The eternal debate rages on. On a side note, official top anime lists are making a return to the blog.
Now this is a list I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about what anime they’d recommend to newcomers from old classics to the new thing. And if I’m being completely honest, I rarely liked any of them. They were either completely inseparable from the person’s favorite list or they were basically anime that resembled Hollywood productions because apparently Westerners can’t understand Eastern culture. And let’s not even get into the ones that were just elitist-bait. Basically, they felt like a bunch of generic opinions on the Internet rather than something that actually gets a newcomer to understand anime, and I really didn’t have patience for them.
Anime as a medium is more than just what we like and giving us an alternate means of escaping from reality. It’s about animation’s potential. It’s about the trends that define its current culture and the storytelling possibilities that come with them. And sometimes, it can even affect our reality itself from the numerous bonds we make through it to the lessons we learn in general. So in order to prove that, we’re going to count down what I consider to be the top 15 essential anime that all newcomers should watch, or at least get familiar with. Not all of these are necessarily good (although all of my picks were critically acclaimed for their time even if I didn’t like ’em back then), but they all have timeless elements that not only define a core part of what makes anime what it is, as well as what anime to this very day continues to borrow from. And while I know a lot of core fans haven’t necessarily watched all of these, I’m pretty sure anyone who’s been at this game for a year or two would have heard of ’em and their contributions to the medium.
Are you ready for this? Let’s get started.
15. Cowboy Bebop
Starting off this list with the most obvious choice, but that doesn’t change how it’s essential watching, especially if you live in the West. Practically every overseas anime fan had Bebop as their introduction to the medium because despite the fact that it was anime, it resembled something made in the West, except so much more than we expected. It wasn’t a throwaway comedy – although there were some episodes like that. It didn’t have any hyper-stylization. What it was was an introspective episodic series with a great overarching story, awesome fight scenes, jazzy tunes, and pretty much everything you’d expect from the best live-action series except animated. Lots of people realized that anime could be taken seriously after watching Bebop, and since there’s very little that’s Japanese about it, it makes the perfect transition show for a newbie. The reason it’s in last place is because it doesn’t specifically define what makes anime a respectable medium. It’s just the first show that makes newbies realize how good anime can be.
Shirobako’s main contribution to becoming an anime fan has more to do with the subject matter rather than its contribution to animated storytelling as a whole. It’s a good introduction into the world of anime production, which has started to become more of a requirement to know in recent times if you want to be a part of the fandom. Other than that aspect though, there aren’t really many anime out there that actually look to this show as inspiration. The actual number of anime about “jobs” is pretty low, it doesn’t do a good job of representing adult anime that tackle other topics like, say, Nana or Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, and I have some other anime on this list that do a much better job of representing the slice-of-life genre it also belongs to, which is why it’s pretty low on here. Still, I’m sure a lot of anime fans want to know how the stuff is made, and there are worse ways to show them how then by getting them to watch this.
13. Natsume Yuujinchou
The best entry point into Japan’s unique brand of episodic storytelling. While it didn’t quite inspire anything like other entries on this list, Natsume’s Book of Friends definitely has all the basics you need to be aware of and executes them quite well. I can’t think of a more perfect example of how to contain the important elements of storytelling in only twenty-two minutes at a time (and sometimes longer) along with Japan’s usual cultural instincts than through the adventures of Natsume and his interactions with Shinto creatures. Plus, whether you find its longevity inspiring or repetitive should really help in defining what kind of anime fan you are.
Back when Clannad was a thing, this show defined both the rules and adaptation choices that video game properties and writers continue using to this very day, whilst being an accessible insight into what constitutes high drama/melodrama in the eyes of the Japanese. From the character arcs that may or may not contribute to the story to the fan-pandering endings that either feel weird because you didn’t actually play the game to earn it or you accept because you love the characters so much, Clannad is still unmatched in terms of defining the formula that later long-standing popular video game properties like Steins;Gate and Madoka would improve upon. And of course, who can forget the actual substance of characters crying over their personal problems and the work that goes into fixing them as only anime can do? Most creators don’t take direct inspiration from Clannad these days, but if there’s a trope related to bishoujo drama and video game writers trying to prove themselves, you can bet that this show has the definition of it.
11. Mobile Suit Gundam
You didn’t think I could do a list like this without recommending the series that introduced “real robot”, Gunpla, the backbone of Sunrise’s career path, and a franchise that’s still continuing to define mecha to this day on here, now did you? Similar to Clannad, yes the formula and rules the original series introduced has gone through many (positive) evolutions since. However, they’re all still borrowing from this particular anime rather than Zeta or Turn A, whether they’re aware of it or not, and let’s not forget all that complicated Universal Century/One Year War lore that a lot of Gundams utilize originated from here as well. Mecha is pretty much the only genre anime can claim that hasn’t been done better in another medium, and there’s a reason Gundam is the most well-known of the bunch. Sure you could have fun with the super robots, but Mobile Suit gave way to the storytelling possibilities of those war toys you still buy because you think they’re cool.
10. Fist of the North Star
Do I really have to explain this one? Not only was it the defining Shonen Jump anime before DBZ, but the series also defined the medium’s usage of martial arts, bloody violence, the standards of 80s anime in general, and a bunch of shirtless man speaking/crying with their fists whilst having all the filler and multiple adaptations you’d expect from such a a popular franchise. Practically every shonen action thing ever from Jojo to Naruto wouldn’t have existed if Fist of the North Star didn’t come into our lives, and for good reason. If you’re looking to get someone into the animated version of the magazine that has practically become its own genre at this point, as well as a showcase for how anime portrays masculinity in general, Fist of the North Star should definitely be your first rec.
Optimism pretty much defines a good chunk of anime since a lot of fans watch it as a means of escape from the harsher parts of their lives, especially if you’re a working man in Japan. And if you want a prime example of what they seek in terms of happy fun times, look no further than the Aria franchise. There’s a definite market out there for cartoons that seek entertainment less through narrative and more through calming, yet imaginative wonder – especially lately with the rising popularity of ironic moe and involved settings. With Aria being the gold standard of healing anime then and now, you should really get familiar with if you want to understand the rules that these recent big boys follow.
8. Tenchi Muyo
Given how much harems/love triangles/shipping in general defines anime culture, there’s absolutely no way you can ignore the franchise that pretty much defined all the rules of harem anime from the large number of girls to how this sort of gender inbalance tends to get woven into whatever plot the creators come up with. Whilst said rules have definitely evolved (or regressed depending on your point of view) over the years, pretty much none of them have changed since Tenchi’s heyday. Maybe you’ll be a fan. Maybe you’ll think the idea is fundamentally flawed. And then maybe you’ll cry at how anime was a mistake because Tenchi Muyo exists. But its influence is everywhere, so you might as well join the bandwagon at the source.
7. Revolutionary Girl Utena
Anime as a medium isn’t just known for being weird, but having said weirdness be a core part of its storytelling. You’re going to have to accept that if you want to get into it, and Revolutionary Girl Utena is the perfect anime to open your eyes regarding whether anime’s brand of symbolic storytelling is right for you. Because even if you don’t enjoy Utena itself, it’s highly recommended you open your eyes to everything it represents. The medium’s strange usage of sexual metaphors, the off-beat humor that’s more subversive than you think, the fact that these grand epics seem to take place around high schools, pretty much everything fans call “anime” when they’re referring to a different definition than “cartoons made by Japan” – and yet somehow, it all makes sense.
6. Azumanga Daioh
In case you’re not aware, Azumanga Daioh not only has the reputation of being the “perfect” cute girl anime, it was also the series that “started” the whole cute girl trend that still continues to exist in the medium to this very day whether it be through straight slice-of-life or subversive moe. So as you can imagine, pretty much everything that you can say about anime’s obsession with jailbait is in this show. Do I really need any more of an explanation regarding why it’s so high on this list, let alone why it’s here to begin with? I sure hope not.
5. Kare Kano
You know how romance seems to occur in practically every movie genre you watch because of reasons? Well the same is true of anime to an extent, but not quite the way you’d expect. Japan’s take on romance is a bit different from most countries in general, and adding an anime spin to it just increases how sweet yet strange it can actually be – especially when it comes to the school children that the medium can’t get enough of. So get used to Kare Kano’s mind games, love confessions, giant cast of horny teenagers, and Japanese sentimentality, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of it elsewhere. Not the stick puppets though. That’s just 90s Gainax in general.
4. Spirited Away
So it’s all been series up until now, but what about the anime movie world? What exactly should you watch to get into the works of those big names like Ghibli, ComixWave, Satoshi Kon’s works, and whatever other big names out there want to make cinematic animation? Well how about the anime that takes full advantage of what cinematic Japanese animation is capable of with every frame containing nothing but originality, wonder, and visual emotion? If you can’t at least appreciate the visuals in Spirited Away, you obviously care more about anime for the trends rather than because it’s animation. In which case, why don’t you just watch Japan’s live-action stuff?
3. Death Note
If you haven’t heard of Death Note before even reading this list, then you’re more closed off from weeb culture than I thought. But it’s more than just the series being everywhere that makes it one of the essentials for new fans to see. It’s how everything about anime’s unique take on thriller, supernatural, and a wide variety of other serious genres can be recognized through the mind games between Light and L whilst still being very accessible to newcomers. In fact, it’s because of the elements that make it newcomer friendly that make Death Note important to watch, because believe me when I say you’re never going to take anime 100% seriously. You can only get so close, and Death Note is perfect when it comes to testing how much anime’s take on seriousness you can stomach.
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Even though it was hardly original when it came out, Neon Genesis Evangelion changed anime forever to the point that the sources it borrowed from are now trying to copy it in order to stay relevant. So many anime tried to copy it shortly after its heyday, loads of anime continued to take inspiration from it even after that trend died down, and it’s still being copied to this very day by a lot of standout shows, including Devilman Crybaby and Darling in the Franxx at this time of writing. While primarily a mecha anime, it rewrote the rules for many genres and tropes with pretty much every evolution since being able to be traced back to Hideaki Anno’s otaku-hating art project. Physical copies of it are hard to find nowadays, but there’s no way any anime fan, new or otherwise, should have Evangelion missing from their watch list. See where the anime of old got perfected as well as where the anime of new came from with this series.
1. Fullmetal Alchemist
And here we get to the big sub-genre of the medium. The “epic” anime that are basically Japan’s Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Avatar the Last Airbender and feature on many “best of” lists no matter whether you’re a casual or an elitist, even though a bunch of them don’t want to rank it as their #1 for some reason. But which one should you watch first in order to understand the appeal of Attack on Titan, Eureka Seven, and Monster? The original Fullmetal Alchemist of course (Brotherhood would be more recommended if an entire thirteen episodes that you can’t even skip weren’t an iffy rehash of what the 2003 series already covered). Even with its “problems compared to the source”, it’s still everything you’d expect when you hear about an epic anime. Character, world-building, laughs, drama, action, animation, good voice acting on both tracks, and more throughout a sizable length of fifty episodes pretty much make Fullmetal Alchemist the most recommended anime of all-time, let alone the one that represents the subset of shows we all like. If you have a better argument for what baby’s first epic anime should be, you’re most likely wrong.
P.S. Feel free to comment on what your picks would be, as well as your reasons. Bear in mind that with the exception of Shirobako, I made my picks based on what they contribute to anime storytelling. NOT what trend they started/defined/evolved unless said trend opened up new storytelling possibilities.