Anime isn't the easiest thing to get into. With so many different series, genres, styles and opinions floating around on the Internet, finding a decent place to dive in (or even just a series that everyone can agree on) can seem like it's nearly impossible.
That's why we've created this Beginner's Guide to Anime: instead of placing wildly different series into some sort of order, we've chosen a number of series based on what someone might be looking for. Want to watching something violent? We've got you covered. How about something ridiculous, or philosophical? No problem.
Here's the deal: there's no ideal spot to dive into Japanese animation. However, if you've been wondering where to start when it comes to anime, this guide should help point you in the right direction. So, without any further adieu: the Beginner's Guide to Anime!
For those who want the tried-and-true anime experience:
Dragon Ball and / or Dragon Ball Z
Akira Toriyama, 1986-1989
Somehow, what started as an adaption of the classic Journey to the West became a sci-fi battle royale between golden-haired space monkeys and a giant pink mutant - and it's one of the most influential anime of all time.
It doesn't matter if you watch anime or not - you know what Dragon Ball Z is. It's a cultural phenomenon, and almost entirely responsible for the modern U.S. anime market. Sure, it's steeped in now-familiar cliches, but that doesn't mean that Dragon Ball isn't worth watching. The story of Goku is goofy and over-the-top, but it still manages to hold up nearly 30 years later.
Masashi Kishimoto, 2002 - The Foreseeable Future
Naruto is often likened to a "modern-day Dragon Ball," and after watching a few episodes, it'll be easy to see why: ridiculously flashy finishing moves, a rivalry for the ages and more characters than you can shake a stick at are at the core of both series. If you prefer ninja over space monkeys, stick with Naruto.
For those who want a true classic:
Monkey Punch, 1971
Sure, Dragon Ball Z kicked off the modern-day U.S. anime market, but anime was a decades-old tradition back in Japan. Shows like Astro Boy and Gigantor paved the way for the medium ... but they haven't exactly aged all that well. Lupin III, on the other hand, holds up surprisingly well - though the fact that the series has kept popping up in one form or another for the past 40 years might help.
What's even more surprising is that there aren't more shows like it: the globe-trotting adventures of the world's greatest thief and his crew are unlike just about anything else in anime. Considering that the original series is roughly four decades old, it may come off as a bit campy, but there's so much to the franchise that anyone will be able to find something to watch.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Yoshiyuki Tomino, 1979-1980
If you're not into heists and goofball shenanigans (for whatever reason), there's always the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Just like Lupin III, there are some elements of the series that'll come off as aged, but Mobile Suit Gundam basically created the entire mecha (anime with person-shaped robots) genre - it's hard to get more classic than that.
For those who can't pick between sci-fi and Westerns:
Shinichirō Watanabe, 1998
Fans will always bicker over which anime is the absolute best - and, while the answer is something that will vary wildly depending on who you ask, it's hard to find a Top 10 Anime list without Cowboy Bebop somewhere near the top.
At first, Cowboy Bebop sounds like a weird mash-up of genres: it's a sci-fi action adventure series with touches of film noire, gangster movies and swing jazz. It sounds crazy, but the series' focus on building characters and slowly revealing their pasts puts its story on an entirely different level from just about every other TV series out there - anime or not. Even if you're not into anime, give Cowboy Bebop a watch - you won't regret it.
Satoshi Nishimura, 1998
Call it dumb luck or divine intervention: either way, two sci-fi / Western hybrids of absolutely insane quality were both released in 1998. That being said, Trigun is far more Western than sci-fi: expect more sandy dunes and six-shooters than anything seen in Cowboy Bebop. Of course, Trigun has plenty of sci-fi - you can't exactly build a series around colonizing a giant, dead planet using colossal alien power plants without it.
For those who enjoy some philosophy with their science fiction:
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Hideaki Anno, 1995-1996
Chances are, if you're interested in anime, you've probably seen something from Neon Genesis Evangelion. The story of the Second Impact, NERV and the Angels is one of the most highly praised works of its kind, and while it has its fair share of genre staples, it's a near-perfect example of how anime is more than just spiky hair and energy beams.
On the surface, Neon Genesis Evangelion may look like another giant robot anime, but it's how the show deals with its introspective themes and character relationships that sets it apart from most other shows. Evangelion gets deep, and it's not going to hold your hand - that's what makes it so good.
Ghost in the Shell
Mamoru Oshii, 1995
If you're looking for the definition of cyberpunk, look no further than Ghost in the Shell. While specific installments throughout the franchise aren't held in such high regard, the original film is a masterpiece in hard sci-fi noir. It's been called the Blade Runner of anime, but that doesn't necessarily do it justice: the world that Ghost in the Shell creates is all its own, and that alone is enough to warrant a viewing.
For those who don't mind when things get weird:
Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988
What starts as a seemingly innocent story of cyberpunk teenage motorcycle gangs quickly devolves into a bizarre sci-fi horror show with a heaping helping of government conspiracy thrown in for good measure. It's the sort of movie that somehow manages several different storylines and heady themes without feeling cluttered, and it's brilliant because of it. To say anything more would spoil the movie - just go watch it!
If you need any further convincing, Akira is also a beautifully animated movie, and manages to hold up better than a lot of modern anime. It's definitely not a film for those with weak stomachs (especially toward the end of the movie), but for anyone who can handle it, Akira is the purest definition of a must-watch.
Ryōgo Narita, 2007
It's not weird in the same way as Akira - there are no cybernetically-enhanced telepaths here - but Baccano!'s bizarre cast of characters, nonlinear storytelling and interlocking storylines should be more than enough for anyone interested in a head trip. Pro tip: with all of the different storylines and characters, you might want to plan on watching Baccano! twice. Trust us, it'll be worth it.
For those who love a mix of science and magic:
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Hiromu Arakawa, 2009-2010
While there are plenty of fans who still prefer the original Fullmetal Alchemist, the fact that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood follows the plot of the original manga makes it the better option for fans just diving in.
And, after diving in, fans will find one of the most well-defined fictional universes in recent memory. The series' narrative focus and high-brow themes of philosophy and ethics are complemented wonderfully by a relatively light-hearted cast of characters and some legitimately funny moments. For all its war and scientific abominations, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is still a fun anime to watch ... most of the time.
Little Witch Academia
Yoh Yoshinari, 2013
Little Witch Academia has been described as "anime Harry Potter" - and, to be honest, such a comparison isn't all that far off. On the surface, Little Witch Academia is like a strange blend of J.K. Rowling's novels and a traditional high school anime - sure, it sounds strange, but the characters, animation and the setting itself are so well done that you won't even notice. Also, it's actually pretty tame - if you're looking to introduce your kids / younger relatives to anime, Little Witch Academia is a great place to start.
For those who love Japanese mythology and / or history:
Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
These days, Disney winning the Oscar for Best Animated Picture is nothing new. However, back when Spirited Away was released, not only did it win the Best Animated Picture award, it beat out two different Disney movies to do it (yes - technically, Disney produced the English dub, but that doesn't really count).
Watching the film, it's easy to see why: Spirited Away is an utterly fantastic dive into Japanese mythology. To simply talk about the story, characters and animation can never do the film justice: it's just one of those movies that you simply have to see. It's a shining example of what anime can be, and for those interested in the mythology of Japan, it's hard to recommend anything else. Spirited Away isn't just good anime, it's one of the reasons why the medium is so popular today.
Shinichirō Watanabe, 2004-2005
No, it's not an entirely accurate retelling of Japanese history, but Samurai Champloo is so steeped in feudal-era Japan that any inaccuracies are easy to ignore. Plus, it's another Shinichirō Watanabe project - meaning that the style, animation and soundtrack are almost impossible to beat. If you've already seen Cowboy Bebop and want something just as good, give Samurai Champloo a watch.
For those who want something completely ridiculous:
Hiroyuki Imaishi, 2007
If there was ever one anime series that truly defined "over-the-top," it's Gurren Lagann. On the surface, it looks like a lot of other mecha anime: it's got giant robots, lots of explosions and ridiculous transformation sequences. What sets Gurren Lagann apart from every other mecha anime out there is its attitude. Gurren Lagann is all about moving forward, no matter what stands in your way - and that theme resonates through each and every episode of the series.
It's also really, really pretty: not only does Gurren Lagann sport some fantastic action sequences, but the show's use of bright colors and palettes is a refreshing change of pace from the drab, realistic color schemes of other mecha anime. Add on an amazing soundtrack and you've got one of the best-looking series in the genre.
Kazuya Tsurumaki, 2000-2001
It's almost impossible to describe the plot of FLCL without sounding like an insane homeless man - just know that it's really a coming-of-age story wrapped up in some of the most bizarre sci-fi you've ever seen. And, at just six episodes, FLCL requires about zero commitment to get through. It's the perfect show to binge-watch in one sitting ... which can be followed up by gushing over the show's absolutely gorgeous visuals. Seriously - it's impeccable.
For those who don't mind (lots of) violence:
Kentaro Miura, 1997
If you're looking for unapologetic violence and gore, Berserk is your one-stop shop. At its core, it's a brutally violent tale: one of mercenaries, war, demons and loads of fighting. However, it's the show's refusal to shy away from its most violent moments that helps Berserk stand out. In a lot of other, similar series, gratuitous violence is there just to shock and awe - Berserk, on the other hand, uses this violence to drive its emotionally charged moments home.
Of course, it's not as if Berserk is nothing but violence: while the blood and gore is central to the story, the show is bolstered by a strong, well-defined cast of characters and above-average animation (for its time). Sure, parts of the show haven't aged quite as gracefully as others, but if you're looking for something that doesn't back down from anything, just watch Berserk.
Attack on Titan
Hajime Isayama, 2013
First and foremost, Attack on Titan is nowhere near as violent or gory as Berserk, so if you want to watch something with a bit more kick without emotionally crippling your soul, Attack on Titan should work as a nice middle-ground. On top of that, the story of humanity and its last battles with the titular Titans is a story that will grab you and refuse to let go from beginning to end - it's not one of the most popular anime in recent memory for nothing, after all.
There are thousands of different anime series out there, all with their own unique styles and stories. It's almost impossible to make a single recommendation on where to start because of that - but, if you're really curious about getting into anime, this guide should help you find where to start!
If you want to see more on anime (and spiky hair), check out our Beginner's Guide to Dragon Ball Z!