People often ask me what they should watch if they want to get into anime or have watched only a couple of shows. Obviously, it pays to ask people what genres they like, as anime is just another sub-medium of television and TV, movie and book preferences are all valid. Some of the shows listed here are often noted to be aimed at people who are very knowledgeable about anime, but they are on the list because they stand on their own, and none of us are rookie media consumers.
This list is designed in part to present you with a variety of genres, so you could watch these shows in order to have a better place to start from when looking for additional material – based on what you like and don’t like. Future posts will cover movies, and some more shows based on genres and themes. All posts will be organized on this page.
Note, unless noted otherwise, episode length is roughly 23-24 minutes, with 3-4 minutes per episode spent on opening song (OP), ending song (ED) and next episode’s preview.
1) Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995):
One of the most influential shows of the last two decades on anime, referenced in many other shows, from small cameos to scene composition, to whole motifs being taken wholecloth, aside from the fact Shinji, Asuka and Rei are the archetypes on which countless other main characters had been modeled. That of course isn’t sufficient, but it’s a well told story about a group of teenagers who must risk their lives, relationships and psyche in order to defend humanity.
The show begins slowly, but as you go, the emotional hits and the mysteries keep ramping up, until you find yourself with nary a time to take a breather in between. This show had been considered a reconstruction of the mecha genre when it aired, but the story stands well on its own, and with how influential it is I think holding off on watching this show can only be detrimental.
The “twist to mystery” which also often includes references to the supernatural and real-world mythologies at times had truly been ever-present in longer shows after NGE. Its effect on the anime world can’t be overstated.
Genres and Notes: Action, mecha, psychological, teenagers, mystery. Give it at least until episode 8, where it truly shows you what it has to offer. Watch the main series and then watch End of Evangelion, an alternate ending to the last two episodes. Skip Death and Rebirth as it is entirely superfluous. “Rebuild of Evangelion” (Evangelion 1.11, 2.22, etc.) are an alternate retelling via movies, and aren’t as highly recommended. I don’t suggest this show under the age of 15 – blood, violence, psychological wounds, etc. Often referred to as “NGE” or “Evangelion”.
Episode Count: 26 episodes. End of Evangelion is 90 minutes long.
Buy on Amazon: The complete series. End of Evangelion had unfortunately been out of print for about a decade now.
2) Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007):
When this show came out it swept the anime watching crowds, with how over the top everything was, with how each time something occurred the protagonists would “power up” in order to overcome their enemies. The “Rule of cool” and the triumph of will are big draws to this show, which is quite unapologetic about how the campy and “Bro” nature it has, and elevates these elements to an art-form by cranking them up to 11. A fun romp at a neck-breaking pace, not for this show are multi-episode fights against the same enemies, but a show where the power levels and ridiculousness ramp up in an exponential manner, and it is fun – more than a little ridiculous, but not taking itself too seriously is a large part of the show’s charm and greater-than-life aspect of the characters.
This show is often referenced in other shows, and while it’s filled to the brim with references to older mecha shows, you don’t really need to watch them in order to follow this show. Note, first few episodes are a tad slower, but when it picks up it really picks up. Has some of the coolest characters and lines to ever appear in anime – if you ever read a “favourite lines” discussion about anime, lines from this show will be very prominent, and these lines and messages can fill you with energy, as you watch the show, and as you think back on them.
Genres and Notes: Action, endless action, mecha. There are a couple of weak episodes early, but then it doesn’t let up. Often referred to as “Gurren Lagann”.
Episode Count: 27 episodes.
Buy on Amazon: The complete series.
3) Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (2011):
For a show from 2011, calling this influential or a classic seems like a rash decision, but this show is “important” in order to truly engage in discussions about anime in the west currently, and its importance can’t be overstated. This show is a “magical girl” show – where girls are given powers and don a shiny uniform as they battle the baddies – think Sailor Moon as the classic magical girl show. This show though is much darker and more mature by far than appearances would otherwise suggest. I can’t tell you too much in fear of spoiling this great great show. Good story, great characters, tough decisions. This is a show about hope and despair.
This show is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, and many people say you need to watch other magical girl shows first – I say the story of this show stands tall on its own, and in the same manner as the two shows above it, you can watch it and appreciate it for what it is now, and come back to it later after watching more shows and appreciate it in a whole new light. This show can get more than a bit emotional towards its ending.
Genres and Notes: Magical Girl, psychological, deconstruction. Often referred to as “Madoka”.
Episode Count: 12 Episodes. There are 3 movies, the first two are a retelling of the show, while the third continues the show. The third hadn’t been released in the west yet and thus I can’t comment on it.
Buy: No good deal for this show exists in the west currently.
4) Planetes (2003):
This show is a drama, and is a very good introduction to anime by people who want “proper dramas” of the sort that western television is filled with but anime doesn’t have as many of. A story following the tale of a new space janitor and the crew she works with. Wait, space janitor? Sure sounds like a silly comedy – except it deals with the very real issue of space debris – items left in space after voyages into space or from old satellites, which can cause accidents.
We get to meet an assorted cast of characters, see how they interact with one another, see how they deal with weird situations and requests that come across their path, and get to see their “mundane” situations which seem very strange to our eyes through the eyes of the new recruit, who is the main protagonist. Also, a love story slowly unfolds.
Genres and Notes: Drama, romance, slice of life, space, science-fiction.
Episode Count: 26 episodes.
Buy on Amazon: Complete Series – Non-Amazon sellers only.
5) Genshiken (2004):
This show is a “proper comedy”, with the comic moments arising from the characters’ personalities, the characters’ interactions, and the situations they find themselves in, without relying much on gag humor. The show covers a college club focused on geeky pursuits in Japan, including anime, building models, cosplaying (dressing up and acting as characters from anime, manga, etc.), manga-drawing, etc. The show is often funny, with the characters feeling like real and relatable people, for the most part, even though they are also quite ridiculous in their own way.
The characters are young adults, who are also facing the future-fright one often faces before joining the “adult world” and the work-force, and the show handles all these things with aplomb. The first two seasons and the OVA (extra episodes) that connect them all tell one story. Just recently a new season, called Genshiken Nidaime (or the 2nd generation) had been released, which covers the new members of the club and a couple of the remaining seniors from the old club. The show is still very well done, and also includes one of the best treatments of cross-dressing in anime to date. The voice actors for Genshiken Nidaime did change, however.
If you want to watch a comedy/drama that is closer to a SitCom, then this is the show for you. Many jokes make references to insider anime knowledge, but just like Seinfeld or other SitComs from the mid-90s, while you might miss these references, the strong is more than strong enough to enjoy without catching all of these notes.
Genres and Notes: Comedy, geeks (otaku), slice of life, college, real life, drama(?). Very geeky, to be honest, and walks a fine line between joking with and about the characters. You can watch Genshiken season 1 on its own, Genshiken Season 1, the OVA and season 2, and/or just watch Genshiken Nidaime. I strongly suggest watching all of it.
Episode Count: Two seasons of 12 episodes each, connected by a 3 episode OVA in between. Genshiken Nidaime is 13 episodes.
Buy on Amazon: First season + OVA, Second Season. Genshiken Nidaime only recently aired in Japan and hadn’t been brought to the west yet.
6) Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (2006):
The show begins with a boy-genius who decides to take over the world, basically. Early episodes have quite a few army-sized fights, but later we see an organization and media being constructed in order to wage war, and a psychological battle between our protagonist and his adversaries as they try to best one another. The “mecha” in this show are colour, and could’ve honestly been other weaponry, not making much difference to the show. The action never really stops, though after a while it’s less oriented on fights and is more political, psychological, and “intrigue” based.
Many people say the second season is considerably weaker, but I find it more emotional and an even better exploration of the main question of the show – how much are you willing to give up, to sacrifice, in order to achieve your goals? Fukuyama Jun, the main character’s voice actor, delivers us a master-class performance in his portrayal of Lelouch, acting over the top in a manner fitting the role Lelouch himself portrays within the show’s universe.
Genres and Notes: Action, mecha, intrigue, psychological, thriller, villain-as-hero. Note, there are more than a few moments of “fan-service” during the show, where girls are shown in suggestive poses, this is quite normal for anime. Also, there are a couple silly “high school” episodes, which pause the action at times. The art style is the distinct style of the manga-group CLAMP. Usually referred to simply as “Code Geass”.
Episode Count: Two seasons, 25 episodes each.
Buy on Amazon: First season, second season.
7) Steins;Gate (2011):
A time-travel show, a mystery show. I also think of it as an “action” show but not for sequences of chases and fights, but for being a thriller. The show begins as a simple science-fiction story, about a group which realizes they have a time-travel machine, and the alterations they make to the time-stream, along with the way their relationships develop, but slowly they uncover and time-spanning conspiracy that threatens not just the world and its future, but targets them specifically.
The second half deals with a race against time, within the time-streams, and the emotional toll of endlessly repeating a horrible event on a man’s psyche. What had been done must be undone – the second half is quite a deal heavier in mood than the light-hearted feel of the first half. Also, there’s a romantic sub-plot here which showcases one of the more enjoyable to watch couples on screen.
Genres and Notes: Thriller, suspense, science fiction, mystery, time-travel. I suggest this show for those who love a good suspense-thriller sci-fi story, of the sort you most usually get in films, these days.
Episode Count: 24 episodes.
Buy on Amazon: First part, second part.
8) Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009):
This is a coming of-age story of two brothers, who after their mother had died had tried to return her from the dead, but the laws of alchemy (the setting’s magic) require equal-trades (and in general has internally consistent rules), so one of them had to trade an arm and a leg, and the other traded his body and now animates a walking suit of armour. The brothers are state alchemists, and we follow their journey for the Philosopher’s Stone, which will hopefully allow them to transmute their bodies back without having to trade more body-parts for the ones they are missing.
The show has action, and the siblings uncover a mystery as they travel the length of the land. The cast of the show is large, and aside from actions the humor is solid at times as well. You might note how many episodes there are, but this show is enjoyable throughout, and is actually a good example of a longer action show without running on for hundreds of shows as the more familiar “big shounen” shows do (Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, etc.). There’s a reason this is one of the most popular “gateway” shows in recent years.
Genres and Notes: Action, fantasy, coming of age. Not to be confused with simply “Fullmetal Alchemist” – the show is based on a manga, where the original show aired before the manga’s publication was done, and as such had to create their own story and ending from a certain point.
Episode Count: 64 episodes.
Buy on Amazon: First part, second part.
9) Baka to Test (2010):
Comedy and humor are pretty personal things, but I think this show is a good nod to humor in this series of posts (aside from the SitCom-ish Genshiken and the moments of levity spread throughout many of the other shows) – this show covers a school-setting where the students’ grades power up small fighting avatars, and the different classes fight, vying for better facilities. The show follows the lowest-ranked class, and their efforts to better their situation, and how they spend their time instead of studying – they aren’t ranked last for nothing.
This show has a lot of “anime conventions” and “cliched archetypes” – a pervert, a violent tomboy, a mild mannered bodacious girl, nosebleeds to signify someone is lecherous or aroused, and so on and so forth. I know this might sound a tad off-putting, but this show has undeniable charm that enables all these things to coalesce to an enjoyable whole – and that one can easily laugh throughout the entirety of the show certainly doesn’t hurt. Comedy is deeply personal, but humor is always appreciated.
Genres and Notes: Comedy, gag-humor, fan-service, anime-humor, high-school. The title translates to “Baka and Test”, where “Baka” means “Stupid” or “dumb”, with some nuances – often used by a girl to say someone’s dense for not realizing she likes him, in anime.
Episode Count: Two seasons, 13 episodes each.
Buy on Amazon: First season, second season.
10) Shigofumi (2008):
Shigofumi, or Letters from the Departed follows the story of Fumika, who delivers “shigofumi”, the last letter someone can send after dying. Most of the series doesn’t revolve around Fumika, but is vignettes exploring the lives of characters – those who die and those who will receive the letters, the death and its effects on people, and then how they react to the letter they receive. The last few episodes deal more with Fumika’s past, and the secrets surrounding her.
This show is a master-class in showing you how you can be made to care for characters in less than 20 minutes from when you first get to meet them. While there’s certainly an element of emotional manipulation going on here, it’s just so well done, and the stories are all so poignant while being extremely bleak, that you can’t help but fall in love with this show. It’s one of my favourite shows of all times, but is relatively unknown.
Genres and Notes: Emotional, vignettes, drama, afterlife. Note, the show contains stories of bullying, abuse, sexual abuse, murder, suicide and more. It’s definitely not a light show, so some discretion is advised.
Episode Count: 12 episodes. Make sure to watch the first two episodes together, they comprise one story.
Buy on Amazon: Complete series.
Note on shows mentioned and their order in this post: The first three are the “influential” shows, listed in chronological order, I do think you should make sure to watch all three before delving deeper. 4-5 are shows which are more similar to western shows, as drama or comedy, to ease the transition. 6-8 are all “fun” action shows, thriller or fight oriented. 9-10 are good shows which round up what I’d often recommend, with 10 being a personal favourite, a true gem, showing you again what anime can do, emotionally.
Note on obtaining the shows: I linked to Amazon as someone requested it. Do pay attention to regions, especially of Blu-Rays (BDs). When it comes to BDs, even Amazon.co.uk usually sells Region 1 (USA and Japan) discs and not Europe’s region 2.
Here are the main anime-centric torrent sites, though I will not link to specific torrents or groups.
Nyaa - the main western anime-related torrent aggregate site.
TokyoTosho – Has many of the same things as Nyaatorrent, but more manga and non-translated things appear. Also has issues remaining online.
BakaBT – A collection of higher quality videos and often harder to find shows, but you’re expected to keep a proper ratio.