Despite its growing popularity, anime can be rough to get into. It still carries a stigma in some circles as being “Pokémon and hentai,” and it’s also renowned for being weird and over-the-top, thanks to shows like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. On some level, these are fair assessments; many shows enjoy the freedom of getting silly and surreal. While that may be true on a show-by-show basis, though, much of the pushback against anime comes from the idea that all things from Japan are “weird” as a baseline, and “normal” or accessible entertainment is an exception. In actuality, a lot of the difficulty in introducing non-anime-watchers to anime comes from the regular use of established tropes — some of which may be “weird,” but many of which are simply new to the viewer.
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When I recommend anime to new viewers, I often find myself jumping backwards to shows that came out decades ago. These are classics that never die, like Macross: Do You Remember Love? and Cowboy Bebop. But relying on these kinds of recommendations gives the impression that there’s no good, accessible anime being made now. Which, well, just isn’t true.
Like any entertainment from any region, anime is a mix of good, bad, and unremarkable. In 2018, Japan released more than 250 titles across television, cinema, and streaming services. Not all of them are going to be good — and of the good ones, not all will necessarily be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with anime.
2018 was not a dire year for anime, though. For hardcore fans, there were big hits like ZOMBIE LAND SAGA, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and the return of the aforementioned JoJo. But even for the uninitiated, there are plenty of series that showcase the fun, silliness, drama, and beauty of anime at its best. Even if your anime experience is accidentally seeing a little bit of Naruto once, you’ll find something to love in these fresh titles.
Cells at Work!
At first glance, the concept of Cells at Work! seems a bit Pixar: “What if all the cells in your body were people?” The show proves to be educational and charming, though, as episodes play out helping you understand how all the little cells that comprise you work together to keep you healthy.
Our protagonists are a clumsy red blood cell who delivers food and oxygen all over the human body, and a white blood cell who shows up to ID and eliminate germs and pathogens. You’ll meet plenty of other cells, too, all with designs and personalities that suit their function. Platelets, for example, are construction crews of tiny children who sweep in to repair damage.
Both the anime and the original manga by Akane Shimizu have received positive attention for being informative and educational. The show’s producers have gone so far as to offer visual assets from the series along with educational materials for free classroom use in Japan. They’ve even teamed up with the Japanese Red Cross for blood drives, re-airing their episode about donating blood at the same time.
If you’ve got family in school, or just want to know more about how your body functions, Cells at Work! is a cute way to get informed.
Iyashikei, or “healing” anime, are growing in popularity. Shows like these are made primarily to be calm, fun, and soothing. If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli movie for the calming scenery and music, congrats, you were getting into some iyashikei.
At the top of many people’s soothing anime lists is Laid-Back Camp, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Based on a manga by artist Afro, the series is low in conflict and high in snuggly warmth. Five girls who enjoy camping meet up and, well, go camping. There’s also a dog named Chikuwa who wears little jackets and is absolutely adorable.
Laid-Back Camp also functions to highlight some of Japan’s gorgeous natural areas and campsites, and has encouraged fans from all over to try out the hobby for themselves. Even if it doesn’t inspire you to commune with the great outdoors, just watching it is the next best thing.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about the plot — and that’s because there really isn’t one. Each episode has a story, and the characters grow as they get to know each other, but there’s no conflict or tension, just campfires and friendship. Intense, exciting stories are great, and you’ll see a few throughout the remainder of this list. But for those days when you just want a little extra happiness, Laid-Back Camp fits the bill.
A less talked about gem of 2018, Kokkoku is a new spin on time travel and alternate dimension sci-fi. The majority of the 12-episode series takes place in the span of a moment, thanks to one family’s paranormal powers.
The Yukawas are a washed-up family, with their only hope of turning out a vaguely functional human being preschooler Makoto. When he and his uncle are kidnapped for an impossible ransom, Grandpa reveals a secret: he can use a magic stone to stop time for himself and anyone else who lays hands on the stone at the same time. There’s just one problem: there’s a religious cult that can do the same thing, and they’re the ones who kidnapped Makoto.
Our protagonist, Makoto’s aunt Juri, leads the family’s journey of self-discovery through the frozen world known as Stasis. She learns how Stasis functions, from its laws and temptations to its strange monsters known as Handlers, and discovers her own powers and those of her family.
Kokkoku has the highest “weird” factor of any of the shows on this list, but it’s a rewarding piece of horror-laced sci-fi. Its deeper message of discovering your own value and using times of stasis to grow and explore complements the centuries-old conspiracy behind the Yukawas’ mysterious powers. It’s also got some amazing monster designs and a sweet opening theme.
Lupin the 3rd: Part 5
Don’t let the title fool you: while long-standing Lupin fans will find lots to love in its latest installment, you can come into this series as a complete newbie.
Lupin the 3rd is sort of Japan’s James Bond, with the pedigree to prove it. Born in the 1960s as a manga series, it stars the grandson of Maurice Leblanc’s legendary gentleman thief Arséne Lupin. Despite our Lupin’s much more modern sensibility — sports jackets, cigarettes, fast cars, and his signature Walther P38 — he’s still a lovable thief with a heart of gold and decades of secrets.
The latest series takes place largely in France, and pits the Lupin Gang against their biggest threat yet: modern technology. Lupin’s team consists of cranky sharpshooter Jigen, anachronistic samurai Goemon, and (occasionally) his girlfriend and rival Fujiko. The team go toe-to-toe with hackers, crypto-currency swindlers, dangerous hashtag games, and global facial recognition software — all of which force them to up their game.
There’s plenty for existing Lupin fans to enjoy in the show’s filler episodes, each of which is based on a different era of the franchise. But lovers of action, intrigue, and a good old-fashioned heist can jump in with both feet and meet the Lupin Gang at their best. Even better? Once you’re done, there’s years of TV and film instalments to watch if you want more!
A Place Further Than the Universe
2018 was an amazing year for new anime, but the Madhouse series A Place Further Than the Universe takes the prize for the year’s most unexpected, most accessible hit. Equal doses of humor, cuteness, emotion, harsh reality, and wonder are present in this stand-out hit about four teenagers who just want to go to Antarctica, gosh darn it.
The mission is first envisioned by Shirase, whose explorer mother went missing during her last trip to the continent. Shirase believes her mother is still out there, and will do whatever she has to in order to find her. With the help of three new friends — curious but directionless Kimari, high school dropout Hinata, and actress Yuzuki — she finally gets to join a civilian expedition heading to the bottom of the world.
Much of the series focuses on the journey, following the four girls as they attempt to get into the expedition and then make their way to Antarctica. We see what it’s like to actually be in such harsh conditions, but the educational aspects are intertwined with Shirase and friends’ own journeys: growing up, understanding friendship, making future plans, and coming to terms with loss.
I can’t recommend A Place Further Than the Universe highly enough. And at 12 episodes, it’s short enough for a week-long watch or dedicated weekend binge. Just have tissues handy for the finale.
As much as anime can seem like a weird and distant world if you’re not already into it, there are plenty of shows that are welcoming to new or mainstream viewers. Have you encountered any that you unexpectedly enjoyed?