Anime 102: Course of Anime For Newcomers

Shows to watch when you're just starting out with anime.

Because anime's so diverse, and many shows are often intrinsically rooted in Japan, it can be tough to know where to start.

Here's a collection of shows recommended for newcomers: they're relatively short (most are 13-26 episodes), require little or no awareness of Japanese culture to be comprehensible, and span the gamut of genres and moods. Pick shows that square with your own tastes when possible.

All shows are listed in alphabetical order.

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Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Action / adventure.

Concept: A hapless salaryman from Tokyo finds himself drafted as the newest crewmember of the "Black Lagoon," a smuggler's ship where few jobs are too dirty and the good guys are just as crazy as the so-called bad guys.

Length: 24 (over two seasons).

Appeal: Fans of Hong Kong two-gun action cinema and '80s shoot-em-ups like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon will eat this up: it's essentially an animated version of those two genres fused at the hip. Be warned that it's violent, brutal and politically incorrect -- just like its live-action predecessors.

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Claymore. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Fantasy.

Concept: Superhuman female warriors (the "Claymores" of the title) are sent to find and exterminate monsters that can mimic humanity. One such warrior finds herself paired with a human companion, and faced with a brutally escalating series of challenges to not only her own strength but her own spirit.

Length: 26 episodes.

Appeal: It's set in a world that resembles medieval Europe more than anything else, so it requires little effort to get into the locale. And despite the plot outline, it's far more character-driven and character-centric than it might seem. Be warned: the violence is not for the squeamish.

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Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Science fiction.

Concept: A pair of freelance far-future bounty hunters comb the solar system looking for fast money, getting mixed up in one misadventure after another and fending off the ghosts of their pasts.

Length: 26 episodes.

Appeal: Billed as "not space opera, but space jazz," which may give you some idea of its improvised, rollicking flavor. Also lauded for having one of the best English dubs of any show, which makes it all the more watchable for the uninitiated.

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Death Note

Death Note. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Thriller/supernatural.

Concept: An idealistic young man comes in possession of an artifact that allows him to kill anyone as long as he knows their name, and with it, he appoints himself the new god of a corrupt world. The only one who can stop him is an eccentric, reclusive detective operating under an assumed name.

Length: 37 episodes.

Appeal: A game of speed chess of the wits between two very evenly-matched, very smart opponents. Each side has plans within plans, feints within feints and one false bottom after another to hide their real work. Despite being set in Japan proper, the show requires no knowledge of Japanese society to be comprehensible.

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The Dirty Pair

The Dirty Pair. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Science fiction / comedy.

Concept: A pair of "troubleshooters" for a far-future detective agency have earned themselves the unflattering moniker "The Dirty Pair" for the way they cause at least as many problems as they deal with.

Length: 26 episodes, plus 10 OVA episodes.

Appeal: Comedy's hard to do right; sci-fi comedy doubly so. The Dirty Pair uses SF's various tropes as a grab-bag of gags powered by the unsinkable personalities of the two heroines. Who else would shut down an errant supercomputer by beaming a spaceship straight into its CPU?

For those unwilling to commit to the full TV series, the OVAs (a set of ten standalone episodes) are also available at a lower price.

Note: The TV series only has Japanese audio with subtitles.

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Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Fantasy adventure.

Concept: Brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, crippled in an alchemical experiment, search far and wide for the Philosopher's Stone that might restore their bodies and even bring their mother back to life. For the sake of this mission they lend their skills as alchemists to the state military, but that embroils them in trouble far greater than any they could have imagined.

Length: 51 episodes.

Appeal: A great cast of characters -- even the villains are compelling -- combined with a storyline that deals with the responsibilities of having great power in a world where the impossible is now very possible.

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Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Fantasy adventure.

Concept: A re-adaptation of FMA, based more closely on the original comic that inspired it. Both stories are excellent in their own way, but this version is more tightly-integrated from end to end. For newcomers, this may be the better of the two shows to watch since it concludes more completely.

Length: 64 episodes.

Appeal: Much the same as its elder brother series, but this version may be the more emotionally complete and satisfying of the two, as it leads Edward and Alphonse full circle through their quest in the way the original author intended.

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Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Thriller / espionage / drama.

Concept: In a digital age where men and machines are becoming more alike than different, an elite unit of hackers, soldiers-of-fortune and special-ops agents blend their strengths to fight new breeds of threats to national security and public safety.

Length: 52 episodes (two seasons).

Appeal: A mix of CSI, 24 and brainy espionage shows like Rubicon or MI:5, it's set in a "20 minutes into the future" version of Japan but one where the locale is less important than the intrigue. Even more crucial is the remarkable levels of insight into character and motivation -- and the presence one of the single best heroines in anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi.

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The Films of Hayao Miyazaki & Studio Ghibli

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Multiple, but mostly fantasy and slice-of-life

Concept: Director Hayao Miyazaki and his production company Studio Ghibli have for decades now been responsible for some of the finest and most endearing animated productions not only from Japan but anywhere in the world. This entry serves as a placeholder for all of their work, which deserves investigation by anyone remotely curious about anime. Click the "Review" link to see a full rundown of their films to date.

Length: Various, but usually two hours.

Appeal: Universal; these are movies for all audiences in the best sense of the term. Note that some of the Miyazaki productions (Princess Mononoke particularly) are not for all ages; very young children may find them too intense.

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Pumpkin Scissors

Pumpkin Scissors. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: War/drama

Concept: In a country still recovering from the devastation of war, an army unit codenamed "Pumpkin Scissors" tries to restore hope and trust amongst a wary and brutalized populace. Within the unit is a corporal, a former member of an antitank squad with many terrible secrets that may jeopardize their mission.

Length: 26 episodes.

Appeal: Japan's experiences in WWII (and Germany's as well) clearly influenced this show, one unfortunately camouflaged behind a terrible title. Some of the individual elements are a little outlandish, but all of them connect back to the story's central ideas, and it's also consistently entertaining throughout.

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The Slayers

Slayers. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Fantasy/comedy.

Concept: Infamous sorceress Lina Inverse and her gang of co-adventurers get into and out of trouble throughout a world infested with magic, monsters, and mysteries.

Length: Varies (multiple seasons)

Appeal: Slayers is patterned most closely after the fantasy tropes made popular by everything from Dungeons & Dragons to The Lord of the Rings, but adds a sarcastic left-hand twist of humor to all that goes on. Lina's voice on the English dub is provided by Lisa Ortiz, who went on to become something of a legend in anime circles for her inspired, wisecracking performance. Start with the original Slayers, then check out Slayers NEXT, Slayers TRY, Slayers REVOLUTION and Slayers EVOLUTION-R if you want the whole rundown.

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Soul Eater

Soul Eater. Image courtesy Pricegrabber

Genre: Fantasy / horror.

Concept: A mystical academy serves as the training grounds for human weapons who pair up with their human wielders to fight renegade spirits. Little do they know their greatest challenge isn't out there, but right under their feet...

Length: 51 episodes.

Appeal: If Tim Burton hadn't directed this series, he might as well have. Everything from the art direction to the quirky cast of eccentrics (many named in direct reference to horror and SF icons) is straight out of his stylebook. But there's more than copying going on here; Eater has a style and a substance all its own, and a story well worth sticking around for.