Anime has many meanings, depending on who you are.
Anime is lazy childhood afternoons watching Dragonball Z, or getting up early before school to watch Pokémon. It’s Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and the collected works of Studio Ghibli. For some people it’s gritty cerebral action movies, like Ghost in the Shell and Akira. For others, anime is the avatar image of a Twitter troll.
To paraphrase the original Crunchyroll fan: anime contains multitudes. But unfortunately, anime is often presented as a genre in and of itself, instead of a medium full of a number of different genres. It’s not unlike how “comics” is often used as a shorthand for DC / Marvel superhero comics, rather than a rich collection of styles, ideas, and stories.
There’s something for everybody within the form. Creators tap into a smorgasbord of genres from slapstick comedy to political thriller, from murder mystery to family sitcom. They key is knowing where to look.
Modern anime is known for shows like Naruto and One Piece, which span hundreds of episodes. Luckily most series aren’t that long. These days, a program spans 12 or 13 episodes.
For Westerners, the form used to be limited, requiring access to expensive VHS tapes and DVDs. Today, it’s far more accessible, with a number of different streaming services like Crunchyroll and Hulu offering new episodes within a day of it airing in Japan. And the quality of shows, in terms of both animation and storytelling, is arguably greater than it has ever been.
The one remaining barrier of entry, in some cases, is the understanding of Japanese culture, or at least the anime medium, its history, and its tropes. So, I’m recommending some newer shows (compared to the classics loved by relapsed fans) as entry points for newcomers. They don’t come with a lot of baggage in terms of length or requiring a literacy in the medium to enjoy.
Drama / Thriller:
Erased (12 episodes)
Satoru can travel back in time, but has no control over how or when it activates. His time warp is triggered when a life-threatening situation happens nearby, sending him back just far enough to save whoever would be killed. After his mother is murdered, he finds himself sent back to his childhood, where he has to unravel how his mother’s murder in the future is connected to the disappearance of children from his hometown.
Unlike other “redo part of your life stories,” Satoru doesn’t intend to improve his own life. Instead, the show asks, if you could go back and change someone else’s life for the better, would you? And exactly how do you do that when you are an elementary school kid?
Death Parade (12 episodes)
Set in a bar, each episode explores the lives of the two new guests. Patrons don’t remember how they arrived, or often other aspects of their life. In order to remember the bartender has them play a game against each other. Yes, the bar is purgatory, and it’s the bartender’s job to judge where the souls should go.
The show explores human nature, particularly what it means to be human, through the transient soils. It is a stressful show, purposefully so, where characters are pushed to emotional extreme, and then get judged by how they react. It’s sad, sometimes dark, and often life affirming.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (13 episodes)
Rakugo is Japanese performance art in which a person presents a story while sitting alone on a stage, only using a fan and piece of cloth as props. The anime follows the life of the fictional famous rakugo performer Kikuhiko, beginning in the 1970s when he is an old man taking on a former prisoner as an apprentice. It quickly delves into his past, revealing how Kikuhiko came to the craft, and how it ultimately led to the tragic death of his best friend and rival.
It’s a heartbreaking but beautifully told story made better through great performances and animation. The show gives its characters time to perform elaborate rakugo. Instead of cutting away to flashy animation of the story, the show sticks with the performer on stage, carefully performing the act. It’s as if you are there in the audience watching this, being asked to use your imagination to fill in the blanks.
This is a show about subtlety, not just in their rakugo performances, but also in the things it tells us about the characters. Despite being master storytellers, these performers are unable to communicate with each other about what they actually want and feel.
Slice of Life:
Barakamon (12 episodes)
After a traumatic incident Sei, a professional calligrapher in his early 20s, moves to a remote island village; he hopes to get away from Tokyo and focus on his work. Instead, his time is consumed by the problems of the locals, especially six-year-old Naru. He learns a lot about himself, and what he wants from the art he creates. It can be a little predictable, but no less charming.
Barakamon is a pretty chill show most of the time, as it’s mostly about Sei and the village’s kids getting into various shenanigans. While much of the show is about the struggles of being a creative person, it also explores the pursuit of living a more balanced life.
Poco’s Udon World (12 episodes)
Souta left his hometown to become a web designer in Tokyo. When his father passes away, Souta returns to clean out the house he grew up in. There he finds a magical tanuki (raccoon dog) who can transform into a small child. He names him Poco, and begins to take care of his new friend, but worries about what to do with Poco when he returns to Tokyo.
The show is about Shouta learning to be a parent figure, but expands to the complicated relationships of family. Shouta reflects on the poor relationship he had with his father after he left for Tokyo. He finds solace through connecting with people in his hometown. It’s a heart warmer.
Sports / Romance:
Yuri!!! On ICE (12 episodes)
To quote from Megan Farokhmanesh‘s explainer:
“Yuri on Ice is the story of Japanese figure skater Yuri Katsuki. At the start of the show, we see Yuri suffer a crushing loss at the Grand Prix Final. Defeated and depressed, he finishes up college and returns home to sort out his life.
Although Yuri has fallen out of shape since the competition, he still loves the sport. One night he performs a routine originally skated by his idol and competitor, Victor Nikiforov, which a few local kids capture on video and post online. The video goes viral. Victor himself sees the clip and flies to Japan to offer Yuri his help: he’ll be his coach and train him to win what is very likely to be Yuri’s last season.”
The show doesn’t get too into the weeds of figure skating. Instead, Yuri on Ice uses the artistry and drama of the sport to reflect the performer’s relationships. It’s a smart show that frequently subverts your expectations in delightful ways.
Action / Comedy:
One-Punch Man (12 episodes)
Saitama is the most powerful superhero on the planet, but nobody knows he exists. He really wants to fight a person or monster that will give him a challenge. He’s able to defeat most enemies he encounters with a single punch, but he’s apathetic and bored. If he can get to the market in time for a sale, then that’s really enough for him.
Saitama is the main character, but the show is really about the supporting cast and how they react to Saitama’s existence. One-Punch Man is an absurd parody of the superhero genre, while being a completely earnest superhero story as well.
The show also features some of the highest quality of animation in the form.
Action / Drama:
My Hero Academia (13 episodes)
In a world where it’s normal to be born with superpowers, Deku is unusual. He doesn’t have a single power, though he still dreams of being a superhero someday. After a fateful encounter, Deku’s superhero idol All Might offers to help the young man become a superhero — by enrolling him in a high school for aspiring heroes.
My Hero Academia approaches superheroes from a different perspective than you get with Western blockbusters. While it includes many visual homages to American comics — All Might’s design looks ripped from of an ‘80s comic — it’s structured more in the vein of Japanese action and fighting shows. There is an earnestness and sadness that you don’t usually find in this sort of story, whether in Japan or America. It’s unlike its a contemporaries, and for that matter, anything else.
Mob Psycho 100 (12 episodes)
Everyone calls Shigeo “Mob” because of how he blends into a crowd. He has plain features, and doesn’t display much emotion. The twist? Mob is actually a powerful psychic. When not going to middle school he works part-time for his mentor, a fake psychic and con-artist. Of course Mob doesn’t know the man is a fraud.
Mob Psycho is from the same person who created One-Punch Man, and there are a number of similarities between the two. Both have incredibly powerful protagonists, with the show often more fascinated with the supporting cast.
But unlike Saitama Mob doesn’t like to use his power, and the show is often an exploration of why that is.
Romance / Comedy:
My Love Story!! (24 episodes)
Takeo is not, by most accounts, considered an attractive high school guy. He’s often compared to a gorilla or bear because of how tall and muscular he is. Every girl he’s liked has been more interested in his best friend than him. That is until he meets Rinko, a small shy girl.
My Love Story is a fluffy and sincere show with a lot of great humor. The gags are situational, highlighting the natural humor occurs when people begin dating. It mercifully doesn’t rely on the “will they or won’t they thing” for very long, instead sifting through the comedic drama of a relationship in progress.
Sports / Drama / Comedy:
Haikyū!! (60 episodes)
Shoyo’s short but determined to be a volleyball star. By the end of middle school he manages to find enough people to field a team for a tournament, but in their first and only game they are demolished by the other team’s ace player, Tobio. Shoyo vows to one day defeat his new rival. Naturally, the two end up at the same high school.
This show is longer than the other recommendations, but here is the thing: Haikyū is the best sports anime. Full stop. It carefully blends sports drama, character drama, and humor, all while doing an unexpectedly good job of teaching the fundamentals of volleyball. Yes, really.
At the start, Haikyū doesn’t rely heavily on the sport to tell its story, instead focusing on the characters’ ambitions. And yet, it finds moments in teeth-clinching volleyball matches, to be funny and sly. It’s an investment, for sure, but one that delivers.