If someone said to you ‘I don’t like films’ you’d be rightfully suspicious; not only is the speaker in all likelihood a horrendous philistine, but ‘films’ encapsulates such a diverse range of entertainment that the person probably just hasn’t found their niche.
The same can, and should, be said for anime: from sci-fi epics to family sagas, it offers a slew of sophisticated, non PG-13 thrills. In Japan, it’s assumed that anime is for everyone and it’s time that we got with the programme. This small list, while far from comprehensive, offers a small sample of what anime has to offer the older, more discerning viewer.
1) Cowboy Bebop
If you’re going to watch one show on this list, make it Cowboy Bebop - consistently lauded as the greatest anime of all time, it’s a veritable tour de force of television. The show follows four bounty hunters as they meander across the solar system battling a host of wanted criminals in addition to constant poverty, personal grudges, and existential ennui. Director Shinichirō Watanabe is a stylistic genius, and overlays his wild-west-in-space drama with a jazz soundtrack that is to die for. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without space battles containing piano improv.
An entry for those who enjoy intricate character studies and glacially-paced drama. Oh, and enough blood to make Kill Bill look like a Victorian tea party. Berserk is almost 20 years old, but still holds a Shakespearean grasp on the imagination of anime lovers. The show follows the story of Guts, a soldier who rises to prominence under the banner of mercenary group The Band of the Hawk, and it’s leader, the infallible and charismatic Griffith. It’s a rise and fall story reminiscent of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Julius Caesar: a slow burner that gently pulls you to its inexorable conclusion.
By eschewing series-long story arcs, dazzling colour, and constant violence, Mushishi is certainly the most subdued of the anime in this list, but nonetheless brilliant. Each episode is an allegorical vignette that steps into the lives of ordinary Japanese people in the 19th century and their encounters with supernatural creatures known as mushi. Whether or not you manage to immediately disentangle their meaning, you’ll be soothed by every episode’s atmosphere of calm and contemplation. Necessary viewing for anyone experiencing an existential crisis.
4) Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
The original Ghost in the Shell feature film is so influential that it inspired The Matrix and elevated cyberpunk to new artistic strata. Stand Alone Complex is its continuation, and plots the machinations of Motoko ‘Major’ Kusanagi, the cyborg leader of counterterrorism unit Section 9. Its vision of the future, a world where humans can transfer their consciousness to machines, is one of scifi’s most skillfully realised universes. It’s a case of 24 meets Battlestar Galactica meets Blade Runner, all wrapped in a gorgeously animated package.
5) Puella Magi Madoka Magica
You’ve probably encountered magical girl or ‘mahou shoujo’ anime before in the form of shows like Sailor Moon. The typical format is a light-hearted affair filled with glitzy transformation sequences and hyperbolic villainy. Puella Magi Madoka Magica turns this arrangement on its head by rearranging the tropes of the magical girl genre into a disturbing masterpiece. Don’t let the sweeter-than-thou appearance fool you, this story of five girls and their battle with malevolent beings known as witches is a Faustian tragedy about the futility of human desire.
6) Gin Tama
Gin Tama is this list’s odd one out. For starters it’s a comedy, and secondly, it’s been running for hundreds and hundreds of episodes, unlike the standard 23-26. How has it gone on for so long? By being terribly funny, and terribly weird. Its full span is a masterclass in comic timing and how to turn the simplest act into something that is at once both odd and hilarious. The show follows Gintoki, a samurai in Edo period Japan (which has also been taken over by aliens) who’s trying to pay the rent by doing odd jobs, but of course, every attempt seems to go the way of Only Fools and Horses.
7) Paranoia Agent
Unconnected individuals are being murdered by a figure known only as ‘shonen bat’ and there are weird happenings about the streets of Tokyo. Paranoia Agent contains one of those page-turning plots that has you dying to see what comes next, but the show’s true purpose is to explore the psychological innards of its cast, which are often splattered across the screen in a wonderfully abstract fashion. Magical realism is the order of the day as the lines of reality are constantly blurred, and it’s unclear to what degree the sometimes bizarre and disturbing events of each episode are simply manifestations of an underlying communal insanity. Unmissable.
8) Neon Genesis Evangelion
The mecha genre (aka giant robots beating the crap out of one another) may have inspired sleep-inducing monsters such as Michael Bay’s unforgivable set of Transformer films, but its manga and anime originators are a superior breed. None of this group is held in higher esteem than Neon Genesis Evangelion, a show that oozes intelligence whilst also providing everyone with their necessary dose of mecha versus monster. The monsters in question are called ‘angels’ and have proven themselves completely unstoppable save for mankind’s last resort: the Evangelion series humanoid robots. Add child prodigy pilots and some human drama to the mix and you’ve got a classic on your hands.
9) Attack on Titan
99 percent of the human race has been devoured by the titans and the remaining survivors cling to life behind a series of concentric walls that prevent them from becoming the next human Kit Kats. Sound horrifically bleak? It is. Attack on Titan is a relentless rollercoaster of ‘chomp’ ‘arrghhh’ ‘sob’ that explores the horrors of war through the eyes of three young cadets determined to liberate mankind from their oppressors. Imagine Band of Brothers but replace the Nazis with grinning behemoths that feast on human flesh. Not for the faint of heart.
10) Steins; Gate
If you don’t enjoy a time travel drama then there’s probably something deeply wrong with you, but before you seek medical assistance you should probably give Steins; Gate a go. The star of the show, Okabe Rintarō, is a self professed ‘mad scientist’ and inventor who becomes embroiled in a scramble between time periods that will mangle your brain. The magic here lies in the deft organisation of a multi-layered plot along with seamless transitions between light and dark tones. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and without a doubt you’ll fall in love with its entire cast.
11) Kill la Kill
It’s ostentatious, dripping in parody, and has quite rightly been dubbed as insane, but a couple of years ago the only name on any anime fan’s lips was Kill la Kill. Why the fuss? It’s unique. The show blends the ‘faster, better, stronger’ structure of shonen (anime primarily aimed at young men) with tropes from the magical girl genre, with bizarre but compelling results: its heroine, Ryuko Matoi, is compelled to seek revenge for the murder of her father with the assistance of a sentient school uniform and one half of a pair of giant scissors. No joke.
Anime watching tips
Don’t want to commit by buying pricey box sets? Get yourself over to Crunchyroll or Animax where hundreds of shows are available to stream. If you don’t mind adverts, then you can even devour all the anime your heart desires at zero cost.
Sub, don’t dub
The one thing most likely to ruin your first experience is bad dubbing, and in general, the English dubs for most anime are utterly atrocious. Never judge an anime you’ve watched dubbed before you’ve switched to subtitles, restored the original audio, and tried again.
It’s tempting to simply replicate your taste in live-action TV when exploring anime and while this is sometimes effective, it’s also a shameful waste. There are many genres that are anime-specific and might tickle your tastebuds if you only give them a chance.