Edit: This post was originally written as a birthday present for my mother in September of 2018. She passed away a month later. I’m putting this note here because I’d like to dedicate the post to my mom. Thank you for being the best mother I could’ve ever hoped for. I’ll always love you.
We’ve all had that experience before: a friend or family member is curious about anime and wants to learn more about your hobby, but you’re not sure where to begin. Anime is great, but isn’t always the most accessible medium. It has a lot of stylistic elements, both in aesthetic and storytelling, that might seem off-putting to a non-Japanese viewer who’s less experienced with the medium. Starting off with the wrong show could easily put someone off the medium for good, which is why I’m making this list. It’s by no means exhaustive and a lot of what you pick depends on the individual tastes of the person watching, but should give some good starting points for anime you can easily share with friends and family who don’t know the medium. I’m structuring it based on how much prior experience/familiarity with the medium is needed, so you can judge which show would be right from that. One last addendum: I’m not including Ghibli movies because they’re so ubiquitous as is, and that wouldn’t be particularly helpful. If you’re interested in any of the anime here, click the title to go to the My Anime List page and see a plot synopsis. You can also use the site because.moe to find out where to watch each anime legally.
These are the sort of shows and movies best for people with little to no experience in anime who aren’t sure where to begin.
There’s not much I can say about Cowboy Bebop that hasn’t already been said. Its status as an all time classic is undisputed, and for good reason. It’s a show that works no matter what you’re looking for; whether it’s aesthetics, storytelling, action, entertainment, or deeper themes, Bebop has it all. Even though it’s twenty years old now, it still holds up as an excellent example of what anime can be. It doesn’t have any of anime’s more idiosyncratic traits and its look and style are heavily inspired by western cinema, making it one of the best shows out there for beginners. Movie buffs will especially love its loving homages to American culture, referencing everything from film noir to superhero villains to Blaxploitation films. The worst thing I can say about it is that some episodes are “only” good. It’s a good show at its absolute worst, and a transcendent experience at its absolute best. If you have to pick one show from this list as an introduction, pick Bebop. You won’t regret it.
Even if you’re not that into anime, you’ve probably heard of Attack on Titan. Ever since the first season premiered back in 2013, it’s been a massive hit worldwide, and for good reason. Attack on Titan hooks you at the start with an engaging premise and near-constant sense of weight-humanity is always on the brink of destruction in its world, and the anime doesn’t let you forget it-and never lets up. Even when it pulls back a little on the action in later seasons, the plot is more than interesting enough to keep things interesting. And when it does prioritize the action, its fast-paced and exciting across the board, with some impressive CGI making it look even better. If action is your thing and you like darker stories Attack on Titan is the show for you.
Shonen anime has always been an excellent gateway into the medium. A huge number of us (myself included) got into anime through the likes of Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball. While all three are still popular, they’ve also gotten so long that the time-commitment is a huge turnoff for a lot of people. Enter: My Hero Academia. MHA is an excellent distillation of the likeable characters, exciting action, and straightforward storytelling that the shonen genre does so well. The best part is, it’s still at a semi-reasonable length. True, it’s already in its third season as of this writing, but it’s still a fraction of the hundreds of episodes that make up so many of its predecessors. Additionally, it’s superhero aesthetic also makes it more familiar to a western audience compared to the likes of Dragon Ball. Combine all that, and you have a perfect gateway anime for anyone who likes some straightforward action/hero’s journey stories.
The original Ghost in the Shell movie is another anime that’s been a gateway for countless fans over the years. Its rundown cyberpunk world is perfect for fans of hard sci-fi and more philosophical works like Blade Runner. It’s very methodically paced, but maintains such a strong atmosphere from start to finish that the pace doesn’t matter, and it breaks things up with just enough action scenes to keep things exciting. Film buffs will love how much you can analyze its themes of identity and technology, action fans will love the fight scenes, sci-fi fans will love the futuristic technology, and animation fans will love the aesthetic. Ghost in the Shell has really wide appeal, made even better by the fact that anyone who wants more after the movie can check out Stand Alone Complex and all the other adaptations that have been made over the years. Whatever you’re looking for, Ghost in the Shell probably has it.
Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. became a worldwide sensation in 2016, enrapturing fans everywhere before it even got an official release outside of Japan. The initial premise of two teenagers swapping bodies and having to cope with living each other’s lives isn’t particularly unusual in romantic comedies, but Your Name. is so much more; it uses the investment built from its excellent comedy to become a heart-wrenching drama in its second half. It has a few anime-style jokes, but still works no matter how familiar you are with its medium. Your Name. is the kind of story that plays on emotions so universal that it doesn’t matter how much you know about anime. Being a movie, it’s also not much of a time commitment, and is gorgeous on top of that. There’s a reason it became such a massive hit, and its appeal is virtually universal.
Put in simple terms, Black Lagoon is what 80s action movies wish they could be. It’s a rogue’s gallery of hard drinking, foul mouthed criminals who get into all sorts of gun fights and duels with even worse criminals. Any action fans will more than get their fill with its blend of silly and cool (one of the very first episodes has a boat launching into the air to take down a helicopter with a torpedo), and people looking for more depth to their entertainment will love the complex relationships between its main characters, especially Rock and Revy. Best of all, Black Lagoon doesn’t have anything that would make it difficult for newcomers to understand. If 80s action movies are your jam, you won’t do better than Black Lagoon.