might just all go away come through, but you are allowed to not like it. A series that both embraced the tropes of giant-robot anime and unsympathetically skewered them, the original series aired with an incomprehensible last episode after mismanagement caused the production to quite literally run out of money. The series’ fame allowed later movies to erase that ending and substitute the intended one.
It’s definitely a work of art. I mention it here because it is so famous as to make it to most top anime lists, but so obtuse that it can be a love-it, hate-it entry.
Those are all titles you may have heard of. Next up, we’ll look at some of the most recent hits, including shows specifically produced for a worldwide market. In other words, we’ll comb through some of the easiest-to-find current stuff and pick out some that are worth the time.