It’s a difficult proposition to recommend anime when someone asks “what’s good?” A rolodex of shows starts swirling in the head of any anime fan frantically stopping in time as they try to get an overview of the person asking the question. Has this person been exposed to anime before (or do they vaguely remember watching Sailor Moon or Dragonball “in the old days”)? What kind of interests does this person have? Do they like sports? Do they like melodramas? Finding the right proposal is stressful. The anime world is massive, covering so many genres. It has a language of its own, filled with tropes, themes, pacing, and a general visual shorthand that anime fans will recognize and enjoy, but may make some less familiar tune out completely.
Everyone needs their gateway to anime. A series that catches on and makes them seek out more experiences in the medium. It’s not always going to be the most popular anime that wins over a new fan. Chainsaw Man is the hottest show this fall, but I can see it not clicking for a newbie. And recommendations from hardcore anime fans may be too esoteric or out there for someone just trying to understand the medium better. Bocchi the RockIts cute girls playing guitars have me hooked, but I’m not going to suggest it’s anyone’s first anime ever (unless they tell me they want a cozy show about cute girls, guitars, and Tokyo’s hip music neighborhood Shimokitazawa … of course) .
This list is for people whose viewing habits are trending towards big prestige TV offerings, and who may want to try their hand at anime but are unsure of what to expect. These five shows cover a variety of genres and give the viewer exposure to anime in a way that doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of live action television. Each show is paired with a prestige TV show to give potential viewers an idea of what to expect if they choose to take the plunge.
Watch on Crunchyroll
What if I told you it was a show, a show about telling stories, stories from the past, brought to life in the present by a master of his craft? Sinking stories takes viewers deep into the world of rakugo, a performative type of storytelling that has hundreds of years of history in Japan. As someone who knew nothing about rakugo going in, I was wary, but I can safely say that prior knowledge of rakugo is not necessary to fully enjoy it Sinking stories. In an old, stuffy theater located on a side street in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, patrons listen to Yurakutei Yakumo monologue about a deal made with a god of death for minutes on end, leaving them (and us) spellbound. Like watching Don Draper deliver the Carousel pitch, viewers can’t help but watch in awe at the mastery of the presentation. Sinking stories is to rakugo what Mad men is for advertising. The story focuses on Yakumo’s past, which he tries to escape from, and only when he finally comes to terms with that past can he hope to repair the broken relationship with his family. One can’t help but compare Yakumo to Don Draper, a man haunted by the skeletons in his closet and burying himself in his work to escape his crumbling reality. Both men are the last of a dying breed, and questions of legacy and whether their pursuit of the craft was worth it seep into the narrative. Perhaps it is through rakugo that Yakumo, like the merry-go-round, can return to a place where he is loved. This show is a deep character study with excellent emotional payoffs. Spanning two seasons of 13 episodes, and featuring exceptional performances from the cast, Sinking stories should be on everyone’s watch list.
Look at Amazon Prime
What would happen if you took historical figures from the Viking Age, remixed the stories told about them, and added just enough anime flourishes to enhance an already gripping narrative? You would end up with Vinland Saga. Makoto Yukimura’s long-running manga has been adapted into a fantastic anime that gives viewers everything they could ever want to see in a series about Vikings. If the History Channel is original Vikings or Netflix’s sequel Viking: Valhalla ever caught your eye, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not watching Vinland Saga. The story follows Thorfinn – loosely based on the Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni – along a bloody road of betrayal, changing politics and self-discovery. Set in Vinland (present-day England), the show has incredibly well-developed characters and excellent performances to match from a stacked voice cast. Vinland Saga is a series that grips the viewer and does not let go. With animation from the always impeccable Wit Studio, the battles are intense, and beautifully drawn scenes heighten the emotional stakes. It should also be noted that Vinland Saga is set during some of the events portrayed in Viking: Valhallaso if you are looking for another take on the events of that show, Vinland Saga is a no brainer. This is prestige anime.
Few shows are able to capture all the wonder, imagination, awkward moments and confusion of what it feels like to be a child better than Dennou Coil. That’s why if you’re a fan of a show that Stranger Things and its equally serious depiction of youth living in a somewhat fantastical world, then 2007’s sci-fi gem Dennou Coil is the show for you. The world that Yuko Okonogi inhabits is one where augmented reality has become the norm. Yuko and her friends explore the expanded room, known as the Den-noh Room, searching for the truth behind a number of urban legends and dangerous entities said to exist there. The children are also searching for information about the death of a friend, who they believe may have been killed by a monster found in the Den-noh room. About like Stranger ThingsUpside down, the Den-noh room is an alternate world filled with danger and mystery as well as some unusual connections to the real world. How children navigate this space and how it affects them is a key component Dennou Coilits history. What does a strange new world look and feel like to a child? The series also makes sure to balance some light-hearted, humorous moments with the more serious plot threads that drive the narrative. Series creator Mitsuo Ito builds a fascinating techno-futuristic world set in the fictional Daikoku City, a place that straddles urban and rural, real and digital, children and adults.
Watch on Crunchyroll
Exploring space is often seen as the final frontier. The vast expanses of the universe fire the imagination of some of the greatest sci-fi writers, who dream up far away places and strange faces. But sometimes the story of just getting into space can be the most powerful. If you have watched For all mankind– the Apple TV+ series that tells an alternate history of the space race and beyond – and enjoy its down-to-earth look at reaching for the stars, then 2012’s Space Brothers could be anime for you. The series follows two brothers who take different paths towards a goal they jointly decided upon as children: to become astronauts and reach the moon. The older, Mutta, lost his spark and settled for a career in car design, while the younger, Hibito, succeeded in becoming an astronaut. Seeing Hibito about to realize their dream, Mutta realizes he hasn’t missed his opportunity yet and sets out to join his younger brother in space. The series then digs into what it takes to become an astronaut, following Mutta’s journey to one day meet Hibito on the moon. We watch as Mutta goes through rounds of testing, interviews and simulations to maybe have a shot at becoming an astronaut, all while Hibito is already living the dream – which casts a menacing shadow over Mutta. Space Brothers has a bit of a funny bone, allowing for some great character moments, but the lighter tone allows the show’s big moments of self-discovery, family, triumphs and setbacks to sneak up on the viewer with big emotional payoffs. All too often people give up on a dream that seems a little too delicate, but Space Brothers ask, “What if you don’t give up on that dream?”
Watch on Crunchyroll
Watch on Hulu
A series set in a dystopian future is a perfect vessel for social criticism. By moving the narrative into a hellish future, a writer can reshape the world to maximize the impact of the statement they are trying to make. Dystopian future stories always have an angle on this. Fans of the British anthology series Black mirror is sure to have addressed this, as the series has examined a number of societal ills and dissected them in a techno-futuristic version of our world. For this reason, Black mirror viewers should definitely check out the 2012s Psycho-Pass, a series set in a futuristic Japan where society is run by a biomechatronic computer network known as the Sybil System. The system analyzes and rates citizens according to a series of metrics to produce a rating known as a Psycho-Pass, which includes a crime coefficient. The crime coefficient works in the same way as the idea of pre-crime i Minority Report, in that it detects citizens who are likely to commit crimes in the near future. We follow rookie inspector Akane Tsunemori, who hunts down soon-to-be criminals with high crime coefficients. She begins to question the Sybil system after a couple of tough cases, just as agitators emerge to oppose the system’s techno-authoritarian rule. This is a fierce series that poses a number of questions about the surveillance state, privacy, control society and biopolitics. Once you get familiar with the show’s in-world jargon, the ideas it explores are fairly easy to digest, but they give the viewer a lot to think about. The first season (22 episodes) is written by famous anime screenwriter Gen Urobochi (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero), and is the best of the series, but two additional seasons and a couple of movies also exist as part of the franchise, and hold up quite well.
Michael Lee is a writer who perhaps takes anime and video games a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom and game worlds, follow him on Twitter @kousatender..
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