Anime for people who don’t like anime

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.


Cowboy Bebop

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.

Credit to linked pixiv user
Space Brothers

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.


Death Note

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.


Mushishi

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.


Usagi Drop

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.


Trigun

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 ;)

38 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Hogart says:

    Someone else appreciated Erin? Nice! Here’s a few more right off the top of my head that people who I know dislike “anime” have honestly enjoyed: Spice and Wolf, Eve no Jikan, Dennou Coil, Le Chevalier d’Eon, Haibane Renmei, Planetes.

    In fact there are actually piles of anime people who dislike anime will enjoy, if they’re really just out for a good story with strong characterization (and aren’t just being dismissive). And not just adults, though it’s harder to find shows like that for teens, since “anime” stuff after all caters most strongly to Japanese teen sensibilities (apparently).

    • Yumeka says:

      Erin really was underrated – it didn’t help that it was one of the first releases Crunchyroll had when they went legit and their subtitle quality for the series was not good >_< It’s unlikely Erin will get a DVD release in the US, but if it does, I’m definitely buying it!

      I haven’t seen the other series you mentioned besides Haibane Renmei and Spice and Wolf. The former is also a good choice, but for the latter, I feel like people might be put off by all the economics talk that goes on =P When I watched the series, reading all the text-heavy subtitles about economics stuff that I couldn’t follow well was kind of a chore. But if someone’s into stuff like that, then it would be a good choice ;)

  2. Myna says:

    The two I’d add to the list are Tiger & Bunny and Panty & Stocking.

    T&B because, well, superheroes. Awesome ones at that.
    And Panty & Stocking is basically a love letter to western animation in the flashiest and raunchiest way possible and it’s actually fantastic.

    • Yumeka says:

      I haven’t seen either of those besides one episode of Tiger & Bunny. But from what I saw, I agree with you that it would be a good choice. From what I’ve heard about Pany & Stocking, it’s probably not my cup of tea…but yeah, it seems good for those who like Western animation =P

  3. Kal says:

    I have not seen Erin, it looks interesting. I might check it out. I’m always looking for anime not targeted to anime fans for my cousin, or my mom. Another good one that my cousin enjoyed is Natsuiro Kiseki. There are “cute” girls, but it’s not centered around that. It is centered around their relationships and real problems, wrapped up in some funny miracles. Fruits basket is another interesting one. The story and characterization is quite deep. Funny too.

    As you said, there are many out there, but it’s always good to have a few handy for when some friends wants to explore anime :)

    • Yumeka says:

      The humor in Fruits Basket is very “anime-ish” if you know what I mean, so that’s why I was hesitant about putting it on the list. But other than that, I totally agree that it’s a great story full of heart that just about anyone can understand. When I watched the series with my mom, there was a lot in the humor that she didn’t get, but she could appreciate the story and dramatic scenes.

      Now that you mentioned, I guess Natsuiro Kiseki could work too ;) I can easily see middle school kids liking it.

  4. chikorita157 says:

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention any of Miyazaki’s films as they have mainstream appeal and lacks fanservice/moe. Also, there is always the Makoto Shinkai movies, which are critically acclaimed, most notably 5/cm Per Second. But still, there is a lot of shows that can appeal to people who are picky, but it takes a good amount of digging around to find the right show that they might like.

    • Yumeka says:

      I should have mentioned that I was just sticking to anime series and not movies. Ghibli movies are already marketed to the general public outside of anime fandom after all =P Shinkai’s films however do have a lot of universal appeal, as do Satoshi Kon’s.

  5. Cholisose says:

    My approach with suggesting anime to people who haven’t watched anime before is to just find out what sort of genre they like for stories in general, and then go from there (eg your friend really likes vampire horror stories–why not throw in Shiki?). But when I feel like just suggesting something that’s intelligent and unique, I like to pick Kino no Tabi, since it’s episodic, thought-provoking, and doesn’t have any of the goofier elements found in many anime. It will quickly erase the notion that all anime is either kids stuff (eg Pokemon) or fanservice-driven.
    I’ll second Chikorita’s suggestion of Shinkai’s films as well though, which have mainstream appeal and are mind-blowingly well-animated. Hogart’s suggestion of Eve no Jikan is also an excellent choice, especially if your friend is into sci-fi at all.

    “Although Mushishi takes place in what looks like ancient Japan, Japanese culture is not an important part of the story at all. ”
    I would argue otherwise–at least thematically, Mushishi is one of the most “Eastern-feeling” anime I’ve ever seen. That said, it’s a marvelous show that I think would be good to suggest to a friend who’s into quieter, pensive stories with fantastic elements.

    • Yumeka says:

      That approach you mentioned is of course another good option. But supposing you don’t know much about the person you’re recommending to, or they don’t have any particular genre they like, then I’d want to think of very universal titles like the ones on this post ;) Heh, I really need to watch Kino’s Journey at some point. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

      You have a point about Mushishi, but yeah, if you know the person you’re recommending to is open-minded enough to watch a gentle, slow-paced show, then I think it’s a good pick. The Eastern feel is very foreign and novel to people, and like I said, you don’t really have to understand a lot about the culture to just get engrossed in the world the show is portraying.

  6. LovelyAngel says:

    I will second the above nominations for Haibane Renmei and Kino’s Journey and add Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.

  7. I saw an episode of Mushishi at Yaoi Con and didn’t quite know what to make of it (or why they were showing it at Yaoi Con). I got the impression that it’s probably good but a little too slow-moving for me.

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, I think Mushishi would be too slow for you. The only reason I can think of that they’d show it at Yaoi Con is because, besides the main character Ginko, there’s one other male character who I guess people could ship with him. But they only interact in, like, three out of twenty-six episodes so it’s not much to get into =P

      But I’m surprised you haven’t watched the two Western-style classics, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. I know you’d like both of them ;)

  8. Adziu says:

    Must watch Erin!

    Your suggestions are good ones, methinks, though I’ve had failures on this front with Bebop (‘Too zany’) and Mushishi (‘Too slow’). The other suggestions in comments have been great too, especially Gankutsuou and Tiger & Bunny, which quickly capture the attention.

    I’ve done quite a lot of screenings of anime for those with little or no knowledge, and ones I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from:

    -Gauche the Cellist (Takahata Isao’s adaptation of a Japanese classic about a cellist visited by various Japanese animals with folklore connotations. Arty and serious, serious crowds like it): http://adziu.blogspot.com/2010/06/cero-hiki-no-goushu-gauche-cellist.html

    -Paranoia Agent (challenging and sophisticated, it demands to be taken seriously and comes with a payoff every episode): http://adziu.blogspot.com/2010/09/mousou-dairinin-paranoia-agent.html

    -Akira (like Ghibli films, a bit of a no-brainer, but still deserves to be listed): http://adziu.blogspot.com/2011/06/akira.html

    -Kaiba (halfway between classic Tezuka and those creepy-cute artists, it may look almost babyish but the aesthetic belies a complex and fascinating story, and tends to somehow come over as arthouse-y): http://adziu.blogspot.com/2010/04/kaiba.html

    -Seirei no Moribito (with beautiful art and a classic Japanese setting, this fantasy epic focuses on the personal and small-scale, and as a result is very cinematic and a long way from conventional fanservicey series): http://adziu.blogspot.com/2010/12/guardian-of-sacred-spirit-seirei-no.html

    • Yumeka says:

      Paranoia Agent and Sereri no Moribito are good choices, especially if you know the tastes of the person you’re recommending to (drama/mystery for the former and adventure/fantasy for the latter).

      Akira is an incredibly disturbing movie, so grouping it with the whimsical, family-friendly romps of most Ghibli films is kind of odd to me ^^,,, I’m sure non-fans could like it, but I’d have to make sure the person I’m recommending to wouldn’t have a problem with the intense violence and disturbing themes the movie has.

  9. Artemis says:

    Haha, I use The Boyfriend test for help on this – my partner can appreciate that I enjoy anime but he personally doesn’t see the appeal. However, he did end up watching all of Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Death Note, and Evangelion with me when I asked him just to try them.

  10. Meguaso says:

    I recommend Aria to this list.

    • Yumeka says:

      I’ve only seen the first season of Aria, but from what I saw there, it has too much of the “nothing happens” theme going on in all the episodes. Every episode pretty much focuses on a very subtle message about the world it’s set in or about the characters, all amid a rather mundane and slow-paced approach. This feel like this kind of storytelling is very hard for an average, especially Western, viewer to get into. I can’t imagine myself showing it to random people I meet everyday and the majority of them not thinking it’s boring.

  11. Alterego 9 says:

    I don’t see much point in specifically going though my anime recommendations list just to pick one for someone who explicitly doesn’t like normal anime. For example, if someone would ask for good space opera, I would recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes along with some Space Opera novels and movies. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to try to show off the anime medium in a better light to them, if I know that they wouldn’t like most other shows anyways.

    On the other hand, many people who don’t like anime, simply don’t know all that much about it. I know that until a few years ago, I stayed away from anime based on vague memories of shonen fighers, but eventually, learning about how much CRAZY and MOE there is hidden behind the surface of the medium only sped up my path to fandom.

    In similar cases, I think there is no need to hold back, not even on cultural references and weird art styles. Most people are not idiots, they know that if they want to get into something new, there will be some culture shock.

    At one time, even we had to figure out what the -chan suffix stands for, or why a school year starts in the cherry blossoming season, and we got by fine, too.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good points. Like Cholisose said above, you could just recommend a good anime for a specific genre assuming you know the tastes of the person you’re recommending to. I suppose you’re right about most people not being immediately turned off by some culture-specific things going on. I was just trying to see if I could find the most universal of the universal anime, if that’s possible or if there’s even any point to it =P

  12. CoolCARTGuy says:

    As an anime fan who is beginning of enter something of a zenith in their personal enjoyment of the style, it’s ironic that most of the series on this list I haven’t been able to get into; that being said, I can certainly understand why several of these shows might appeal to non-anime fans as opposed to otaku fare that matches the tastes of more well-established or hardcore fans. Kinda surprised there’s no mention of Miyazaki films, though.

    • Yumeka says:

      Like I said to Chikorita157 several comments about, I should have mentioned that I’m just listing anime series, and since Miyazaki movies are already mainstreamed in the West and are appreciated by a ton of non-anime fans as a result, there isn’t much point in mentioning them here =P

      I’m surprised you couldn’t get into most of the anime on this list. But if you like anime for all the anime tropes and what not it has, then the lack of those tropes in these anime could be why you don’t like them XD

  13. Shikon says:

    I’ve watched a few of the shows you listed such as cowboy bebop and death note. I’ve gotta say, they really are appealing and easy to get into.Generally I really enjoy anime that kinda pass those generalized anime trope boundaries that we are so familiar with. I’ve never had any issues with anime tropes (although fan service and moe tend to distract me from whats going on in the anime) lol. Regardless I know friends who have watched some of the anime that you’ve listed and they really enjoyed them even though they weren’t really into the anime genre, so I can see how some of these series are indeed universal to many viewers.

    • Yumeka says:

      Good to hear! Cowboy Bebop and Death Note have aired dubbed on TV here in the US (as well as many other drama/action anime) and have been successful. It’s too bad there’s hardly any anime on TV outside Asia anymore =/

      • Shikon says:

        Yeah I know what you mean, the only channel that even airs anime in the U.S. anymore is adult swim. SyFy and Chillr used to both have they’re own anime blocks each week such as AniMonday, if anyone remembers that lol.

  14. Rugose says:

    Decent start to the list.. Bebop, Death Note and Trigun all tend to get a lot of replay on Cartoon network in NA..

    That said the movies are missing as others noted. Akira, Metroplis, Spirited Away, and Howls Moving Castle all get regular showings on cable (and not Cartoon Network either). Anything from Ghibli tends to do well with a larger audience.

    Usagi Drop is a tough one. I’ve never seen it on cable here but it is without a doubt one of my favorites. Yotsubato would be another like it if they ever adapted it to anime.. a bit more light hearted but I suspect appealing in a similar manner.

    • Yumeka says:

      Like I replied to a few comments above, I should have mentioned that I’m just doing series rather than movies (and Ghibli is already mainstreamed to general audiences in the West so there isn’t much point in listing those movies).

      Usagi Drop isn’t the typical Western appeal anime like Bebop and Death Note, but it’s a story that’s very easy to relate to and works fine as a general drama rather than an anime.

  15. Author says:

    Another classic non-anime anime in Bebop wein is Witch Hunter Robin. There are also cross-media titles, chief of which is Nodame Cantabile.

    Magical military realism of Cat Shit One won a few admirers among those who would never give anime a time of day, too.

    • Yumeka says:

      I haven’t seen Witch Hunter Robin but I’ve heard of it and know that it was fairly successful on Adult Swim =)

      I watched Cat Shit One in anime club one time and…well, it’s some of the weirdest “shit” I’ve ever seen XD But I can definitely imagine someone who despises most anime liking it.

  16. Kai says:

    A nice list. Judging from general reviews and opinions on various people, I certainly agree with all of them. Though sadly I didn’t watch a majority of them, except for death note and usagi drop. I will really have to get started on cowboy bepop soon.

    Death Note is certainly a great choice. Those who like their thrills and suspense in their films would certainly be fond of Death Note as well. It’s like a psychological film, spread out into a TV series, it would certainly gives viewers something to think about after watching it.

    • Yumeka says:

      Death Note is a great psychological thriller – there are movies like that but few TV series, plus it works fine in live action, so it’s just a very universally good watch ;)

  17. There is not a young female on earth that can resist Nana, anime fan or not. Its chick crack.

  18. Dan says:

    I would also recommend Master Keaton and Black Lagoon as international shows that do not even reference Japan very often. They could both easily be stand alone live action shows and be digestable to a non-anime watcher!

    Of course, another massive show that is quite a bit older now is the Lupin franchise. It seems that it has themes that have cross-over appeal as well. I would even stretch and say that Monster is another such show.

  19. E says:

    I’d recommend is: Darker Than Black. Good tragedy, char development, and art style. Although the second season was fan service B.S…

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