A recent post on Japan Powered talks about certain anime titles that even people who hate anime could watch and enjoy. The idea it’s bringing out is that, despite how much we love it, we know that all anime – from shonen to slice-of-life – is full of tropes and character archetypes we see over and over again. Many of these cliches we love, some we don’t, but generally what makes us stay fans is that we don’t mind such things in our anime or even have specific tropes we can’t get enough of. But for some people, anime-specific tropes such as bishy guys, moe girls, giant robots, wild fantasy battles, and cuteness for cuteness’ sake, just aren’t their thing. So today I wanted to think about what anime are virtually free of these cliches and seem to cater to universal tastes rather than otaku tastes…
Despite the pessimists who claim that “moe” is taking over the anime industry, there are plenty of new series that come out every year, as well as old ones of course, that don’t have the typical otaku cliches. I know we can all think of anime that are free of moe/fan service or shonen-type fantasy, but I wanted to narrow my list down more than that. For the shows I picked out, I wanted to exclude a number of things that could put off non-fans of anime. I picked series that are free of hyperbolic humor, for example, characters turning chibi or cartoonish to get a joke across. Sometimes otherwise serious anime such as Fullmetal Alchemist have this type of humor and I can understand it putting someone off. Another thing is Japan-specific jokes or references that could confuse anyone not familiar with the culture. Basically I’m going for the most universally appealing anime that are free of typical anime tropes and things that could deter an average viewer who’s not already into anime/animation as an entertainment medium. The type of anime I’m looking for is one where you could just hand a random person, or someone who thinks anime is just big-breasted high school girls or battling monsters, the DVDs to watch and chances are they’ll like and be impressed with what they see. The list is not in any particular order and I’m just gonna say a few things about why each is a good pick rather than review them.
Just like the original article on Japan Powered, I also think Cowboy Bebop matches the criteria I laid out. Thanks to the proliferation of Hollywood around the world, Western-style shows like Bebop hold a lot of universal appeal for the young and old. I know some people who aren’t anime fans but like CBB, and the fact that it’s aired for so long on Adult Swim shows something special about its popularity beyond the anime community. While Bebop does have a lot of general media tropes, it has few if any anime-specific ones. The international flavor of its futuristic world together with its episodic structure of both drama and comedy make it a good watch for anyone who doesn’t mind sci-fi and space adventures.
We’re now 30-some episodes into the currently airing Space Brothers and it’s so free of anime tropes that it could practically be a live-action series. There’s silly humor in it sometimes via our funny protagonist Mutta, but it’s humor that’s very easy to relate to and not incredibly cartoonish. The story and characters are very much made to resemble reality, which might even give it more of a universal edge over the sci-fi rich Cowboy Bebop, in addition to the fact that it’s more of a family aimed series than one aimed specifically at young adults like most other anime.
Kemono no Souja Erin
One of the most underrated anime of recent years, Erin may look like a kids anime due to its simple animation style and child protagonist, but it’s nothing like Pokemon or the many shonen kids anime out there. It’s actually more like a Ghibli film that’s a series rather than a movie. It has a continuing, coming-of-age story that’s very easy for adults as well as kids to get engrossed in, while also being free of all the flashy fights and fantasy that tend to go along with epic themed kids anime. Some could argue that Erin is “moe,” but just because she’s a cute little girl doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how she’s marketed (plus she’s grown up throughout most of the show). Kemono no Souja Erin is a tragic and heartwarming tale that takes itself seriously and is surprisingly well-written for having such simple looking designs. If you want a quick (but spoiler-filled) look at what the story entails, I wrote about it here.
Like Cowboy Bebop, I know a few people who are not anime fans but like Death Note a lot. It’s simply an extremely thrilling and suspenseful mystery/supernatural series that could just as easily lend itself to live-action (which it did for its movies). While I’m sure you could spot familiar anime tropes in it, I don’t think any of them are too off-putting or hard to understand for an average viewer.
Victorian Romance Emma
I already praised this show through the roof when I talked about it on a post from not too long ago so I don’t need to say much here. Like I said in the other post, unless you have an aversion to romance stories or Victorian Europe, it’s hard not to find this series great. It’s so free of anime cliches, that if an English dub of it was made and the Japanese text was taken out, the only thing that gives it away as anime is the character designs.
Although Mushishi takes place in what looks like ancient Japan, Japanese culture is not an important part of the story at all. Like Cowboy Bebop, Mushishi is very episodic and the story of the mushi in each episode is memorable and the plight of each episode’s guest characters is easy to sympathize with. The show has beauty, mystery, and eeriness told through stand-alone stories that are deep and significant despite their whimsical nature. Like others on this list, it’s a unique series that doesn’t need to be anime to be what it is, if you know what I mean.
A recent slice-of-life series that, unlike most others of that genre, is much more universal because it doesn’t involve the typical anime tropes of fan service and high school settings. Like in Space Brothers, the characters in Usagi Drop seem more like animated versions of real people rather than anime characters, and the story, though simple, is very touching and understandable to pretty much anyone.
Together with Cowboy Bebop, Trigun is the other famous Western-style anime that’s proven to be more of a hit in the US than in Japan. It has anime tropes and some silly humor at times, but not enough to make it seem like an anime rather than just being a “good animated show.” The fairly light and funny themes of early episodes are good at pulling people in only to dish out drama and complex backstory in the later episodes. I think it’s this twist that makes the series strong.
I’m sure we can all think of many more “anime for people who don’t like anime,” but I’m stopping the list here as these are the ones that I’ve seen and feel best match the criteria I laid out. So whenever someone tells you they don’t like anime because it’s just [insert name of anime trope], definitely recommend these titles to them ;)