Not all just schoolgirls, cardgames and tentacle rape: an essential anime primer

A friend of mine recently livetweeted her first viewing of the landmark animated film “Akira,” the seminal 1988 anime that changed the way that the medium was viewed and remains one of the high points of the genre. I talked to her after she finished the film and mentioned that she had heard the film was the main anime that people needed to see to understand the genre. At the time, I agreed but now, I’ve reconsidered. Anime is a diverse, difficult genre that’s unbelievably unwelcoming to new viewers and offers so much content that it can be hard to differentiate the good from the bad. By no means am I an expert on the genre but here’s my primer of the essential anime for any fan.

Akira

Its the first and by that means, its essential. The animation is impressive, the adaptation from a 1000 page manga to a fairly complete film is well done and the whole thing reeks of polish. It may stand up to more modern films of the genre but it is an impressive, essential moment in the development of the genre.

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro

A personal favorite of mine, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a Chuck Jones meets Japanese style gangster romp through Europe. A lot of classic anime archetypes are introduced here, whether its the consummate lady killer/thief, the BESM (Big Eyes, Small Mouth) princess, the noir inspired story or the neverending adventure resolution, this is a pure classic. It all makes sense when seeing that its one of Hayao Miyazaki’s first international movies and he would go on to be one of the biggest names in anime internationally with several other huge releases. Plus, the whole movie is available both on YouTube and Netflix Instant Stream. There’s no excuse not to check it out.

Grave of the Fireflies

Truly a heartbreaking film, this meditation of World War II, the atomic bomb, innocence and childhood is an unbelievably draining film but it is also one of the best pieces of Japanese entertainment. By no means is this untread ground in anime (the landmark “Barefoot Gen” covered it exhaustingly), but “Grave of the Fireflies” handles the moment beautifully and makes this worldwide tragedy into an innately personal tale of trials, sacrifice and death. Even Roger Ebert sees the relative international appeal and importance of “Grave of the Fireflies.” This is dark, difficult and tear jerking. Try to get through it with dry eyes.

Cowboy Bebop

Not only is it one of the most important televised anime but its one of the most important animated series ever, regardless of style. “Cowboy Bebop” integrated music, cyberpunk, space opera, noir, western and kabuki theater into a stunning and moving series. Every episode is another stylistic experiment in the melding of music, mystery and action and the series finale is a gorgeous climax to a wonderful series. The movie, which falls somewhat in the middle of the series, is also an essential piece of anime for anyone with a love of the genre.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

Along with “Dragon Ball,” the Gundam series was one of the first anime shows to really break in the U.S. “08th MS Team” took Gundam’s traditional focus on love, sacrifice and the human cost of war and focused it on a tiny team of soldiers fighting a jungle battle against the Principality of Zeon. What makes the series so memorable is the lack of heroes. None of the pilots are aces and the show manages to take a look at the way the everyday soldier has to deal with a war that’s so far beyond them. That being said, the series manages to show off some spectacular action sequences, one of the best love stories of the Gundam franchise  and a well developed and controversial finale that set up one of the later, much less successful series.

Afro Samurai

Taking anime and filtering it through blacksploitation and Bruce Lee’s greatest kung-fu films was avant garde as fuck when it debuted as a manga. The transition to anime was wonderful although it feels very traditional. The thing to remember is how ambitious the series is. “Afro Samurai” perfectly represents Japan’s obsession with the west and our mutual love of the culture and Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman serving as the voices in the anime is a tribute to the genre’s appeal. Seriously though, the movie, “Afro Samurai: Resurrection,” is totally not worth your time.

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