Tomato tasked the rest of The Scratch Pad crew with giving him and other new anime viewers a selection of Japanese animated series that might help him appreciate the medium. It’s my day so I’m up first. Ladies and gentleman let me introduce you to the bizarre world of Japanese animation with three shows that I think just about anybody would enjoy. We’ll start with series that are barely “anime” and ease you into series with more common anime traits that wont beat you over the head with them.
I’m going to start this list off with a recent gem which is so unlike any other anime that it may as well not be produced in Japan. It has more in common with television series such as Lost and Heroes. Baccano centers around the events that occur on one ill-fated trip made by a train called The Flying Pussyfoot. Debatably, that is where the center is but the surrounding story involves a mafia war , an elixir that grants immortality and several individual stories which collide with each other. The story is told over a 13 episode arc that is piece together in fragments similar to the way Heroes would jump around it’s timeline to tell the broader story. This is fairly unique for an animated series.
Easily the best part of Baccano is the expansive cast of characters. Some particularly entertaining ones are the eccentric duo of robbers, Isaac and Miria who dress up for all their capers. Isaac is a man with an answer for every question, but those answers are entirely off-base. The world is his stage and Miria is his audience. Their dialogue exchanges are absolutely hilarious and they only get better when interacting with other characters. Isaac and Miria are very harmless and fun loving but at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Ladd Russo who is certainly fun loving but only when he’s causing chaos and killing people by the train loads. To call the guy psychotic would be an under statement. He literally skips for joy when he senses havoc is on the horizon. As disturbing as some of his actions can be I can’t help but enjoy watching his actions. Especially when he boxes someone’s face in. There are far too many other characters to even briefly mention but Baccano has a cast that has a character for just about everybody to like.
Baccano defines style with it’s jazzy swing sound track which enhances every scene. The show is gritty, violent and a tinge dark. It is not for the faint of heart but the mysteries slowly revealed throughout the story will keep you at the edge of your seat and the great cast of characters will keep you interested the whole way through. To put it simply, it’s one of the snazziest shows I’ve ever seen and it does not lack substance in the least. At just 16 episodes (3 of which are an OVA story that does not continue the 13 episode arc) it’s not a difficult show to sit through by any means. There are not many more “western audience” friendly series that have come out of Japan. The only concern is content. This is a TV-MA show through and through and if that’s too much for you then you may want to start with something tamer but if you aren’t squeamish then this show will be a joy to watch.
BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad
Music is the universal language. As such as series that centers around music is a great starting point for someone new to Japanese animation. The story of BECK revolves around Yukio “Koyuki” Tanaka and his chance encounter with a guitarist named Ryusuke and his Frankenstein monster dog, Beck. Ryusuke happens to be an old friend of the lead singer of a popular American band called Dying Breed and has a bit of a shady past. He introduces Koyuki to the world of rock music. Eventually Ryusuke forms a new band and Koyuki joins after learning to play guitar from a man he met at the local pool named Saito. Among the supporting cast are Chiba are brash loud-mouth rapper, Taira the super chill bassist and Saku the drummer who is also Koyuki’s school-mate.
As the group begins their journey as a indie band in Japan, Ryusuke’s past catches up with them. Meanwhile Koyuki’s personal life involves juggling his feelings for his old crush Izumi and Ryusuke’s passive aggressive sister Maho. Koyuki’s struggles in this coming of age story make it very relatable to teenagers and young adults.
Music is a key element to BECK. Several songs were produced specifically for the anime and I have got to say the majority of them are very enjoyable to listen to. Some of which homage the styles of various iconic bands such as the Beatles and Nirvana. FUNimation did a great job dubbing these but prefer the originals more times than not.
Another key element to BECK is the culture clash. Ryusuke and Maho used to live in America and they bring with them some American sensibilities and they commonly speak English leaving the Japanese characters out of the loop and as the series progresses there are American characters who only speak English. Most of the songs are also sung in English, or should I say Engrish. Having so much English speaking in a Japanese show isn’t exactly revolutionary but it does help BECK stand out as unique. This quality is unfortunately lost in FUNimation’s dub. Everyone speaks English and some scenes are rewritten to ignore the fact that characters are supposed to be speaking different languages and having trouble understanding each other. Do not get me wrong though, FUNimation’s dub is excellent.
This is another show which honestly may as well not even be Japanese when you watch it in English. There are the occasional anime style expressions that pop-up but they’re not overbearing.
BECK is a coming age story about love and rock and roll that nearly any teen or young adult can relate to. I recommend this to any new viewer, especially if they appreciate rock music. Though I will caution that the language isn’t appropriate for younger viewers. F-bombs are dropped commonly in clear English on the Japanese track and even more so in FUNimation’s dub. Justin Cook and Eric Vale as Chiba and Ryusuke respectively make a art of dropping an f-bomb.
I’ve suggested two shows that could pass for American cartoons and now it is time to wean you into a more typical anime from a cultural and visual stand-point. I cannot think of a better show for this than Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann because it’s only a season in length, it tosses pretentious mecha anime under the bus and it is absolutely awesome.
Gurren Lagann is the coming of age story for Simon a young boy who has been living in an underground city all of his life. Kamina, Simon’s brother from another mother constantly tries to get Simon out of his shell because he believes that Simon will one day achieve great things. One day Simon finds a drill shaped object and a robot that can be piloted by it and soon finds himself defending his hole in the ground from a beastman who came form the surface in a giant robot of his own. He doesn’t believe he’s up to the task but Kamina spurs him on. They blast to the surface defeating the beastman and set out with some freedom fighters to defeat the lord of the land, the Spiral King.
Early in their journey they discover that the robot Simon discovered can combine with other robots. Simon’s Lagann and Kamina’s stolen mech Gurren (both affectionately named by Kamina) combine to form Gurren Lagann. As the story progresses Gurren Lagann combines with more and more machines to add to the robot’s strength. Eventually Simon conquers his fears with the help of Kamina and he manages to free humanity from their underground captivity. This however is only part of the story and I do not want to spoil the rest.
Easily my favorite character is Kamina. Quite possibly the greatest motivational speaker in fiction. His, never say die attitude entertains me to no end. He’s brash, arrogant and more than a little dimwitted but he’s so enthusiastic that I can’t help but love the guy. It is hard to believe this show isn’t actually about him. This show is about Simon and to Simon’s credit, he is a great protagonist overall. Not too whiny and full of good qualities for being the leader. There is also a great supporting cast that continues to grow throughout the series such as the kinda of creepy flamboyant tech wiz Ron, the adorably naïve and honest Nia, the proud beastman warrior Viral and the hot-blooded Kittan and his three bubbly sisters. This is a GAINAX show however and that means gratuitous fan service is guaranteed. This comes in the form of Yoko who happens to wear very little clothing most of the time. She’s not just a pretty face however, she’s a skilled markswoman and is often a voice of reason. Not the strongest female lead out there but she’s not a dumb bimbo either.
What makes Gurren Lagann so great is how thrilling every moment can be. The robot fights are well choreographed and the pacing is top notch. There’s no waiting around for five episodes for something to happen. Gurren Lagann gives it to you hard and fast and does not apologize for it. There are arguably better giant robot shows that are even more over the top in their execution but Gurren Lagann is in some ways a parody of those kinds of shows and takes such over the top action to a different level. All the while it kicks plenteous self-important anime such as Evangel ion (from the same studio no less) and tells it where it can stick it’s angst ridden bull crap. Not to say Gurren Lagann has no moments of angst but they are thankfully brief and do serve to develop Simon. The show also has the balls to kill off a central character early on but do not be discouraged because as good as it was before said character sacrifices themselves, the story gets even better after that point.
I highly recommend Gurren Lagann to anyone new to anime. You can expect to see a lot of common anime characteristics in this one but they should not be off-putting. The pacing is great, the characters are endearing, the action is top notch and the story isn’t tripe. The show does not take itself too seriously but despite that it does have compelling drama among all the thrills and laughs. To put it simply, it’s a fun show and just about anybody could find something to like about it.
Now that you’ve taken the beginners course with series between 16 to 27 episodes in length maybe you’ll be able to tackle the best Japan has to offer in my opinion, One Piece. I would have placed it on this list but I fully understand that One Piece is a commitment and the pacing can be off-putting. I would argue it proves its’ worth in the long run, is enjoyable from the beginning and only gets better but the above shows would be easier series to start out with.