Must Have: Anime for the Uninitiated

Japanese anime can feel like an intimidating medium to tackle for new viewers. It’s easy to get put off by the sparkles, extreme caricatures, and manic behavior on display. Thus, the NFNT staff put their heads together and decided to put together a list of recommended anime titles for viewers who may have seen Howl’s Moving Castle or My Neighbor Totoro but aren’t really sure what to pick up from there.

First, a few notes: we all certainly DO suggest folks check out the best of Hayao Miyazaki’s films if you haven’t already. Many know My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. These are all magical, lyrical fantasies that succeed with a wide range of audiences, and may well work because they are in line with what US audiences expect from animated films. There’s a good reason the majority of my teens know Miyazaki’s films better than the previous generations’ Disney classics.

Sadie also reminds readers that you may well have been watching anime all along but didn’t know it. Speed Racer, Voltron, Pokemon, and Digimon are all anime even if we got to know them first via dubbed versions aired on US television.

Feature films are easier to digest than television series, so we’ve made sure to include a fair number of self-contained stories. As Andrew notes:

As an anime novice, I’m much more likely to enjoy a movie than a series. Maybe that’s more about my personal taste, but the stuff that I have trouble with in anime generally, which mostly boils down to pacing, is less likely to be a problem in a movie. Admitting again that I’ve not watched a ton of anime, several of the series I have tried move really slowly, giving lots of time to introspection, tense silences, awkward glances, and over-long conversations (or, in the case of Dragonball Z, over-long yelling sessions).

Without further ado, here’s our list of anime that are a good place to start for new viewers. I’ve left in our discussions and annotations to illuminate why we’ve chosen these particular titles for the list. Keep in mind what genres you already like, and give one of these titles a try. If there is a trailer available to embed, I’ve added those for each title.

FEATURE FILMS


Akira

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Based on manga by Katsuhiro Otomo
1 disc, 125 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for graphic violence and brief nudity
Bandai Entertainment, originally released 1988, 2004 (DVD), 2009 (Blu-ray)

Allen: This film is often considered to be one of the cornerstones of Japanese animation. Not only was it the most expensive film they have produced, it features a lot of mind bending and intriguing ideas of humanity’s place in the future as well as the role of hyper-advanced science.
Sadie: I’m not sure I would give Akira to the uninitiated. Just because I was initiated with Akira and it put me off anime for a loooong time. Then I gave it another shot with Ninja Scroll and was also put off. I now appreciate and kind of love both of those but as a first go, it was a little much.
Robin: I watched Akira when I was 13, and it completely freaked me out even as I was massively intrigued, so there is a place for strong reactions. Sadie — I noticed you commented that Akira may not be a great one to give first time viewers, and…I rather agree. It’s very anime, and very dense, but it’s very off-putting for anyone not used to the slow pace and intentional lack of explanation. I think of Ghost in the Shell as kind of the same type — it’s a memorable, vivid film, but it’s also tough to take if you’re not expecting what you get. It’s a bit like giving people Watchmen as a first try for a graphic novel — works for a few, but also is totally forbidding to many who won’t like the grim sci-fi or be yet able to appreciate its importance in the anime landscape.
Allen: As for Akira, it was the first anime I saw and it was love at first sight, which is why I recommended it.
Jenny: I’m on the fence about recommending Akira, too, just because it is so intense. It was one of the earlier films I saw and it scared me a bit (but Cowboy Bebop and Big O and Gundam Wing had me in their clutches, and I was all over the Vampire Hunter D movies, so I couldn’t walk away). Maybe it would be a good introduction for folks who are already fans of dark, high-drama, high-concept, apocalyptic sci-fi? I love it now, but all that flesh-tech creeped me out the first time around. That scene in the hospital room with the stuffed animals and the music…wow.
Russ: I think many of us like Akira for the same reason I still like the now-showing-its-age Robotech: You never forget your first time. And, like someone else mentioned, though Akira is absolutely brilliant it is kind of the Watchmen of anime.

 


Galaxy Express 999

Directed by: Rintaro
Based on manga by: Leiji Matsumoto
1 disc, 135 minutes
Company Age Rating: 13+
Section23 Films, originally released 2009

Allen: One of my top favorite films is about a boy who travels to Pluto to get a robot body and experiences all sorts of adventures with each stop. The side stories are exciting and the characters interesting.

 


The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
1 discs, 98 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
Bandai Entertainment, 2008

Sheli: A science fiction romance, it tells the story of Makoto. Just an average highschool girl, things start to change for her when she discovers a mysterious invention.
Jenny: I second The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Just lovely.

 


Grave of the Fireflies

Directed by IsaoTakahata
1 discs, 89 minutes
Company Age rating: 13UP
Sentai Filmworks, 2012

Bill: This might be my favorite Studio Ghibli movie. Emotionally brutal and completely believable, it is one of the best examinations of the devastation caused by the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II. Isao Takahata never gets the same widespread attention as Hayao Miyazaki in terms of credit and admiration, but I think his films are actually my favorites from Ghibli.
Jenny: I was thinking of Grave of the Fireflies, too. It’s beautiful and harrowing. And all the more tragic for being based on a very personal reality. WWII Japan was not an easy world to live in for society’s most vulnerable members.
Russ: Though completely different in how they achieve it, I think some comparison could be made with Schindler’s List as far as the effect on the viewer. It really makes you wonder how humans could do the things we do in wartime.

 


Millennium Actress

Directed by:Satoshi Kon
1 disc, 87 minutes
MPAA rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, violence and brief mild language
Dreamworks Entertainment, 2003

Bonnie: A feature film documenting the life of an aging actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara. As she tells her story to the film crew, they are pulled back in time with her, witnessing her life and taking part in her films. Fiction and fact blur, so that you aren’t always sure what’s part of Chiyoko’s life or part of her acting career. A moving story with beautiful visuals and an exploration of Japan’s history.
Robin: If you have it in your collection, I also recommend checking out the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue from Satoshi Kon. It’s thrilling, incredibly unnerving, and features the same extraordinary animation. It’s no longer available for purchase, but seek it out.

 


Summer Wars

Directed by:Mamoru Hosoda
2 discs, 120 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
Funimation, 2011

Jenny: A boy agrees to accompany a classmate home for a family gathering at the same time a hacker takes over the country’s most ubiquitous virtual reality game and begins to affect real world infrastructure, endangering lives in the process–and it’s up to the kiddos to make it all right before it’s too late. Solidarity and the power of both one and numbers are major themes. There’s a pleasant visual contrast between the traditional family home and the awesomely animated virtual world, and it all builds to a riveting climax.
Bonnie: I have to say this movie was a huge hit at my teen summer reading program. A normally noisy crowd of almost 40 teens was hushed for the final scenes (with the countdown). I could hear a pin drop. That’s NEVER the case when I show anime normally.


 


Sword of a Stranger

Directed by:Masahiro Ando
1 disc, 103 minutes,
Bandai Entertainment, 2009

Sheli: When Chinese forces seek out a young boy, No Name is the only warrior who comes to his defense. Set in feudal Japan, Sword of the Stranger is a superbly animated movie. The fights scenes are gorgeous, but are well complemented by the plot of the story. Should probably be considered R for all of the bloodshed.
Jenny: Ooh, yes, Sword of the Stranger is beautifully animated. The nuance of everyday little things, like the hair-washing scene, is simply impressive.

 


Tokyo Godfathers

Directed by:Satoshi Kon
1 disc, 91 minutes,
MPAA rating: PG-13
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004

Robin: This one is especially lovely during the holidays, as it’s a story that centers around Christmas and is full of the idea of finding family and forgiveness. It’s also directed by Satoshi Kon, already rightfully mentioned for Millennium Actress and Paranoia Agent, but it’s so much sweeter than his usual. The sharp wit and observations on character are just as potent, but this very ordinary adventure of three homeless people who find a baby on Christmas Eve is poignant without being maudlin and funny without being too manic.

 


Whisper of the Heart

Directed by:YoshifumiKondo
Based on manga by Aoi Hiiragi
1 disc, 111 minutes
MPAA rating: G
Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2006

Sheli: One of the only Studio Ghibli movies not directed by Miyazaki (although he did author the screenplay and storyboards), Whisper of the Heart is slice of life. It tells the story of two high school students and their adorable budding romance.

 


TELEVISION SERIES


Azumanga Daioh: The Animation Complete Collection

Directed by:HiroshiNishikiori
Based onmanga by:KiyohikoAzuma
6 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age Rating: 13+
Section23 Films, 2009

Allen: What makes this series so appealing to me is that it’s just good fun. Incredibly light hearted in tone, endlessly silly and cute, it is the perfect show to watch if you ever need to smile or unwind.

 


Case Closed

Directed by:Kenji Kodama
Based on manga by Gosho Aoyama
4 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-26
MPAA rating: 13UP
Funimation, 2009

Jennifer H.: Sherlock Holmes type detective with a little sci-fi thrown in as the main character is a teenager who has been transformed into a little boy.


 


Le Chevalier D’Eon

Directed by:Kazuhiro Furuhashi
4 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-24
Company Age rating: TV14
Funimation, 2010

Snow: Le Chevalier d’Eon is a rather strange blend of historical fiction and body-swapping horror. After his sister is killed the d’Eon becomes possessed by her spirit and caught up in a mystical plot to take over the French throne of Louis XV. I liked that the characters were distinct enough for me to be able to easily tell them apart — good for when you’re new to anime — and I enjoyed the political thriller aspects of the story.

 


Cowboy Bebop

Directed by:Shinichiro Watanabe
6 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
MPAA rating: 13UP
Bandai Entertainment, 2006

Bonnie: For people who like detective stories and jazz. A short series (26 episodes) that mixes action, science fiction, noir, and comedy. Excellent voice work and music.
Jenny: Yup, yup, Bebop is cool beans. Groundbreaking for its merging of traditional and CG animation, it was my gateway drug into anime. And Yoko Kanno creates some of the best soundtracks (and just music in general) out there. Bebop‘s is all jazz and blues and funkiness and is great listening all by itself.
Robin: This one was MY first anime in the sense of a show I had to sit down and watch in order once I caught an episode on Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. I was hooked from the get go.

 


Fullmetal Alchemist

Directed by:Seiji Mizushima
Based on manga by Hiromu Arakawa
4 discs, 625 minutes, Episodes 1-25
Company Age Rating: 13UP
Funimation, 2010

Jenny: In a vaguely between-world-wars Eastern European setting, two young brothers sacrifice more than they realize when they try to use alchemy to bring back their dead mother. In their quest to right their mistake, they uncover a dark history hinting at a still-in-motion plot that threatens their whole nation. Military matters and alchemical magic in a story about love of friends, family, country, and all that is right. Another of my favorites, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, the second version of the story, is equally excellent once you get a few episodes in.
Robin: This one has particular appeal, IMHO, to fantasy novels fans. It includes much of what is best in fantasy — slow character development, gradual and impressive world-building, a web of politics, and a strong reflection of our own history and world turned just a bit on its head.

 


Fruits Basket

Directed by:Nagisa Miyazaki
Based on manga by Natsuki Takaya
4 discs, 580 minutes, Episodes 1-26
TV rating: TV PG, 13+
Funimation, 2004

Sadie: Though I’m not sure Fruits Basket is for the uninitiated in that I’ve found that Tohru is a hard character for western people to like right off the bat and some of the cultural stuff – valentine’s day, etc. can get lost. However, my husband who HATES anime liked this series because of the humor.
Sheli: Fruits Basket was one of my first anime, and I still adore it.

 


Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Directed by:Mahiro Maeda
4 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-24
TV rating: TV MA
Funimation, 2009

Robin: This one may seem a bit of an oddball recommendation, but I’ve had a lot of luck introducing people to the way anime mishmashes many types of story together. For librarians and book folks, they are intrigued by the idea of a sci-fi Count of Monte Cristo and spinning the story around to be told from Albert’s point of view rather than the Count’s. For everyone, the incredible visuals — it’s like a kaleidoscope on screen much of the time, and thus does take some getting used to, but it is glorious — are immediately immersive and impressive.

 


Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Directed by:Kenji Kamiyama
Based on manga by Masamune Shirow
7 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2008

Russ: Ghost in the Shell? The movie is another Akira. DENSE with ideas and atmosphere, and another hard sell. But I think the Stand Alone Complex series is much more approachable, like a Sci-Fi CSI or another police procedural. Plus more Yoko Kanno music!
Robin: Russ, I’m totally with you on Ghost in the Shell: SAC. It’s much more accessible while still being about the themes the original manga addressed: humanity, AI, and just what makes a soul. It does lack that fantastic treat of a credit sequence from the original, but it also doesn’t require the bizarre suspension of disbelief that Kusanagi runs around completely naked most of the time.

 


Glass Mask

Directed by:Mahiro Maeda
Based on manga by Suzue Miuchi
4 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
TV rating: TV PG
Section 23, 2010

Jennifer H.: About a girl who wants to be an stage actress and how she becomes her role.

 


Gurren Lagann

Directed by:Hiroyuki Imaishi
6 discs, 775 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Bandai Entertainment, 2010

Jenny: Simon and his big “brother” Kamina escape their isolated underground village and join with other misfits on the surface to discover the truth behind their world, the universe, and everything. I don’t normally find mecha a draw, but I love this show anyway. It includes mild fan service that, refreshingly, is somewhat balanced between the sexes.

 


Last Exile

Directed by:Hiroshi Nagahama
4 discs, 625 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age Rating: 13UP
Funimation, 2011

Jenny: Two kids who usually deliver air mail get caught up in a major conflict when their latest package turns out to be a very special little girl. Great animation, airships with cannons, and spunky youngsters.

 


Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Directed by:Kenji Kamiyama
8 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age Rating: 13UP
Anime Works, 2010

Jenny: A lone spearwoman is secretly hired by one of the Mikado’s wives to protect her young son, who is believed to be the bearer of future misfortune for the kingdom. Nice though oddly flat animation, a strong female lead, and creative world-building. I didn’t care for the rather stiff dub, but the sub is fine and the story involving.

 


Mushi-shi

Directed by:Hiroshi Nagahama
Based on manga by Yuki Urushibara
4 discs, 625 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age Rating: 13UP
Funimation, 2010

Snow: Mushi-shi follows the travels of Ginko, a “mushi master,” one who can see and work with mushi, proto-organizisms that can cause problems for humans when disturbed or disordered. The subtle fantasy/horror setting is gentle enough that I’d recommend it to viewers skittish about scary stuff and it is beautiful enough to keep them glued to their seats. I especially enjoyed the environmental message and the stunningly gorgeous art and music.
Robin: I’ve found this to be a good bridge for folks who really enjoy Miyazaki’s strong environmental and mythical topics but are looking for something a bit older, and a bit more spooky at times.

 


Naoki Urasawa’s Monster

Directed by:Masayuki Kojima
Based on manga by Naoki Urasawa
3 discs, 330 minutes, Episodes 1-15
VIZ Media, 2009

Jenny: A genius young doctor ostracized for saving the life of a child over that of a society bigwig begins to feel responsible for the consequences when he suspects the boy may be a cold-blooded serial murderer. This series is methodical, tense, and engrossingly complicated. I’ve read the whole manga series which the anime follows very carefully: chills and moral dilemmas aplenty!
Robin: This anime is in many ways a classic police procedural — creator Urasawa excels at those, and this series hits all the necessary notes. Give it to folks who really enjoy BBC mysteries and serial killer thrills like Wire in the Blood or the various inspector series (Inspector Lynley, Morse, Lewis, and so on.)

 


Ouran High School Host Club

Directed by:Shinichiro Watanabe
Based on manga by Bisco Hatori
4 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age rating: 13UP, TV14
Funimation, 2010

Bonnie: This series may be a bit overwhelming to the uninitiated, but it’s a bit like jumping into a cold pool – you’ll warm up to it quickly! This romantic comedy parodies many anime/manga stereotypes and styles, serving as a great introduction to a variety of genres.


Outlaw Star

Directed by:Mitsuru Hongo
Based on manga by Takehito Ito
6 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age rating: 13UP
Bandai Entertainment, 2006

Jennifer H.: Galactic treasure hunt!

 


RahXephon

Directed by:Yutaka Izubuchi
8 discs, 770 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age rating: 16UP
Section 23, 2009

Russ: For those who want to include Neon Genesis Evangelion, but think it’s too hard for newbies to understand I would recommend RahXephon. Same cool techno-alien enemies, same cool “what’s really going on?” vibe, and same touch of the surreal… but without going completely existential at the end. I’ve always thought this one got overlooked.

 


Red Garden

Directed by:Kou Matsuo
4 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-22
Company Age rating: TVMA
Funimation, 2009

Robin: This one is, I think, a more rarely seen series, but I’ve found it’s a great recommendation for fans of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Complicated, strong teenage heroines and a good strong dose of creepy horror. The violence is pretty key, so it’s for older teens and adults (much like Buffy was). The animation is beautiful and incredibly disturbing when warranted (undead folks need to be super-creepy, right?) and the credit sequence is jarringly upbeat and perfect for the series.

 


Robotech

Directed by:Robert Barron
17 discs, 878 minutes, Episodes 1-85
A&E Home Video, 2011

Russ: I’d add this to the list, mainly because Harmony Gold edited (some would argue butchered) it so it was easier for American audiences to get. As an adult, I’m not sure mashing together 3 separate anime series into one US conglomeration is entirely successful, but as a teen I just didn’t know or care. People driving vehicles that turn into mecha, along with a soap-opera-ish story and no robots running things like in Transformers? I was SO THERE.
Robin: I know many purists will argue with this being included on such a list, but I do know it remains a cultural touchstone for many viewers.

 


Samurai Champloo

Directed by:Shinichiro Watanabe
7 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Flying Dog, 2011

Jenny: Orphaned Fuu enlists two polar-opposite ronin, dignified Jin and rule-less Mugen, to help her search for the samurai who smells of sunflowers. Hysterical and moving in turn, with beautifully animated action and characters you can’t help but love from the very first episode. One of my favorites.
Robin: I’ve got to agree with Jenny on this one. The combination of hip hop culture and samurai culture is energetic and startlingly perfect, and the animation is gorgeous. This series grabs you from the first episode and doesn’t let you go. The violence keeps it for older teens and adults, though.

 


Samurai 7

Directed by:Toshifumi Takizawa
7 discs, 600 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Funimation, 2011

Jenny: A re-imagining of Kurosawa’s classic with sci-fi elements and nicely done CG that manages to keep the spirit and pathos and humor of the original while being its own attractive, dramatic, complex little beasty.

 


Trigun

Directed by:Satoshi Nishimura
Based on manga by Yasuhiro Nightow
4 discs, 650 minutes, Episodes 1-26
Company Age rating: 13UP
Funimation, 2010

Jenny: Trigun is a nice transition into anime for western audiences because it has so much western appeal. For one thing, it’s actually a western. Sort of. Sci-fi with dusters and fancy guns, lots of giggles, and a few tears. (Wolfwood and Vash sitting on that couch just kills me every time.) Peacenik Vash “The Stampede” has a habit of leaving a wake of destruction (and big insurance claims) in his wake, so the insurance company for the region sends two agents out after him to reign him in and keep him out of trouble (and their money in their coffers, where they like it). But they discover pretty quickly that he’s just finding the trouble and not making it. An old-school space dramedy anchored to a post-apocalyptic wild west. “Love and peace!”

Bonus titles

A number of NFNT folks recommended titles that are currently unavailable on DVD, but if you’ve got these in your collection, it may well be worth a spin in the DVD player. Additionally, Jenny recommends three titles to keep an eye on that are currently streaming and hopefully will be available for purchase in the future.

Hanasaku Iroha

(available streaming on Crunchyroll)

Jenny: Teen Tokyo girl gets shipped off to strict grandmother’s traditional inn in the country when irresponsible mom decides to run off with boyfriend of the moment. Lovely, funny, and sweet as Ohana learns the value of work, family, friends, and finding your own path. There’s a bit of mild fan service.


Inuyasha

Based on manga by Rumiko Takahashi

Bonnie: Time-travel, school girls battling demons, and star-crossed lovers. When I think of your stereotypical anime, I often think of Inuyasha. It’s epic fantasy and romance, mixed with weird bits of humor and action. For the uninitiated, you don’t have to watch all 167 episodes and four films to get the Inuyasha experience. However, it’s a great way to get your feet wet and see a classic shonen series.

 


Natsume’s Book of Friends

Based on manga by Yuki Midorikawa
(available streaming on Crunchyroll, forthcoming in 2012 on DVD)

Jenny: After being shuffled about from one distant relative to another, spirit-seeing Natsume finally finds a stable home and begins to accept his lot in life as he deals with local yokai and his deceased grandmother’s shrouded past. This series is heart-warming even when it’s melancholoy, always thoughtful, often funny, and occasionally scary. Watching Natsume connect with other people for the first time in his life, and especially watching him interact with his mouthy “white pig” kitty guardian, makes me so, so happy.

 


Paradise Kiss

Based on manga by Ai Yazawa

Robin: For all those fans of romantic coming of age stories, and those Nana fans who can no longer get Ai Yazawa’s first series since Tokyopop went kaput, this anime is a great adaptation. Ai Yazawa is known for telling tales of girls that hit many of the traditional romantic notes: good girl falls for a disreputable boy, finding friends and allies with the misfits. At the same time, Yazawa treats the journey seriously and, without giving too much away, acknowledges that even the most delicious bad boy may not be what a girl truly needs once she’s grown up. For a manga that was based in the world of fashion, all of the clothes are a treat, and it’s especially wonderful to see all of those fantabulous outfits rendered in color in the anime. Whenever I watched this anime (in my iPod, for a while there) I would always, always just let the end credits roll between episodes so I could dance around on the subway platform to Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To.”

 


Roujin Z

Allen: Mindless, hysterical fun involving teens who must come to the rescue of an elderly man who has inadvertently taken control of a robotic caretaker bed that has taken on the personality of his dead wife. It’s funny, it’s charming and honestly, how can that plot NOT intrigue you?

 


Tiger & Bunny

(available streaming on Hulu, VIZ currently has an English dub underway)

Jenny: For something with western-hemisphere (as opposed to western-high-noon) flavor that’s more recent, Hulu’s streaming the swell superhero action series Tiger & Bunny. Quality writing, fun personalities, accessible stories, and well-integrated CG animation make this a great introductory series for people who think all anime is about teenagers, for teenagers. The characters are adults (one even has a kid) and the plots center around the day-to-day protection of their city as well as their back stories (which do not always stay in the past). Great buddy-cop chemistry and there’s more on the way. Not sure on the rating, but I’d say older teen and adult, mostly due to violence and antagonist Jake’s vocabulary.

 

  • Eric Arsenault

    Great site with awesome articles like this, thanks for the many good suggestions :)