A Beginner’s Guide to Anime

A Beginner’s Guide to Anime
Screenshot: YouTube/Madman Anime/Studio Ghibli

Anime is the catch-all term for Japanese animation, but the medium is a global phenomenon with a passionate fan base outside of Asia. If you’ve never explored it before, the vast array of content and styles of storytelling it encompasses can be intimidating. Consider a scene from Akira, one of the most famous anime films: A young boy is stalked by a sentient toy truck that bursts open and fills the room with a shower of milk. Needless to say, anime has a bit of a learning curve.

As formidable as it may seem, though, if you ease into it, you’re likely to find a story that speaks to you. The best way to get started is to find right “beginner’s anime” that fits your tastes. After riding on those training wheels for a while, you’ll soon be speeding along, ready to explore the stranger corners of the art form. Here are 13 of our favourite entry-level anime.

Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon was one of the first anime to gain mainstream popularity in the United States. It stars Usagi Tsukino as a young student whose magical cat reveals her hidden past as a goddess, and helps her unlock the power to transform herself into her alter ego, “Sailor Moon.” Usagi is soon tasked with finding other intergalactic warriors, known as Sailor Scouts (there’s Sailor Venus, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, et al), who will help her defend Earth from the forces of the Dark Kingdom.

This is a perfect beginner anime. Easy to get into and with a straightforward story and loveable characters, it was the entry point for many grown-up nerds you know today.

Pokémon

While you’ve definitely heard of Pokémon, you may not know it was a Nintendo Game Boy game before it was adapted into a popular anime, the success of which helped expand its popularity into even more games, toys, and movies. In the video game, you travel to different cities to catch and train fictional animals called “pokémon,” which you send into battle against other trainers. The show expands that narrative, following young pokémon trainer Ash on his journey to become the world’s greatest pokémon master.

You’ll fall in love with the characters Ash meets along the way, and the pokémon are unbelievably cute. My only caution is that there are so many seasons and variations — not to mention over 1,000 episodes! — getting into the show may feel a bit overwhelming.

Dragon Ball Z

Dragon Ball Z (DBZ) continues on from the 1986 anime series Dragon Ball. Both series follow a hero named Goku on his journey to find magical dragon balls that can grant wishes. Where the latter series covers Goku’s younger years, in DBZ, he is an adult. Goku and his son Gohan must keep the dragon balls from falling into the wrong hands and protect the universe from villains who want to use their powers to wish for universal domination. This is the action anime equivalent of a soap opera, filled with epic battles and dramatic emotional entanglements.

One-Punch Man

This newer series is a fan favourite in the manga (Japanese graphic novels) and anime communities. Protagonist Saitama has worked his whole life to become the strongest superhero in the world. Sadly, we join him only after he has achieved his goal. As the title suggests, Saitama can now defeat any villain with just one punch, and he has become quite bored with his life. The show follows his journey as he searches for a worthy adversary.

One Punch Man puts a hilarious, silly spin on the action genre. Saitama’s deadpan disdain for any type of interaction with the increasingly bizarre lineup of bad guys strangely makes him a delight to watch.

My Hero Academia

In the world of this anime, almost everyone is born with some sort of superpower — called a “quirk.” Some people’s quirks are relatively useless, and they just go about living their daily lives. Others strive to be superheroes — or supervillains. To keep the city safe from the latter, heroes are trained to protect the city, and the best of the best go to U.A. High School. The main character, Izuku Midoriya, is born without a quirk but dreams of becoming a great hero, and finally gets his chance when he is able to take up the mantle and powers of the city’s greatest hero, All-Might.

The folklore of quirks and the manifestation of powers makes for a very captivating story and an expansive cast of, er, quirky characters. The students’ journey is the hero’s journey, and watching them develop their abilities while defeating evil provides an exciting introduction to the tropes and conventions of anime.

Dr. Stone

In the year 2038, an unknown cataclysmic event turns every human on Earth to stone. After 3,700 years, people begin to awaken, and a small class of students attempts to revive their classmates and remake human civilisation for the better. (Thank goodness they are all super-geniuses in science, technology, and agriculture.) Main character Senkuu has a brilliant mind and becomes somewhat of a leader among the students, not all of whom are out for good.

Dr. Stone is beautifully animated, with majestic temples overgrown with flowers and vegetation at every turn, and the settings alone tell a haunting and beautiful story.

Naruto

Naruto Uzumaki is a young ninja in training who dreams of becoming his village’s strongest warrior (known as the Hokage). Unbeknownst to him, before he was old enough to remember, a nine-tailed demon attacked his home village, and the only way the warriors could stop it was to trap the demon inside young Naruto. The town therefore holds great animosity toward the young ninja. (Though why any of it is his fault is beyond me). Naruto’s mistreatment only fuels his desire to work harder to become the Hokage.

This anime is packed with intricate lore, and with relatable messages about bullying, dedication, and perseverance. If you have a propensity for magic and mysticism, this series is a great entry into the world of anime. Naruto is a commitment (26 seasons and more than 700 episodes) but you needn’t feel pressured to complete it.

Hunter X Hunter

You may have noticed a theme to this list by now: There’s a certain breed of anime series that focus on a hero who dreams of being “the best,” and these shows tend to involve a lot of training. It’s a formula that works, so much so that it constitutes a whole genre of anime, known as “shonen”; these shows generally follow a young hero on a journey in an action-adventure and battle setting.

Hunter X Hunter is a textbook shonen series. A class of students train to pass the monster hunter test. (Becoming a hunter is one of the highest honours in this world.) Each challenge tests the students’ agility, strength, and wit. If you love puzzles and adventure, Hunter X Hunter will quickly engulf you.

Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is based in the future in which virtual reality gaming has advanced well beyond the tech we know today to become truly immersive — and dangerous. If your avatar (player) dies in the game, your consciousness dies for real. The plot follows several players who have been thrust into a competition where winning is the only way to escape with their lives. (It’s a lot like the Jumanji films, expect there are no free lives.)

This anime is a gamer’s dream (or nightmare): Players are completely enveloped in the game world, with very high stakes. The only way to make it through is to form friendships along the way — but not everyone will make it through to the end. If you like gaming and drama this is your perfect introduction to anime.

Yuri On Ice

Anime isn’t all action and adventure. There truly is an anime for everyone, and Yuri on Ice is the show for fans of figure skating — and gentle boy/boy romance. Upon meeting our main character Yuri, he experiences a great loss after falling while competing in the grand prix. Victor, an ex-champion skater-turned-coach, witnesses his failure and vows to train Yuri to victory in what may be his last competition.

This anime will make you feel tension and heart-tugging emotion x1,000. The Olympic sport is drawn with expert precision, making figure skating fascinating to watch in anime form, but you’ll be just as absorbed in the increasingly intense relationship between Yuri and Victor.

Food Wars

If you’re interested in exploring a more intermediate level of anime, consider Food Wars, a show best appreciated once you are a little more seasoned a viewer (pun intended). It follows a young cook (Sōma Yukihira) who is sent to the world’s most famous chef school to hone his culinary skills. This is no ordinary school: students battle each other in cook-offs for a seat in “the Ten,” the council of high-ranking students who have a say over how the school operates. The Ten are also seen as the world’s best chefs in training, and Yukihira is determined to defeat all of them and be seated as number one.

The show is over-the-top in every way. The luscious animation of the many dishes is matched by the ridiculous “disrobing” scenes, as characters’ clothes literally explode off of their bodies when confronted with the amazing flavours. Once you get used to the theatrics, you will see the soap opera aspects of the story are masterful, and the dishes depicted are mouthwatering to the point that you cannot believe you are looking at a drawing of food. This show is perfect for foodies or anyone who loves Iron Chef or Chopped.

Full Metal Alchemist

This was my first real introduction to anime, and it got me hooked for life. In this setting, the science of alchemy is equivalent to magic. At a very young age, the Elrich brothers were gifted with extraordinary alchemic abilities, but tragedy struck when they tried to bring their mother back to life. One brother lost a limb, while the soul of the other was transferred into a walking suit of armour (just go with it). In order to right their wrongs, the brothers join the state “police,” but really they are simply using their authority to find the philosopher’s stone that will help them get back what was taken from them. This story expertly intertwines magic with ancient and modern sciences, and is told within the structure of a detective mystery and family drama.

And once you have, consider exploring the reboot, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which revisits the Elrich brothers’ journey and takes it in a different direction. When the original Full Metal Alchemist aired, the manga upon which it is based was incomplete. Rather than wait for the final books to be written, show creators decided to craft their own ending. Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood retells the popular story in a way that more closely follows the source material. It is a fuller and richer story, but best viewed after completing the original show.

Studio Ghibli

Even if you’ve never watched anime, you’ve probably heard of Studio Ghibli — or seen one of their popular characters, like Totoro. Studio Ghibli isn’t a show but a production company with a roster of films created and written in the same general style and with overarching themes. Each generally follows a young character who is thrust into magical circumstances that teach them valuable life lessons and change them forever. There is variation in every story and the plots are much deeper than described, but each is unforgettable. The animation plays with fluidity and motion in a way the captures your heart.

Any Studio Ghibli movie would be an ideal place for a beginner to explore anime, because each of the protagonists’ journeys is so relatable. They must overcome their internal struggles to break down obstacles and defeat real threats, even when the magical settings are a bit overwhelming. Start with the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, in which a young girl’s family falls under a curse when they trespass into an abandoned theme park. Mum and dad are turned into pigs, and young Chihiro must use her wits and courage to rescue them — if she can survive working in a magical bathhouse filled with strange creatures.

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