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Best anime for beginners: the 8 essential shows newcomers must watch first

anime for beginners
(Image credit: Madhouse/Sunrise/Wit Studio)

Anime is taking over. Far from being the odd little brother of the animation world, Japan’s favourite export has gone global in recent years, with Netflix and other streaming sites helping to lead the surge in popularity in the West. But, with literally hundreds of different shows to choose from – and nearly every genre catered for, from musical comedies and horror, to school dramas and cooking shows – it’s difficult to know where to start when you’re a complete anime newbie.

If you’re looking to get into anime, GamesRadar+ is here to help. We’ve gone through hours of animation and whittled it down to the essential shows for fans of all types of television. The criteria for being selected included length (barring one Poke-exception, there’s nothing too daunting, so the likes of One Piece and Bleach’s hundred-strong runs won’t feature here), approachableness, and how likely you are to fall in love with anime after watching each show. So, without further ado, here are the best anime for beginners. Sugoi!

Death Note

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Viz/Madhouse)

For fans of… Breaking Bad

What would you do if you could murder anyone in the world just by writing their name down in a book? That’s the killer narrative hook of Death Note, which sees schoolboy Light Yagami stumble across the eponymous journal at the outset of this beloved anime. What starts off as a moral crusade against the criminals of the world turns into a twisting cat-and-mouse thriller that will have you rattling through the show’s 37-episode run in record time.

Death Note also proves that anime can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its live-action contemporaries. Outside of perhaps Breaking Bad, it’s never been quite so fun to witness an ordinary person’s descent into supervillainy.

Finished this? Try… Monster

Pokemon

anime for beginners

(Image credit: The Pokemon Company)

For fans of… uhh, Pokemon?

Pokemon has acted as a gateway show for many westerners to fall in love with anime. Because, yes, Pokemon is anime. You may not have been fully aware of that face while watching the show dressed in your pyjamas as part of the Saturday morning TV line-up, but Pokemon’s sense of humour – Misty’s lung-bursting tirades, Brock going gaga for any woman in uniform, Team Rocket blasting off again – is all standard anime fare. If you need a familiar introduction to an unfamiliar concept, you could do a lot worse than watching the first two seasons of the Pokemon anime, before going on to more daring serialised shows.

Plus, if you’ve missed out on the recent adventures of Ash and Pikachu trying to be the best, like no one ever was, you can rest safe in the knowledge that, A) you have lots of episodes to catch up on, and B) the later seasons are among some of the best Pokemon has to offer. The recent Sun and Moon series is extremely popular among long-term fans for its strong storytelling (spoiler: Ash wins) and beautiful visuals, bursting with colour.

Finished this? Try… Dragon Ball Z

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Bones/Aniplex)

For fans of… Final Fantasy

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is regarded as one of the best anime shows of all time. It’s not hard to see why. Sporting two of televisions most likeable leads in Alphonse and Elric, and a world rich with lore, magic, and more than a handful of shadowy rulers lurking in the shadows, it’s pure fantasy come to life.

Brotherhood plumbs the wells of emotion better than most, too. It’s the perfect proving ground to show how heavily anime can tug on the heart-strings, with several episodes revolving around familial loss and tragedy. Elric’s journey to help get the body of his brother back after an alchemy spell gone very, very wrong soon spirals into a conspiracy that leads to the very top of society. Throw in some of the greatest, most chaotic battles ever seen on screen into the mix, and you’ve got all the makings of a box set that rivals anything out there.

Finished this? Try… Fate/Zero

Cowboy Bebop

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Sunrise)

For fans of… Westerns

Even without popping your anime cherry, you might have heard whispers of Cowboy Bebop, the legendary ‘90s anime from acclaimed director Shinichiro Watanabe. It centres on Spike, a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter looking to scrape a bit of space coin together so he can lead a comfortable life, ideally with a belly full of food.

Yet, it’s so much more than that. Each episode is a beautifully-framed melody of action and comedy, while riffing on the grief that Spike (and the increasingly large Bebop crew) is trying to get over. The show eventually transforms into a character study on loss and longing, becoming a different beast entirely. It’s a far cry from the jazz-heavy stylings of the bombastic, hard-hitting first episode, but it’s to Watanabe and his team’s credit that it feels like natural, inevitable development by the end of its 26 episodes.

Finished this? Try… Outlaw Star

Attack on Titan

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Wit Studio)

For fans of… monster movies

Inarguably the most popular currently ongoing anime, Attack on Titan has a bit of everything to entice anime amateurs. Scares, thrills, and chills – it’s all here.

The world of humanity is trapped within the Three Walls of its new civilization and, at its edges, the nefarious Titans roam. Far from shirking away from the horrors of the towering beasts, Attack on Titan regularly goes heavy on the body horror, with some of the most gruesome found anywhere on television.

Of course, the gore can only sustain you for so long. Thankfully, the coming-of-age story surrounding Eren’s ascent as a member of the Survey Corps after the loss of his mother is captivating – you’ll be hard-pressed to find an episode that doesn’t leave you immediately wanting to start the next one. Plus, each episode races along at a lightning-quick pace and features action sequences that rival everything but the big-budget summer blockbusters.

Finished this? Try… Neon Genesis Evangelion

Sword Art Online

anime for beginners

(Image credit: A1)

For fans of… RPGs

Picture, if you will, a Venn diagram. On one side, anime fans. On the other? RPG diehards, weaned on the likes of Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls. Sword Art Online rests snugly in the crossover, fusing the best of both worlds with its use of video game tropes – including levelling up – and a burst of high-octane anime energy.

The story begins with each player of the new fictitious VR RPG, Sword Art Online, trapped inside the game and tasked with either reaching the 50th floor or perishing in the real-world. Among those doomed to play the game is Kirito, who helps lead the fightback against the game’s creator and, along the way, falls in love with a fellow player, Asuna.

Later seasons keep things fresh by shaking up the formula, but never deviate too far from its core, addictive premise – and the series has spawned spin-offs and, hilariously, video games of its own.

Finished this? Try… Mirai Nikki

Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Sunrise)

For fans of… Game of Thrones

Those who are well-versed in backstabbing and betrayals in their TV shows could do a lot worse than powering through Code Geass. It’s also a perfect window into one of anime’s most beloved sub-genres, the mecha series, thanks to its magnetic cast and ultra-tense story fitting in seamlessly alongside the bigger, more frenzied robot battles.

While the second season’s quality, admittedly, does dip, Code Geass should be among the first on your watch list because it does so many things well, almost all the time. By effectively juggling horror, political intrigue, as well as some slice-of-life drama, it’s able to act as an Anime 101 for almost everybody. From there, the possibilities are limitless.

Finished this? Try… Mobile Suit Gundam

One Punch Man

anime for beginners

(Image credit: Madhouse/Viz)

For fans of… the MCU

You know how superhero shows and movies go by now: the good guy punches the bad guy until he wins (at least that’s the case 99% of the time).

Well, that’s the set-up for One Punch Man, which follows Saitama, a superhero who is overwhelmingly bored by the foes he faces and instantly dispatches with just one punch. Saitama’s quest for a worthy opponent ends up gravitating him towards a cast filled with superhero caricatures and moustache-twirling villains.

It’s here where One Punch Man excels thanks to its deliciously bloody face-offs and comedic moments that punctuate the bits in-between Saitama’s inevitable victories. For superhero fans and non-believers alike, the first two seasons of this fan-favourite anime are worth your time.

Finished this? Try… My Hero Academia