I was a latecomer to the world of anime (anime : animated work originated in Japan, regardless of the artistic style). I had earlier watched a lot of animation movies and cartoon series by the time I was 20 but for some reason the whole Japanese culture of anime and manga had alluded me until I was in my early 20s.
This list is targeted towards an adult viewer. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t entries that were primarily aimed towards children. Also, it doesn’t imply that all of these titles are top of the line (though many are). These are listed here purely from the point of view of a person who hasn’t been exposed to Japanese culture.
The three movies that I have listed here focus primarily on three different genres. Since these are short and require only about two and half hours on the viewer’s part, they serve as excellent gateways into the world of anime.
1. Grave of the Fireflies – This movie should be a great introduction to anime for those who are into serious drama. The story focuses on a brother and sister while they try to survive bombings during world war two. The teenager brother’s futile attempts to keep his sister sheltered and fed makes for a tremendously touching anti-war movie. This is one of my favourite movies – anime or not. The direction by Isao Takahata is so strong that thirty minutes into the movie, you might forget the fact that what you are watching is an animation.
2. Spirited Away – This Oscar winning anime by Hayao Miyazaki is an embodiment of balanced fantasy based storytelling with a strong moral / environmental undercurrent. The protagonist, Chihiro, is trapped in the spirit world where even her name is taken away. She must befriend the spirits and uncover the mysteries in order to regain her name and return back to our own world. The anime is very fluid and should be a very good entry point for those who are already into classic fantasy based American or European animation movies.
3. Akira – This should be an easy anime to get into for a sci-fi movie buff. Set in the future city of neo-Tokyo, this is a story about secret military project, supernatural powers, genetically enhanced children and comradeship. This two hour long movie will transport you into the cyberpunk environment and the ethos of the characters. The plot is not as complex as its source material – a manga of the same name. However, writer / director Katsuhiro Otomo ensures that the adaptation of the large 6 volume manga retains its essence.
If you truly want to sample the real anime culture, short series are the best places to start. These were aired over one or two seasons and last anywhere between 12 to 40 episodes.
4. Steins;Gate – This is an amazing anime about time travel. It’s not just that time travel is an element of the story but that the story is about the act of time travel itself. The amazing voice acting and the intricate plot will pull any one into the worlds of diverging timelines. Although the series starts slow, I can guarantee that by the 8th episode you will be pulled into it as the protagonist tries hard to save his childhood friend from a causality embedded in a group of timelines. The likeable characters, funny lines and consistent plot will be a very good exposure to a person new to anime.
5. AnoHana – Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai, or in short, AnoHana, is a sweet and touching tale of the ghost of a girl. She returns to her childhood friends as she is unable to depart from this world. These friends must try and find out the a way to send her soul off by fulfilling her last wish. The catch? – she doesn’t remember her last wish. This is a beautifully well crafted anime with a generous dose of melodrama thrown in for good measure. To a beginner this is a good exposure to many things that define a classic drama anime.
6. Death Note – The longer of the four series listed here is a classic tale of the mind-games that define a criminal and detective. The episodes flow like a series of chess moves. Right from the very beginning, we are thrown into the workings of two highly intelligent minds who try to outwit each other. The modern cosmopolitan settings requires less effort on the viewer’s part to identify with the surroundings. If you are new to the Japanese language itself and would prefer a dubbed anime over a subtitled one, I would recommend this as a good starting point.
7. Cowboy Bebop – The episodic nature of this series will please many Star Trek fans (and Firefly fans). Each episode broadly focuses on a “bounty” for our protagonist bounty hunters, who happen to live in a futuristic dystopian solar system. With little backstory being revealed in each episode, you will be surely learning and getting emotionally attached to these hunters. Also, the futuristic setting homogenises the culture and the diaspora is far off from the traditional Japanese culture prevalent in anime, which makes it an excellent series for a beginner. This English dubbing of this anime is very good if you are not into reading subtitles. Oh! And don’t get me started on the amazing stylistic and musical treatment.
Although I would suggest sticking to the movies and the short series’ if you are a beginner, I can’t overlook the fact that there are quite some good long titles that may suit a beginner’s tastes. Here are two recommendations.
8. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood – This is as bad-ass as a series can get. The author of the original manga, Hiromu Arakawa, had liberally taken influences from the Victorian era. As a result this series is not predisposed to Japanese culture at all. This is the story of two brothers. In their world, the science is that of alchemy. They commit the greatest taboo of alchemy and pay the price. The pacing of this show, spread over sixty-four episodes, is excellent and does immense service to the intriguing and layered story. The neat ending, tying up all lose threads, will give you an immense satisfaction and aftertaste.
9. Hajime no Ippo – This one is a very straight, no-nonsense, show about a boy who wants to be a boxer. The plot is easy to follow. The audience slowly develops a connection to the protagonist, Ippo, as he works hard to achieve his goal of becoming a boxer. Most long form anime series are a tad bit slow and this one is no exception. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t enough plot points covered in each episode. This show is an excellent introduction for those who have played any kind of sports and know the ordeals. If you like it, you can move on to the sequels – New Challenger and Rising (or just read the on-going manga).
Extra Long Series
10. Naruto – Why did I choose Naruto over a better series like One Piece or a classic like Dragon Ball? Simply, because the this is an easier show for a non-Japanese person. One Piece is quirky and might put off the first timer while Dragon Ball looks a bit dated. As an audience, you will root for this misunderstood trouble-boy as he tries to become the greatest ninja. Although it is targeted towards young adults, grown ups may find it simple, emotionally satisfying and amusing enough to follow. Beware of the dreaded, long stretches of non-canon, filler episodes – also known as “Filler no Jutsu”. You can look these up upfront, skip them while watching and save yourself from distracting plot lines. Once you are satisfied with it, you can move on to the second part, Naruto Shippuden. If you are saturated, you can move on to One Piece. In fact, this series got me into manga titles that last an eternity.
Are you a beginner? What series would you want to try out first? Are you an anime fan? What anime would you recommend a beginner? Please leave a comment below.