What Anime You'll Like - Based on What Non-Anime You Like
A lot of people think anime isn't for them, but their opinion of anime is informed only by a few of the most popular and well-known anime series. They judge a very diverse medium based only on the the most well-known and popular genre in the Anglophone world, shounen. Shounen anime is targeted at a teenage male demographic. The most popular anime in the West these days, including Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Fairy Tail, Black Clover, and others, are all the shounen genre. The shounen genre focuses heavily on fighting and the bonds of friendship that form when fighting alongside someone. They also usually feature a rival, who wants to do what the main character is doing, and who gets in the main character's way. My favorite series in the genre are YuYu Hakusho and Hunter x Hunter, which happen to have the same original manga author.
But that's not all there is to anime, and some people don't realize that. Anime is a medium, not a genre. Outside of Japan, in the English-speaking world, 'anime' refers to Japanese animation, which is made for a wide range of demographic groups. There are as many fictional genres in anime as there are in any other medium, and some genres that are primarily found in, or even exclusive to, anime. For example, the isekai and harem genres are exclusive to anime, for the most part.
The cool thing is, whatever you're passionate about in non-anime fiction probably has an anime counterpart. So here's my handy guide to what anime you'll probably like based on what kinds of fiction you like that is not anime.
Historical Romantic Drama
If your favorite movie involves Keira Knightley in a corset, or is an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, or both, there is anime for you!
Here are some recommendations:
- Rose of Versailles (pictured above). This epic series details the life of Marie Antoinette and her struggles with the French court, as a naive foreigner, and shows the souring social climate leading up to the French Revolution.
- Victorian Romance: Emma. As the title suggests, great for fans of Victorian-era romance novels. Emma is a hardworking maid, pursued romantically by a rich gentleman. Can they be together despite this class difference?
- Rurouni Kenshin. Set in Japan during the tumultuous Meiji era, which was the last era for samurai and a time of Japan's rapid modernization, this series focuses on a former warrior who wishes to atone for the people he killed. It combines shounen with historical romance, so there is a lot of sword-fighting. But the romance not only between the main characters, but between a few different side characters, is heartwarming.
- Inuyasha. This one is shounen and fantasy, but it is a romance that takes place primarily in medieval Japan. Intense emotional experiences of different characters are what carry the show. As does the show's wacky sense of humor.
- Basilisk. Not for the faint of heart, this is Romeo & Juliet but with rival ninja clans in medieval Japan. Just as gory as the original Romeo & Juliet, or more, but also just as sweetly melancholic.
- Haikara-san: Here Comes Miss Modern. It was an older manga with an anime adaptation, set in the very early 20th century. They recently came out with a film version which has an English dub. The focus is on the theme of modernity liberating women, but it's also very feely.
- Pumpkin Scissors. This lesser-known anime explores the idea of winning a war but having a hard time keeping the peace. Alice is a noble who joins the military to help rebuild her country after a war has devastated it. Her love interest is a soldier with a tragic past. They must fight for honor, but most importantly, to restore their devastated country and give people their lives back.
I personally only like comedy once in a while. But I have found that there are many great funny anime out there. Some of my favorites include:
- Hetalia (pictured above). It centers on the hilarious antics of anthropomorphic representations of countries, the main characters being the World War Two Axis powers of Italy, Germany, and Japan.
- Lucky Star. This is the kind of show that can make any mundane thing seem totally wild. If you like this one, also check out K-On! and Azumanga Daioh!. These shows are great if you like a kind of humor that is more wholesome. Well, most of the time.
- Urusei Yatsura and Ranma 1/2. They're written by the same manga author (who also did Inuyasha) and have a similar style of humor. Lots of slapstick, lots of angry women hitting dudes who deserve it (played for laughs). Lots of gender, sex, and romance-based comedy. Generally a good time.
- Dragon Ball. This series exemplifies the goofy humor style of older anime. It's less serious than its more famous sequel series, Dragon Ball Z, and there is fighting, but slapstick humor is a main feature of the show. The style of humor is juvenile, but if that's your thing, go with it.
- Lupin III. This is a series about crime, but it rarely takes it that seriously. Cartoonish, maybe. But it has a lot of heart, and some of the funniest moments in anime history. Worth checking out is the movie, Castle of Cagliostro.
- Tenchi Muyo. If you like the dom com genre, you'll get a kick out of watching this lovable loser suddenly live with some rather sexy unexpected guests. Who don't get along at all. Similar shows include Ah! My Goddess and Love Hina.
- Shin-Chan. The original show was silly, but relatively tame, aimed at children. Funimation did a dubbed version for the American audience that packed on crass humor and added American political and pop-culture references. Great for fans of edgier comedy, like Family Guy or South Park.
Whether you like Shakespeare's tragedies, tragic operas, or just melancholy poetry, there are several anime that fit the 'beautiful sadness' tone you're looking for. These are some of my favorite anime, because I like the way tragic stories can help us find meaning in suffering.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion. People have accused it of being 'emo' and trying too hard to be deep. It does sometimes confuse vague nonsense for actually saying something interesting. But the show deals with human suffering, as almost every character has issues. Since I have chronic depression, I find this show relatable. I like to watch it during bad times.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica (pictured above). This is a dark, sad version of the 'magical girl' genre of anime in much the same way that Evangelion is a sadder version of the 'giant robot' anime genre. This series explores the suffering caused by sacrificing one's soul for the heart's truest wish, like in Faust.
- Fullmetal Alchemist. Though there are comedic moments, the main message is that suffering is a price one must pay for any gains. The quest for truth is hard. Equivalent exchange is a harsh mistress.
- Gunslinger Girls. This anime is about orphan girls who are made into weapons. This show tells us how important little things in life can be in hard times. It's about the fight to preserve one's humanity in a cruel world.
- Haibane Renmei. This anime has some cute moments, but has a sad, lonely general feel. If K-On! is cute girls doing cute things, this is cute sad girls doing things, in a creepy, purgatory-like world. The anime feels dream-like.
- Wolf's Rain. This tragic anime is about a gang of teens who can transform into wolves. Despite this power, they can't find anywhere to live. They struggle to survive in their dangerous world.
Teen Drama, Comedy, and Romance
What originally attracted me to manga was petty basic reasoning. I was a teen girl, and manga had a lot of stories about teenage girls. This might be a little annoying, because it can be hard to find anime geared towards non-teen demographics, or with non-teen protagonists.
But it fills a need, in that there aren't as many Western drama series with a focus on teenage girls. Even teenage soap-opera style drama as a genre has sort of died off in Western television. A lot of anime have a teenage protagonist. But often, the focus is not on school, and the protagonist might not even spend a lot of time actually attending school, if the plot takes him or her elsewhere.
My favorite teen romance dramas feature independent, strong-willed but likeable female characters. I like this genre because someone's first experiences with love in life are typically highly emotional experiences. Here are some of my favorite teen drama shows:
- Peach Girl (pictured above). I like this show because the villain is so bad, the good girl is so good, and the pressures and bullying faced by the protagonist felt very real.
- Sailor Moon, the original anime from the 90's, features teen drama, romance, and comedy in many episodes, while also being a supernatural battle between a group of magical girls and various evil beings. The balance between these two elements of the show was part of what made the show fun for me.
- Ouran High School Host Club. Go big or go home in this comedy about clueless rich kids that offers feels, laughs, and friendship.
- Fruits Basket. Probably a favorite teen romance story of mine. Also one of the best, if not the best, 'reverse harem' stories, of which there are not enough!
- Revolutionary Girl Utena. Challenging gender stereotypes and the oppression of the cultish reverence for tradition going on at her seriously weird school, Utena stands out as a modern heroine, liberating herself and empowering others.
Sci-Fi and Cyberpunk
Speculative fiction genres lend themselves well to visual media. Including anime. Many of my favorite anime are sci-fi or cyberpunk.
- Cowboy Bebop. This one's great if you just want wacky shenanigans among space losers, like Futurama. But like Futurama, this show also packs a surprising emotional impact in certain episodes.
- Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2048. This one is the 'girl power cyberpunk' I didn't know I needed in my life so badly until I watched it.
- Akira. This movie was brilliantly animated. A masterwork of the essence of cyberpunk, youthful rebellion. Tetsuo's transformation is a brilliant and stark metaphor for the fear of becoming something you hate. The whole thing is about how power can corrupt an ordinary person.
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. I like the movies, but I feel like the show, having a longer format, was better able to explore themes that the movies could only hint at.
- The Animatrix. I enjoy this movie better than the original Matrix, because it's so complex and multi-layered. It doesn't just focus on one plot line. Instead, this movie shows the origin of the Matrix, explores how machines enslaved man, and tells the stories of many people in the Matrix, through a series of animated vignettes. Visually a masterpiece.
- FLCL (pictured above). This one is a more comedic take on the whole 'body horror' thing. An alien girl makes a young boy her robot-producing slave. Because what else is there to do in a small town? Edgy, punkish, a little vulgar, and crazy as hell, what else could you want in an anime?
This one's for my mom, who is addicted to Monk, Murder, She Wrote, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the like.
- Sakurako: Beautiful Bones. Sakurako is a beast at solving murders. Problem? The police don't like random high school kids poking around at crime scenes. Especially when she makes the police look bad.
- Death Note. This one is the best if what interests you is how the criminal tries to psychologically manipulate the police to trip up their investigation. It also blends the genres of crime drama and supernatural horror quite well.
- Ace Attorney. A story of unrealistic, but funny courtroom antics with many wacky side characters. There are murder mysteries, but the focus is the comedy caused by the outlandish, over-the-top way the characters react to things.
- Case Closed aka Detective Conan. This heartwarming show is about a little boy who solves mysteries. I definitely recommend the manga as well.
- Lupin III. It's always a good time.
- Cowboy Bebop. Since parts of it were also inspired by film noir, I'm going to call it a recommendation for crime drama fans as well as sci-fi fans.
Psychological horror drama aimed at adults and vampire/demon fighting anime aimed at teenagers are both fairly common in anime. Some of my favorites:
- Blood: The Last Vampire. This short film is about Saya, a teen vampire girl who is hired to hunt her own kind by posing as a Japanese high school student. There is strong, emotionally evocative imagery. This movie is one of my favorites to watch on Halloween, since a Halloween dance figures into the plot of the movie. It got a series reboot called Blood +, but I didn't care for this as much.
- Trinity Blood. This is kind of a middle of the road action anime about fighting vampires, but is generally fun to watch.
- Hellsing and Hellsing Ultimate. This story is about a badass vampire being badass, but that's better than it sounds when I put it like that.
- Perfect Blue (pictured above). This psychological horror movie explores the idea of being terrorized not only by a creepy stalker, but by one's own concept of reality coming apart.
- Soul Eater. This is a typical shounen action story, superficially garnished with Halloween aesthetics. But it's not terrible for what it is.
- Devilman Lady. I have not seen Netflix's more recent Devilman adaptation, Devilman Crybaby, but I did enjoy once upon a time watching this tale of a beauty who changes into the beast.
- Castlevania. I haven't seen this one yet, but it seems like the show's popularity on Netflix and its generally favorable critical reception speak for themselves.
- Tokyo Ghoul. Like Madoka and Akira, a central theme is the fear of becoming a monster. A teenage boy is forced to become a cannibalistic monster called a ghoul. And he's not happy about it.
- Vampire Knight. This one is basically anime's version of Twilight. It's a reverse harem with a human girl and a lot of hot vampire dudes. Why is my heart beating so fast? But it's not just frivolous fanservice for women. The show has a cool message about how difficult cooperation and mutual understanding can be between different groups (vampires and humans).
There are many anime about sports. I haven't actually watched any of these, but anime that are highly recommended in this category include:
- Haikyuu!! (pictured above). Volleyball.
- Kuroko no Basket. Basketball.
- Ping Pong the Animation.
- Prince of Tennis.
- Yuri!!! on Ice. Figure skating.
Many other anime focus on the psychology of competition, like Initial D with drag racing and Hikaru no Go with the game 'Go'. Wanting to win and to be the best at something is a common motivation shared by many anime protagonists. You won't see too many about sports not popular in Japan, like American football, however.
If you enjoy:
Disney, Pixar, and other children's movies
Studio Ghibli movies, Pokemon, Digimon, Sailor Moon, Cadcaptor Sakura, Vision of Escaflowne
Gritty, dark fantasy
Princess Mononoke, Basilisk
Panty & Stocking, FLCL, Shin Chan, Dead Leaves
Edgy, girl power, action
Kill La Kill, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Bubblegum Crisis
Trigun, Grenadier, Desert Punk
Inuyasha, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Fairy Tail
The harem ane ecchi genres. My favorites are Tenchi Muyo, Prison School, and Shimoneta
If I could accomplish one thing out of this blog, it would be to get people to stop treating all anime and manga as one thing, with a single set of characteristics and tropes. It's a medium, not a genre. All anime may be Japanese in cultural origin, and there are tropes that are common in most anime. But I feel like too many people discuss anime as if all that existed were the biggest names in the shounen genre. That's really just a tiny slice of the overall anime pie.
I would encourage people who think they don't like anime to try and discover anime more like what they do enjoy in terms of fiction. Above are some recommendations that I hope will get people started on that journey. But I would also encourage everyone to do their own research about anime that are similar to the shows, movies, and books that they like. Don't dismiss anime just because you disliked one show. I guarantee that there is something out there for everyone, if only everyone were willing to search.
Please also let me know if there's other anime you'd recommend or something you think I missed!