If you’re the right kind of person, anime is super-fun, but there are tons and tons and tons of it. The number of genres, styles, and subject matters is daunting, and many newbies are at a loss for where to start. Luckily, there are tons and tons and tons of anime blogs with recommendations. For anyone who cares what I think, here are my picks for 10 anime to get an idea of some of the best the medium has to offer. Unfortunately, most anime are TV series, making it a very time-intensive medium, but you can always sample a few episodes to get a feel for it. Also, some of these will be legally unavailable depending on your country; Hulu and Crunchyroll are 2 good sites for watching anime online, but they’re very North America-centric.
If one of these anime whets your appetite, I’ve provided an additional choice below it to give you the opportunity to dig a little deeper.
As I mentioned in the blog post, this movie was a groundbreaking achievement for animation in 1988. Gritty, energetic, bizarre, cynical, and well-animated, it presented a vision of Japan dramatically different from the staid, conformist, polite vision most people have. It’s about a bunch of motorcycle-riding punks, one of whom gets captured by the government and subjected to weird psychic experiments. It’s one of the seminal cyberpunk flicks, and it demonstrated to the world beyond any doubt that animation could tell serious, adult-oriented stories just as well as live-action — heck, maybe even better.
Keep Watching: There’s nothing else quite like Akira, but Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, one of my personal favorites, came out a year before it and is also science-fiction. It presents a dazzling, fully realized alternate world and the intriguing tale of that world’s first astronaut.
For those hankering for something more recent, I recommend this gripping crime drama. Its main character has the unique ability (curse?) to travel back in time a few minutes in order to prevent tragedies from happening. At the end of the first episode, he’s faced with his biggest leap backwards yet: 18 years, to his elementary school days, to prevent a series of child murders. It has the best cliff-hangers ever, its emotional sense is acute, and it strikes a nicely nostalgic tone without ever getting cloying (there’s a murderer on the loose, after all). Since this only came out this January, this may seem overly recent and will date the list for sure, but it’s still a great demonstration of how mature and creative anime storytelling can be.
Keep Watching: It’s a little bit different, but the 2006 series Death Note covers similar territory: death and murder. The premise here, though, is that the main character has a supernatural notebook with the ability to kill anyone whose name is written inside.
3. FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
This show is a classic recommendation for newcomers to anime. In its fantasy world, the long-discredited pseudoscience of alchemy is alive and real, allowing its practitioners to change matter into just about anything they want. It’s said that it can even bring back the dead, although with dire consequences. With its myriad plot twists, entertaining and unpredictable action sequences, and disturbing questions about ethics and justice, it manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. The original, 2003 version deviated greatly from the source manga, so a later anime was made sticking more closely to the original story. It is also worth watching.
Keep Watching: Anime fantasy can get fairly generic, but there are other gems in there. An older favorite is The Vision of Escaflowne (1996), which throws together giant robots, swords ‘n’ sorcery, tarot cards, the legend of Atlantis, a Japanese high school girl, and the ongoing theme of destiny.
4. HIS AND HER CIRCUMSTANCES
Picking a good shoujo (girls’ anime) is tough. Partly it’s because there are so many good ones to choose, and partly it’s because there isn’t a good, towering example that set the standard for all who followed. The Rose of Versailles is a good one, but it’s old and melodramatic. Lots of people like Ouran High School Host Club, but its parody of a very Japanese institution (host clubs; clubs of handsome young men who entertain women) will go over newcomers’ heads. My personal favorite is probably His and Her Circumstances (or Kare Kano, 1998), an infectious tale of 2 high school students whose determination to excel makes them fiercely competitive with each other… but also makes them fall in love. Directed by the eccentric Hideaki Anno, its eventual budget collapse and wild deviations in tone mean it’s not for everyone, but I think it’s a great way of telling a story about 2 very likeable characters.
Keep Watching: The aforementioned Rose of Versailles (1979) is probably the next choice. It’s cheesy, sometimes slow and very melodramatic, but its tale of a stoic, loyal, and brave female commander of the palace guard in pre-revolutionary France is still fascinating, and demonstrates how anime can also cover historical drama well.
5. MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM
Gundam is really a force to be reckoned with in Japan; for 37 years, it’s sold little model robots to generations of kids. But behind the toys is a series of usually very well-done stories about war, politics, and the toils of ambition and responsibility. Even though it’s old (1979), the original series is still probably the best; its villain is oddly appealing and charismatic, and its story is usually pretty deep and complex for a glorified toy commercial. It ended up being a big turning point in anime, pushing it away from flashy but mindless battles and into more thoughtful territory. Other good Gundam choices include 0080: War in the Pocket (1989), about a young boy who gets caught up in the war, and The 08th MS Team (1996), about a ground unit’s struggles in the same war.
Keep Watching: For a robot series even more grounded in reality, try Patlabor (1988), in which the robots are used for police work. It hits the right balance between light-hearted goofiness and adult-oriented drama; the movies are especially good.
Osamu Tezuka’s work tends to be a hard sell, because not only is it old, it’s very cartoony and often full of dumb gags. Stuff like Astro Boy and Kimba is more famous, but I recommend going straight to Phoenix, his masterpiece. An intricate series of stories connected only by the titular bird of reincarnation, the manga examines Tezuka’s Buddhist beliefs about the meaning of life, cosmic justice, the essence of human nature, and karma. Very deep stuff, but told in an inspiring, if sometimes grim, way. To get the full story you’ll need to read the manga, but the 2004 TV series is a good start.
Keep Reading: To delve deeper into Tezuka’s philosophical musings, it’s natural to go straight to the manga adaptation of the life of Buddha himself, Buddha (1972-83). There’s a movie series too, but ignore it.
7. PRINCESS MONONOKE
Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece and my personal favorite movie. This scrumptious confection of stirring music, beautiful artwork, kick-ass action scenes and an original story is a near-perfect film. Prince Ashitaka of the endangered Emishi people (the native inhabitants of Japan) is cursed by a mutant boar god; he must travel the land to figure out why the boar god mutated. While it’s technically a period piece set in the Middle Ages, this 1997 movie is nothing like other Japanese films of the samurai era; here the theme is the conflict between industrializing humans and the forest, which is defended by nature gods. It would’ve been hokey in live-action, but as an animated fable it works wonderfully. While this is by far Ghibli’s most violent and gritty story and one of its more adult movies, it still exudes the magic, charm and sense of wonder that is their trademark.
Keep Watching: Although in hindsight it’s an early exploration of the themes that evolved into Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), is also a must-see, with a stunningly original setting, fascinating alien creatures, and one of the best heroines in anime. Better yet, read the manga, drawn by Miyazaki himself.
8. RANMA ½
Once upon a time, this fun show was a standard entry-way into the joys of anime. Although some complain that it’s repetitive, sexist, homophobic, cheesy, silly, stupid, etc., it still delights many others 27 years after its premiere. Ranma is a skilled martial artist with a very weird “handicap”: when splashed with cold water, he changes into a girl version of himself. The show explores as many of the possibilities of this premise that it can without veering too far into drama or adult territory. It’s just good, wacky fun, with a crowd-pleasing combination of martial arts and romantic comedy. It’s also a great demonstration of how weird and exotic anime can be without completely alienating foreigners and newcomers.
Keep Watching: The closest thing anime has to a sitcom now is probably Gintama (2006-16), a very weird take on the mid-1800s with aliens, political satire, robot maids, horse races and vending machines. Its humor is similarly all over the place, ranging from potty jokes to pop culture references.
9. RUROUNI KENSHIN
A classic example of the shounen (for boys) action genre, this 1996 series follows an ex-samurai who just can’t seem to retire. It’s the Meiji Era (1870s) and the samurai have been disbanded, but threats to peace and order keep cropping up for Kenshin to fight. Staples of shounen anime like increasingly powerful and fantastic villains, long story arcs, and the importance of mercy and pacifism are in full display here. The middle part of the series, the “Kyouto Arc,” has an especially engaging story, epic music, and exquisite animation. If Kenshin’s silly normal personality is too goofy for your tastes, watch the 1999 movie prequel Trust & Betrayal instead, which presents Kenshin in a much more serious yet eloquent light.
Keep Watching: This is not a standard recommendation, but I don’t care. I really like the 2006 TV series Kekkaishi, a fun little show about 2 demon-busters who mostly use defensive magic to fight; it’s much more low-stakes and easy-going than some of the other, often bombastic, shounen.
While sports anime in the ’60s and ’70s were dramatic and emphasized perseverance and struggle, Touch took a different tactic when it appeared on the scene in 1985. Its protagonists were ordinary but likeable middle-class guys who played baseball for fun. Its creator, Mitsuru Adachi, preferred to use sports as a vehicle for coming-of-age stories, and the main characters’ interactions with the girl next door is as much a part of the story as baseball. It may not look like much, and the dog is pretty lame comic relief, but the writing is excellent and the show’s dramatic moments are still more powerful than a fastball to the chest.
Keep Watching: Touch is hard to find outside of Japan, so a more accessible option now might be Cross Game, by the same manga artist. Only 7 years old, this show tells as sweet and touching a story as Touch, and with glossier art and animation to sweeten the deal.