A Beginner’s Guide to Anime

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Ever had an interest in anime? No? I’m impressed you made it this far.

But for those of you who have been intrigued by these big eyed, spikey haired cartoons yet have never known where to start, I’m here to help.

You could call me an enthusiast because  I’d be far from a connoisseur which is why this is the perfect article for you. Below are a few top notch shows or films to help you not only get started, but really have an idea of the kind of stories and themes you’ll come across. It’s scary, I know, but we can get through this together. You won’t have to complain about the same rebranded crap Hollywood makes because you’ve got an entirely new medium at your disposal.

There’s only nine listed, as this isn’t meant to be a top ten.

*The medium the anime is listed as refers to the core material. Some may have a cut together film from clips of the show that are not mentioned. The category “Anime Weirdness” really refers to ideas, characters, settings and themes domestic audiences won’t be as used to seeing in film and television and is numbered on a scale of one to ten.

1. Cowboy Bebop

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Television series, 26 Episodes and a film

Anime Weirdness: 3

Set in the somewhat near future of 2071, Cowboy Bebop is a true gateway anime. For those of you who thought all anime was full of giant hair and people with cat ears (I know I did!), this will throw all expectations out the back door and into the trash. It might even add an “AND STAY OUT.”

Built on the simple premise of several bounty hunters that can barely stand each other, the twenty minute episodes are done mostly as stand alone stories, as director Shinichiro Wantanabe wanted each episode to be treated as a short film. Cowboy in the title refers to bounty hunters of the future, while Bebop refers to not only the name of the ship the characters live on, but the eclectic Jazz infused style that permeates the show. Oh, and there’s a Corgi.

See?

See?

Character development, action, and a plethora of homages to sci-fi, western, and noir, It’s no wonder Bebop has had the lasting power that it does. While some of the others on the list might make you shake your head in confusion, Bebop will make you wonder why you didn’t give it a chance earlier.

Take Star Wars, take out the aliens, and focus on Boba Fett type characters and you’ve got something along the lines of Bebop.

2. Samurai Champloo

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Television series, 26 episodes, available on Netflix

Anime Weirdness: 4

From the same director of Bebop, Champloo features many of the same elements as Bebop, but set in the Edo Period of Japan but with clear intent to contradict history at several opportunities, Champloo follows three characters, two of them swordsman all on a quest to find the mysterious “Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers.” But naturally, keeping from killing each other is much of the fun.

With distinct style and characters, again, we’re treated the format of each episode being stand alone stories so you don’t have to worry about paying attention to every second. Though with how engaging it is, you’ll probably watch it more than once. While I grew up thinking shows like Dragonball Z were “Eh” in the animation department, Champloo should have Hollywood stunt choreographers modeling their scenes after it.

And again, homages are much of the fun in this as well, but for old school samurai films. Fun fact, the animated back story of Lucy Lui’s character in Kill Bill Vol. 1 was directed by character designer and animation director of Champloo, Kazuto Nakazawa; just to give you an idea of what you’re getting into.

3. Death Note

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Television series, 37 episodes, available on Netflix, HULU, and Youtube

Anime Weirdness: 5

Supposedly in production for a live action Hollywood film, Death Note follows a young man that happens to find a notebook that kills anyone whose name is written in it. Being a genius, the boy decides to recreate the world the way he thinks it should be and so begins the mad dash to stop him- if anybody can even figure out how the murders are happening.

Revered for it’s use of colors and voice acting (English and Japanese even though you can’t understand it), Death Note takes a concept it doesn’t seem likely Western writers would have come up with and takes it as far as it can go, with nothing left in between. This is the first series mentioned that is continuous and it’s definitely one you’ll have to pay attention to as mind games are at the forefront and outsmarting opponents is the name of the game.

This is another example of a “Gateway anime” that’s often been considered the “cool anime” before raging teenagers got a hold of it similar to all the horrible Joker impressions people thought they should do once The Dark Knight was released. But like any story with substance, Death Note can’t be ruined.

4. Neon Genesis Evangelion

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Television series, A film cut together from the show with a different ending, and a remade tetralogy.

Anime Weirdness: 10

From the slippery slope of weirdness to a cannonball into the deep end, Neon Genesis is often considered the greatest anime of all time and it’s easy to see why even if it is the most bizarre piece of entertainment since crapping on a mattress could first be classified as art.

While the original series ran for 25 episodes, the cut together film made from clips of the show added an entirely new ending to the film, and one that you might not understand but certainly won’t forget. Religious iconography, raging hormones, and MASSIVE robots all come together for a story that will keep you as interested as you are creeped out.

In the post-apocalyptic future, a young boy is chosen for unknown reasons to pilot an Evangelion; the name for the giant living machine used to combat monsters known as angels, creatures that would bring about the end of the world. Basically you could think Pacific Rim, but less cartoonish. I’m serious, this show is heavy.

There’s also a tetralogy, or a four part act that’s something of a “re-imagining” of the original series. The animation has been updated and the story has many similarities but veers off into a work of its own. Parts one through have been released with the fourth and final installment due next year in 2015.

5. Fooly Cooly

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Television series, 6 episodes, available on HULU and Youtube.

Anime Weirdness: 9

There’s Neon Genesis freakiness and then there’s Fooly Cooly’s insanity. Both written by the same guy, believe it or not, Yoji Enokido. Often abbreviated to FLCL, it’s a series known and applauded for its strangeness.

After twelve year old Naota meets Haruko, a mysterious and abrasive woman, strange things begin happening. A portal is opened in his forehead from which robots periodically emerge, and everyone seems to be after this gift he possesses for their own ends, including Haruko.

There’s only so much to say being that the series is six episodes but more importantly, I’m just speechless in describing this. As much a Comedy as it is Sci-fi, the fluid animation and off-the-wall jokes are what set this apart from anything else you’re ever likely to see. This short-lived series isn’t for the culturally timid, let’s put it that way. You’re going to be laughing as much as you’re shaking your head but you’ll enjoy it all the same.

6. Akira

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Film

Anime Weirdness: 7

This is the end all, be all. Not in my opinion, but in many of the anime community. In 1988, a giant explosion destroys Tokyo and WWIII begins. Thirty-one years later (Which makes it  2019, whaaa?), a biker gang’s leaders become caught up in a secret government project that gives second-in-command Tetsuo telekinetic powers. Unfortunately for gang leader Kaneda and the rest of the world, Tetsuo’s inferiority complex gets the better of him and it’s going to take everything Kaneda’s got and more to take him down.

Cited as major influences on The Matrix, Chronicle, and even 2014’s Godzilla, this is the film that had a huge hand in popularizing anime outside of Japan. Still considered one of the greatest animated films of all time, the depth of the characters portrayed were things my teenage mind couldn’t comprehend at the time that I originally watched it. There I go knocking teenagers again. What’s my problem? Do I hate kids?

But main characters Tetsuo and Kaneda had an interesting relationship that went much deeper than the American cartoons I’d grown up watching. Looney Tunes and Disney are great but their black and white stance on morality hadn’t prepared me for the morally vague relationship between Tetsuo and Kaneda. The fuses in my little brain were on fire.

A live action film has been in development for several years, on and off, with the writer of Edge of Tomorrow having been hired as of July 2014 to write a draft.

Put the kids to bed and watch this cartoon, if for nothing else than to say you’ve seen it.

7. Attack on Titan

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Television series, 25 episodes, available on Netflix.

Anime Weirdness: 5

The most recent on this short list, Attack on Titan is set in the distant future where giant humanoid titans have all but wiped out humanity. After what’s left of the population move inside of a series of giant walls to keep the titans out, young and angry upstart Eren Yeager sets out to join the branch of the militrary dedicated to protecting the walls from the monsters.

The series follows Eren and his compatriots’ exploits in attempting to not only bring down as many beasts as they can, but possibly find out where the titans actually came from.

Let met warn you- this series is dark. The color palette and stylization not so much, but the violence…Good God, the violence. At times it seems nothing can go right for the humans. At the point where another series would say “They’ve been through enough. Now is the time for them to rise like a Phoenix!” is when Titan says “No, I think more main characters will die miserably.” It’s like Saving Private Ryan for post-apocalyptic anime.

But it’s how depressing it can be that allows you to feel so much better when something positive finally happens. It’s also interesting how stupid the titans look. And I don’t mean that I hate their designs, but they really found a strange balance between scary and legitimately stupid. Big grins and crossed eyes never seemed so eerie. Well, unless you count Mike Tyson I guess.

8. Gurren Laggan

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Television series, 27 episodes, Available on Youtube and Netflix

Anime Weirdness: 9

While Neon Genesis has the “depressing and deep” end covered in the futuristic kids controlling robots sub-genre, Laggan covers the ever-optimistic side. Young Simon (Pronounced SEE-mone) is a digger. As in, he digs. Under the earth specifically, and he’s never seen the light of day. Humans have been living underground for a long time and are forced to stay there by Lord Genome. But Simon’s older brother Kamina isn’t one to be held down by anything or anyone and so begin the quest to fight and destroy anything that gets in their way on a quest for freedom.

Aside from the animation and amazing fight scenes, usually involving robots (Surprise), one of the most interesting aspects of this series is the message. The illogical optimism permeates the show so much that it’s darkest moments feel devastating. “We were on such a roll! I thought this was a happy show!” But it’s these unexpected moments that keep you watching.

And I don’t use “illogically” loosely. Robots begins growing in size to ridiculous proportions and do so without any regard for how matter actually works. Realizing early on that realism is of no concern here, you should be able to jump right in to what’s essentially a giant robot fistfight explosion screaming “YOU CAN DO IT!” over 27 episodes.

9. Ninja Scroll

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Film

Anime Weirdness: 6

Along with Akira and Ghost in the Shell (We’ll get to that another time), Ninja Scroll is pretty much the most popular of all anime films. It’s actually even at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes which means that 6 out of 6 critics friggin’ loved it. Sure, it’s only six people, but come on.

Attempting to confront his past during Feudal Japan, wandering samurai Jubei inadvertently comes into contact with a group of demon ninjas. Once they cross paths though, their journeys can’t end until one side is decimated. Political intrigue and samurai/monster violence set the stage for a film that’s made up of action and Japanese mythology.

When watching this, it’s almost like watching the Japanese History Channel. Okay, no, it’s not. But there are so many strange concepts and monsters/demons we run into throughout this film, it really does seem like another world. It could be the fact that protagonist Jubei is an homage to Japan’s samurai folk hero, Yagyu Jubei.It’s the anime version of 47 Ronin. No, not the Keanu Reeves ones.

Pretty much never the Keanu Reeves one.

Pretty much never the Keanu Reeves one.

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8 Responses to “A Beginner’s Guide to Anime”

  1. My friend introduced me to Fooly Cooly about 15 years ago. He said “It’s weird and you won’t get it but you won’t be able to stop watching it until it’s finished.” He was right and I sincerely hope it makes some kind of comeback as a sequel. Thanks for the article Taylor 🙂

    • Checking out new mediums is great, you can be tired of TV and movies after a while. Novels go into the story in more detail than film usually. Would like to read War and peace but its like 1,440 pages long. Dont have the time. Anime do books too?

  2. I don’t watch much anime but really enjoyed most of the ones you mentioned (couldn’t get into Evangelion or GL, and haven’t yet had a chance to check out attack on titan). I would highly recommend Ghost in the Shell, the first movie and the first Standalone Complex series. It is that rare anime that has little in terms of anime cliches and none of the silliness that has become ubiquitous. The second movie was fine and the second season of the series was serviceable, but the followups were just weak – Solid State Society was boring and Arise was straight up disappointing.

    Honorable mention would go to Space Dandy, which to me is like a slightly weaker combination of Cowboy Bebop and FLCL, but is still very entertaining.

    • Taylor Says:

      I was wondering where to start with GITS. I’ve watched the “re-imagining” of the first movie but didn’t know if that was a proper starting point. Good to know what to avoid as well. And I’ve actually started Space Dandy after I’d read it was from Shinichiro Wantanabe. Bebop and Champloo solidified him for me as a proper name in anime.

      • Re-imagining of the first movie, if we are talking about the same one, was just the first movie with a few scenes redone in CG. The transition between the older hand-drawn animation and those CG scenes is jarring. Imagine if all of a sudden Disney decided to randomly splice CG scenes into Aladdin or Snow White, it would be sacrilege. Probably best to watch the original old version.

        I would also recommend Aoi Bungaku, it is an anthology series with a few classic Japanese stories adapted into anime. They are mostly existential tales and the episodes are hit or miss. Different episodes are done by different anime directors and the quality of their work is not consistent either. Take for example my absolute favorite episode, Hell Screen – I really enjoyed the story, but the art style did not seem to fit it that well. I don’t think there is a dubbed version out there, so if reading subtitles is not your thing, you might want to pass on this one.

        • Taylor Says:

          When it comes to food, movies, etc., I’ll usually try anything once so I’ll have to check Aoi Bungaku out. Sounds interesting.

          Yeah, I would have been more specific about what I watched with Ghost but I wasn’t sure myself what exactly I’d watched. I didn’t like the CG at all though and I’d heard it was a thing the fans had reacted negatively to. I’ve got a lot of things to look up, it seems.

  3. Claire Says:

    I’ve never been all that into anime, but Cowboy Bebop is an amazing show. The animation and music, especially, are done so well that it sets the tone for the entire episode and makes story lines that maybe aren’t all //that// interesting present as really fucking cool. Personally, my favorite episode is Sympathy for the Devil.

    • Taylor Says:

      Agreed. Heh, the first episode I happen to catch and my favorite is Ballad of the Fallen Angels. “VICIOUS!”

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