Basic Anime Starter Pack
If you want to get into anime but have no idea how to go about such a thing, you aren’t alone. Before I met my now-husband, I hadn’t ever really watched anime. Don’t get me wrong; I really wanted to. I was a geek in my own right, but for some reason, anime intimidated me. I had no idea where to start, and anything I had glimpsed in passing seemed super weird to a noob like me. (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, anyone?) I wasn’t ready to just jump into the deep end, but anime still held a certain allure.
Then, my husband eased me into anime – for the most part. Every now and then we would sit down to watch the first episode in a series, and by the end of it, I wanted to run away screaming. But, he quickly learned to recommend shows that were more to my tastes, gradually ramping up to the more alien. He was my sensei in all of this, and now I will pass his wisdom and recommendations (as well as some of my own… well, mostly my own, actually…) on to you.
Tips for When You Watch (And Before You Watch)
Before you start, I believe there are some things you should know to be aware of what you are getting yourself into; they are the things which I had been prepared for by my husband. Also, these fundamentals and tips will help you choose your anime later.
Realize anime is a style. One of the biggest misconceptions I run into with people who don’t have much experience with anime (and one I had myself before I learned better) is that anime is a genre. It’s not. It’s a style. Or at least it is more of a style than a genre. Saying anime is a genre is kind of like saying Live-Action is a genre – it kind of works as a statement until you realize that The Notebook is nothing like Lord of the Rings and that Lord of the Rings is nothing like Ocean’s Eleven. Sure, they all have actors running around being filmed, but most comparisons end there. Same goes for anime. The art, just like cinematography, will vary from work to work, and the genre of the story arch and elements will similarly vary; however, one can generally point to anime as a Japanese style of animation and know when a work falls into this style.
Start Somewhere You Like. Because anime is a style rather than a genre, this means there are plenty of genres within anime to choose. If you know you like fantasy, go with a fantasy. If you know you like rom-coms, go with a rom-com. If you know you like…well, you get the pattern. Same goes for art. Not all anime looks the same. Pick ones with animation you like to look at.
Give It a Few Episodes. Unlike western television and animation, anime tends to take a couple of episodes to get into the swing of things. Often, the first episode will focus on introducing the main characters and immediate issues, and the episode or two after will begin to introduce more of the plot and surrounding world. So, give it some time. Three episodes will probably be a good taste of what you are getting yourself into.
Consider Dubs v. Subs. There is a whole debate in the world of anime watchers on which is better – dubbed or subtitled works. When we get right down to it though, it is a matter of personal preference; however, it is a personal preference you should be aware of when you pick up a new anime. Many people find dubbed works to be easier to watch when they are first starting out. That’s fine, but not all anime is dubbed, so you will likely be limiting yourself in the long run. Start with dubs if you want/ need and work up to subtitles.
Consider Length. Do this for two reasons: commitment and quality. Some anime series can have hundreds of episodes. (Literally! I’m not being figurative here.) Early on, you might not want to commit to something that is bound to suck up a lot of your time. Also, on the opposite end of the spectrum, if an anime doesn’t have many episodes, it’s pretty likely it didn’t do too well. (Aim for at least twelve episodes – or more. A standard season is twelve episodes, and if it has two seasons, it’s a good indication that people liked it.) Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, but it helps weed out the riff-raff (until recommendations from friends suggest otherwise).
Be Aware of Conclusions…. Or the fact that some (well, many) anime don’t have them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be conscious of. Most of the time it is a matter of money and viewers; anime is expensive to make. But, it can be pretty disappointing when you love a show only for it to end without, well, ending. Keep in mind that this happens fairly often, and you’ll be fine. (Also, secondary tip, if this does happen, most anime have completed manga that you can read to find out the end to the story.)
Ignore Cultural Oddities and Tropes. There are bound to be some things about anime that you find pretty odd or unnecessary at first. It’s all part of crossing a cultural divide. For me, I got tripped up by how often the male protagonist accidentally ended up groping or seeing the female protagonist naked in the first episode. Now I’ve adjusted and accepted it is something that comes with the style of entertainment and the culture. If there is something in anime that comes across as odd, ignore it while making a mental note. You are bound to see it repeated. Adjust and accept. (Or learn to notice the pattern and avoid it. Adjusting and accepting is just easier, in my opinion.)
The following seven anime are a great place to begin your journey. They are what I would like to call a ‘starter-pack’ because, just like when you are starting to play a new trading card game, it is far easier to have someone compile something tried-and-true for you than to attempt sussing it out on your own.
I chose this particular grouping of anime because they are likely to feel slightly familiar despite the different style (amongst other reasons). They will let you dip your toe into the water and give a decent overview of what anime has to offer. Oh, and you don’t have to worry about obscene lengths or stories without conclusions. Each series runs its course (or enough of one) and does so in an appropriate amount of time. And, for me, these were all shows I felt almost immediately comfortable with when I first saw them.
Sword Art Online – Action, Adventure, Science Fiction
Great if you like… video games!
Premise: When beta-tester Kirito finds himself trapped with thousands of other players in the world’s first virtual reality MMORPG, he learns that the only way to escape is to clear the game’s hundred floors. The catch? If a person dies in-game, they die IRL too. The stakes can’t get much higher than that.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: The familiarity readings for this series are off the charts. If you have done any video gaming, you are sure to feel right at home with Sword Art Online. Also, there is something for everyone. Romance, grit, intrigue, action – this series has a bit of everything. But be prepared. The writers pulled no punches. Deaths abound, and things get real pretty quickly.
Death Note – Crime, Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Great if you like…vigilante justice, anti-heroes, and psychological games of cat and mouse.
Premise: The Death Note has the power to precisely and untraceable ability to kill anyone whose name is written on its pages, and in the hands of brilliant but bored Light Yagami it becomes merely a means to an end. He attempts to cleanse the world of crime and evil, all the while being chased by a detective known only as “L” who seeks to bring him to justice for his own wrong-doing.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: Simply put, this is an excellent series with its foot in the currently popular realms of more mature detective and crime dramas. It shows what anime at its peak performance is capable of. It is solid and engaging, and the desire to binge watch it will be a real risk. In fact, it is so good and so widely enjoyed, Netflix is making a live-action adaptation of it. Sure, you could just wait to watch that… but that would be like watching a movie before you read the book.
A Certain Magical Index – Fantasy, Comedy, Romance, Drama
Great if you like… the battle between magic and science in a school-like setting.
Premise: Toma Kamijo has a very unusual power. He has the ability to negate any supernatural power with the touch of his right hand. And, though his power also happens to negate his luck, it comes in handy when he has to protect Index, a nun who carries over 100,000 forbidden grimoires locked within her.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: A Certain Magical Index has a lot of the classic tastes and tropes of anime that I have come to expect (especially from shows aimed at the Shonen demographic). For that reason, it is a good flavor to get used too. It is a pretty dang enjoyable as a story, too.
Gurren Lagann – Mecha, Drama, Comedy
Great if you like… watching robots piloted by monsters fight other robots and humans.
Premise: Driven to live below the earth in subterranean villages, mankind exists in constant fear of earthquakes. Kamina enlists the help of Simon (a young and skilled village digger set with the task of expanding the tunnels they live in) to help him reach the surface no one believes to exist. Around the same time, they happen upon a small mecha and use it to defend their village against an attack.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: For me, Gurren Lagann represents the weirdness in anime. It is probably the least “familiar” because of that, but it is also something to experience for the same reason.
Toradora! – Romance, Comedy, Drama, School Life
Great if you like… well, romance; cute, humorous, innocent romance.
Premise: Taiga, a feisty but little girl, and Ryuji, an intimidating but completely harmless guy, each discover they have crushes on the other’s best friend, and they decide to team up to help each other find love. However, nothing ever seems to go to plan.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: It’s adorable. That’s all. If you like adorable funny things, you will probably like this. And at this stage, the more anime that you are introduced to that you like, the better.
Fullmetal Alchemist – Science Fantasy, Action, Adventure
Great if you like… epic scale adventures and interesting magic systems.
Premise: All things come at a price, and when the Elric brothers attempt to resurrect their dead mother, they lose parts of their bodies. To regain what they lost, they must find the components.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: Every time I asked one of my friends where they would start if they were to recommend an anime to someone who has never seen anime, they told me they would recommend FMA. It has the perfect balance of story, drama and comedic breaks in tension, and it is pretty easy to get into. Also feel free to check out Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood instead, which tells pretty much the same story but holds closer to the manga.
Working!! – Slice of Life, Comedy, Romance
Great if you like…sit-coms (because this is pretty much the anime equivalent).
Premise: Because high school student Sota loves all things small and cute, upon seeing Popura (a tiny and adorable girl) he is immediately enamored by her appearance and accepts her invitation to come work at the family restaurant Wagnaria. All of his coworkers turn out to be strange, but Sota comes to love his new job… probably because he fits right in.
Why It’s Part of the Pack: In Working!!, the characters are almost caricature personalities with odd behaviors and passions that somehow feel realistic. They make for a hilarious cast and function surprisingly well in episodic adventures that mostly highlight their “typical” (or not so typical) work day. The show is just good fun and introduces the slice of life genre that is oh-so-popular in anime.
A Mini Expansion-Pack (i.e. Some Other Series of Note)
Dragonball Z, One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto – these four anime are classics… some of the roots of anime, actually; however, they are incredibly long. They are good to watch and will give you a solid base in anime, but you might want to hold off for a bit before committing so much time.
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing – another expansive classic. Worth the watch, and the root of a lot of mecha anime.
Something (Actually, Pretty Much Anything) By Studio Ghibli – because all of my suggestions were series, but movies by Studio Ghibli have earned at least a mention. Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle, among others, are great if you only have a couple of hours.
Where to Go From Here
Hopefully this is just enough to get you going, but once you blow through this starter-pack you’ll be on your own to find series that you like. Continue to use the seven tips at the beginning of this article, and you will do just fine. Oh, and one last thing, remember to come back to the anime that you pass on in the beginning. Some anime are an acquired taste. After more experience with the style, you will find your palate expanded, and a series you discredited when you began watching might just be your next favorite.