Note: Here are the definitions of terms used in this post that you may be unfamiliar with if you have never watched anime.
Fan Service: “Material in a work of fiction or in a fictional series which is intentionally added to please the audience. Fan service usually refers to ‘gratuitous titillation’, but can also refer to intertextual references to other series or story and visual elements that audiences tend to desire.” (Definition from Wikipedia)
Shonen: “Literally meaning ‘few years,’ ‘shonen’ (少年) typically refers to young boys under the age of fifteen. Thus, shonen anime and manga are aimed at that demographic.” (Definition from Kotaku)
Mecha: “The term mecha may refer to both scientific ideas and science fiction genres that centers on robots or machines controlled by people. Real mechas are any ‘walker’ type of Mobile robots.” (Definition from Wikipedia)
Anime is a medium that tends to produce a wide variety of reactions. Some fall in love with the art form instantly while others, including myself, take a bit more time to warm up to its…um…peculiarities. Until recently my experience with anime had been rather limited. I remember watching a small amount of Dragon Ball Z as a wee lad because my brother was into it at the time. As for films, all I had seen was Appleseed: Ex Machina and The Secret World of Arietty. I was able to catch Arietty in the theater and quite enjoyed it. I remember saying to myself, “You know what? Maybe I should give more anime a chance.” And then I never got around to it.
What had kept me from examining the medium for so long? Well, for most of my life I looked at anime and classified it under the “that’s weird” section of entertainment. Why is everyone’s hair so crazy? Why are the emotions so exaggerated? Why are the girls so ridiculously oversexualized? I saw images like this…
and thought to myself, “This just looks stupid. Why would anyone watch this?” What my younger self didn’t realize was that I wasn’t seeing the whole picture. I was making sweeping generalizations about the entire art form and not looking at it by genre. Anime is just like any other form of animation or live-action film. It has a number of genres, some found in other art forms and others medium-specific, that each have something to offer. Since this past summer, I have been immersing myself in the world of anime and have found titles that I absolutely love. This list is for people who are maybe a little bit like me when I was younger. Maybe you’re a little skeptical of anime and you want to watch something that’s truly indicative of its capacity to showcase mature, poignant storytelling. Hopefully, some of these titles will be what you’re looking for.
This list contains five anime television series that I think would work well as a gateway into anime. I tried to focus on shows that didn’t contain some of the medium’s frequent points of criticism: fan service, melodrama, filler episodes, etc. That’s not to say each title is devoid of all these qualities but at least some of them are absent. Let’s jump right in and look at the five titles worth your consideration.
Note: I watched all of these titles using the English dub. The dubs ranged from good to outstanding so if you were concerned about the quality you needn’t worry.
Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Long considered one of the best gateways into the art form, Cowboy Bebop still stands as one of the greatest anime titles ever created. This late 90’s classic was the first anime television series I watched and what a place to start. Bebop is a textbook example of how to successfully blend multiple genres into one fine piece of entertainment. You’ve got western, drama, film noir, horror, comedy and more used to create a show that’s filled with vitality. But at its heart it is the story of four bounty hunters brimming with personality. Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed’s brushes with happiness and tragedy make for an incredibly compelling tale. One episode even managed to bring me to tears, a rare feat for anime. I also credit this show with introducing me to one of my favorite composers: Yoko Kanno. This woman is an absolute genius. If you listen to her Bebop track “Space Lion” and aren’t inspired to check out the show, I don’t know what else I can do for you. Lastly, there’s also a stellar English track available that many consider to be superior to the original Japanese version.
Kino’s Journey (2003)
The next three titles on this list all share one thing in common: calm, meditative storytelling. The first of the three, Kino’s Journey, tells the tale of Kino and her talking motorcycle Hermes as they travel the world, experiencing many different cultures along the way. Forgoing the traditional narrative structure, each of the thirteen episodes focuses on a societal parable. The anime never feels preachy and is a classic example of subtle, episodic storytelling. Kino, wonderfully enigmatic for most of the series’ duration, makes for one of best female protagonists in the anime realm. As the reasons for her journey and reticent personality were unveiled, I began to realize just how much care went into crafting Kino’s character arc. She’s also a certifiable badass, waking up at the crack of dawn each day to practice her quick draw. With such an intriguing protagonist at its core and a thought-provoking story to boot, Kino’s Journey is a journey absolutely worth taking.
On the surface, Mushishi could very well be the sister show to Kino’s Journey. Both feature a traveling, reserved protagonist, an episodic structure and, as mentioned beforehand, a calm, meditative storytelling style. What sets Mushishi apart from the aforementioned series are its themes of altruism and communication. Ginko, the protagonist, is a Mushishi (or Mushi Master in English). He is able to see the magical creatures known as Mushi, beings which are considered parasitic by humans as they frequently depend on the forest or humans themselves to survive. Ginko basically acts as a mediator between the two species and attempts to resolve conflicts in the most nonviolent way possible. The interplay between the mushi, the human in need of help, and Ginko often provides some fascinating material. Seldom if ever does an episode’s conflict feel like a rehash of a previous one. In the end, the series always comes back to an essential question: are humanity and nature inextricably bound to a path of destruction or can they find a way to coexist peacefully?
Haibane Renmei (2002)
To give you an indication of how much I enjoyed this 13-episode series, I just spent $120 on the Blu-ray box set from Japan. Yes, it’s that good. Haibane Renmei is an anime of singular complexity, steering clear of the medium’s shortcomings. It focuses on a young girl, Rakka, who emerges from a cocoon and enters a strange, possibly purgatorial world. Upon her arrival, she is greeted by five other girls: Hikari, Kana, Kuu, Nemu and Reki (featured above). Rakka soon learns that she and the other girls are Haibane, angel-like beings who reside in the vicinity of Grie, a town where seemingly regular humans live. The townspeople are kind to the Haibane and offer them work so that they can support themselves. It’s a tranquil existence, but something doesn’t seem right, and Rakka will have to discover why she and the other Haibane are there in the first place. This mystery that unfolds benefits from expert pacing. The first half of the show is relaxed and spends most of its time worldbuilding and providing insight into its characters. In contrast, the latter half enters somber, deeply affecting territory as Rakka discovers more about her and the other Haibane’s pasts. This is an impeccably constructed story that is sure to resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to recognize their self-worth. It is art of the highest caliber.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
If you just watched a few episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion based on this recommendation, you might question why I included it in this list. It contains a lot of elements characteristic of your average shonen anime and doesn’t seem very special at the outset. But if you stick with it, you’ll be in for more than a few surprises. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deceptive anime and revels in its subversion of audience expectations. It starts out with a standard “young boy must pilot mecha and save the world” narrative but gradually reveals its true nature, turning into a psychological roller coaster. Evangelion’s three leads, Shinji, Rei and Asuka, represent some of the most multi-layered characters anime has to offer. They all lend themselves to in-depth analyses, a quality that is a testament to show creator Hideaki Anno’s abilities as a writer. If you do decide to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, there are some things to be made aware of. The show consists of 26 episodes but the generally accepted way to watch it is to view episodes 1-24 and then view The End of Evangelion, the 1997 film that serves as a finale to the series. There are also Director’s Cut versions of episodes 21-24 that greatly improve said episodes.
Honorable Mentions: Black Lagoon, Serial Experiments Lain, Ergo Proxy
Where to Find: Cowboy Bebop, Mushishi and Haibane Renmei are all available for streaming on Funimation. A subscription to Funimation costs $6 a month. Some of Kino’s Journey is available on Amazon Video. Unfortunately, Neon Genesis Evangelion is not available to rent/stream anywhere. I bought a custom Blu-ray box set on eBay for around $180. The DVD’s cost about the same, so If you don’t want to spend that kind of money, you’ll just have to watch it online.
I’ll be continuing this discussion next week with the top five anime films worth your time.