It’s a tricky proposition to recommend anime when someone asks “what’s good?” A rolodex of shows starts whirling in the head of any anime fan frantically stalling for time while they try to get a read on the person asking the question. Has this person been exposed to anime before (or do they vaguely remember watching Sailor Moon or Dragonball “back in the day”)? What kind of interests does this person have? Do they like sports? Do they like melodramas? Finding the right suggestion to make for a gateway anime is stressful. The world of anime is massive, and covers so many genres. It has a language unto itself, replete with tropes, themes, pacing, and a general visual shorthand that anime fans recognize and enjoy, but might cause someone less familiar to tune out completely.
Everyone needs their gateway into the anime. A series that strikes a chord and leads them to then 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 was a hit, but I can see it not clicking for a newbie. And recommendations from hardcore anime fans might be too esoteric or out there for someone just trying to understand the medium better. Bocchi the Rock’s cute girls playing guitars has me hooked, but I’m not going to suggest it be someone’s first anime ever (unless they tell me they want a cozy show about cute girls, guitars, and Tokyo’s hip music neighborhood Shimokitazawa… then sure).
This list is for folks whose viewing habits trend towards big prestige TV offerings and who may be looking to dabble in anime but are unsure of what to expect. These five shows cover a range of genres and give the viewer exposure to anime in a way that isn’t so far removed from the conventions of live action TV. 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.
If You Like Mad Men, Try Descending Stories
What if I told you there was a show, a show about telling stories, stories from the past, brought to life in the present by a master of his craft? Descending Stories takes viewers deep into the world of rakugo, a performative kind 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 required to fully enjoy Descending Stories. In an old, stuffy theatre nestled into a side street of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, patrons listen to Yurakutei Yakumo monologue about a deal made with a death god 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. Descending Stories is to rakugo what Mad Men is to advertising. The story focuses on Yakumo’s past, which he is trying to escape from, and only when he finally reckons with that past can he hope to mend the fractured relationships with his family. One can’t help but compare Yakumo to Don Draper, a man haunted by the skeletons in his closet and who buries 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, like the carousel, Yakumo can return to a place where he is loved. This show is a deep character study punctuated by excellent emotional payoffs. Set over two 13 episode seasons, and featuring exceptional performances from the cast, Descending Stories should be on everyone’s watch list.
If You Like Vikings / Valhalla, Try Vinland Saga
What would happen if you took historical figures from the Viking Age, remixed the stories told about them, and added just enough anime flourish to enhance an already gripping narrative? You’d end up with Vinland Saga. Makoto Yukimura’s long-running manga has been adapted into a stellar anime that gives viewers everything they would ever want to see in a series about Vikings. If the History Channel’s original Vikings or Netflix’s sequel Vikings: 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 path of betrayal, shifting politics, and self-discovery. Set in Vinland (modern day England), the show features incredibly well-developed characters and excellent performances to match from a stacked voice cast. Vinland Saga is a series that grabs hold of the viewer and doesn’t let go. With animation from the always impeccable Wit Studio, fights 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 Vikings: Valhalla, so if you are looking for a different take on the events from that show, Vinland Saga is a no brainer. This is prestige anime.
If You Like Stranger Things, Try Dennou Coil
Few shows are able to capture all the wonder, imagination, awkward moments, and confusion of what it feels like to be a kid better than Dennou Coil. Which is why if you’re a fan of a show like Stranger Things and its similarly earnest portrayal 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 augmented space, known as Den-noh space, 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 a friend’s death, one they believe may have been killed by a monster found in Den-noh space. Much like Stranger Things’ Upside Down, Den-noh space is an alternate world filled with danger and mystery as well as some unusual connections to the real world. How the kids navigate this space, and how it affects them is a key component of Dennou Coil’s story. What does a strange new world look like, and feel like, to a kid? The series also makes sure to balance some lighthearted, 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, child and adult.
If You Like For All Mankind, Try Space Brothers
Exploring space is often seen as the final frontier. The vast expanse of the universe fires up the imaginations of some of the greatest sci-fi writers, who dream up far off places and alien faces. But sometimes the story of just getting into outer space can be the most powerful. If you have been watching For All Mankind—the Apple TV+ series that tells an alternate history of the space race and beyond—and enjoy its grounded look at reaching the stars, then 2012’s Space Brothers might just be the anime for you. The series follows two brothers taking different paths on the way towards a goal they jointly decided upon as children: to become astronauts and reach the moon. The older, Mutta, lost the spark and settled for a career in automotive 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 just yet, and sets out to join his younger brother in space. The series then digs into the nitty gritty of what it takes to become an astronaut, and follows Mutta’s journey to meet up with Hibito on the moon one day. 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 living the dream already—which casts a looming shadow over Mutta. Space Brothers does have a bit of a funny bone, which allows for some great character moments, but that 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. Too often, folks give up on a dream that seems a little too pie-in-the-sky, but Space Brothers asks, “What if you don’t give up on that dream?”
If You Like Black Mirror, Try Psycho-Pass
A series set in a dystopian future is a perfect vessel for societal critique. By shifting 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 some angle to this effect. Fans of the UK anthology series Black Mirror are sure to have picked up on this, as the series has examined a number of societal ills, dissecting them in a techno-futurist version of our world. For this reason, Black Mirror watchers should definitely check out 2012’s 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 by a number of metrics to produce an assessment known as a Psycho-Pass, which includes a Crime Coefficient. The Crime Coefficient works similar to the idea of pre-crime in Minority Report, in that it detects citizens who are likely to commit crimes in the near future. We follow rookie inspector Akane Tsunemori, who chases after soon-to-be criminals with high Crime Coefficients. She begins to question the Sybil System after a couple tough cases, just as agitators appear who oppose the techno-authoritarian rule of the system. This is a heady series that asks a number of questions about the surveillance state, privacy, societies of control, and biopolitics. Once you become familiar with the show’s in-world jargon, the ideas it explores are fairly easy to digest, but give the viewer a lot to mull over. The first season (22 episodes) is written by famed 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 might take anime and videogames a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom, and game worlds, follow him on Twitter @kousatender..
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