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The Best Anime And Manga For Beginners

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Anime fandom is a fortress of obscure slang, iconography, and inside jokes. After 16 years of fandom, I'm quite comfortable with it. But what about curious outsiders who don’t care to memorize, say, the differences between each and every Sailor Moon adaptation?

For them, I keep a list: Anime and Manga for People Who Don’t like Anime and Manga. This list is for the person who has seen a Ghibli film or two, who maybe watched Cowboy Bebop back in high school. They know anime and manga aren’t genres unto themselves. They know there’s a whole wide world of stories out there, but they’re not sure how to access it. And, they whisper furtively, they’re not really into, well, anime-anime. The magical girls, the giant robots, the catgirl harems—not their thing. Do I have any recommendations for them? Anything they might like?

I have encountered this person over and over again in my 16 years of fanhood, but I rarely see their questions answered. Most anime recommendation lists assume a level of familiarity that newcomers don’t have. Many anime conventions put the jiggliest, bloodiest, most franchiseable work up front. Online fandom is a rabbit hole of jargon and translation debate.

So, I keep this list for them. Thought it’s rooted in the familiar, it showcases the kinds of stories you can’t find anywhere else—the kinds of stories that draw people to anime and manga in the first place.

Black Jack by Osamu Tezuka

Format: Manga

Sherlock and House have made the Arrogant Genius an entertainment staple we’re all a little tired of—but Black Jack is the character the archetype deserves. A brilliant, prickly surgeon who will take on any case (given the supplicant can afford his exorbitant prices), he lives his life tending to the criminal, the obscure, and the bizarre. Each chapter is a standalone story, and they range from the heartfelt—an outcast student who donates skin for an emergency graft—to, um, the one where Black Jack befriends an orca.

Black Jack might be described as “medical fantasy.” There’s a solid scientific foundation for a lot that goes on (Osamu Tezuka earned his medical degree before he became the god of manga), but more often than not, things edge into the fantastical. If you’re willing to roll with it, Black Jack is a series of clever flights of fancy, varying each story with pathos, drama, and humor. It’s also an excellent entry point into Tezuka’s legendary body of work.

If you like that, consider: Katsuhisa Kigitsu’s Franken Fran is outright horror, at times, but as funny and clever a medical series as Black Jack is.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

Black Lagoon directed by Sunao Katabuchi

Format: Anime

Black Lagoon is devoted to violence, vengeance, and looking cool above all else, to an almost juvenile extent—it often feels lifted from a 16-year-old’s Trapper Keeper scribbles. It’s about pirates! Who move illegal goods for underground crime syndicates! And the heroine is so awesome she uses two guns! But goddamn, it does it with such confidence and style that you won’t realize how ridiculous it is until you sit down to write an article recommending it. Every flamethrower, every mob shenanigan, ever Desert-Eagle-wielding Mother Superior is part of a great and glorious ode to excess. It’s the kind of anime that'll have you making totally unironic finger guns.

If you like that, consider: Shirow Miwa’s Dogs: Bullets and Carnage is similar in style and substance.

Find it here: Black Lagoon is available for streaming and purchase through Funimation.

Clover by CLAMP

Format: Manga

Beneath its something-between-steam-and-cyberpunk aesthetic, Clover is a simple story about a man and a girl. Suu, who has devastating psychic abilities, has lived in a government compound her entire life. Kazuhiko, a former operative, has been tasked with bringing her to an amusement park, which is her lifelong dream. And that’s exactly what happens. It’s a sweet, melancholy little tale on its own, but what makes Clover truly notable is its visual experimentation.

Clover is what happens when experienced comic artists give themselves an excuse to explode the form. It plays with negative space in ways I’ve still never seen equaled. There’s a wonderful harmony between style and substance in Clover—it develops a visual language capable of sadness, anger, affection, and nostalgia entirely on its own.

If you like that, consider: Kaiba and The Tatami Galaxy are similarly experimental stories that play with animation the way Clover plays with panels. Manga-wise, Mitsukazu Mihara’s Doll is a lot like Clover in tone and aesthetics.

Find it here: An omnibus of the series can be purchased through Amazon.

Emma by Kaoru Mori

Format: Manga

Emma is everything I love about fussy European period dramas: clandestine emotion, class tension, clothing with too many buttons. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with Jane Austen’s famous novel—it is, rather, a romance set in Victorian London . Emma is a young maid in the Jones household—naturally, she falls in love with William, the eldest son, and obstacles ensue. Mori is an exceptional artist, with a love of period detail evident in every scalloped ruffle. And oh, how she lingers over them—Emma, like all of Mori’s work, proceeds at an unhurried pace. This is languorous rather than tedious, allowing the story to bloom with a depth and complexity few creators are confident enough to explore. Emma is a romance that understands tenderness beyond cliché, and it is a delight to spend time in its rarefied world.

If you like that, consider: Kaouri Mori’s A Bride’s Story is an even more lavish period piece. Beyond Mori, Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles is wonderful historical fiction.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

Eyeshield 21, by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata

Format: Manga

Sena Kobayakawa, an introverted newcomer to Deimon Private Senior High School’s American football team, has spent most of his life running from bullies. Turns out, that’s a pretty solid path to running back greatness. With Sena as their secret weapon, the team embarks on a journey to the championship Christmas Bowl. Friendships, rivalries, and everything in between ensue as our scrappy heroes chase athletic glory.

Given that my understanding of football, pre-Eyeshield 21, could be summed up as “you throw the ball through the T-shaped thingy, except sometimes you kick it,” I did not expect to love this manga as fiercely as I do. What sets Eyeshield apart from lesser fare is how deeply Inagaki and Murata understand what makes this structure so timeless. Each training session, triumph, and failure, are a canvas for human emotion—and specifically, the kind of slightly-hysterical emotion young adult fiction excels at. Victory isn’t exciting, it’s euphoric. Betrayal isn’t sad, it’s crushing. Camaraderie isn’t useful, it’s a divine force to be channeled. Eyeshield 21 isn’t just the platonic ideal of sports entertainment—it’s a joyous paean to friendship and the power of sport.

If you like that, consider: Murata’s One-Punch Man is one of the greatest superhero comics going. For further sports manga greatness, check out Slam Dunk, Hajime no Ippo, and Prince of Tennis.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

Haibane Renmei directed by Yoshitoshi ABe

Format: Anime

Haibane Renmei is a moody little rumination of an anime. Taking place in the walled city of Glie, it follows the Haibane, a group of young women with angel wings and halos who arrive in cocoons with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Their only clue is the dream they had within their cocoon—which tends to be highly metaphorical. They live under peculiar restrictions and each work towards their individual Day of Flight, when they leave Glie forever for the unknown wilderness beyond the walls.

Though creator Yoshitoshi ABe has pointedly refused to canonize any one interpretation of Haibane Renmei, it’s popularly understood as a story of the afterlife. “Sin-bound” Haibane, who cannot remember their cocoon dreams, are often theorized as having committed suicide in their previous life. I agree generally with these interpretations, but they aren’t necessary. Haibane Renmei ‘s strength lies in its gentle approach to life’s most profound subjects—sin, freedom, trauma—and to its deeply warm sensibilities. This is an anime about love, above all: love of the self and love of others.

If you like that, consider: If you enjoyed Haibane Renmei’s abstraction and experimental qualities, Serial Experiments Lain, Yoshitoshi ABe’s most famous anime, might be up your alley.

Find it here: Haibane Renmei is available for streaming and purchase through Funimation.

Master Keaton by Naoki Urasawa

Format: Manga

Master Keaton is an unabashedly cool manga. In one episode our hero, a freelance insurance investigator, is thrown into the Taklamakan Desert—watch him turn a single dead muskrat into meat, storage, and a device that purifies urine into drinking water! Or maybe he’s being tailed in Italy—watch him clock the bad guys with an improvised slingshot and a loose key stone! Oh, but wouldn’t you know it—underneath it all, the Special Air Service-trained Keaton is a nebbish intellectual who just can’t say no to his feisty daughter. It’s capital-E Entertainment, joyously pulpy, full of exotic locales and esoteric menace, held together by our hero’s unassuming charm. Classic entertainment by a classic creator.

If you like that, consider: There isn’t really a bad way to begin with Naoki Urasawa. I’m sticking with Master Keaton as my introductory work, but if twisty murder mystery is more your thing, try Monster. If you’re of a science fiction bent, look up 20th Century Boys or Pluto. Urasawa is manga’s own midas—everything he touches turns to gold.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

Michiko to Hatchin directed by Sayo Yamamoto

Format: Anime

Michiko to Hatchin is... unique. That’s a strange way to recommend something, but it’s true. It’s an anime about an ersatz mother-daughter duo in wild, illegal pursuit of a man believed to be dead. In Brazil. Like, forget anime—there aren’t a lot of stories like that anywhere. Though I was intrigued by the first trailer I saw, I had my doubts. Could it live up to its fabulous premise? Could it stick the landing? Hell, could it get off the ground in the first place? As its presence on this list demonstrates, yes, it could and it did. Michiko to Hatchin isn’t just good—it’s groundbreaking. It’s soulful and heartfelt and the fact that it isn’t like anything else I’ve ever seen is just the gleam on its slick turquoise chassis. Michiko and Hatchin grow, as individuals and a family, over the course of the series with a subtlety and vision that is all too rare. It is a modern classic.

If you like that, consider: Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are commonly made comparisons. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is a zanier, cruder piece of work, but will satisfy your need for flippant, stylish, women kicking ass to a great soundtrack. For further tales of female bonding, check out Ai Yazawa’s Nana.

Find it here: Michiko to Hatchin is available for purchase and streaming through Funimation. It can also be found on Hulu.

Millennium Actress directed by Satoshi Kon

Format: Anime

Satoshi Kon was an auteur, and everything he made is worth watching. Millennium Actress stands out, though. It’s an evocative look at postwar Japan, the film industry, and the unreliability of memory. Chiyoko Fujiwara is a retired actress being interviewed by a documentarian about her brilliant film career. Memories, imagination, and history warp together as Chiyoko recalls the lost love of her life and how her pursuit of his memory fueled her career. It’s a complicated movie that doesn’t pause to explain itself, and as such, it rewards rewatching and a good long mull-over. No matter what you take from it, however—postwar fairy tale, passionate romance, or elegy—it is a singular work of art.

If you like that, consider: Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers is a good next step into his body of work. But really, it’s all worth watching.

Find it here: New copies of Millenium Actress have become somewhat difficult to find at a reasonable price. But perfectly fine used copies can be found on Amazon.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga

Format: Manga

Ooku: The Inner Chambers is sumptuous. I mean this in the most classic, period-drama sense, in that it is concerned with decadence, aesthetics, and delight, but also in terms of emotion. Ooku is an alternate history story, taking place in a feudal Japan in which the vast majority of the male population has died from the mysterious Redface Pox. Women have, in response, filled every traditionally male role while their delicate sons stay indoors, shielded from ill humors. The Ooku is the name for the now-female Shogun’s collection of beautiful men.

Ooku skates back and forth along its timeline, from the Pox’s inception to its “present,” 80 years after it struck. It’s a fascinating look at the construction of history—many in the comic’s present don’t believe there ever really was a time when men equaled women in numbers—while remaining anchored by the emotion of the stories it tells. Tempers, passions, and politics collide as denizens of the Ooku, wayward monks, and country bumpkins alike attempt to rise from the ashes of calamity. Alternate history buffs will enjoy Ooku, but really, I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a satisfying drama.

If you like that, consider: Ooku is unique within Yoshinaga’s body of work, but everything she does is solid. Antique Bakery and All My Darling Daughters are particularly worth watching.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

Princess Jellyfish directed by Takahiro Omori’

Format: Anime

Princess Jellyfish is, above all, earnest. Tsukimi, our heroine, is a hapless nerd with a passion for jellyfish and a paralyzing fear of other people. Luckily, she’s found comfort and friendship in her new home: a boarding house for shy, single, nerdy women. Through a series of mishaps, Tsukimi and her friends meet Kuranosuke, the glamourous son of a prominent politician. Together, they enter the fashion industry in an effort to save their home from heartless redevelopment.

In less capable hands, Princess Jellyfish could have been deeply mean-spirited. Kuranosuke prefers women’s fashion to men’s. The main cast includes a Romance of the Three Kingdoms fanatic, a train aficionado, and an agoraphobic doyenne of yaoi manga. Tsukimi can’t spend more than a handful of minutes in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district without collapsing from social anxiety.While Princess Jellyfish derives humor from its characters, it never mocks them—nor does it seek to fundamentally change them. It’s all for pushing its heroine out of her comfort zone for personal growth purposes, but Tsukimi and the supporting cast are never shamed for loving what they love. Enthusiasm—geeky and otherwise—is power in Princess Jellyfish. Enthusiasm saves the day and paves the road to the future.

If you like that, consider: Kazune Kawahara’s My Love Story!!, Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss, and Aya Nakahara’s Lovely Complex are similarly soft-hearted entertainment.

Find it here: Princess Jellyfish is available for purchase and streaming through Funimation. It can also be found on Netflix.

The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Format: Manga

I began this piece before Yoshihiro Tatsumi passed away on March 7th. He was a master, sure, but I think he is more accurately described as a pioneer. Tatsumi saw potential in comics few others did. He coined the term gekiga in 1957, to describe manga that would tell dramatic, challenging stories. The Push Man is a fantastic example of his success: a collection of short, brutal looks into humanity at its bleakest. The volume wallows in salacious details—pornography, voyeurism, sexual dysfunction—but never without purpose and vision.

If you like that, consider: For similar fare by a similarly legendary creator, check out Vertical Inc.’s translations of Osamu Tezuka’s edgier work, including Message to Adolf, Ode to Kirihito, MW, and Apollo’s Song. Shigeru Mizuki is another name to look up—Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths is a good starting point.

Find it here: The Push Man and Other Stories can be purchased through Amazon.

Sakuran by Moyocco Anno

Format: Manga

Moyocco Anno’s work is raw, in every sense. There’s a scribbled look to it and a naked sensuality evident in even the most chaste panels. Heavy-lidded women pout and smoke and lounge, riding the aesthetic line between titillation and grotesquerie. It’s this tension, this line women negotiate between their interior and exterior selves, that she mines over and over again in her work, but rarely as explicitly as in Sakuran.

Protagonist Kiyoha is an Edo-era oiran, or courtesan, as crass, violent, and selfish as she is sought-after. In Kiyoha, Anno denies us our hooker with a heart of gold ideals, our bruised blossoms of circumstance. Kiyoha is monstrous in the face if a monstrous world—she is what has been demanded of her, explicitly or not. Sakuran is a profoundly sad book, in this sense. It is honest about women’s lives and the compromises they have always made in order to maintain themselves. But it isn’t hopeless. Kiyoha struggles and spits and scratches out selfhood however she can. It’s brutal, and it’s beautiful.

If you like that, consider: Anno’s In Clothes Called Fat is another unflinching look at womanhood. Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter and Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream explore these themes as well.

Find it here: Sakuran can be purchased through Amazon.

Uzumaki by Junji Ito

Format: Manga

Junji Ito is an alchemist of fear. In his hands, the mundane becomes horrifying, and the horrifying, mundane. This looping relationship is explored literally and figuratively in Uzumaki, in which terror comes to dominate a sleepy seaside town through spiral shapes. Men become enormous snails. Girls’ beauty literally devours them in vortexes that spiral from their faces. Lovers’ bodies become twisted cables in their mania to embrace each other. It’s dense, nasty stuff that thrives on the unsettling, rather than the more banally scary—which, in Ito’s hands, is so much more terrifying than a zombie or a dude with a chainsaw could ever be.

If you like that, consider: Usamaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club is another horrific take on obsession—obsession with youth in this case, rather than spirals. That said, pretty much everything else Ito has ever made is worth checking out.

Find it here: The complete series can be purchased through Amazon.

Yotsuba& By Kiyohiko Azuma

Format: Manga

Yotsuba& is about a little girl named Yotsuba Koiwai, her dad, and the neighborhood in which they live. Sometimes Yotsuba goes on the swings. Sometimes she naps. Sometimes she watches too many crime movies and wanders around telling people to “save [their] excuses for the devil.” I have never met someone who does not love Yotsuba& on sight. It’s sunny and heartfelt, as you’ve probably gathered, but what elevates it to greatness is how much humor Azuma mines from life’s most quotidian details. He has a tremendous eye for exaggeration and physical humor—many of his best punchlines are single, wordless panels. Yotsuba& is all-ages entertainment at its absolute best.

If you like that, consider: Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh is a beloved classic in much the same vein. Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae is very different in subject—an architect is transported from ancient Rome to modern Japan—but just as irreverent and delightful.

Find it here: The first volume can be purchased through Amazon.

These days, I spend most of my time focused on Western comics, but I always return to anime and manga. In recent years, I’ve started taking friends with me. Friends who insist there won’t be anything they like, who say that they’ve tried before, that they don’t even know where to start. In the end, I find there’s always something for them. I hope that with this list, I've helped you find something, as well.

Juliet Kahn is a writer and artist living in Boston. She is a regular contributor to Comics Alliance and Publishers Weekly.

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