Anime. There’s so much of the stuff, it can be difficult for newcomers to know where to begin. Add to that the fact that many series’ titles don’t give an awful lot away (Bleach, for example, is about Death Gods rather than cleaning products) and finding a suitable show to act as an introduction to Japanese animation can be an arduous task. Picking a duff series can also lead to an underwhelming first experience that discourages potential otakus (anime fans) from continuing their journey of discovery. If, for instance, your first taste of anime is High School Of The Dead, you might find yourself under the impression that these shows are all semi-pornographic, plot-lite slabs of ‘boobs n’ blood’.
To that end, we’ve prepared a short list of amazing series that are accessible for newcomers and also provide a balanced representation of the art form as a whole, acting as an entrance point to this unique, quirky and engrossing genre and an indication as to whether the world of anime is for you.
Lastly, whilst many of these shows have English-dubbed versions, the voice acting is generally of a more corny nature, partly due to the western tendency to market animated television to kids and teens. As a result, watching these shows with subtitles tends to provide a more authentic experience, particularly for those seeking a more mature watch.
Dragon Ball Z
If you have an anime geek pal, chances are Dragon Ball Z is the show that ‘turned’ them. First airing in the UK on Cartoon Network at the turn of the millennium, the series captured the hearts of many a child returning home from school with its over-the-top martial arts, colourful villains and abundance of shouting. It’s also arguably the only entry on our list that defies the ‘subtitles preferable’ rule, with a widely respected English dub featuring an array of talented voice artists.
The show follows the adult life of an alien named Goku who is sent to destroy Earth as a baby, shortly before the destruction of his home planet. After forgetting his original purpose, Goku instead becomes the kind-hearted protector of his adopted planet. It’s probably a safe bet that creator Akira Toriyama was a Superman fan.
Whilst some detractors argue that Dragon Ball Z peddles a highly simplified story, it also offers a likeable and varied cast of characters and a memorable range of special attacks just begging to be replicated by fans, such as the famous Kamehameha. Realistically though, the core of DBZ is the battles. Very few shows, anime or otherwise, can match the high-speed intensity of such classic bouts as Goku vs. Frieza and Gohan vs. Cell, and it is these fights that consistently draw in fans of all ages.
Whilst more modern offerings may show greater sophistication, the influence and impact of Goku and friends on the anime world is immeasurable and Dragon Ball Z, for a western audience at least, is perhaps the best entry point for newbies. For those that do enjoy it, there’s also the original series, Dragon Ball, which covers Goku’s childhood and the currently running Dragon Ball Super, both of which definitely have their moments of splendour. Dragon Ball GT, however, is best avoided.
Perhaps nowhere is the influence of the Dragon Ball franchise more keenly felt than in this series, adapted from the manga by Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto and the subsequent Naruto Shippuden (don’t be fooled by the marketing gimmick, it’s all one series) follow the life of the titular hero, an orphaned ninja trying to forge his own path in a world of warfare and death to become a leader capable of bringing people together.
Whilst dramatic fights and spectacular ninja techniques are predictably present and correct, Naruto also features a far more involved plot, with points of political intrigue, underground conspiracy and the true value of friendship all playing a large part in the series’ narrative.
Some fans will maintain that the first half of the show is superior to the second but with several key moments, such as the climactic showdown with Pain, appearing in the Shippuden half, both are well worth watching. The real problem for Naruto is the filler arcs: episodes not derived from Kishimoto’s original manga and these are sadly both frequent and dull. There are however, plenty of websites that can advise which episodes to skip in order to keep to the canon material only, should Naruto take your fancy.
In the interests of full disclosure, you’ll need a little bit of commitment with this series. With 740 episodes and counting, and a storyline that still isn’t reaching its conclusion just yet, One Piece perhaps isn’t ideal for the casual viewer. It is however, a highly rewardingly series with universal appeal and a group of characters sharing a chemistry stronger than you’d think possible for animated beings.
This pirate-themed anime is an epic in every sense of the word and is able to switch from hilarious comedic moments to surprisingly dark themes in the blink of an eye. Main protagonist Monkey D. Luffy is never anything less than completely entertaining and despite the monstrous amount of characters introduced throughout the course of the show, creator Eiichiro Oda ensures that each entity has enough personality and visual style to leave a lasting impression.
Perhaps surprisingly given its length, One Piece features relatively few filler episodes and has retained a constant level of exceptional quality while other anime series have come and gone.
Those hankering for something with somewhat more mature content may just find what they’re looking for in Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note. This thirty-seven episode series answers that oft-pondered question ‘what would happen if a high-school genius could kill people by writing their name in a notebook?’ As it turns out, total carnage.
Taking on a supernatural, neo-noir-esque tone, Death Note is an intelligent crime thriller with aforementioned high-school genius Light Yagami engaging in a battle of minds with an eccentric detective simply known as ‘L’. The two are opposing sides of the same justice-seeking, hyper-intelligent coin and their duel provides Death Note with a unique foundation from which it builds an enthralling series.
Death Note takes a cold, hard look at themes of morality, justice and sanity, taking many surprising twists and turns along the way and also takes the bold step of creating a main character that you’re not really supposed to be cheering for. Or are you?
With a Japanese-produced live-action TV version already released and a Hollywood film currently in the works starring Nat Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band, The Fault In Our Stars), Death Note could be due a renaissance very soon.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
It should be noted that there are two versions of this anime: Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, both of which deserve much respect. We will however, be plumping for the Brotherhood version, as it received a generally more positive reaction, following the manga storyline with greater accuracy and providing what’s considered by fans as the more fitting conclusion.
The series is set in a world where a magic-like practice called ‘alchemy’ is commonplace, as is war between neighbouring countries and militaristic rule. When two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, attempt to revive their deceased mother using their limited knowledge of alchemy, one loses his body, his soul forced to reside in a suit of armour and the other loses two of his limbs. It literally cost him an arm and a leg. The two boys then set out to reclaim their old bodies but in the process, uncover a worldwide and ancient conspiracy.
FMA: Brotherhood is not only immediately accessible, with sixty-four tightly packed episodes, but is also a pleasing blend of anime styles, mixing up utterly heart-wrenching emotion with the humour of brotherly squabbles. There are spectacular battles with impressive alchemy-based techniques, a highly-involved storyline that keeps viewers guessing until the very end and plenty of thought-provoking musings on the conflict between duty and morality, the importance of familial ties and what it means to be human, with the comedic moments preventing FMA: Brotherhood from becoming overly heavy or intense.
Attack On Titan
With only one proper season to its name, Attack On Titan is one of the newest entries here but has nevertheless amounted a vast amount of plaudits and recognition from both Japanese and western audiences and has proved consistently popular across a wide demographic.
The show is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the remains of humanity are confined to three large walls thanks to the appearance of the eponymous Titans, huge genital-less humanoids with seemingly no intelligence and an instinctive desire to eat and kill humans. As the story begins, two new intelligent and superior titans appear and threaten to render human beings extinct completely, forcing a group of young soldiers to strike back after a century of subservience.
Attack On Titan certainly pulls none of its punches, with gory, wince-inducing violence from the off and a Game Of Thrones-like penchant for murdering characters with minimal fanfare. The tone is refreshingly bleak, perfectly reflecting the dire situation humanity finds itself in but the anthemic, military-influenced soundtrack picks the show up before things become too depressing.
There are plenty of spin-offs and adaptations in this franchise too, with creator Hajime Isayama clearly keen to make the most of his hot property but only the origin story of fan-favourite character Levi, No Regrets, is worth a look.
Following on from our earlier comments regarding misleading series titles, it’s perhaps natural to assume an animated venture called ‘Cowboy Bebop’ would be a light-hearted wild-west romp with plenty of gags and joviality. Well, not quite. In fact this twenty-six episode series is known for controversial and at times, philosophical content, dispelling any remaining notions that anime is ‘just for kids’ in the opening episode with scenes of drug use, wanton violence and sex jokes.
Set in 2071, the show is more of a space western in the mould of Firefly and perfectly straddles the wild-west and sci-fi genres with a hint of film noir added for good measure. The action is centred on a group of bounty hunters aboard the good ship Bebop led by Spike Spiegel, all of whom are inherently flawed and have closets full of skeletons from their pre-Bebop lives waiting to reappear and cause conflict.
Perhaps thanks to its heavy western influence, Cowboy Bebop has been singled out as a gateway series for anime, providing newcomers with a sense of familiarity that many other animations don’t quite deliver.
The most recent and en vogue entry on our list, One-Punch Man and its lead character Saitama have captured the hearts of the anime community with a knowing wink toward the superhero genre and a brilliantly cutting sense of humour. The protagonist’s nonplussed attitude to crime-fighting is both refreshing and entertaining and would be the perfect antidote for anyone jaded with the conventions of the genre.
The animation is naturally excellent and the overall plot of the series’ first season is kept to Dragon Ball levels of simplicity to allow the brilliant comedy and the vibrant cast to take centre stage. Perhaps more than any of our entries however, One-Punch Man seems to have been created with a ‘by fans, for fans’ approach firmly in mind as it actively avoids many of the frustration-inducing pitfalls anime sometimes falls into such as heavy filler arcs and long gaps between seasons.
You can read more about One-Punch Man right here.
Ouran High School Host Club
And now for something completely different. Whilst most of this list has focused on action and adventure anime, and this certainly accounts for a large chunk of the most popular productions, there are a lot of sitcom-esque series that aim to appeal to an entirely separate section of the market and Ouran High School Host Club is undoubtedly one of the more popular of these.
The series is set at a particularly fancy private school following the rare arrival of a student from a non-upper class background: the down-to-earth girl, Haruhi Fujioka. Haruhi soon becomes involved with the school ‘host club’: a group of male students who entertain female clients (not like that!) and after being mistaken for a boy, Haruhi is forced to join. Hijinks, naturally, ensue.
Haruhi’s straight-talking demeanour and unwillingness to put up with the boys’ nonsense leads to a bevy of amusing one-liners and the club’s attempts to help those in need gives the show a ‘feel-good’ spirit. Ouran Host Club also has an excellent sense of wit and is fantastic at telling single-episode stories, but not all of the humour may translate effectively to a western audience. A good portion of the jokes derive laughs from gender confusion, restrained sexuality and, er, male twins getting a bit closer than they should. The series never wanders into the realms of offensiveness but certainly, some of the material is either lost in translation or geared specifically towards Asian culture.
Despite this, Ouran Host Club has a lot of heart and enough interesting character moments to remain internationally relevant and ultimately, is about the chemistry of the Host Club members and the various quirks that make them unique and that is something that transcends cultural barriers.
Of course, no anime list would be complete without some mecha. There is a common perception in the west (partly thanks to that Simpsons episode where the family all have seizures) that anime is full of giant fighting robots and while shows like Gundam Wing are certainly popular, mecha elements aren’t quite as common as you might believe.
The 2007 anime Gurren Lagann has attracted plenty of critical acclaim, winning ‘Best Television Production’ at the Tokyo Anime Awards and also received rave reviews from American-based anime websites. The series takes place on a futuristic Earth where the masses are oppressed by the dictator Lordgenome and forced to live underground. Two teenagers, Simon and Kamina, decide to stage an attempt to breach the surface and set about building a mecha to achieve this goal and ultimately win freedom for the citizens and overthrow Lordgenome in the process.
Significantly jollier in tone than the other ‘humanity trapped by an outside force’ entry on this list, Attack On Titan, Gurren Lagann often pauses for moments of silliness in the face of the characters’ adversity and ramps up the more outlandish features of the genre with pet moles and exaggeratedly amusing characters.
And there you have it. Ten awesome shows that anime stalwarts can enjoy but that are also ideal for those either intrigued by the genre or looking to learn more about it. Clearly ten entries only scratches the surface of what’s available out there and honourable mentions should go to Tokyo Ghoul, Bleach and Akame Ga Kill, but leave your own recommendations in the comments section below.