I'm New to Anime. Where Do I Start?

Anime Collection
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Anime's sheer scope and diversity can be off-putting to a newcomer. What shows are worth starting with, and why? Is there some specific entry point for a newcomer other than just watching whatever's put in front of them?

This may sound like a dodge, but asking this question is a little bit like asking “I’m new to the movies—where should I start?”

It’s important to understand that anime isn’t a genre, but a medium—a way of telling stories as diverse and manifold as any other. There are anime romances, anime science fiction sagas, anime horror epics—even anime that combine and span multiple genres at once. In fact, the number of anime that hybridize and combine genres probably outstrips those that are purely in any one genre.

In short, there’s rarely one entry point. Rather, there’s a slew of them. Which one(s) you pick will depend on several things.

1) How familiar you are with Japanese culture, both modern and classical

Some, though scarcely all, people interested in anime develop their interest in it because of an existing interest in Japan generally. Because anime is created first and foremost for Japanese audiences, much of it assumes a certain amount of casual knowledge about Japan—social conventions, holidays, historical facts, and so on.

When anime is translated into English, many of these things are kept in mind by the companies that do the localization. Pertinent historical details, for instance, might be explained via auxiliary subtitles or a booklet included with the show. In the long run, someone who watches a lot of anime benefits from having some casual awareness of Japan—or at the very least not being thrown by such things when they appear and become pertinent.

Fortunately, there are plenty of anime which require no specific knowledge of Japan to be coherent or engaging. No “heavy lifting” is required on the part of the viewer, either because the show explains itself as it goes along with minimal effort, or because the show isn’t even set in Japan proper, present or past. Those shows are often the best place to start, and I’ve compiled a list of such shows: Anime 102.

2) What your existing tastes are

I mentioned above that because anime’s a medium and not a genre. Therefore, it represents just about every genre of storytelling imaginable. For that reason, you’ll want to use your own interests as a guide, and look into anime by overarching genre at first rather than by specific title. Granted, don’t hesitate to make time for a title that catches your eye no matter what the premise is—that’s how unexpected discoveries are made!

You can browse an ever-expanding list of shows by genre here.

3) Whether or not you have acquaintances who are existing fans

It’s always easier to be turned on to something when you have a living guide—a fellow human being—to show you the way. Consequently, anime fans are often introduced to the medium by a friend or fellow fan. This is one of the best ways to get into anime because you’re receiving live guidance and feedback.

That said if you do have a fellow fan leading the way, keep in mind they may well be operating out of their own tastes and expectations as well. There might be shows they dislike which you might adore, and they might not lead you to them because of their own predilections. If you have a fan-friend guiding you, bear in mind at some point you’re going to be best served by making your own decisions.

4) Your existing feelings about animation as a medium

Some people deal with animation differently than they do live-action, for the same reasons some people have trouble dealing with a graphic novel or comic in the same way they would a conventional piece of literary fiction. The fact that it’s drawn automatically creates associations that are hard to shake off. They have a hard time taking animation seriously because, well, it’s animation.

Less diplomatic people than I refer to it as the Cartoons Are For Kids Problem. In theory, the history of animation in the West is dominated by products for “all audiences,” but in practical terms, that translates into “for kids.” There have been intermittent attempts to chisel away at that established standard—the Heavy Metal theatrical film, Ralph Bakshi’s adult-oriented animated features—but they never achieved the kind of broadly-accepted commercial success as conventional, all-ages animation. It’s possible that has at least as much to do with the most financially-successful movies historically being products that appealed to as wide an audience as possible, regardless of whether they were animation or live-action.

I should note that a good deal of the anime produced is aimed at a younger audience—from children through older teens and including folks in their twenties. It would be disingenuous to suggest they’re not the main demographic, and many of the most commercially successful anime exported from Japan are aimed at precisely that audience.

So where to start?

Given all this, it’s best to start with anime that tell the kinds of stories you want to see more of. That will require a certain amount of work on your part—some getting the feet wet, as it were—but I’ve compiled several lists that should make the job a little easier. The above-mentioned Anime 102 list is one for complete beginners, but if you’d rather browse by genre, you can do that as well: