I would definitely NOT recommend Neon Genesis Evangelion [animeinfo.org] as a first step into Japanese anime.
Enonu pretty much hits the nail on the head as I see it with this post: [slashdot.org]
Like others have pointed out, it’s like saying “How do I begin my journey into the world of movies.” Japanese anime is really that diverse, so it depends what you like.
Personally, I found Evangelion profoundly disturbing. That is not to say it wasn’t good, more that it was not light fare. You probably should watch it at some point, but don’t start with it.
As far as dubs/subs go, that’s really a personal preference, which is why people feel so strongly about it. You’ll have to make your on decision on that. It basically boils down to how much you like reading while watching TV/Movies, and how well you understand the original language. Anyone who says that one type of translation is ALWAYS better than the other probably doesn’t understand Japanese and isn’t qualified to judge.
If you get Cartoon Network, I would recommend watching Adult Swim (since it won’t cost you anything to try it) to get an idea as to what’s out there (but do not look to it as The Authority on anime). Mind you, that’s on TV, so it is dubbed and edited (also not everything they show is Japanese). Otherwise, try to rent or borrow DVDs. This is a bonus because they normally have both subtitled and dubbed versions, so you can take your pick.
As a guide, I’ll list some anime that I’ve seen and tell you briefly what each is about:
Ghost in the Shell (Movie/TV):
Cyberpunk style movie. Cyber technology has advanced to the point were complete artificial bodies (and more importantly brains) can be made and a person’s mind or soul can be placed in them. The theme pretty much explores the implications of that.
There is a second movie which I have not seen, and the TV series (Stand Alone Complex) which follows in the same theme as the Movie, and is currently running on Adult Swim. I should mention that the central characters are police.
Cowboy Bebop [animeinfo.org] (TV/Movie):
I really love this one, and this is probably what got me into watching anime “serious.” (I always had a casual interest in it since watching Speed Racer, and G-Force as a young kid, then later with Tundercats and Transfomers.) I plan on owning a box set of this.
Cowboy Bebop is an action show about some bounty hunters, with a sci-fi backdrop. It’s in the future, with interplanetary (not interstellar) travel. The background music is somewhat important to the show (but not integral to the plot), and is highly acclaimed. (Written by Yoko Kanno, who also did the music for the Ghost in the Shell TV series.) When I first watched Cowboy Bebop, it reminded me of the animated movie “American Pop,” in both animation style and musical theme. If you like American Pop, you should love Cowboy Bebop. I think American Pop [imdb.com] was also done by some of the same people who did Heavy Metal [imdb.com] (or so I’ve been told). In fact, if you like Heavy Metal, you’ll probably like anime in general.
I haven’t seen the Cowboy Bebop movie. I’d suggest watching the series first, though.
Vampire Hunter D [imdb.com] (Movie):
I saw (and purchased) this long before seeing Cowboy Bebop. It’s about a guy (with an “interesting” history) who goes around slaying vampires. I guess if you like vampire stuff, this is good. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t say much more about it without spoiling it.
A very interesting show, set in a desert world (in the future, I think). The main character is a gunslinger, which sort of makes this a sci-fi western. I don’t want to get too much into the description of the setting and characters, as this is gradually revealed during the series, but he’s notorious as “Vache the Stampede, the Humanoid Typhoon.” (Vache means cow in French.) He has a price on his head and, 2 insurance girls follow him in an attempt to minimize the insurance companies costs. Sound crazy? It is, but all is not as is seems, and the show deals with very deep themes like whether or not it is right to kill someone, and how to do “the right thing.” It’s worth a watch.
(Also being shown on Adult Swim at this time)
This is about a half-demon (InuYasha, which basically means dog demon in Japanese), and a Japanese schoolgirl (you’ll find that many of the female leads in anime are 15) Kagome. The girl falls down a sacred well, which transports her to the “feudal era” in Japan (essentially the middle ages), when she finds InuYasha. They have to recover the pieces of the sacred jewel, “Shikon no Tama” (Jewel of the Four Souls), which Kagome shattered. Along the way, they meet up with friends and slay demons. Sounds kind of boring really, but it gets interesting as the characters develop over time (this is a big theme with much anime), and their backgrounds develop. Kagome and InuYasha can go back and forth through this well from the past to the present. At first I didn’t like the show, but as I saw the characters develop, it became a favorite of mine, and got me seriously interested in learning Japanese (of which I have not learned much). Another thing is that they use a lot of Japanese folklore in the show. This is a very long series (as Japanese anime goes), so you don’t want to run out and buy a box set until you know you like it. I’d suggest starting in the middle of the first season or even the start of the second season, and then go back to watch the rest later. It might be more interesting that way (or not, but that’s how I saw it). There are some movies too (I’ve seen the first one), but like Cowboy Bebop, you should probably watch those after getting a handle on the show first.
Blue Gender (TV):
I have the box set of this.
It’s set in the future. Giant bugs have taken over the Earth, and humans are forced to live (primarily) in a space station above. They have these suits that are like something out of Starship Troopers (the book). Some humans are recovered from suspended animation on the surface. They were put into suspended animation due to an incurable disease, to wait out a cure. This disease broke out just before the bugs took over. This is what I’d call classic sci-fi mystery. We find out what this disease (the blue gene) is and these bugs (the blue) are all about and what they have to do with each other. There’s also an anti-technological theme, which I’ll not go into detail about. The story plays out from the point of view of Marlene, who is one of the soldiers who went to recover the hibernating patients, and Yuji, one of the patients. Since Yuji was in hibernation before the Blue arrived, he has something of a rude awakening trying to adjust to how the world has changed. This show has a lot going for it. The backgrounds remind me of much older anime like Speed Racer and G-Force.
If Blue Gender can be compared to Starship Troopers, then this can be compared to Blade Runner. Meaning, of course, that they are completely different, but deal with similar themes or elements. If you took the basic concept of Blade Runner (essentially: when does a machine become human?) and made it bubbly, well lit, with bright colors, and shot by a midget (i.e: lots of panty shots), then you would have Najica. This one is short, so if you want to buy it, it’s only 3 DVDs.
Fullmetal Alchemist (TV):
(Currently being shown on Adult Swim)
At first, (like InuYasha) I wasn’t sure if I liked this. I eventually decided I did. It’s about 2 young brothers (they grow as the show progresses, and there are flashbacks, so their age changes over time) who try to re-incarnate their mother using alchemy. Alchemy is a real science in this show. To, me, it feels like it is set in Russia, but I may be wrong. Anyway, in this attempt to bring their mother back to life (which is a big no-no), the older brother loses his right arm and leg, and the younger brother loses his body. The older brother bonds the younger’s soul to a suit of armor, meaning that the younger brother BECOMES the suit of armor. They set out to return themselves to normal, learning much along the way, and going though terrible experiences. There is some violence and very serious things going on in this. (I’ve only seen it on Adult Swim. I shudder to think what they may have cut.) All in all, I’d say it is on par with Trigun. Part of the reason it took me a long time to figure out if I liked it (and much other anime for that matter), is that I had to figure out how things worked, like Alchemy, and just what it was about.
Witch Hunter Robin (TV):
Another ‘hunter’ themed show. I enjoyed this, but primarily mention it because it is the only anime (so far) that my wife really liked on her own, without me dragging her to see it. (Well, other than Super Milk-Chan, which I shouldn’t even mention.) It about this girl Robin, and this team of which hunters, which are sort of like Blade Runner cops, but they also have some witch powers. Of course, there’s more to the story as it develops with secret plans and stuff (like much anime). My wife was drawn in by the animation and drawing style. They use computer generated backgrounds which look almost real (but still drawn), but the characters look like regular animation. Also the character’s ears look strange. That sounds worse than it really is, and the series is interesting, worth at least a passing glance. Again I mention it primarily because my wife likes it, so it may be a good starter show.
Wolf’s Rain (TV):
(Done by the people who brought you Cowboy Bebop)
This one I didn’t like, but did watch the whole thing. The story is something like men evolved from wolves, but wolves are all but extinct now. These four wolves meet up and try to find “paradise” as prophesied, like some sort of heaven. One of the wolves is named Kiba, which is Japanese for fang. I guess I didn’t like it mostly because I didn’t get it. I did find it interesting enough to watch while it was on TV, though. Your opinion may vary.
Lupin the III (TV):
Sixties style, “old school” anime (though it is long running).
This super-thief Lupin goes around stealing things in big heists. He has a gang consisting of Jigen (a sharp-shooting Chicago mobster type, complete with trench coat and hat), Goemon (a samurai), and Fujiko (his materialistic, sort-of girlfriend). They are hounded by Inspector Zenigata, (a la the Fugitive). There’s not much more to this other than to say that it’s a comedy. I mention this primarily because it is different from the other things I have mentioned and I like it as a diversion.
Case Closed/Detective Conan (TV):
I mention this because it was shown on Adult Swim, and don’t know why. It’s nothing more than a cartoon detective show. Scooby-doo it ain’t, it’s more like Murder, She Wrote. Though there are some grizzly murders, but it’s not too adult themed, as the detective is a child. (OK, he’s really a teen-ager who’s body was turned into a kid’s by some “poison.”) Since it doesn’t have anything that makes anime special to me, I wouldn’t recommend it as a good intro to anime. Though, I did enjoy trying to figure out “whodunit.” I’d sort of put this in the category of “other stuff that is anime.” This is a good example of the variety, and reminds us that not all anime is for kids, (like Pokemon or the usual American perception of animation, even though Tom and Jerry and the like were not originally written for kids) or adults (as in hentai/porn).
Samurai Champloo (TV):
(currently “new” on Adult Swim)
Historical (anachronistic) fiction about 2 guys (I think they’re both samurai) and a girl looking for a samurai who smells of sunflowers. They have a hip-hop theme song. That sounds dumb, but the show is very very good. I’d put it up there with Cowboy Bebop.
Here are some that I might recommend as alternatives to Evangelion (or to break you in):
(currently “new” on Adult Swim)
As someone else mentioned, this deals with the psyche as does Evangelion. As it is “new” (as is Samurai Champloo), I haven’t seen many episodes and am not sure where it is going. So far, I find it interesting. If you’re not used to dealing with this subject material, it may be just as bad as Evangelion for a starter. One thing of note, is that a lot of printed Japanese shows up, so if you want to study it (but just a little bit) this give you a little taste. Of course, you can just watch the Japanese subtitles on a DVD for that purpose. Many of them have opening/closing theme lyric subtitles, too. The opening theme of s-CRY-ed as currently shown on Adult Swim will give you an example of this (the lyrics as shown during the ending theme don’t sync up, probably edited for time). This probably has to do with the Japanese fondness for karaoke.
Big O (TV):
This is probably not “true” anime, as it was co-produced by Cartoon Network. You can sort-of think of it as a watered down version of Evangelion, though. Again, it’s not the same, but contains some similar themes. Giant robots that are more than just machines, exploring the human psyche. I like it myself, but remember that it is probably considered watered down compared to “real” anime. The protagonist is Roger Smith, a Negotiator who used to work for the police. They live in Paradigm City, and 40 years ago everyone lost their memory. Also there was some sort of apocalypse involving giant robots, and this city is all that’s left. I would say that this is a good transition from “old school” giant robots like Voltron to Evangelion style.
See Anime University [animeinfo.org] for more about mecha (giant robot) anime.
Now we’re more into the hard core here. One thing about anime that I haven’t mentioned, is that they tend to be really cool, then end “weirdly.” (e.g. Akira, Evangelion, Big O, Wolf’s Rain). Well, this is weird all the way through. The animation style sometimes changes during the show. It’s really bizarre, but at the same time really good. The first time I saw it, I didn’t know if I liked it or if it gave me brain damage (kinda like drugs, I guess). Someone mentioned that the translation of this is really bad. As strange as it is, that does not surprise me. There are only six episodes, so you might want to pick this one up (I have heard that it is relatively expensive, though), if you are brave. This is something that should probably be studied or watched several times (like Evangelion).
You might want to check out the movies Venus Wars and Fatal Fury. I seem to remember enjoying them.
Some American movies have bits of anime too, like Tank Girl and Kill Bill (so if you seen those, you have had a taste of anime already).
Be aware that most of these here I have only seen on TV (the anime exceptions being Blue Gender, Ghost in the Shell movie, Najica, Vampire Hunter D, and Evangelion), so they were dubbed and edited for content/time. For example, I think InuYasha is a 45 minute show, but it is put into a 30 minute block on TV. They seem to recap a lot, so the edits probably aren’t that bad.
This is of course by no means an all-inclusive or comprehensive list, but it should give you some idea of the variety of anime, and be enough to start on. Also they each have different styles of animation/drawing.
Another good place to go just to see examples of different styles of animation, would be The Animatrix (though I don’t like the actual stories much), and to a lesser extent, Heavy Metal (which I liked much more). And a MUCH lesser extent, either of the Disney Fantasia movies (though not Japanese at all, it is a good exhibition of different animation styles, for purely artistic reasons, if you are interested in that).
Much like western animation, Japanese anime comes in Manga (comic book) form as well. You may wish to explore that too (I haven’t yet).
Though it has not been updated recently, I’d recommend the Anime University [animeinfo.org] for more information about getting into the World of Anime.
They explain some of the basics and a bit about the different types of anime.
Also check out the Lexicon [animenewsnetwork.com] for explanations of anime related terms.
They also have a good encyclopedia of anime in general (as someone else mentioned). It can be a bit overwhelming, due to is exhaustive library, so for starters, look up the things I and others have mentioned, (in animenewsnetwork, imdb, amazon, or wherever you like) and see what you think appeals to you (if anything). Be sure to find something that we have NOT mentioned and check that out, too.
Gee, I didn’t mean to write so much. I hope I haven’t overloaded you, but I wanted to give you an idea of what things are out there, rather than just telling you to watch a list of things I like. I’ve tried to give you enough information that you should be able to tell what you might be interested in before you watch it. Of course, there is LOTS of information on the Internet so you can research more if you want. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new things. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Always try to learn and grow. If you don’t like it, no big deal; try something else (perhaps needlepoint?)!
If nothing else, check out Cowboy Bebop!