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 dazzling 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. And there are lots of them.
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.
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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 on 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; Steven 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 favorite 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. Movies by Studio Ghibli are good palate-teasers. Most approach the heights 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. (For my top picks for anime movies that aren’t Studio Ghibli, check this post). 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!
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. Below are my top beginner’s recommendations for each major anime genre along with one-sentence descriptions and reasons why I think they’re great. (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 and totally original 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 humor 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, 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 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 satirized) 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 cast of characters, ranging from a tight-knit punk band to a very empathetic hamburger griller, 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 likable 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 with no luck at love 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 show that will make you feel very, very warm and fuzzy.
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 deceased mother back to life—a major taboo—by joining the State Alchemists and finding the famed Philosopher’s Stone. This show has everything: political intrigue, magic, religion, demons and love. Its story has tons of momentum, pushed forward its dynamic, morally ambiguous 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. Just trust me.
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 race’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 favorites, 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 offer subtitles and dubs. They 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 favorite shows with acquaintances. Sneering and judgment 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, pick your poison and get invested. 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.