Anime can be a tricky form of entertainment to get into. Many series go on for what feels like an eternity, end abruptly without any kind of closure (seriously, that happens way more than it should), or get way too weird (that happens even more). I’m not saying there aren’t a whole lot of great anime series, there’s a boatload, but it can be hard to find the genre or niche that works for you. Growing up I only watched Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing (both of which I still love, but aren’t ones that I’d recommend starting with), one other series that I’ll mention later, and outright refused to watch any other anime until a couple of my friends all but forced me to watch Gurren Lagann, a series that showed me the medium’s potential eight years ago. I’ve seen a lot of awesome anime since then, and now I want to share some of my favorite “gateway anime” with those who don’t know where to begin. If you’re trying to start watching anime, these are the ones I’d use to jump in:
Honorable Mention: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
As I said before, this is the anime that got me into anime. Gurren Lagann is a coming of age story with a phenomenal protagonist, a slew of lovable supporting characters, out-of-this-world villains, a good bit of drama, a whole lot of heart, and the most gigantic robots in all of fiction (not an exaggeration) fighting in battles that redefined the phrase “over the top.” It might not be the best starting place for everyone, but it definitely was for me.
Honorable Mention 2: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Some might say that Avatar isn’t a true anime because it wasn’t made in Japan, but I’d argue it’s animation style, believable characters, and fantastical nature are strong enough earn it a spot here. This is a show I watched as I was growing up – along with Gundam Wing and DBZ – and it’s characters grew up over the course of the series as well. The Last Airbender has so much action, humor, and emotional weight (if you don’t/didn’t cry during the Tales of Ba Sing Se episode, you’re a heartless monster) that I couldn’t leave it off this list despite its relatively high episode count of 61.
And if you like it, the sequel series, The Legend of Korra is pretty great too.
Akira/Ghost in the Shell
I paired these classic films together because they’re both benchmarks in modern anime that helped American audiences understand that the medium isn’t just for kids. Both sci-fi thrillers ask deep questions, show off some absolutely stunning action sequences, and feature truly inspiring world-building. Speaking of inspiration, Akira and Ghost in the Shell influenced the creators of American works like The Matrix, The Dark Knight, and Stranger Things, a fact that’s pretty apparent once you’ve seen them.
Watch Akira if you like: Dystopian settings, science fiction, and supervillains.
Watch Ghost in the Shell if you like: Cyperpunk settings and badass heroines.
When it comes to superhero satire, it doesn’t get any better than likes of Deadpool and One-Punch Man. Saitama is one of the most powerful characters in fiction, and his constant frustration with his endless search for a challenge as a superhero is nothing short of hysterical. The show’s title may make it sound like the action doesn’t last, but One-Punch Man balances its humor with some of the most badass and ridiculous fights I’ve seen in years thanks to a colorful cast of heroes and villains and their crazy abilities.
Also, there’s second season on the way!
Watch One-Punch Man if you like: Superheroes, slapstick, and superhero satire.
You could put almost any of Hayao Miyazaki’s films on this list, but Spirited Away is his best. The amount of detail in almost every frame of this masterpiece is mind-boggling, and the world it takes place in is a wonderfully whimsical land with a dark undertone, and it’s filled with countless strange creatures. While it might be a little scary for younger audiences, Spirited Away is definitely worth watching for anyone aged ten years or older. Not only is it one of my favorite animated films, but it’s one of my favorite films period.
Watch Spirited Away if you like: Disney and fantasy films.
Trigun may seem like an almost-too-silly action comedy at first, but it gradually becomes much more as it progresses. The series features two of my favorite gunslingers, and the story is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in any film or show. As it slowly gives us details about its lovable heroes, despicable villains, and the space western world of Gunsmoke, Trigun sucks you in and crushes you with a surprising amount of emotional weight. This was one of the first anime series I was told to watch after finishing Gurren Lagann, and now it’s one of the first I recommend to those who ask about anime.
Watch Trigun if you like: Westerns and peaceful warrior stories.
Batman: Gotham Knight
Batman: Gotham Knight is an anthology of different stories surrounding the Caped Crusader, each made by a different animation studio. While I love Batman, the main reason I recommend Gotham Knight is so you can find a particular studio’s style that you enjoy. The combination of different segments serve as a great sampler platter, showing the vastly different forms anime can take even with similar stories. Studio Madhouse’s style is my favorite of the lot, but to each their own.
Watch Batman: Gotham Knight if you like: Anthologies and/or Batman.
Outlaw Star has one of the most impressive worlds I’ve seen in anime, and explores a wide range of characters throughout a story that blends the space opera and space western genres into an action romp that’s both badass and charming. Spacecraft with arms, guns that shoot magic, a ludicrously strong cat-person (not as weird as it sounds), and an awesome protagonist with the greatest name ever are only some of Outlaw Star’s many, many highlights.
Watch Outlaw Star if you like: Space westerns, space operas, and action flicks.
Redline is my favorite racing movie, but I have to admit that it’s a little unfair to compare it to other racing movies (aside from that trashy Speed Racer adaptation) because the cars in Redline are practically rocket ships. It’s also worth noting that Madhouse (the same studio that animated my favorite segment of Batman: Gotham Knight) spent SEVEN YEARS making it. Unsurprisingly, all that time, work, and love clearly shows. The visuals are unfathomably stunning, and give Redline a truly timeless feel. Combined with the totally bonkers tracks, tricks, world, and characters, Redline is an anime film that’s more than easy for me to recommend.
Watch Redline if you like: Racing movies, crazy visuals.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Brotherhood’s biggest problem is that most of its characters are so fleshed out they make it impossible for me to pick a favorite. Should I pick one of the brothers who (literally) sacrificed life and limb to try and bring back a loved one in the series’ opening arc? Maybe the brothers’ mentor who also understands the dangers of alchemy more than most? How about the antagonist that sees all alchemy as evil because he’s seen it used in the wrong – possibly the worst – hands? It really is hard to choose. Add in a world with magic-like superpowers and a dark story with tons of jaw-dropping battles for an anime that shouldn’t be missed. It’s the longest series on this list (64 episodes), but it’s too damn good to leave out.
Warning: the fourth episode of FMA:B is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen. It never gets anywhere near that dark again but holy shit, it messed me up FOR DAYS.
Watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood if you like: Action with dark atmosphere, brotherly bonds.
Space Dandy follows the Johnny Bravo-like bounty hunter Dandy, his robot QT, and an alien with feline qualities nicknamed “Meow” as they journey through space and get into all sorts of shenanigans. It’s a quirky and brilliant series that has space zombies, alternate dimensions, and all manner of strange aliens adding to the insanity. Almost every episode tells a different story that isn’t connected to the others, so the only thing you can really expect is to laugh a whole lot. Space Dandy also has the occasional emotional beat, and they’re surprisingly effective when considering how absurd the show is as a whole. It’s not only a great gateway anime, but it’s my favorite of the decade.
Watch Space Dandy if you like: Science fiction comedies.
Castlevania (which some may argue isn’t actually an anime) and Hellsing Ultimate (Not Hellsing, that’s very different) are both fairly short series with engaging stories, tragic anti-heroes, overwhelmingly powerful, inhuman monsters with a taste for blood, and some seriously hardcore supernatural action. I would say something like “vampires haven’t been this badass since Blade 2,” but oh man, Blade wishes he was this cool!
Watch Hellsing Ultimate and/or Castlevania if you like: Vampires, supernatural action, dark stories.
A tale of two rival swordsman with wildly different combat styles helping a young girl find someone from her past, Samurai Champloo is a brilliant mash-up of action, laughs, and hip-hop. It has a unique flair to its music, animation style, and storytelling that sets it apart from all other samurai series and movies, and it never seems to age. If you end up digging Samurai Champloo, I strongly suggest looking into Cowboy Bebop too. Shinichirō Watanabe created both of these series, and Space Dandy. I’m pretty sure a few of my friends are going to call me crazy for recommending Champloo over Bebop, but I honestly like it more.
Watch Samurai Champloo if you like: Edo-era Japan settings, buddy comedies, action flicks with killer soundtracks.