Anime has entered the mainstream, there’s no doubt about it. Millennials and Zoomers have all but erased the negative connotation in the West, and Gen-Xers are finally able to admit they liked it all along.
But a lingering stigma still remains: complaints of overly sexualized characters, convoluted plots, and ‘zany’ humor continue to drive many curious would-be-watchers away from the medium.
While some among the foreign audience may find themselves ready to go straight from shows already popular worldwide such as Dragon Ball Z or Naruto to the otaku essentials like Lucky Star and Neon Genesis Evangelion, others need to be gradually brought to a boil with some more subdued-yet-stimulating stuff.
I’m not going to put the ‘usual suspects’ on this list. Practically everyone already knows that Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and Hayao Miyazaki films, among others, are easy introductions to the genre. Instead, I want to highlight some less proselytized works that are nevertheless palatable to first time viewers.
And of course, your mileage may vary. I’m not trying to tell anyone they’ll definitely love any of these shows; rather, I’m saying they reflect the more serious and heady side of anime, while simultaneously lacking the stereotypical faults.
All of these are TV shows from the 21st century, as I find new viewers often have difficulty enjoying older art styles. It’s an acquired taste.
They’re also all 26 episodes or under total, so you won’t feel pressured to waste days of your life watching through them.
Kino’s Journey is an episodic adventure tale in which our androgynous protagonist Kino traverses an extremely odd fantasy/steampunk setting with their talking motorbike Hermes. It follows the classic formula of a wanderer’s story, with few clean endings or resolutions.
Rather, one is simply along for the ride, as if they are an anthropologist studying faraway lands and ethical cultural quandaries alongside Kino themselves.
Planetes is a hard science-fiction story that follows the lives of trash collectors — in space. The narrative pace is surprisingly riveting for what sounds like a boring premise, and the show handles both lighthearted and serious moments well.
The anime features romance, workplace drama, action, and existentialist themes. There’s something for everyone, all bundled in a tight 26 episodes.
Beck covers the formation and tribulations of an indie Japanese rock band trying to make it big. There’s the typical drama of teenage angst, self-discovery, and band theatrics, but told in a more down-to-earth manner than most TV shows and films with the same premise.
While I’m hesitant to admit it, the English dub is stellar, and in my opinion better than the original Japanese. This will especially entice those with an aversion to reading subtitles, but I’d suggest anyone who appreciates talented voice acting to give the dub a try.
Kaiba is my own personal favorite anime on this list, and has been since I first saw it in 2010. One of the earliest shows I ever watched, this psychedelic, politically-conscious science-fiction masterpiece started my love affair with off-beat anime that persists to this day.
If you don’t immediately fall in love with the art style, I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s as stunning visually as it is intellectually, though the ending may leave you wanting.
The Tatami Galaxy is the premier anime for college students, nothing will prepare you for that period of young adulthood better. The dialogue is stupendous, the character designs and visuals are beautiful, and the twists and turns of the achronological narrative are masterfully-done.
It’s as hilarious as it is touching, and by the end you’ll be postulating on the nature of the ‘rose-colored campus life’ just as often as the protagonist.
You may be thinking: an anime girl with pink hair? I thought this list was supposed to be non-generic stuff for normal people! But appearances are often deceiving, and that’s basically half the point of this show.
The story follows an unnamed protagonist through a world where human life is gradually dying out and being replaced by mysterious and mischievous fairies. It’s a post-apocalyptic black comedy told through the eyes of cutesy characters, with a decisively dark narrative thrust.
Ping Pong the Animation is certainly a sports show about ping-pong, with exciting and wonderfully-animated scenes of table tennis action. But what makes the show so unique is it’s not just a sports anime, it’s a deeply rich investigation of the philosophical underpinnings of human competition, self-actualization, and masculinity.
I should tell you that Kaiba, The Tatami Galaxy, and Ping Pong the Animation all share the same director, so if you like one of them, you’ll probably like them all.