I love anime. I love talking about anime. But not all of my friends love anime as much as I do. Some of them used to watch as kids but haven’t kept up since, and some of them have never seen an anime in their lives but are interested in learning more. But as anyone who’s had to explain the plot to Evangelion would know, anime isn’t always the easiest thing to understand, so I decided to write down some of my favorite anime series and movies for anyone unfamiliar with the medium. If you haven’t watched a lot of anime and want to know more, or have some friends and family who do, this one’s for you 🙂
But just so I don’t just list all my favorite anime, I have a few criteria for this list. The anime must be reasonably well-known in the community, and easily accessible to watch. I’ve tried to avoid anime with too complex a plot or one that requires knowledge of common anime tropes to understand – I wanted something that can be appreciated on its own merit. And finally, I tried to keep the examples on the short side, as it’s a lot easier to get someone to watch a few movies or one 25-episode season than, say, all 1000+ episodes of One Piece! So anyway, some of my favorite recommendations for anime newcomers…
Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Genre: Sci-fi, western, noir
Recommended if you like: Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Star Wars, basically any space opera with unlikely heroes
If you watch just one anime on this list, make it Cowboy Bebop. Inspired equally by Asian and American cinema, director Shinichiro Watanabe blended the tropes of sci-fi, western, film noir, and a million other genres to create a kaleidoscopic thrill ride with tons of unpredictable plot twists. The action is fantastic, the characters are all great (there’s a Welsh corgi, and he’s everyone’s favorite), and the acid jazz soundtrack is the definition of cool. A cult classic in both Japan in the West, Cowboy Bebop is a story that puts most other anime – and Hollywood – to shame.
Death Note (2006)
Genre: Thriller, mystery
Recommended if you like: Breaking Bad, Sherlock, any story where the protagonist is the villain
I feel like this is such an obvious one. Everyone says you should start with Death Note if you’re new to anime. Well, it is very good. Antiheroes are increasingly popular in fiction these days, but Death Note does them one better and makes its protagonist a teenager with a god complex and an unrepentant serial killer to boot! Light Yagami is as fascinating to watch as he is an awful person, and plays a great cat-and-mouse game with his foil, the equally brilliant and amoral L. Sure, it gets over the top and cheesy at times, but this is still a classic thriller anime that holds up today.
My Hero Academia (2016-)
Genre: Superhero, action
Recommended if you like: DC, Marvel, Harry Potter, any shonen anime
Superhero fiction is often seen as a quintessential American genre, but Korei Horikoshi proves that sentiment wrong by giving the classic superhero origin story a Japanese spin. Our boy Izuku Midoriya seems like the furthest thing from a hero at first: he’s shy, socially awkward, and lacks any kind of superpowers in a world full of them. But it’s through his sheer determination that he is noticed by loving Superman homage All Might and given a path to superherodom. It’s an inspiring story, great for both the young and young at heart. And there’s one girl with a frog superpower and she’s just the cutest thing ever.
A Place Further Than The Universe (2018)
Genre: Adventure, comedy, slice of life
Recommended if you like: Uh… cute girls? Being inspired? Penguins?
There are tons of anime out there with fantastic worlds and unbelievable powers, but there are just as many stories out there about ordinary people doing amazing things. A Place Further Than The Universe is a beautiful and heartwarming story about four high school girls who decide to all leave their mundane lives behind and go to Antartica on a whim. It’s such a simple premise, but genius in its execution – the animation is gorgeous, the music is stellar, and it will make you cry several times. This anime is so special it’s inspired its fans to travel in real life, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. Also: penguins!
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009-2010)
Genre: Fantasy, action-adventure, steampunk
Recommended if you like: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones (but with a way better ending)
Real talk: This is my favorite anime of all time, so I’m a bit biased here, but Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is goddamn amazing. It’s a story about two brothers who learn the secrets of alchemy and pay the ultimate price for it, losing their own bodies in a failed attempt to bring their mother back to life. But there’s so much more to it than that. It’s got brilliant world-building, political drama, gut-wrenching horror, fantastic character writing, and some of the best animation in the game. The plot is complex and full of deep philosophical themes, but it never gets too confusing to understand and ties everything together brilliantly at the end. At 64 episodes, it’s one of the longer series on this list, but trust me: every episode is worth it. Even the recap is good!
The Promised Neverland (2019)
Genre: Horror, mystery, drama
Recommended if you like: Stranger Things, anything inspired by Stephen King in the 80’s
Good horror anime can be surprisingly hard to come by, but last year’s The Promised Neverland nails the claustrophobia and psychological torture that makes Japanese horror so great. It stars a group of small children who all live together in an idyllic orphanage with a kind, loving matron – until a few of them sneak too far beyond the gates and discover the cruel reality behind their seemingly perfect life. What makes The Promised Neverland so captivating is that it never relies on shock value to create fear – instead, it does so organically, through its endearing characters and chilling sense of atmosphere. With season 2 coming out later this year, now is as great a time as any to check this one out!
Your Name (2017)
Genre: Romance, drama, comedy
Recommended if you like: any of John Green’s novels, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Director Makoto Shinkai has been making great anime films for years, but Your Name was the first to become a mainstream smash both in Japan and abroad. It’s about a city boy and a country girl who find themselves inexplicably trapped in each other’s bodies – and although that Freaky Friday premise has been done before many times, I don’t think it’s ever been done with as much charm and sincerity as here. The two leads have so much chemistry that you’ll want to see them get together before they even meet in person. The animation is some of the best you’ll ever see, and the music is even better. I don’t even like a lot of romance anime, and I love this one. It’s that damn good.
Spirited Away (2000)
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
Recommended if you like: Classic Disney, being alive
The #1 highest selling film in Japanese history, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the definition of timeless. An Eastern take on the classic Alice in Wonderland story, the story follows young Chihiro as she finds herself trapped in a world full of bizarre spirits and forced to work for an evil witch to save her family. It takes a ton of inspiration from Shinto and Buddhist folklore, but you don’t have to understand any of that to appreciate the painstakingly beautiful hand-drawn animation or its instantly relatable protagonist. Even people who don’t like anime love this movie.