Partly from pandemic boredom and partly as an attempt to broaden my horizons, I too have joined the anime popularity wave, having recently binge-watched a few popular anime series and a couple of lesser-known ones too. But in the same way that I’m not a Star Wars fan after having seen episodes I–VI (and one of the crappy Disney ones), I am not an anime fan for having watched a few shows. So I consider myself fully qualified to write a layperson’s, or a non-anime-fan’s anime guide to help introduce this growing and interesting genre to the anime-curious.
Editor’s note: Expert anime fact-checkers, feel free to berate this layperson’s anime guide on social media, where he will more than likely completely ignore your comments.
What’s the difference between anime and animation?
One of the first observations to make is that unlike the norm I grew up with for “animation”, Japanese anime is not always aimed at children. That’s not to say it is not-for-children, but a lot of it is not the kind of entertainment that would be aired on children’s TV. And if, like me, you also grew up with cartoons, you have to keep reminding yourself that anime does not = “cartoons”. Whilst there are quite a few “grown up” English animated series aimed at adults—Beavis and Butthead, Southpark, Bojak Horseman and so on—they are still a bit cartoonish. So to help adjust your expectations, and cover some of the main characteristics of anime, here are some key points where Japanese anime differs from “cartoons”.
High school age cast
In almost all the anime series I watched (listed below), the main protagonists were either of adolescent (even pre-adolescent) age. Again, this also made me think about the age of the intended audience—normally I’m used to children being the protagonists meaning that the film/series audience is meant to include children. Of course, the context of many stories being in an historical or fantasy setting does suggest a lower “coming of age” age. But, if you watch or have watched some of the series I mention below, compare them with the tone and style of the Harry Potter series, which also has an adolescent/coming-of-age cast.
As anyone familiar with Japanese films and TV will recognize, you’re unlikely to get through many minutes of a typical anime episode without some serious shouting/screaming/crying. I think there is no better example of this than the Inosuke Hashibira character from Demon Slayer. He’s this little chap who wears a wild boar mask and seems to shout just about all of his lines; the ones that aren’t shouted are screamed till you start to worry about the damage inflicted on the voice actor’s vocal chords. I’m no professional cultural critic, but I do understand there are mutterings of “Kabuki influence” and “over-acting” to explain the higher ratio of shouted lines in Japanese soaps/films/anime versus typical Western equivalents. Anyway, whatever the reason, do brace yourself for the protagonist being a bit more shouty than what you might ordinarily be accustomed to.
R-rated anime: Violence and gore
Although “cartoon” violence might not look as gory as a Hollywood horror, I certainly found a lot of the themes in the anime I watched quite gruesome. From chopping off limbs to ripping out fingernails, being burnt alive and other such delights. Things can get pretty nasty, especially considering the characters are often, as mentioned, of adolescent age.
R-rated anime: Sexy (violence)
Another “adult” side of anime is how incidentally sexualized it can be. For example, in Demon Slayer, the younger sister of the main protagonist and demon (but good demon) Nezuko mysteriously develops rather revealing cleavage when she gets angry or into fights. For another Demon Slayer example, the series “Entertainment District Arc” is set in a geisha district, complete with a sexy geisha (upper six Kizuki) demon battle, who sheds most of her clothes to battle, leaving only thin strips of fabric to partially cover her boobs, and skimpy knickers. Even in the very mainstream Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaä, the 16-year-old princess protoganist sports thigh-high boots, and an unfeasibly short skirt.
Of course, none of this is actually R-rated (PG perhaps) and seldom is sexuality referenced in any plot, but again it seems like the goalposts of acceptability have moved a bit compared with the animation I’ve seen before Japanese anime—I can’t recall any such visual scene from an English animation, for example.
Depth and complexity
One of the things I really enjoy about anime is how complex and nuanced the stories and themes are compared to their English animation counterparts. Unlike Disney-esque good versus evil, the baddies are seldom “just evil”, and there’s usually a detailed back story for each character that gives context to their actions. For example (and at risk of plot spoiling), in Attack on Titan it’s impossible to point to who the “goodies” and “baddies” are, as the story evolves and the characters adapt you find the increasingly tragic backstory makes it hard to point the blame.
There’s also complexity as a style. In Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure for example, the magical battle scenes between the protagonists are approximately 2% action and 98% the characters explaining the complex mechanism by which their magic defeats their opponents magic—imagine if in Inception Joseph Gordon Levitt, instead of stopping briefly to say “paradox” before throwing his enemy down the Penrose steps, spent a good 2 minutes explaining optical illusion and the laws of gravity by which his enemy would perish.
Binge-worthy popular anime series
No anime guide would be complete without a list of series to get you started. Here are a few popular ones that I binged on, with some notes on why you might (or might not) like them.
Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
This was first mainstream anime series I was exposed to, and it really was like being dropped in at the deep end of the confusing anime pool. If you like bizarre, then you’ll love this one—it’s right there in the title. The various Jojos and fellow protagonists (again, high school age), are essentially Jean-Paul-Gaultier-dressed mafiosa (but good), each with their own fantastically ridiculous magical power. Anyway, let’s not worry about the overall plot because I’ll probably get it all wrong, instead let’s just focus on the bizarreness.
Firstly, the magic powers (mysteriously called Stand Ability) are all named based on classic pop hits/band names, and amusingly these are all renamed in the English subtitles for copyright reasons. For example, bad-guy-turned-good Bruno Bucciarati’s magical power is “Sticky Fingers” (from the Rolling Stones album name) and every time you hear him incantate (in his Japanese accent) Sutikki Fingazu this is rendered as “Zipperman” in the subtitles. His Sticky Fingers magical power is even more silly than it sounds—it is the ability to add a zipper to any object within the vicinity. And whilst we’re talking about Bruno, I should mention he can also tell if you’re lying by licking the sweat off your face (ew).
Other fun magical powers in the series include “Moody Blues” (Moody Buruzu)—a kind of 80s answerphone tape recording of reality that allows seeing back in time; and “Sex Pistols” (Sekkusu Pisutoruzu)—six little friendly bullets that obey their master’s instructions.
Then you have the magic (or Stand) battles themselves. As mentioned above, these are 2% action and 98% complex explanation—just when you thought the enemy was done for, they manage to pull some ludicrous metaphorical rabbit out of their magic hat, perform a nerdy two-minute explanation as to why the rabbit aids the escape, then escape. Hours of explanatory and inexplicable bizarre fun.
Demon Slayer (Kimetsu No Yaiba)
Demon Slayer is one of the most popular and certainly ticks a lot of anime boxes. There are swashbuckling, slapstick demon slayer heroes with superhuman skills and large anime eyes; a bizarre array of demons, from a weird spider boy to sexy geisha; an old-meets-new Taisho-Era Japan as a backdrop; and a main character that shouts or screams every line.
The main protagonist is teenage Tanjiro Kamado, whose family was killed by a demon, except for his younger sister Nezuko, who has herself been turned into a cute younger sister demon. Tanjiro is determined to protect his sister and find a way to have his sister’s normal life restored, and trains relentlessly to join the secret Demon Slayer Corps. He is joined by several other teenage demon slayer protagonists who battle demons and work their way up the various ranks in the Demon Slayer Corps, with an eye on defeating Muzan Kibutsuji, the charming but ultra-evil progenitor of all demons.
The story has lots of interesting twists and turns, and between the epic and very shouty demon battles, there’s plenty of light humor, teenage crushes and feuds to keep everyone entertained.
Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin)
Rather badly translated title aside (surely Attack of the Titans?), this is a magnificent example of Japanese anime. Fantastic steampunk Renaissance European vibes, a devilishly twisting, evolving plot and an all-star, all-shouting adolescent cast make for great binge viewing.
From the first few episodes, you really have no idea of what is to come later in the series. The plot keeps you guessing and ties together the many threads and small details gradually revealed in this fantasy world of human-eating titans.
A word of warning: this anime is full of gore, and you’d better not get too attached to any of the characters, as invariably in each episode some of them are eaten, mangled or maimed. And of course the shouting—be prepared for a lot of shouting.
Pro tip: You can have a real-life Attack on Titan adventure at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.
As seems to be the common theme here, Jujutsu Kaisen is also a high-school-age protagonist story.
Set in a sorcery school in present-day Tokyo, we follow the trials and tribulations of school-kid sorcerers and their masters on their quest to battle evil spirits. The main protagonist Yuji Itadori stumbles upon this world when he unwittingly swallows a cursed rotten finger (ewww) of the uber-evil Sukuna, and becomes a vessel for his evil spirit. However, Yuji discovers he has natural abilities and gets to join a ramshackle cast of other high schoolers learning to hone their sorcery abilities whilst resisting the bullying senior students, rival schools and then co-operating to battle evil spirits and hang out in Tokyo afterwards.
If you like watching Tokyo-based anime, you might like our Anime Pilgrimages: Exploring Real-Life Locations in Tokyo article.
One of the ultimate anime classics, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a mind-bending apocalyptic mix of mecha (giant robot-like things), mystical vibes and existentialism. Like many of the other anime titles mentioned here, the story mainly plays out from the perspective of a teenage cast, who have to try and save humanity while juggling complex childhood trauma, schoolwork and the sinister ambitions of a secret society. The adults in the show have their own psychological issues to face as they help/hinder the kids from deciding the fate of the world.
Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Soryu Langley must pilot the mysterious, massive and other-worldly Eva “units” to protect new Tokyo (based in/on Hakone) and the rest of the world from scary “angels”, who don’t seem to have gotten the memo about being guardians. These beings appear in a specific sequence, and are somehow connected to “the Instrumentality Project”. It’s all very mysterious and deep, and hella dark.
Coming out of the mid-90s, Evangelion may look a little dated, but the animation is solid, the battle scenes well choreographed, and the plot sufficiently complex that you can watch it again and again and not get bored.
Lesser-known anime series
I can only scratch the surface of this vast genre, but here are a couple of non-mainstream series I liked, and found a nice contrast to the ones covered above.
After all the action, shouting and underwear, you’ll find Mushishi a calming counterbalance to lower your pulse. This gently paced story follows Ginko, a Mushi Master (Mushishi) on his quest to study Mushi and help protect people from their ill effects. Mushi are ethereal and primitive lifeforms that most people cannot perceive.
This series has a more pensive tone, and often the story revolves around Ginko helping some unfortunate and downtrodden peasants who’ve had the misfortune of some dire mushi influence. As Ginko moves from village to village, he encounters a variety of fantastic mushi and a range of problems from the light to the tragic.
With hip-hop vibes and expert swordsmanship, this tale of two itinerant samurai and their female companion (who herself is searching for her own samurai), makes for a change from a lot of the mainstream manga themes. This is the anime series that acutally “turned” me. Some years before the pandemic, I randonly stumbled upon Samurai Champloo on Netflix and it contracdicted the anime streotype I had in mind. So whilst I didn’t quickly convert to an anime fan, it at least opened the door as I realised anime was actually a vast and varied genre.
If you’ve ever read Musashi the Novel (recommended reading if not), you’ll find Samurai Champloo has many parallels to this literary classic—love, vagrancy and virtue.
Where to watch anime
If you’re based in Japan, you can usually get first dibs on new anime releases, watching the latest episodes on NHK, MBS and TBS. Otherwise, Netflix and other mainstream streaming servies usually have a roster of anime series you can binge your way through, and in your own language. However, if you’re not in Japan and impatient to get the lastest episodes, then there’s the anime-specific streaming service Crunchyroll, which is worth checking out.
Before you go: For more on anime in Japan, including cosplay, collectibles and real-life pilgrimages in Tokyo and surrounds, check out our dedicated section on anime and gaming.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.