So maybe you’ve seen some of my earlier anime posts, maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re just curious about this “anime” thing. You might have read my introductory anime post and wondered “okay, so now where do I go?” Now’s when I answer that question, with a guide to some great shows you can check out if you’re at all curious about the medium.
(Quick note in case you’re wondering: many of these shows have “dub” and “sub” options. The “dub” is a version of the show which replaces the original voice acting with English voice actors. The “sub” is a version of the show with all the original audio and English subtitles.)
How I Picked My List
I had a few different criteria when putting together this list, with an eye to providing shows which would be good for starting out in multiple senses. Obviously, I started with a minimum level of quality, according to my own personal views. (Not everyone has the same metrics for quality that I do, so some might disagree on some of these. But I try to give a good diversity of show types, and they’re all well-made in many respects.) I also tried to provide a bit of variety with the options, so that if you wind up not feeling like one is for you, there’s always another to try. There’s a great breadth of options within anime, even if a good chunk of it draws on some very similar tropes.
So, here’s what I used to help narrow down my extensive list of shows, because I’ve seen a decent number at this point…
- It has to be legally, readily streamable, and preferably for free. (For each show, I give a list of the places you can watch it. I’ll try to provide a link, except for Netflix Streaming, because there’s no easy way to link within Netflix’s interface.) Because if you can’t watch the show easily, what’s the point in recommending it to you?
- It doesn’t rely on anime tropes too much. While I wouldn’t want to suggest shows that don’t feel at all different from Western entertainment, it’s also true that the abundance of references and narrative tropes in Japanese media can make the shows feel alien and hard to get into. So I try and avoid that. The more shows you watch, the more you’ll get a handle for this element and be able to appreciate it.
- It should be striking and unique in some way, because I want to make a good first impression, and give you an idea of how vivid the medium can be, and how it can do memorable, cool stuff.
- It should be relatively short, because I don’t want it to be too much of a heavy commitment or investment.
So, with those in mind, it’s time for me to present my pared-down list…I’ve managed to get it down to five shows! Buckle up and get ready!
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
What’s very notable about this show is that it’s a traditional medieval low-magic fantasy…except that by “medieval” I don’t mean Medieval European. It’s actually strongly inspired by centuries-old Japanese and Chinese culture, in the same way that fantasy stories like Game of Thrones use a quasi-Medieval Europe setting. It’s a story with nobles, peasants, warriors, royalty, and a handful of those who deal with the strange supernatural aspects of the world. Our story kicks off with Balsa, a spear-wielding bodyguard who is brought into service as the bodyguard of a very important child who lays at the center of a crucial prophecy. The story begins to grow, as we develop the stakes and learn more about the mythology behind the world, and the truth of the supernatural events surrounding this child. What’s most notable about this series is the fact that even bit characters who only appear briefly (and may not get any speaking lines) are given careful, thoughtful characterization, and everyone’s motivations are believable–even the antagonists.
Theme and Tone: Dramatic low-magic fantasy
Length: 26 episodes
What Sets It Apart: Deep worldbuilding, subtle and human-feeling characterization/dialogue
Content Advisory: Fantasy violence
Where to Watch: Netflix Instant Streaming, Hulu
Am I a little biased in favor of this show? Maybe. But it’s one of those shows that just had a moment where it grabbed me and became unforgettable. Not really because of anything big or dramatic it did, but because of how hauntingly and poetically it captured a single moment, the death of a pair of doomed smugglers. It’s that haunting, melancholy atmosphere which really makes this show, which alternates between frentic action-heavy bounty hunting and moody, self-reflective chillness. It’s a show about the kinda-distant future, where spaceship-faring bounty hunters track down criminals while hiding from the shadows of their pasts. While it’s a heavily episodic show, this mainly underscores the core of the show, which is about the unresolved issues of each character.
Theme and Tone: Moody space adventure
Length: 26 episodes
What Sets It Apart: Clutch Jazz Age soundtrack, snapshots of humanity, sweet spaceship designs
Content Advisory: Violence and blood, isolated nudity
Where to Watch: Hulu
It’s difficult-to-impossible to find a show like Baccano!. It’s a frenzied, somewhat disjointed romp through the 1930s United States, with a large cast and multiple plot lines that bookend and intersect one another. While it might be confusing to follow at first, since not all of it’s in chronological order, the chaos ultimately builds an appropriate atmosphere, as mobsters clash with wannabe thieves, innocent civilians, and people with sinister secrets. The madcap show doesn’t exactly have an ending proper or a defined beginning, and it’s well aware of this, starting and ending with scenes which question what the best way to tell the story was, anyhow. The characters are unforgettably eccentric, but still somehow resonant and human.
Theme and Tone: Violent, hectic supernatural mafia drama
Length: 16 episodes
What Sets It Apart: Back-and-forth pacing, classy 1930s costuming and set design, deeply-interwoven plot threads that eventually interlock satisfyingly, heavily dramatic and quirky characterization
Content Advisory: Heavy bloody violence (including multiple cases of finger dismemberment)
Where to Watch: Hulu, YouTube
While Mushi-Shi is an episodic show, it works to make every single episode shine, so it winds up feeling like an anthology of short stories featuring the same central characters. Ginko the Mushi-Shi (it’s a title that roughly translates to “master of the mushi”) is a sort of medicine man who travels between Japanese towns in an unspecified pre-modern period (maybe early 19th century?), investigating the strange supernatural creatures known as “mushi”. The result feels a bit like a unique spin on the traditional folktale framework, as human desires conflict with the needs and behaviors of different mushi, often resulting in some sort of tragedy. The strange, unique problems that Ginko faces are used to reflect back on the humanity of the villagers who inhabit his town, and the relationships they have with one another. Love, loyalty, fear, curiosity–all of these shine manifold through episodes that sometimes feel like horror, sometimes like a glimpse into something magical.
Theme and Tone: melancholy, tranquil, sometimes dark and tragic supernatural drama
Length: 46 episodes
What Sets It Apart: Strong episodic stories that produce a certain atmosphere that manages to be mysterious and dark without overwhelming you, while at the same time producing a somewhat calming feeling
Content Advisory: Some tense scenes, including child endangerment and death
Where to Watch: Hulu (Season 1 & Season 2), Crunchyroll (Season 2), Netflix Instant Streaming (Season 2)
Take one part conspiracy thriller, one part time-travel mystery, and one part Japanese nerdery, and you get Steins;Gate. It’s a show about a misfit group of young adults who manage to send messages through time using a microwave. Hey, it’s about as plausible as using a DeLorean. Steins;Gate is filled with a memorable cast of characters (from the cosplaying catgirl to the fiery redheaded genius scientist) who all congregate around the main character, a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” who lectures everyone with paranoid rants about mysterious organizations who are on the hunt for him. It’s a story packed with some gut-wrenching turns, memorable characters, and time-travel fun. And while some of the Japanese geek references might go over your head, there’s still something to appreciate about a group of unapologetic geeks caught up in a time-travel thriller.
Theme and Tone: Sci-fi paranoia thriller set in the present day
Length: 24 episodes and a post-series episode only found on the DVDs
What Sets It Apart: A memorable cast of characters whose relationships form the core of the show, amidst a wild rollercoaster ride of plotting and time-changing action
Content Advisory: A few scenes with moderate violence (both psychological and physical) and blood, a short gag scene of accidental nudity
Where to Watch: Hulu, YouTube
Good luck on your journeys through anime! While these aren’t all of my favorite shows, they represent a lot of what I love about the medium, and they’re a great place to start watching!