There comes a point in all of our lives when we are privy to a certain conversation. Maybe we’re being asked directly, maybe we’re listening in on others, or maybe we’re just lurking on a comment thread online. Someone doesn’t watch anime. Someone wants to know where to start. The usual tactic is to recommend some fast-paced, not terribly dense fare like Sword Art Online, Attack on Titan, or Death Note. That’s one way to go about it. The idea here is that these are relatively accessible anime that are not “too anime-y” and will ease a newbie into the medium. Here’s the kicker though. There is no one way to eat a Reese’s. By that I mean there are a lot more ways to sell anime. Here is a guide that’s too specific for most purposes, but illustrates a point - “accessible” is not one size fits all, and it doesn’t always look how people expect it to.
Note: for this project, I challenged myself to only include full series. In my experience, when someone is confused and/or resistant about how to get into anime, they are thinking of series, not movies. I’ve found people have far less hang ups about watching an anime film. It’s harder to think of the one series that would work well enough for an individual that would devote the time and energy to finishing. With that in mind as well as upping the difficulty for myself, there are no movies on this list. That could be its own separate article!
11/16/15 updates: images to fit this iteration of kinja, new categories added after Paradise Kiss, some alternate recommendations have been added to or updated.
For: my surprisingly liberal pastor friend and his wife
Kids on the Slope
I have described Kids on the Slope to friends as the “least anime anime I’ve ever seen.” That’s not really why it makes a great first show, though. Many anime do the unlikely band of friends who come together and bond over a shared interest thing, but this one does it especially well, while providing a time period and setting that is pretty unique for anime (1960s Kyushu). The characters are wonderful, the feels are many, and the music (by legend Yoko Kanno) will transport you. It also includes a nuanced and touching portrayal of Christianity in Japan, both of characters who are Christians and for those looking in on it. My pastor friend has been curious about anime, and this is the perfect choice for him. He and his wife are also historical-miniseries-on-Netflix fans, and Kids on the Slope is actually not too different from that formula.
Alternately: Samurai Champloo
For: my Japanese professor who is very traditional, intellectual, and asks “what is this moe thing?” a few times per year
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei
For one, he would probably relate to the main character. I imagine it gets pretty annoying being an old-fashioned professor of the Japanese language. You have to deal with, well, Japanese students. If you don’t care for anime or otaku culture, it undoubtedly gets old having to teach classes where half the kids are only there because of those things. My professor doesn’t actively dislike anime, he just doesn’t understand it and sees it as a thing the kids do. But he loves little cultural tidbits, plays on words, and overall he loves his country. He actually has an advantage going into Zetsubou Sensei over us. It’s a deeply Japanese show, and few Western viewers can watch it and catch all of the references that allude to specific events, social issues, and trends in Japanese culture without a little googling. For me, it’s certainly among the least accessible anime I’ve seen. For Sensei, it might be just the thing. And maybe it would help him get moe.
Alternately: Paranoia Agent
For: CSI/NCIS/Criminal Minds and general crime procedural junkies
Crime procedurals are the popcorn shows that kind of make us feel smart because wow, look at all those busy people doing science. The other draw to shows like CSI and Criminal Minds is watching the close bonds formed by the investigation teams grow and get tested. For a crime show junkie, like either of my parents, Pscyho-Pass is the anime version of a setup they already know and love. Sure, it’s a bit more...anime...and a bit more Minority Report, but the heart of Psycho-Pass is how relationship dynamics play out among the characters.
Alternately: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation
For: My friend who makes fun of my “cartoons,” enjoys classical philosophy and Japanese literature, and is usually in a state of existential melancholy
The Tatami Galaxy
I have a very interesting friend. He would fit in in any time period when the student intellectual class was a force to be reckoned with. He has a book of philosophy on him at most times. He’s romantic, but also deeply cynical. He has a man crush on Yukio Mishima. He loves Kyoto. He knows almost nothing about anime. The Tatami Galaxy, a weird and wonderful journey through the college years, but moreso the mind of one protagonist who is not unlike my friend, could be the show that draws him into the wide world of “those cartoons.” It also has one of the best senses of place of any show I’ve seen. It’s hard not to watch it and not feel like you sort of know Kyoto. I could really go for some Neko Ramen right now...
Alternately: Moryo no Hako
For: People who usually stick to HBO shows
What has the style, guts, and uh, violence of a Boardwalk Empire or Sopranos in anime? Baccano! That was both the title of the show and the punctuation of the sentence. If you know someone who sticks to mostly “gritty” TV, this is the show for them. It’s a wild ride through 1930s New York (and a wild train ride from Chicago to New York), and this anime holds its own with some of the best “real” TV I’ve seen. It tries a lot of things, it pulls off a lot of things, and it’s incredibly fun.
Alternately: Katanagatari (bonus episode length to match an HBO show, too!)
Alternate category for this entry: the guy who drinks at bars with oak paneling and bartenders with mustaches
For: My Suicidology professor from Fall 2013
Neon Genesis Evangelion
My group of people who are anime outsiders can be divided into two groups: those for whom Eva would be the show, and those for whom wouldn’t. My old professor, who was always on the lookout for new media that accurately and creatively portrayed the common struggles of the human condition, would definitely fall into the first camp. Eva is also great if you have a Shinji on your hands. As a Shinji myself, I can testify that this show helped me understand myself better and when a Shinji is in an existential crisis and wallowing, the last thing she or he wants is a “feel good” anime. Now, that’s not to say Eva won’t ever make you feel good. Pick an emotion. There is an episode or seen of Eva that will hit on it.
Alternately: Welcome to the NHK
For: Art History folk
Spice and Wolf
Pay close enough attention to Spice and Wolf, and you will realize that many parts of its universe are very closely modeled after Renaissance Europe. Like, really closely. There is nothing an Art Historian loves more on TV, other than historical accuracy, than being able to say “I understood that reference!” Along with one of the most satisfying lead duos in all of anime, Spice and Wolf will enthrall you into topics you didn’t know you were interested in, like the ins and outs of Renaissance era coinage and fur trading.
Alternately: Kyousougiga and I’m going to have to go with Samurai Champloo again
For: People who like flashy teen dramas
I have a confession: one of my favorite shows of all time is Gossip Girl. Granted, it got pretty terrible, but the first few seasons are just golden to me. There is something comforting about escaping into the world of glamorous teenagers, and if you like that, there is an anime for you. Paradise Kiss is a short, bittersweet take on a group of fashion design students in Tokyo. There’s a character for everyone, whether it’s normal but slightly neurotic protagonist Yukari or George, who is basically the closest thing to Chuck Bass in anime. This story is a wonderful portrayal of (female!) teen angst and coming into one’s own, and most characters get sufficiently fleshed out. Paradise Kiss also delivers on that front that all teen shows must deliver on: awesome clothes.
Alternately: Princess Jellyfish
For: Your niece (or daughter, friend’s kid, open-minded son, etc)
While anime is not lacking in strong heroines, most of my favorite shows featuring complex and admirable female leads are not for kids. Enter Princess Tutu - a tour de force of a fairy tale with one of the most positive role models in anime. The titular character, also known as Ahiru, is a duck who has been turned into a human girl by the omniscient storyteller Drosselmeyer. The clumsy Ahiru must become the graceful Princess Tutu in order to save her schoolmate - who is also a legendary prince. Together with Fakir and Rue, two students with their own secrets, Ahiru must challenge fate to reach a happy ending. Though this anime may look simple on the surface, there’s a lot more than meets the eye. The characters are lovable but flawed, and the story takes some surprisingly dark turns. Princess Tutu is an anime that can easily be enjoyed by young people and adults. It’s also a great introduction to classical ballet music!
Alternately: Akagami no Shirayuki-hime (Snow White with the Red Hair)
For: My friends who need to be reminded they’re accepted, and need a little emotional catharsis
To start with - there is really not, in my anime purview, another show much like Haibane Renmei. It tells the story of Rakka, a young girl who dreams of falling, and wakes up in a strange but peaceful land full of mysteries, pain, but also simple pleasures and kindness. Any summary I give you won’t be satisfying to what Haibane is. It’s one of the most “different things to different people” anime I’ve encountered, but for most, there’s beauty and healing to be found in this story, even if you didn’t know you needed it. If it were a classic of young people’s literature, I daresay it would be near the level of The Little Prince on the globally beloved scale.
Alternately: Kino’s Journey
For: People who are literary, and also busy
Aoi Bungaku is a very special anime project that seeks to bring classics of 20th century Japanese literature into new relevancy. “They are masterpieces because they are evergreen,” says the narrator/cruise director figure at the beginning of each arc. In Aoi Bungaku you can get acquainted with iconic works like No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai and Hell Screen by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Each adaption only spans a few episodes, so it’s a series that’s easy to digest. And narrator guy is right. These are stories that are still relevant and resonant to the anxieties and concerns of modern life.
Alternately: Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
For: Someone who needs a damn break, and a laugh
I have a hard time with anime comedy, and it can be even harder to find something that isn’t too meta or over-reliant on established anime tropes. Ore Monogatari!! (My Love Story!!) is a sweet romantic comedy that doesn’t outstay it’s sugary welcome, and it’s also consistently hilarious. The winning formula with this anime is that is delivers a good dose of situational and physical comedy most episodes, but never strays far from its emotional core about a couple (and their best bro) and the magic that happens when people truly accept and care for each other.
For: DnD players and high fantasy lovers
The Record of Lodoss War (OVA)
For pure fantasy anime, it doesn’t get much more straightforward than The Record of Lodoss War. This series, which evolved out of the creators’ Dungeons and Dragons campaign, has action, magic, romance, and plenty of character classes. The story is pretty standard fantasy fare, but still satisfying. Plus, at only 13 episodes, it’s a great classic to start with.
Alternately: The Vision of Escaflowne
For: Fans of intrigue and psychological thrillers with some time on their hands
Monster is an anime that could work for quite a few non-anime folks. The only caveat with it is that it comes with a steep time investment: 74 episodes. You’ll just have to take my word for it that this character-driven masterpiece about a Japanese neurosurgeon chasing his very flesh-and-bone demon across post-reunification Germany is so compelling that you won’t mind the length. Even when Monster isn’t mid-action, it builds on and maintains a thrilling sense of suspense and dread. It’s also very faithful to Naoki Urasawa’s original manga, and his talent for making you care about every character, major or minor, is honored in the anime.
Alternately: Master Keaton (same author, less darkness)