For Fans of...: Anime For Those Who Might Think It's Not for Them, and Suggestions for Fans Looking for New Shows
It is a sad and irritating truth that many, many Americans have knee-jerk reactions when it comes to anime. “It’s just not for me” may be the most common response I hear, but I have heard others that range from similarly evasive and noncommittal to flat-out ignorant. Part of this is due to our more generalized prejudices regarding the wonderful art of animation. Many, many Americans either derisively or dismissively label ALL animation “cartoons,” a word seldom used to show wonder and appreciation, but rather almost intentionally to evoke the simpler days of childhood. I myself usually use “cartoon” in a slightly condescending manner to indicate an animated show aimed squarely at children; among anime I would use it for the old movie Animal Treasure Island, for example. That said, I feel that we Americans are missing out by being so narrow-minded about animation. Indeed, we also tend to sell children short—to feel that “kid-appropriate” content needs to be thoroughly dumbed-down and sanitized. I’ll never forget my surprise when a Japanese friend told me she’d grown up watching Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies), a movie most Americans would be appalled to know their children were watching before, say, high school. Also, excellent shows like Dragon Ball, Cardcaptor Sakura and Fushigi Yugi are clearly marketed at a young audience in Japan, yet contain elements that Americans might not want their kids to see. It may be partly due to that comparative difference in credit given to kids that, while the Japanese clearly take anime in many directions it probably shouldn’t go, they have created so very MANY wonderful and varied works that our comparatively few true classics of animation pale in comparison. Don’t get me wrong; America has made some great contributions to the field, and Britain, Canada, France and other nations have also produced quality animation. Walt Disney Pictures has produced many fine films over the years, though that “cartoon” feeling has almost always been no more than a step behind; more recently, Dreamworks Animation, Aardman Studios and—particularly—Pixar Studios have created some truly fine films that start to open up more possibilities for Western viewers. Also, smaller studios both here and abroad have created great films like Persepolis and The Illusionist. And let’s give television its due; shows like Futurama and Venture Bros. have definitely shown that Americans know how to push the envelope in a good way, while both Disney and Warner Bros. have a slew of classic cartoons that most of us look on with some degree of fondness. The range shown by all these programs still doesn’t come close to matching the Japanese willingness to explore new areas with animation, but is nonetheless an excellent argument that not all animation must be “for kids.” Also, it may be noted that comparatively few anime cross the line of good taste any more than your typical episode of South Park or Family Guy. Needless to say, I am a huge booster of animation, period; my deep love for anime is perhaps largely due to my respect for the medium and those who use it effectively in daring and unexpected ways.
It also helps that, every now and then, a confluence of events makes me really, really excited about animation in general, and anime in particular. This past week or so has been one of those times. In addition to finishing my second viewing of the indisputable anime classic Dragon Ball, and watching several episodes of Futurama, I had the tremendous good fortune to watch for the first time two absolutely excellent anime that I had not previously seen, Angel Beats! and Usagi Drop (Bunny Drop). Or, to be more precise, one truly excellent one that was entirely new to me (the former) and one absolutely AWESOME one of which I had seen the first episode soon after its release and promptly earmarked as a show to watch (the latter). What’s more, I watched Bunny Drop with someone who has only a moderate interest in anime, and she loved it apparently as much as I did, declaring it perhaps the best one she’d seen yet. Since then, I have also watched a few more episodes of the excellent action/ adventure/ comedy anime Fairy Tail (I am down to fewer than 100 episodes remaining of the first series), and have begun watching both the incredibly artsy but so far intriguing romance anime ef—a tale of memories and the high-spirited action/ adventure tale Allison & Lillia; with these excellent titles in rotation my jazzed-up feeling of excitement for animation continues unabated. And so, I would like to list several anime that I would recommend to those who might think that anime is not their cup of tea, in the hopes that some curious readers might make some pleasant discoveries. I will list several categories aimed at specific demographics, with one to several suggestions per category. Anyway, I do hope you find something that fits the bill for you personally, and that maybe you’ll find some things that might sound good for your own friends and family.
Anime for Action Fans
First, I have to admit that one of the easiest areas in which to slip a few anime into the conversation is also one of the areas that causes the most trouble for potential American viewers—the arena of bloody action and fighting anime. I know people who almost unanimously dismiss anime as perverse and yet have no trouble watching straight video game adaptations like the Street Fighter or Fatal Fury movies. Conversely, I personally had such an adverse reaction to my first exposure to Ninja Scroll that I may have taken much longer to embrace anime than would otherwise have been the case; oddly enough, a great many Americans cut their anime teeth on this movie, and despite its excessive ultraviolence and weak storytelling it is often put forward as an introductory anime. Though my first exposure to J-pop was also through Ninja Scroll, and I’ve always loved its theme song, I would advise anyone to tread very, VERY carefully in using this movie to introduce yourself or others to anime. That said, ultraviolence in anime does not always make a bad show, or a bad introduction. If you love a bloody story that has a good plot, nice character development, excellent use of music, and a horror/ sci-fi feel to it, consider the 2004 series Elfen Lied. This dark, dramatic story about two highschoolers (Yuka and Kouta) that take in an amnesiac girl they call Nyu, who turns out to be Lucy, the “queen bee” of a race of bloodthirsty mutants called diclonius, is easily my favorite show of its type; just be aware going in that there is some gore, a LOT of blood and shocking violence, and a fair bit of female nudity. Of course, most of this is showcased in the first six minutes of the first episode—if you can take the first episode, you should be good with the show as a whole. Another show that has most of these traits, albeit with less nudity and a plot that unravels somewhat towards the end, is the popular 2001-2002 vampire series Hellsing. This show is worth noting if only for Alucard, one of the “coolest” depictions of a vampire in any show yet made. Both of these shows are popular in the States for a reason—they appeal to a far broader base than many similar anime titles. Perhaps even better as an introduction, particularly for fans of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, are the 2006 series Black Lagoon and its sequel Black Lagoon: Second Barrage (the recently released OVA series Roberta’s Blood Trail is even more graphically violent than the first two, though sadly not quite as fun). The show is an occasionally hilarious, often disturbing, always exciting depiction of a band of mercenaries in the seedy crime-ridden Thai city Roanapur: “Rock,” a scrupulous Japanese businessman who joins the group after they had kidnapped him and he was written off by his employers as a business expense; Revy, a sexy, gun-toting, half-crazed American with a hair-trigger temper and absolutely no moral compass; Dutch, a serious fellow who’ll do anything for the right price, so long as it’s done professionally; and Benny, a laid-back computer nerd who dislikes violence and prefers to work behind the scenes. Also notable are the Russian Mafioso Balalaika, a scarred former soldier who commands her own private army and is just about the last person you’d want to cross, and the child assassins Hansel and Gretel, whose backstory makes them deeply sympathetic even as they commit the most atrocious acts. I loved Black Lagoon far more than I expected to, and in everything from the music to the art style to the manner of depicting violence this film is RIGHT DOWN TARANTINO’S ALLEY. If you like his films, I seriously think this is the place for you to start in watching anime. That said, though, if you do not like his films, DO NOT START WITH THIS SHOW.
On a related note, a LOT of anime titles are quite action-oriented without necessarily being so bloody, and many of these have done quite well here in the states. Though I don’t think any of these shows are the best for introducing people to anime, Dragon Ball, Naruto and InuYasha are all excellent shows worth checking out once you’ve cut your teeth on something more conventional; just be aware that these are LONG shows that occasionally drag (especially most of the second half of Naruto). There are a few in this category that make good beginning viewing, however. I’ve only recently started the quiet gem Allison & Lillia, but the first third hints at a delightful show that should be a big hit with fans of the Indiana Jones series, as well as similar action/ adventure titles like The Adventures of Tintin or Romancing the Stone. Getting to shows I can properly recommend: though I personally think the Appleseed franchise is overrated, I have seen the 2004 film and its 2007 sequel, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and I fully consider these safe for American fans of sci-fi/ action films. If you love movies like Blade Runner or The Matrix, watch these movies. Also, the first Studio Ghibli film to get an American theatrical release (courtesy Miramax Films, back when they were known as a top-shelf arthouse studio) was 1997’s excellent action/ fantasy tale Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke). This is a more cerebral film than one may expect from an animated action flick, and as is often true of the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli co-head Isao Takahata it has a heavily pro-environment message; consider it a great alternate to the typical action fare. Also, this film and most others by Studio Ghibli have the distinction of high-wattage star power attached to their English dubs, making them some of the best introductory options for potential fans who might be turned off by subtitles or Japanese voices (though the Japanese dub is also excellent). Another great action series that might go over well with anime newbies is the three-episode OVA R.O.D.: Read or Die, the tale of obsessed bibliophile and “paper mage” Yomiko Readman. The series is also excellent, but contains more oddities that might make it a better candidate to watch once you’ve seen a few other series. This OVA, however, is short, action-packed, and quite inventive; it should appeal to fans of James Bond, Jason Bourne or Indiana Jones. Probably one of the best action-oriented anime series for American audiences, in part due to its clear and prevalent western influences, is the superhero series Tiger & Bunny. Set in the fictional Sternbild City, this 2011 series recalls Pixar’s The Incredibles with its concept of costumed super heroes being public figures who have to balance celebrity with regular life; the show goes one step further, though, presenting its heroes as stars of reality TV that wear costumes loudly proclaiming their corporate sponsors (for example, pop idol Blue Rose has multiple logos for Pepsi Next on her costume). This actually functions as one of the better social commentary anime, as well as a wonderfully crafted character study; in its willingness to balance action with character development, the show also recalls the current series of Avengers movies from Marvel. Arguably as good or better for American audiences new to anime, and indeed one of the perennial favorites since it first made a splash here on DVD and on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, is Shinichiro Watanabe’s classic 1998 sci-fi/ western/ space opera/ film noir Cowboy Bebop. The show follows the adventures of a motley crew of bounty hunters aboard the spaceship Bebop: cool former hitman Spike Spiegel; stoic ex-cop Jet Black; sexy and unlucky gambler Faye Valentine; otherworldly preteen computer genius “Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski IV” (Françoise Appledehli); and the data dog Ein. Much like the later Black Lagoon, this is a show deeply infused with an overall Western aesthetic, including a freakin’ awesome blues-tinged soundtrack; for fans of modern film noir, this show cannot be missed, and most action fans who can tolerate harsh violence and occasionally disturbing content will find this to be a profoundly entertaining show. Be warned, though—the end will not be to all tastes.
Comedy for the Adult Swim Crowd
Speaking of Adult Swim, a few other anime would be right at home among shows like Robot Chicken, Venture Bros. and Futurama, and I’d like to suggest a couple that should be particularly good introductions—with the right audience, of course. For good old stupid fun, it’s hard to beat Sakigake!! Kuromati Koukou (Cromartie High School). This 2003-2004 series of short (12 minute) episodes follows a group of students at a school for delinquents, as well as a few students from rival schools. This is an ODD series; however, the humor should go over well with fans of shows like King of the Hill, Harvey Birdman, Sealab 2021 and Robot Chicken. Also the near-absence of a female cast (straight-up shocking for a Japanese high school comedy) means no real female exploitation, making this a good show for people who might be turned off by such things. Another great choice for the Adult Swim crowd is one of my favorite as-yet-unreleased-in-America anime, the delightfully dry Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair). Granted, a LOT of the show’s comedy is steeped in Japanese culture and humor; this may be why Media Blasters eventually gave up on releasing the show here. That said, the sensibility of the show should appeal to fans of series like Futurama, South Park and American Dad!, or at least those fans that like to think; this might also be an option for fans of Monty Python or comedies by the Coen Brothers, Terry Zwigoff, Wes Anderson, or Woody Allen. If you can track this show down, and you have an appreciation for Japanese culture and dry humor, I daresay you will laugh quite a lot. Also, the end themes are freakin’ awesome, with the neo-swing “Zessei Bijin” (literally, “Girl of Unparalleled Beauty”) being both my favorite anime theme and one of my Top 15 songs, period.
Horror, Thrillers and Mind Games
Much like comedy often has trouble translating across cultures, one genre that does have some trouble translating into animation is horror. That said, there are some excellent horror anime, and I know of people who wouldn’t give anime the time of day being willing to give horror series a shot. The short film Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek was suitably creepy, though I don’t recall it clearly enough to give a strong recommendation for or against its use as an introductory anime. Two definite horror anime did leave a serious impression, though. On the first, the renowned mangaka Rumiko Takahashi has seen the majority of her works turned into anime, some of which are truly excellent. One of her best shows to use as an introduction, and the single greatest animated horror story I’ve ever seen, is Ningyo no Kizu (Mermaid’s Scar), a short film from 1993 that is notable as being—along with Takahashi’s excellent and MUCH longer title Ranma ½—one of Viz Media’s flagship titles for their home video line. Sadly, Viz has not yet seen fit to release the title on DVD, and so the film is essentially lost in the States, unless you are one of the few who still uses VHS. The story was retold at the end of the Mermaid’s Forest series, which IS available on DVD, but though the plot is the same the impact just isn’t there. Make no mistake—Mermaid’s Scar is bloody and DISTURBING, even the comparatively tame remake. However, horror fans should love the show. Overall, Takahashi’s one-shots and short series are a mixed bag, as introductory anime go, but the similarly hard-to-get 1987 short Warau Hyouteki (The Laughing Target) would also make an excellent choice for the true horror fan. The other horror series I want to mention is also hard to get here in the States, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeking out the 2006 series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry—Higurashi). Before you go off half-cocked, however, let me caution you about this franchise. While I was deeply impressed by both the first series and its sequel (subtitled Kai), there are a few possible red flags. One, the structure of the first series in particular owes a debt to shows like Groundhog Day, an approach that won’t work with all viewers. Two, the über-cute female character designs (and the prominent chests of Mion and Shion Sonozaki) are likely to distract many viewers; this plus occasionally awkward use of comedy scenes gives the jarring nature of the violence an even more jarring feel, which may or may not work for you. Speaking of the violence, when it comes it is often shocking in its brutality, and sometimes brutal in how graphic it is. Finally, to “get” the first season you really have to see the second; only the first season was ever released here, and due to a lapsed license it is way out of print and absurdly expensive. That said, one can track down the show if one wants to badly enough; in the meantime NIS America has licensed and released the spinoff series Umineko: When They Cry, which could work as a placeholder while you search for the original. A word of warning, though; Umineko has one of the MOST IRRITATINGLY UNFINISHED ENDINGS EVER! Also, both Umineko and Kai play more as murder mysteries than pure horror, though they are surely shot through with horror elements.
Departing slightly from the horror theme, I’d like to make a specific recommendation to fans of Darren Aronofsky, the gifted director of several intense character dramas that often border on horror. Indeed, his Black Swan is essentially a psychological horror film, and one of the most deeply unsettling ones I’ve ever seen. One that comes close is the late Satoshi Kon’s brilliant 1997 film Perfect Blue. In fact, the two films share more than a few similarities; though Aronofsky has acknowledged these, he has stated that Swan was not based on Blue as many claim. Even so, this tale of pop idol Mima Kirigoe, who is trying to shed her persona and be reborn as a dramatic actress, is a brilliant character study that also serves as a harrowing psychological thriller due to the dark and twisted events that are dogging her efforts; it seems that she has a fan who just won’t let her be—or does she? Kon was brilliant at playing mind games with his films; if you love a dark and adult-oriented movie that will keep you guessing, this is a very good place to start.
Speaking of shows (and directors) that like to play mind games, few American directors are better known for this than David Lynch. Recently, I had the great fortune to see an anime that struck me as the kind of show Lynch would make if he were to make an anime—the twisted, beautiful, thoroughly intriguing fever dream Mawaru Pingudoramu (aka Penguindrum). This 2011 show is actually one the more talked-about releases in the last few years, and for good reason—it is a truly unique series; in fact, it’s hard to even give a synopsis of the show without giving away key plot points. It apparently centers, at first, on a trio of siblings—brothers Kanba and Shouma and their terminally ill sister Himari—the last of whom up and dies halfway through the first episode. She is revived via a mysterious being who inhabits a penguin hat and repeatedly sends the brothers on missions to retrieve the so-called “penguin drum.” An early mission introduces them to Ringo Oginome, a strange young lady with more connections to them than first appears. I loved this show, and was thoroughly intrigued by it, despite minor disappointments regarding some plot twists and the ending. Bear in mind, though, that while I highly recommend the show this is NOT a blanket endorsement; if you do not care for Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr., Twin Peaks or Wild at Heart (or for that matter Terry Gilliam films like Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland), you probably will have trouble getting into Penguindrum. However, if you do like those movies/ shows, or at least appreciate them, you should appreciate Penguindrum; if you love any of those movies, you should love this show.
Two franchises that have proven rather popular with anime audiences here are Hagane no Renkinjutsushi (Fullmetal Alchemist) and Koudo Giasu: Hangyaku no Ruruushu (Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion). Both of these series are full of political intrigue, military tactics, wonderful characterization and (mostly) excellent plotting. Both series also contain at least two examples of characters getting royally screwed over to a degree seldom matched in anime. They also share in common a rather approachable nature that should endear them to people not too well-versed in anime. FMA (as it is often called) is the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who committed the greatest taboo known to alchemy—human transmutation—when their mother passed away during their childhood (they were trying to bring her back). In the process, Edward lost a leg, and Al lost his body; Edward was able to quickly bond Al’s soul to a suit of armor, at the cost of an arm. Afterwards, they are approached by State Alchemist Roy Mustang, aka. The “Flame Alchemist,” and Ed joins the ranks of the State, as the somewhat ironically named “Fullmetal Alchemist.” The first series was excellent, though the deeply divisive off-manga ending killed the series for many; the second series—Brotherhood—was freakin’ awesome, one of the best anime I’ve ever seen. Though the first couple episodes move at a breakneck speed, and many events from the first series are glossed over or left out, this retelling of the story is generally better, and has a far more satisfying ending (also, the aforementioned “screwing over” of two characters is handled nicely, though the impact is slightly lessened by having spent less time with them the second go-round). The primary word of warning for this franchise applies to those who are religiously inclined—FMA essentially treats alchemy as a sort of religion, and some may find its prevalence in this world and the portrayal of other organized religions to be somewhat problematic. As to Code Geass… I will acknowledge that this series will be a harder one to start with than FMA: the character designs by CLAMP take some getting used to for those not keyed into anime; the show’s chief protagonist, Lelouch Lamperouge, is an ego-maniacal elitist who casually uses others and tosses them aside all while chewing the scenery like he was the star of a soap opera; and there are those two characters who get really, really screwed (both of whom were quike likeable, and neither of whom, ironically, were intentionally screwed over by Lelouch). That said, this is a show of high emotional stakes, brilliant scheming and fascinating intrigue, and the end of the second series is one of the best bittersweet endings I’ve seen (the first series ends on a cliffhanger, though, so do be prepared to watch both). Some have called Geass a rip-off of Death Note, and it is true that Geass followed directly on Note’s tail and that Lelouch shares a lot in common with Note’s protagonist Light Yagami: both are hyper-intelligent, egotistic and eventually megalomaniacal high school students suddenly gifted a great and terrible power; both have an otherworldly companion who was the instrument by which they gained power and who has a fetishistic obsession with a certain type of food; and both love their younger sister more than anyone else. However, there are key differences: Lelouch’s power is arguably more limited than Light’s, and he sees himself as an emperor rather than the “God of the New World”; Lelouch’s companion C.C. can be seen by others and works with them in his absence, and loves pizza rather than apples; and Lelouch gives EVERYTHING for his sister, while Light merely takes longer to turn on his than he does anyone else. Also, Death Note is a bleak and nihilistic show in which only Light and the detective L. come close to being fully fleshed-out (though Light’s shinigami companion Ryuk and his “girlfriend” Misa Amane, as well as his father Soichiro, all get a lot of attention); in Geass, most characters of any note are given some depth and characterization, and the series overall has a sense of hope that gives you something to root for. It is further notable that Lelouch has affection for more characters than just his sister, whereas Light scarcely bats an eye even at turning on his own father. In short, Geass may have come second but it was the better show, with a MUCH better ending. Incidentally, Death Note may be a good show to use to introduce the goth crowd to anime, and indeed it has been huge here with that crowd, but it’ll be a hard sell to most other anime newbies; also, it drops precipitously off a cliff at about the two-thirds mark, so you may accidentally turn someone off with the weak ending. That said, the cat-and-mouse games between Light and L. in Note and Lelouch and nearly everyone else in Geass are among the very greatest television has to offer, and should be considered by those who enjoy such games.
And now for something… completely different. One anime studio that has actually managed to make some serious inroads into the hearts and minds of American audiences is the roughly 30-year-old brainchild of brilliant filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli. From their first film Tenkuu no Shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky) to their recent award-winning Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises)—billed as Miyazaki’s last film as a director—Ghibli has created many wonderful films, including some genuine masterpieces. I’ve already noted the first Ghibli film to make it stateside through a partnership with Walt Disney Pictures, Princess Mononoke. Since then, each Ghibli release has gotten a theatrical bow here, even if it was just dumped on the market like the first film from Miyazaki’s son, Gorou—Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea). Probably the most notable one to American audiences has been Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away), the first and so far only anime to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and which at number 36 is easily the highest-rated animated feature—period—on the Internet Movie Database Top 250 movies list (the runner-up, Pixar’s WALL-E, is number 61). The film is also notable as the first film ever to gross $200 million BEFORE getting a U.S. theatrical run, and as the film that trounced Titanic’s record at the Japanese box office. Though I’ve long since felt that Ghibli has made better films, Spirited Away IS one of the films I can credit for being part of my own introduction to anime, it is the first one I saw in theaters, and it is an excellent, heartwarming film perfectly suited for screening to the Disney/ Pixar crowd, among others. As to those Ghibli films which I like better, I’ve already mentioned Castle in the Sky, which should play nicely to the same crowd. Omoide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday), by Takahata, is a phenomenal film that would play well to an older audience. Sadly, Disney has essentially declared that they’ll never release the film, since the subject matter is “inappropriate,” but that frankly is a bunch of B.S.; I cannot honestly see Disney never at least selling off the license to this and the excellent T.V. film Umi ga Kikoeru (Ocean Waves) so that they can make a buck and anime fans can stop flooding them with hate mail. Both films should play well with fans of adult-skewing animated films like Persepolis and The Illusionist. Other films from Ghibli that are excellent and well worth checking out for anime newbies of all ages are Majo no Takkyuubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service), Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro), Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) and Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Secret World of Arietty); for older children and adults, Mimi o Subaseba (Whisper of the Heart) and Kokuriko-zaka Kara (From up on Poppy Hill) are also truly excellent films.
Two special mentions must be made before we leave Studio Ghibli fully behind. Firstly, it is a common misconception among American fans that Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant Kaze no Tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) was a Studio Ghibli production. Rather, it was the film on whose success he and Toshio Suzuki were able to found Ghibli. That said, it is a truly remarkable film that was part of the deal with Disney that made most of these films accessible to an American audience, and I highly recommend its consideration for fans of Disney and, particularly, Pixar. Second, the single greatest animated film, ever, is Isao Takahata’s brilliant World War II masterpiece Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies). Period. A small, spare, yet vibrantly colorful film about two orphaned children in war-torn Japan during the waning days of the war, I consider this almost the perfect counterpoint to arguably the greatest WWII drama made, Steven Spielberg’s epic, black-and-white-save-for-one-red-dress Schindler’s List. Both are fictionalized accounts of real events during WWII, and both will have you reaching for the Kleenex. But whereas Spielberg’s film is a celebration of one man sacrificing his position and livelihood and saving many lives as a result, Takahata’s film is a no-frills account of one young man (a boy, really) and his heroic and fruitless sacrifice of everything, including his life, for his equally doomed little sister. This may be the single best tear-jerker in anime history, and I’ve seen a few. In fact, if it doesn’t make you weep like a little girl, you may have something broken inside. That said, the film tells you up front that the children are doomed (the boy Seita’s opening line, I believe, translated “I died on a Tuesday”); what is truly remarkable is that the film shows you the world through the eyes of these kids, and that sense of innocent wonder and hope infuses the movie so thoroughly that, while not an easy watch, the film is actually nowhere near as depressing as you would think. In short, while this may not be appropriate viewing for young children, it is very well nigh essential viewing for older children and adults, particularly those who like a good wartime story like Schindler’s List or Band of Brothers.
For Those Who Want to Think, or Cry
Speaking of films for a broad-based, but slightly older, audience, the man that many are calling Miyazaki’s heir apparent is the brilliant Mamoru Hosoda, and his films Toki o Kakeru Shoujo (The Girl Who Leapt through Time) and Summer Wars are both truly excellent films that can go toe-to-toe with most other animated features, and which—while their audience may be more restricted than most Ghibli films—should be pretty easy ones to show people who like cerebral and original stories. Indeed, I still say Summer Wars would have gotten the 2010 Oscar nomination if the Academy wasn’t still prejudiced against Asians. Another pair of excellent adult-skewing films comes from the aforementioned Satoshi Kon; Sennen Joyuu (Millennium Actress) was a big art-house hit about a renowned but reclusive actress reliving her past glories, and Tokyo Godfathers is an unusual and warm-hearted look at a trio of very unexpected parental figures. All four of these films are well worth tracking down, and should work well with fans of Persepolis, The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist or Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Remaining for a bit with the cerebral, one of the absolute finest anime ever released is a show I liken to Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels, the 2003 series Kino no Tabi: The Beautiful World (Kino’s Journey). Much like Gulliver, Kino is a traveler through oftentimes strange and surprising lands. Also, much like Swift’s work, this show doubles as social commentary and satire; Kino is likely the darker of the two, however. There are moments of gut-busting hilarity, but mostly this is a serene and meditative work; a frequent refrain is that “The world is not beautiful, and that lends it a kind of beauty.” And the ending… I do not wish to spoil it, but have some Kleenex handy. This is a wonderful show that should be readily enjoyable by anime fans and those who are not, so long as you enjoy shows that will tug at the emotions AND make you think. Also, seek out the two movies and the OVA special. Maybe one day we’ll actually be able purchase them on these shores, but they are worth the effort to track down.
Speaking of Kleenex… For those who want to cry—hard, I recommend Clannad and Clannad: After Story, Mahoutsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora (Someday’s Dreamers II: Sora), and Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai (Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day). First, the two Clannad series are adaptations of a visual novel written by Jun Maeda and produced by Key/ Visual Arts. The visual novel Clannad features a high school setting and five female leads, each of whom has a playable story arc; if protagonist Tomoya Okazaki gets the “good end” with Nagisa Furukawa, the After Story arc is unlocked, and the story progresses forward to cover their lives together after graduation. A movie adapting essentially the Nagisa track was released in 2007, followed in short order by the two series. There are some who would argue that the movie is the better option for introducing anime novices to the series; it is MUCH shorter and more focused (the series runs short arcs for each of the main females), and there are some lovely moments exclusive to the movie. However, the art and music is vastly improved for the two series, and the tendency towards manic shenanigans in the first half of the story is as strong in the movie as in the show; also, even the final half of After Story is seldom truly depressing (though you are guaranteed to weep like a little girl), but the second half of the movie is just plain dark. Also, the ending of the series, while off-putting to many, made me happier than the ending to the movie. In truth, I do temper my recommendation of this series to anime novices due to the large investment of time required, including an investment in a 23-episode first act (and the first 10 or so episodes of the second act) that consists essentially of a high school harem romance; also the character designs are extremely “moe” and so may turn off many anime novices and fans of older anime. That said, the payoff is the final half of After Story, which covers ground few other anime do, and which will twist the heart of any who can be so moved. Also, Nagisa’s parents, Akio and Sanae, are my absolute favorite couple in any anime, as well one of the best comedy teams in TV history; I feel sure that the only objection most people could possibly have to these two is that Sanae looks too young to be Nagisa’s mother (seriously, she looks like a twenty-something sister). After Story is, in the end, one my three definite 10-star anime, and I would highly recommend it to any adventurous viewer who wants a good cry or four. Not quite as effective a tear-jerker, but nonetheless a deeply moving tale of doomed young love, is the spinoff series to the Someday’s Dreamers franchise, Sora. This 2008 show focuses on a chipper and talented young mage from the country, Sora Suzuki, and her taciturn and gloomy classmate Gouta Midorikawa, as they attempt to earn their licenses as mages. Slowly, it turns into a touching love story, though it has a nasty twist later on. Quite frankly, fans of Nicholas Sparks should LOVE this series; in general, if you like creative and unusual romance dramas that require Kleenex, this is an excellent series to try. Oh, and one more thing: I mentioned that the music in the Clannad franchise is excellent, but none of its themes match Sora’s opener, “Fly Away” by Thyme—I had long been assured that this is one anime’s greatest themes, and I have indeed come to love it. Finally, Anohana (the cumbersome but poignant original title translates “We Still Don’t Know the Name of the Flower We Saw That Day) is an absolutely stunning short (11 episode) series from 2011 about five high schoolers who ten years ago were a sextet of best friends calling themselves the “Super Peace Busters,” but whose club was shattered when their sixth member, Meiko “Menma” Honma, died in an accident. Now, ten years later, “Menma” has returned to “haunt” Jinta “Jintan” Yadomi, the one for whom she had had feelings, and who had himself harbored feelings for her. No one else can see her, and she strangely has aged as well (though she still looks almost the same), so Jinta thinks he may be going crazy; even so, he agrees to renew contact with his old friends, starting a chain of events that is not always easy to watch, but will get you every bit as teary-eyed as most any other show out there. The final episode in particular is a sledgehammer to the gut, but in a good way. I will caution anime newbies that the series has a rather “moe” visual sense, but mostly this is a beautiful series with lovely music that is well worth the price NIS America is asking. One last note, before I move on to more upbeat series: Makoto Shinkai’s beautifully melancholic Byousoku Go Senchimeetoru (5 Centimeters per Second) is a collection of three brilliantly-rendered shorts about relationships and loneliness. It is a phenomenal collection well worth watching; however, be warned that it is DEPRESSING. The previous few series will make you cry, but will leave you feeling at least bittersweet; this one, however, WILL MAKE YOU SAD. If that is your cup of tea, you WILL love this collection, whatever your feelings about anime. Otherwise, it is a great show for the adventurous, but be ready to watch something light and frothy afterward.
Romance, Anime Style, and Shows for Gamers
As “light and frothy” series go, one area of anime which technically has hundreds of entries but which is rough sailing for anime newcomers is the realm of romantic comedy. Tread carefully here, for many of the shows that give anime a bad reputation are at least putatively among these, including the majority of the so-called “harem” shows. I’ve already mentioned Clannad as a prospect, and some shows like Aa! Megami-sama (Ah! My Goddess) would be excellent second- or third-run shows, though not so great as introductions. That said, two of the best romantic comedies out there might be palatable enough for anime newbies to be used as introductions: Rumiko Takahashi’s classic 1986-1988 series Maison Ikkoku and the 2008-2009 series Toradora! First, Ikkoku. Frankly, this series may be a hard one to use: much of the show is incredibly rare and out of print (though the first three volumes, or 36 episodes, are not too hard to get); it does feature a lot of cartoonish antics that get a little old after a while, particularly involving the occasionally downright nasty Ikkoku tenants Mr. Yotsuya, Akemi Roppongi and Hanae Ichinose; the main characters Yuusaku Godai and Kyoko Otonashi are frustratingly wishy-washy and indecisive (nowhere more so than Godai’s treatment of his impossibly sweet girlfriend Kozue Nanao); and Kyoko’s suitor Shun Mitaka does some things that border on appalling in his pursuit of Kyoko. Also, this is a 96-episode series that sometimes wanders off the rails, though it remains tighter and more focused than any other lengthy work by Takahashi. All that said, though, this remains my favorite TV show. Period. I have seen the show in its entirety three times, and the proposal that happens near the end still gets me misty-eyed like no other I’ve seen. Also, I am a big fan of Takahashi overall, and this show could be a good way to ease anime newcomers into her work (it’s not foolproof, though, as many of this show’s fans will never embrace Ranma ½ or Urusei Yatsura). Maybe follow this one up with some of the one-shots from the Rumiko Takahashi Anthology, then maybe tackle InuYasha? For those who will never be able to go further into her work, though, but who love a great romance, do give this show a look. Also definitely worth a look is Toradora!, a tale of two mismatched misfits who team up to each win the heart of another, only to wind up falling for each other. Ryuuji Takasu is a kind-hearted guy with an imposing demeanor and a fetish for housecleaning who is lovelorn over bubbly baseball player Minori Kushieda; Taiga Aisaka (aka. “Te Nori Taiga” [“Palm-top Tiger”]) is a diminutive tsundere slob who bitterly regrets having reflexively turned down a confession by Student Council Vice-President Yuusaku Kitamura. It just so happens that Takasu is buds with Kitamura, and Aisaka is tight with Kushieda, so this odd couple pairs up to offer each other support and assistance, not even realizing for the longest time how perfect they are for each other. The series almost ended too abruptly, and as it is I wish they’d spent a bit more time on wrapping things up, but it still is a truly excellent show that I absolutely adored. A word of caution, however; the animation is rather “moe,” and Taiga is a textbook tsundere (a character who vehemently, often violently, denies her true feelings), so anime newcomers and people who dislike the tsundere type may not take to this show. Be careful using this as an introductory anime, but I still think it should go over well with romantic comedy junkies, especially those who like intelligent and off-kilter romances like Chasing Amy, Annie Hall, or the Before Sunrise franchise.
One other area in which it is tricky to give clear recommendations is in the arena of action/ adventure series that seem specifically tailored to the role-play gaming crowd. Though I’m not sure I’ve seen any of these series that would be a slam-dunk for gaming fans, I know that I personally got into gaming through an RPG based on one the shows that also helped get me into anime, Hajime Kanzaka’s The Slayers. The art style is very distinct and cartoony, as is much of the vocal acting (especially in the English dub), so non-anime fans may have a hard time getting into the show. In my case, the series created expectations for anime that I was slow to shake off, particularly as regards art style. However, maybe my judgment is clouded by sentimentality, but I do believe that this series would be a good show to help get gamers into anime. Also, I have played home-brewed games based on Naruto, One Piece and Fairy Tail, and I do believe that Fairy Tail in particular is a wonderful choice for this demographic; all of these shows, however, will be safer bets for more established anime fans. Some others worth consideration here might also be Scrapped Princess, Ookami to Kooshinryoo (Spice and Wolf), and the aforementioned Allison & Lillia and Fullmetal Alchemist.
A Few More Thoughts for Specific Crowds
This blog is really running long, and I sincerely apologize to those who have stuck it out thus far; rest assured, the end is near. Before that, however, I would like to mention a few hard-to-define series. First, I have already mentioned in a couple of places the works of the late, great Satoshi Kon. Before I am done here I would like to mention possibly his two most mind-bending works: the psychedelic head-trip Paprika; and the wonderfully twisted short series Mousou Dairinin (Paranoia Agent). The former is a movie from 2006 that did well with the art-house crowd here; I highly recommend it for fans of Terry Gilliam or of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The 2004 series Paranoia Agent follows the loosely interconnected stories of several lonely individuals who each are in some way impacted by the parallel stories of meek character designer Tsukiko Sagi and a young assailant known in the press as “Shounen Bat” (aka. “Lil’ Slugger”), a delinquent going around attacking people with a bent baseball bat. This series is worth watching for the über-creepy opener alone; I definitely recommend it to fans of paranoid thillers that are different and well-made. Incidentally, though it is not quite so disturbing, the 2009 series Eden of the East and its two sequel movies should play well with the same crowd, as well as other fans of such thrillers that may be turned off by the level of weirdness and violence in Agent.
A truly unique and hard-to define pair of anime, mentioned briefly under possible choices for the gamer crowd, is the quietly lovely Spice and Wolf series. Visually, musically and structurally, this seems almost the perfect series for that crowd, as well as those who would get into Kino’s Journey. However, what really sets this show apart is its emphasis on economic theory; the main characters are Kraft Lawrence, a traveling merchant, and a mercantile-minded deity who calls herself “Yoitsu no Kenrou” (literally “Wise Wolf of Kenrou,” though the series translates it as “Holo the Wise Wolf”). In fact, this is a series I’d highly recommend to Economics majors, as well as those interested in business; it is a quiet, meditative series whose chief excitements involve the ability of merchants to outwit each other. One small caution, though; given the medieval-style setting in which the church is spreading its influence continually and trying to stamp out “pagan” religions, it should come as no surprise that a show in which one of the protagonists is a wolf deity might paint the church negatively; be careful of this show if religion is a factor either for yourself or your audience.
A few other great shows that have come out of late that may be hard sells to anime newcomers but that are FULLY worthy of consideration are: Angel Beats!, a Jun Maeda/ Key collaboration with Aniplex about a high school in the afterlife for young people who are not yet ready to move on; Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), a highly acclaimed reinvention of the magical girl genre that would make an excellent introduction for those who like the basic concept but find even somewhat weighty shows like Cardcaptor Sakura and Bishoujo Senshi Seiraamuun (Sailor Moon) too bubbly; and Durarara!!, an often hilarious, definitely cool show about a bunch of punks, misfits, a dullahan (think: Headless Horseman), and one hilarious proprietor of a sushi establishment in the Tokyo district of Ikebukuro. Also, I have to mention two shows featuring outstanding female leads and intriguing premises: the 2002-2003 Tenshi na Konamaiki (A Cheeky Angel), a wonderful and sadly not-yet-released-Stateside series about high-school girl Megumi Amatsuka, who secretly used to be a boy and incidentally assembles a group calling itself the Megu-chan Protection Club to help turn herself back; and Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), a popular 2006 series (revived as a less-popular 2009 series which includes the infamous “Endless Eight” episodes) about a neurotic teenage girl who, unknown to her, is the very embodiment of the phrase “center of her own universe,” and who accidentally assembles a time-traveler (Mikuru Asahina), an ESPer (Itsuki Koizumi), an alien (Yuki Nagato), and a normal guy (Kyon, the calm voice of jaded reason in the series) for her Jack-of-all-trades “SOS Brigade.” All of these are shows that COULD work with first-time anime viewers (Durarara!! has an excellent English dub), but all are safer two or five shows down the road.
The Best Family Anime Not By Studio Ghibli
Finally, saving one of the best for last, I’d like to recommend to nearly everyone the delightful short series Usagi Doroppu (Bunny Drop). I’m honestly not sure who best to recommend this 2011 series to; there's so little in the way of red flags (the manga, however, is another story...). It is an utterly charming show that will give you the warm-and-fuzzies like hardly any other I’ve seen, anime or not. It also has its nice teary moments too, though it is by no means depressing. Basically, this is a sort of coming-of-age tale, family drama, slice-of-life series, and Valentine to parents everywhere, all wrapped into one. 30-year-old workaholic bachelor Daikichi Kawachi returns home for the first time in a while to attend the funeral of his grandfather, Souichi Kaga. Before he even greets his family, he encounters a shy young girl in the yard; he is utterly stupefied when his mother tells him the girl is Souichi’s illegitimate daughter. Despite her shyness, the girl—Rin—dogs his footsteps, possibly due to his resemblance to her father. When the family starts talking places to send the girl (whom none of them are keen to even acknowledge), Daikichi impulsively declares that he will take care of her; the series chronicles their first year as a family unit, with all its ups and downs. This is probably the best slice-of-life series for anime newcomers (indeed, the delightful K-On! is one of the only others I’d consider, and its level of “moe” cuteness may be too much for many). Also, Rin’s utter cuteness, mixed with a surprisingly believable level of precociousness, makes her one of the most genuinely adorable little girls in any show I’ve ever seen. The music is equally charming, and the series has hardly any objectionable content beyond frank discussions of things like divorce; about the only quibble I have is that the artwork will not be to all tastes, with its often rough-hewn, sometimes water-color feel. If you enjoy good-hearted shows about family, if you like simple stories simply told, if you want to laugh, cry and generally feel good about things… In short, if you have a heart you will like this show.
And That's a Wrap, Folks
There you have it, my list of recommendations of shows for the anime newcomer, and for the seasoned anime fan looking to broaden their horizons. Again, if you are still reading I thank you for your time and commend you for your perseverance. I reiterate that I have done my best to think about what elements people often find objectionable when deciding they have no interest in anime, and to tailor my recommendations and warnings accordingly. A few last notes before I go. One, I am fully aware that, despite my best efforts, some will feel misled by my list. Everybody is different, and I am becoming a pretty solid veteran of anime, so I am likely to overlook certain things that newcomers will notice (this may be particularly true as regards Japanese voices, which seldom bother me, but which many find squeaky and high-pitched). Also, I have compared notes with others, and I know that—for example—some consider the Clannad movie a far better intro than the series. Along these lines, there were a few shows that I considered including, but held off for one reason or another. Much like Death Note (my warnings against which have already been stated), the long-running series Bleach has been a HUGE hit Stateside, and some may wonder why I didn’t include it. It is a tremendously colorful show full of tremendously colorful characters; the first three “seasons” (up through the Soul Society arc) are actually well-written, fun and enjoyable, and might make a fair introduction for action junkies. Also, the first movie, Memories of Nobody, is an excellent stand-alone movie that actually makes a fair introduction to the franchise. That said, the jury is split on whether what I just said about the movie is true (many fans of the franchise disown ALL the movies), and I am assured by several anime fans that the series takes a precipitous nosedive off a cliff with the “Bount” storyline that makes the final act nosedive in Note look tame by comparison. Also, while I like the character designs, which make nearly all the guys cool and nearly all the girls HOT, the fact that calling most of the girls “top-heavy” is an understatement is well worth considering. In short, think HARD before starting with this show. In other areas... A pair of decidedly fun, female-oriented shows that are RAUNCHY comedies a la Bridesmaids are Joshi Kousei (Girl’s High) and B Gata H Kei (Yamada’s First Time). I enjoyed both shows, and they MIGHT work with anime newcomers, but only if you know your audience. Just about as raunchy, but skewing toward the male crowd, are shows like DearS, NyanKoi and To Love-Ru, all delightfully fun shows I would ONLY show to anime newcomers if they like a LOT of sexually-oriented humor. A couple shows that may be hard sells due to the difficulty of hitting the right note with comedy but that are worth noting for their original concepts and freaking HILARIOUS English dubs (thus appealing to the English-only crowd) are Hetalia: Axis Powers and Baka and Test: Summon the Beasts. Finally, no discussion of introductory anime is complete without mentioning a show that was part of my own introduction, but that I must say should be given bright flashing warning signs if you show it to another, Excel Saga. If you don’t mind a continually genre-aping show about a would-be ruler and his two incompetent intern henchmen—a motor-mouthed dingbat who’d give Deadpool a run for his money in NEVER SHUTTING UP and a serene alien who is constantly on the verge of death due to a poor constitution—this might be the show for you. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Finally, if you are an anime newcomer, there are some shows you should stay far, far away from, like Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan (Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan), Dead Leaves, and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.
And so, I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading my anime suggestions. If you have any thoughts on shows I might have left out, or if there are shows I’ve recommended that you strongly disagree with, do feel free to leave a comment on the subject. I always welcome advice on which new shows I ought to seek out, and I’m sure any readers who make it that far might also like some additional viewpoints. Again, I thank you for your trouble; may your future viewing be pleasant.
First, I wanted to follow up on the two series I said I was watching, Allison & Lillia and ef-a tale of memories. I had suggested A&L as a series for fans of old-school action/ adventure shows like the Indiana Jones franchise, and I can now safely say that recommendation was right on the money. The show is more meditative, but it does contain its fair share of action. It is also worth noting that this is one of the few truly generational series out there; as such, it has a rather unique structure that I found most impressive. One small gripe, however; there is an event that happens at the halfway point that made me disappointed, and its impact on a major character in the second half would have sat better with me had certain things been resolved in the series--the ending is a bit rushed, and certain things are implied to be resolved rather than shown. Overall, though, I loved the show, and fell instantly and profoundly in love with the opening theme song, "Tameiki no Hashi (Bridge of Sighs)." As to ef (and its follow-up, ef-a tale of melodies), I found a fascinating and moving show that nonetheless was TOO artsy; there was a level of disconnect there due to all the tricks with various techniques that, in the end, damaged my impression of the series. However, for those who can take uber-"moe" character designs and are huge fans of ARTSY movies and shows (for example, if you love Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Lynch AND Tarantino), you just might find this a worthwhile franchise.
Second, though I spent a long time working on my post, I was almost sure to forget a few potential candidates, and indeed it seems that I have. Notably, the Blood franchise is well worth noting as a possible introduction to anime for Americans (indeed, it has been translated already into a live-action American movie, which would have been decent were it not for seizure-inducing flash-cut editing). The animated movie Blood: The Last Vampire is pretty good, and likely to play well with action fans; the series Blood+ is, mostly, quite good, and an excellent choice for action fans willing to take on a 50-episode series. Two words of caution, however. The first is that this series was infamously mishandled stateside by Sony Pictures (one their few anime releases), so actually getting a copy is tricky; however, I believe the show is available through streaming sites, so that issue has somewhat fallen by the wayside. The second issue, however, concerns the protagonist Saya Otonashi. For the first half of the series, people die due to her inability to act (I kept hearing Luke Skywalker [Mark Hamill]'s irritating whine, "That's not true! That's impossible!"); during the second part, she's TOO cold and bloodthirsty. In short, she's a difficult protagonist to fully get behind. That said, this was still a well-crafted show clearly designed for American consumption, and I can easily recommend it to action/ sci-fi fans. Do NOT, however, mistake the recent Blood-C for being a part of this series; it is a reboot by CLAMP that has a reputation for being both brutally violent and just plain brutal to fans of Blood+; though I have only watched the first episode, I have been led to believe that this is NOT a show for anime newbies.
I also accidentally glossed over one suitable movie during my first post, and can add a second. First, while many consider Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 film Akira one of the all-time essential watershed anime, and many cut their teeth on it, I find it so dark and violent that using it to introduce others seems inadvisable; however, Otomo's 2004 film Steamboy is an old-school action/ adventure entry into the steampunk genre that should maybe play well with fans of the Indiana Jones franchise, The Adventures of Tintin and the TV series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. I also have recently had the opportunity to see Mamoru Oshii's sad, spare 2008 film The Sky Crawlers, and consider it a safe bet for people willing to watch depressing art-house films like Der Krieger und Die Kaiseren (The Princess and the Warrior), Blue Valentine and Cassandra's Dream; while some would argue for Oshii's Ghost in the Shell films, I personally was never blown away by them, though fans of shows like Blade Runner should likely enjoy them.
Finally, it occurs to me that I have made no reference to two of anime's most beloved franchises, Lupin the 3rd and Evangelion. The first strikes me as one that should go over well with fans of the Warner Bros. properties like Looney Tunes and Animaniacs, but I was surprised to find that a screening of The Castle of Cagliostro with my family crashed and burned; I consider the Lupin franchise worth consideration, but not at all foolproof. As to Eva, I admit I myself can list the first series as part of my introduction into anime, but its high level of existential angst, often static animation, and just plain weird ending may make the show a tough sell. Of the current reboot, I've only seen the second movie, but it was very well-done, and I suspect that these movies might be an excellent tool for introducing fans of cerebral action shows to anime. Anyway, these are just a few thoughts I've had since my initial post. As always, I hope to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees or who has some good suggestions of their own, and I wish you all happy viewing.
Second Author's Update
I suppose I should at this point expect that this article will receive periodic updates, as I find new shows that should be worthy contenders as introductory anime, and revise my feelings about shows and movies I've seen before. First off, it seems from talking with my friends and family that the broad-based appeal of Death Note is greater than I'd given it credit for. My warnings about the show's bleak nature and nihilistic tone still stand, but it seems that the show belongs on this list, with or without an asterisk. Second, I mentioned Hayao Miyazaki's final directorial effort, The Wind Rises, without having seen it; having since seen the film I can unhesitatingly recommend it as an introductory anime for fans of adult-skewing animated films such as The Illusionist, and also fans of creative biopics such as American Splendor, while fans of the animated biopic Persepolis should be doubly intrigued. Also, the film may play well with plane nuts, as it goes to great lengths to share protagonist Jiro Horikoshi's intense love of aviation and aeronautical design with the audience, and it generally succeeds in these efforts. Next, two shows that have played well stateside with sci-fi fans are Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex and Ergo Proxy. The former should play particularly well with those fans who also enjoy action series, and both should also appeal to fans of paranoid thrillers. Honestly, I was a bit surprised to get into these shows as much as I did, particularly GITS:SAC, but I certainly have no trouble recommending either of these as potential introductory anime. Okay, that's it for now; as always, I appreciate your taking the time, and wish you pleasant viewing.
Third Author's Update
In the months since my last update, I've seen a fair number of new anime, though much of that time has been devoted to two magical girl series; I have rewatched CardCaptor Sakura since getting NIS America's pretty awesome blu-ray upgrade over the summer, and I have finally started watching Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon (Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon), in anticipation of Viz Media's by most accounts pretty disappointing blu-ray upgrade. Both series are really essential viewing for anime fans, but it's actually a bit hard to recommend either for anime newcomers. Both could be great choices for younger viewers, particularly girls; indeed, though I myself missed out on this part of the 90s, many, many American anime fans were brought into the fold by Sailor Moon, and many of these people and others look at both this series and CardCaptor with immense fondness and sentimentality. That said, Sailor Moon in particular is very repetitive (setting the "monster-of-the-week" template for many other anime and for shows like Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers), and CardCaptor in particular contains elements that some American parents would likely find objectionable, so be aware of this when deciding who to show these two series to. The cute factor of both series will also cut down on how many adults or guys would watch either show, but they could possibly be slipped into the mix a few series down the road.
Now to the meat of this update, the franchise that I am adding as absolute essential viewing for horror fans, Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl). Not unlike Sailor Moon and CardCaptor, Hell Girl starts off with a pretty definite "monster-of-the-week" format. However, one of the cool things about this series is the way it turns that concept on its head. To explain, Ai Enma ("Jigoku Shoujo") and her cohorts are technically the "monsters," and in each episode they dispatch "normal" and often seemingly "innocent" humans. Ai is a being fated to banish people to Hell through the site Jigoku Tsushin ("Hell Link"), which can be accessed only at midnight and only by those possessed of a genuine grievance against another. She and her companions--Hone Onna, Wanyuudou and Ichimokuren--answer each summons (unless there is a definite reason not to), acting as instruments of vengeance for those who feel they have no other recourse; she hands the summoner a straw doll with a red thread tied around it, and explains that pulling the thread will indeed banish their target to Hell, but at the price of their own eternal damnation. As the series goes on, this basic premise is toyed with extensively, and the viewer is left pondering just who the true monsters are. The series is dark, brooding and atmospherically creepy, has gorgeous visuals and good-to-great music, and if one can get past the repetitive nature of the early episodes is well-nigh essential viewing for fans of psychological horror; it should also appeal to fans of character studies and thrillers who like to reflect on the darker side of human nature. The two sequel series, subtitled Futakomori (Two Mirrors) and Mitsuganae (Three Vessels), are both a bit less focused than the first, and tend to be a bit campy at times, but the ending of the third series was pretty intriguing, if overly confusing. In short, I temper my recommendation of the series a bit for the sequels, but any true horror fan should expect that anyway. At any rate, I was deeply intrigued by the series, and very glad to finally have a genuine horror series I can wholeheartedly recommend to anime newcomers. Anyway, I will continue to seek out great new anime series, and will continue to include suitable recommendations as I find them. As always, I welcome suggestions you may have, and wish you happy viewing!
Fourth Author's Update
I'm currently in a very unusual point in my anime viewing, as I am actively following roughly a dozen new shows, a couple of which will be likely contenders for this list. Of the lot, the so-far wonderful workplace dramedy Shirobako is a guaranteed addition, and Death Parade and Maria the Virgin Witch show promise. I will update this list at some point after completing these shows and several others, but in the meantime give a qualified recommendation of the first for people who like shows about the artistic process or about the workplace, the second for fans of cerebral dramas with a horror edge, and the third to fans of unusual historical dramedies (albeit with a HUGE no-touching sign for easily offended Christians). The real reason for this update, however, is to include Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), the Oscar-nominated release from Studio Ghibli that marks maestro Isao Takahata's first film in about thirteen years, and his swan song as a director. It is a truly beautiful film, with a minimalist style that evokes traditional Oriental art and therefore somehow comes across as even more of a work of art. This film is a melancholy, meditative rendition of the traditional Japanese "Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter," and will not likely appeal to people who require constant action and excitement. That said, it is a lovely and serene film very likely to go over well with fans of more cerebral, adult-oriented animation like Persepolis and Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Fifth Author's Update
Since my last post promising updates on several currently running shows, I have sadly been forced to put several of those shows on hiatus. That said, I WAS able to finish two of the ones I had noted, and would like to go ahead and officially add them to my recommendations for anime newbies. In particular, the workplace dramedy Shirobako has, in my mind, taken its place among the very best anime out there. It is a gorgeously-animated, well-written, deeply informative show with great music that is a veritable crash-course in the goings-on of the animation industry while also being a rousing coming-of-age-story for a quintet of talented young girls whose primary goal in life is to one day take their high school experience of making an anime together and do it again professionally. I have described the show as taking the best parts of Animation Runner Kuromi, Genshiken and K-On! and reassembling them into something at once better and more palatable for mainstream consumption, and I stand by that statement fully. This show should be a great choice for fans of workplace comedies and dramedies like Frasier, Cheers, Office Space or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as well as shows and movies that get behind the scenes of the artistic process like State and Main and Topsy-Turvy.
As to the other new show I managed to complete, Death Parade is a bit harder to give a blanket endorsement for, but it also is a show that could work for a surprising number of viewers. Much like Hell Girl, this show probes deeply into matters of the human psyche, particularly its darker side; also, much like Hell Girl the show is gorgeously animated, deeply atmospheric, and rocks a pretty fine soundtrack. Based on a short film called Death Billiards, the show's basic premise is that an arbiter named Decim and a mysterious woman known simply as Onna tend bar at a stopover to the afterlife, wherein Decim (with assistance from Onna) challenges the travelers to face each other in a randomly selected game (darts, Twister, etc.); the travelers, not knowing they are dead, rise to the challenge with varying degrees of interest, after which he judges them, deciding whether they are to be sent for reincarnation or cast into the eternal void. This is a short series, yet manages remarkably well an enormous amount of world-building and a modest-sized cast. Sadly, though, the most memorable aspect of the show may well be its incongruous but deeply infectious opening sequence, set to the song "Flyers" by BRADIO; I DARE you not to be humming the song for a week after seeing the show. This show will definitely be one for people who are intrigued by explorations of the human psyche, as well those interested in what happens after death; fans of shows like The X-Files and Pushing Daisies and movies like Defending Your Life, Calvary and Barton Fink might be good candidates to introduce this show to.
Finally, I'd like to also make mention of a wonderful anime film that has recently made its way to our shores, Sakasama no Patema (Patema Inverted). This futuristic sci-fi film is set in a world where humanity has inexplicably been polarized into individuals who follow the typical laws of gravity and those drawn (as if by gravity) towards the sky. The latter group has gone underground, and goes about its business in relative peace, if also in relative poverty. The former group still inhabits the face of the earth, but lives in a strict, dystopian society. One day, one of the latter group, a chieftain's daughter named Patema, ventures too far and finds herself dangling from a fence aboveground, on the other side of which is Age, a youth from the surface world who is similarly bucking at the restraints his society has placed on him. What follows is a rather touching meeting of the worlds (one could almost say a love story) that threatens to become an all-out war when one of the elders of the surface world goes on a crusade against the subterranean peoples. The film has the feel of a Studio Ghibli film, and also reminds of the anime Fractale, and should easily appeal to the fans of each; also, fans of sci-fi/ adventure movies and shows like WALL-E and The Adventures of Tintin, as well as dystopian dramas like The Hunger Games and 1984 might appreciate this one.
Anyway, that's all for this update. As always, feel to leave comments or suggestions, and happy viewing!
Sixth Author's Update
After an extended anime drought, I really launched back into it with gusto today, and was rather well-rewarded for my efforts. Indeed, I think I'll take this opportunity to suggest a new category: Anime for Rainy/ Snow/ Sick Days. On this particular rainy/ sick day I watched the entire first season of the extremely popular franchise Love Live! School Idol Project, and I can scarcely think of a better feel-good series to recommend to the masses. K-On! comes close, but it's a bit too moe-centric to be easily recommended to non-otaku audiences. Love Live!, however, is at least marginally safer a recommendation. It is cute, and fluffy, and a bit saccharine, and there is some minor fan-service; above all else, it is a show about schoolgirls entering the word of pop idols, and many people would cringe at that idea. That said, look at it as a good-hearted and charming underdog-makes-good tale like any of three dozen that Hollywood churns out each year, but more likeable by far than 95% of those other releases, and you just might find it a series worth watching. The series follows Honoka Kousaka, a second-year at the venerable-but-about-to-be-closed Otonokizaka High School, and her best friends Kotori Minami and Umi Sonoda as they desperately try to promote awareness of their school by forming an idol group. Along the way, they recruit various classmates while learning firsthand what it really means to be a performer; their ultimate twin goals are to perform at the Love Live! school idol competition, and in doing so to hopefully increase enrollment applications to their school to the point where the closure will be tabled. Ultimately numbering nine, the group µ's (pronounced like "muse") has an astonishing amount of success, though the series ended at a different point in their trajectory than I had expected going in; though I was disappointed at certain events that led to this ending, I was intrigued at the series setting up and earning a somewhat off-the-beaten-path approach to what frankly is an overdone basic story. Partly this is attributable to the music, which--while not earth-shattering--goes down easily, as do the visuals which (some ill-fitted CG aside) are pretty gorgeous. I unfortunately still have yet to see the second season and the movie, so I cannot give a solid recommendation for the franchise as a whole, but without question I do recommend Love Live! School Idol Project to anyone who loves movies about people trying to succeed against all odds. I recommend it to people who love music dramas, sports dramas, high-school comedies and J-pop. Above all, I recommend it to anyone who could use a pick-me-up, or a respite from a cold and dreary day.