Anime is more popular in the West than it’s ever been. The medium is evergreen in Japan, where the term “anime” just refers to animated cartoons in general. In the Western world, “anime” usually conjures up images of over-the-top battles, giant robots, and a very distinct aesthetic.
If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about with anime, you might have tried to dip your toes into the medium. There are some dense, obscure shows out there under the anime umbrella, and some casual viewers simply bounce from the more esoteric anime series.
Today, we’ve got a list of some of the best beginner anime to introduce you to the medium. These are some of the most acclaimed anime series of all time, and several of them are considered classics of animation and TV in general, not just among Japanese animation. Let’s dive in and check out these all-time great series!
One Piece is an extremely long-running series by author Eichiro Oda. It centers on a young wannabe pirate named Monkey D. Luffy, a boy who wears a trademark straw hat and wants to become the legendary King of the Pirates. Luffy is joined on his quest by a colorful cast of characters, like the stoic swordsman Zoro and the braggadocious coward Usopp.
The series spans over 1,000 episodes, but don’t be daunted by its length. Each story arc is a somewhat self-contained adventure across a given island, and the crew meets new casts of characters and solves new problems every time they wash up on a new shore. One Piece is full of some very memorable moments, evenly splitting its time between riotous fight scenes and genuinely touching emotional stakes.
Each main character in the show is defined by their desire to achieve some long-held goal or aspiration. While Luffy wants to become King of the Pirates, Zoro wants to become the world’s greatest swordsman, and Nami wants to complete a map of the entire world. These dreams form the backbone of the long-running series and have kept fans enthralled for over 20 years.
If you like cyberpunk stories, Westerns, or just smooth animation in general, you’ll love Cowboy Bebop. The pivotal series stars a group of spacefaring bounty hunters who take odd jobs to keep their ship afloat. Think Firefly meets James Bond. Spike, the protagonist, is a man of few words who can charm with a smile–and kill with a look. His ally, Jet, is a no-nonsense bruiser who keeps the ship running and keeps them rolling in new jobs.
The two make some friends along the way, including the femme fatale Faye and a child genius named Ed. The four make their way through the solar system, leaving a trail of captured criminals and broken bones in their wake. The show notably makes incredible use of music and has one of the best soundtracks ever heard in an anime.
Cowboy Bebop is also renowned for its groundbreaking animation. It’s one of the most beautiful-looking anime series ever created, and it has aged incredibly well for a show from the 90s. If you’re a sucker for eye candy, you’ll love this series.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Fullmetal Alchemist isn’t just one of the best anime ever made or one of the finest animated shows. It’s easily one of the greatest TV shows ever created, telling a riveting and emotional story that speaks to universal truths and the fundamental human desire to want to bring loved ones back from the beyond. The protagonists, Ed and Al Elric, make a critical error when they try to reverse the death of their mother using a magical process called Alchemy.
Ed and Al get the measurements just right and offer up the right ingredients to create a human body from scratch. However, alchemy runs on the law of equivalent exchange, and nothing can meet the value of a human soul. The two narrowly survive the disastrous attempted reanimation and go on to become two of the most renowned alchemists of their era.
The adventure they go on throughout the series is unforgettable, and the two meet a cast of eccentric and lovable characters as they attempt to untangle a deadly mystery. Fullmetal Alchemist is renowned for its incredible character writing and unparalleled fantasy world-building. The nature of the revelations the Elric Brothers experience will stick with you long after the credits roll on the last episode.
My Hero Academia
My Hero Academia is a perfect jumping-on point for comic book fans who want to get into anime. The series was inspired by American superhero comics, which is evident from the characters’ outlandish costumes, alter-ego names, and superpowers. The show follows the adventures of Izuku Midoriya, a young hero-in-training who wants to join the prestigious hero training school UA Academy.
Midoriya’s classmates in Class 1A are a superhero team worthy of headlining their own series–think the X-Men meets Harry Potter. Watching these heroes grow from being untrained kids to fully-fledged superheroes is a treat, and it’ll leave you begging for more. As the class faces ever-escalating stakes and the villains they face grow ever bolder, it’s impossible not to cheer for the heroes in the face of insurmountable odds.
The show also has one of the most moving explanations for why anyone would want to use superpowers for the good of all people rather than for selfish gain, and this heart shines through even in the darkest storyline twists.
One Punch Man
The legendary series One Punch Man parodies many anime tropes while also acting as a love letter to the action genre. The protagonist, Saitama, is a superhero who can defeat any opponent with a single blow. Likewise, there’s no entity in the universe that can damage him. What sounds like a recipe for the most epic action story ever actually leaves Saitaima bored and unfulfilled. When every battle’s outcome is decided before the first punch is thrown, where’s the tension?
Thankfully, One Punch Man isn’t just a straight-up action show. It’s a satire that will leave you laughing every time it plays out its perfectly-timed gags. Sure, the punchline of “and then Saitama beats them with a single punch” is a simple one, but One Punch Man does such a good job of setting it up that you won’t mind the repetition. The wide cast of characters also includes plenty of genuine heroes who have to battle and struggle to protect the innocent, and their fights are some of the best-looking anime sequences ever put together.
If you’re looking for a genuinely funny anime that is more self-aware than your average action series, One Punch Man is perfect for you. It’s also relatively short, as it currently only spans two seasons. You can digest the whole show in about a week if you’re open to binge-watching!
Many longtime fans of anime swear by YuYu Hakusho being the best starter series of them all. The show starts off simply enough: a young delinquent named Yusuke lives his life as a thug, bullying classmates and stealing from anyone he can push around. However, he gives his life to save a toddler from a speeding car, leaving the powers that be in the afterlife unsure of what to do with him.
Rather than condemn him to a negative afterlife, the people in charge choose to have Yusuke become a “spirit detective,” a ghostly interloper who can solve problems of a metaphysical nature. The series takes some downright mind-blowing twists and turns after this initial setup, making it a great entryway to the world of anime.
YuYu Hakusho is renowned among fans for its expert plotting, incredibly likable characters, and over-the-top fights. The Dark Tournament arc is still considered one of the most narratively satisfying executions of that trope in anime history. If you’re a fan of action-driven shows, supernatural plotlines, and adorable penguin-looking spirits, you’ll love this one.
It’s fair to say that Dragon Ball is the grandfather of modern Shonen anime. Shonen is a style that roughly means “for teenage boys,” and it includes superpowered characters fighting monstrous villains and training to overcome their limits. It’s easy to draw a direct line from Dragon Ball to the most popular modern anime like One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto.
The long-running series is split into two parts, with the first half focusing on the protagonist, Goku’s, childhood. Goku is a mysterious young boy who crashes into Earth in a strange pod and hits his head before being adopted by a martial arts master named Gohan. It’s loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, and Goku’s adventures lead him to meet numerous wacky villains and make friends wherever he goes.
The second part of the story, called Dragon Ball Z in the West, takes place after a long jump forward in the timeline. Goku is an adult in this era and fights against threats drawn more from the sci-fi tradition than fantasy, unlike the first half of the series. Audiences learn that the character is one of the last members of a dying race of warriors named Saiyans and that he was sent to Earth to wipe out humanity to make a new home for the displaced Saiyan race. If you’re looking for a great ground-level anime to start your journey with, you can’t go wrong with Dragon Ball.