Want to recommend some anime or J/K-dramas and anime to a normal American who doesn’t know what to make of Japanese or Korean culture? You think they’d love what Asia has to offer, but don’t want to scare them away with too much moe or yokai or plot-lines involving getting kicked out of the family register.
Breaking your typical American viewer into Asian TV
I’m going to suggest anime and k/j-dramas that either have fascinating plots that no sci-fi/fantasy lover could resist, or are understandable plots between cultures. You won’t find any Studio Ghibli on my list because I, personally, found his stuff unattractive when I was first breaking into anime. His heavily Buddhist, strange-creature themes or more simple slice of life films could not be appreciated coming straight out of watching non-stop-action American TV. This isn’t going to make me very popular, but I wouldn’t recommend Ghibli to your average American viewer, personally. My recommendations are clean, relatively family-friendly shows and movies that aren’t so overtly Asian that you lose people. Things you could show your next-door neighbor without being labeled a weirdo nerd.
(Most can be found legally on Crunchyroll.com, and one or two on Netflix.com)
1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Yeah, I’m going there. Honestly, this one has lots of bizarre elements, but the plot is so epic. It is a deconstruction of the magical girl genre, but totally works as a deconstruction of any superhero genre. We Americans have been inundated with superhero movies lately, so a show that portrays the real psychological hardships of being a Black Widow or Scarlett Witch? Yes, please. I’ve shown this to most of my non-anime-watching family members, and it’s gone over pretty well. You’re going to need to sit and discuss a lot of the final episode, however, as it’s big-picture epic with a lot of symbolism.
Warning: Violence and thematic elements in this one. PG-13
2. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Starts out like a Disney channel show with a little bit of teenage silliness, but quickly turns into a fascinating sci-fi plot. I really enjoyed this one, and it was the very first anime I ever watched. Only movie-length (not a TV show), this will give viewers a taste of creative YA sci-fi from Japan that makes sense and tugs at their heartstrings at the same time.
Warning: One really stupid sexual line from a side character at the beginning that feels hugely out of place. There is NO sexuality in the rest of the movie, so one just has to ignore it as bad writing in an otherwise squeaky clean movie.
3. Hotarubi no Mori e
My personal favorite. Just a beautiful, beautiful little 45-minute film. Totally an inspiration for the writing of my own book, Lucent Sylph, this movie is tragically gorgeous in every way, and one of my top favorite movies of all time.
Warning: There ARE Buddhist spirits in this one, and Buddhism has something to do with the main plot. However, one can still follow the movie really well by ignoring this aspect – and, in my opinion, it doesn’t get too weird. Nothing weirder than Star Wars. Make sure your child is old enough to know that forest spirits don’t exist.
A sweet, clean, and pleasant little family show, Hyouka is about an apathetic high schooler who is inspired by a group of friends, including a pretty cute, curious girl, to solve little mysteries for his school. He is intelligent and quirky, and his personal growth as a character is delightful. This anime also has some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. Just look at that eye!
Warning: Japanese hot springs are very popular in anime. There is one episode where the characters go to a hot spring. No body parts are shown, but one character gets woozy thinking about girls bathing behind a fence. If you ignore this episode and chalk it up to the writer being in a weird mood that day, the rest is just charming.
There are 22 episodes in this show, and the pacing of the cutesy mysteries might be slow to some. However, the characters themselves and their interactions make this one a favorite.
Heading the liminal fantasy + break your heart open genres are works by the visual novel company, Key. (visual novel = interactive computer game story) Many of their visual novels were turned into anime shows. Their best work, in my opinion, isn’t the Clannad series, but Kanon (the 2006 version). It’s not terribly long with a second season like the ever-popular Clannad, nor does it have over-the-top characters. Instead, each of the Kanon girls have highly fascinating backstories. I was obsessed with this anime, and also watched it very early on in my anime career. The liminal fantasy was modest and subtle, instead of throwing us into a highly elaborate world. It brought soft elements of fantasy to us, while still focusing on the inter-personal relationships and romance. The story could’ve been set anywhere, and there’s even an English dub (although I don’t think it’s a good one) for the viewer who’s set against subtitles.
The music is gorgeous, the girls are amazing, and you care about their deeply personal and often tragic stories. Highly recommend this one.
Warning: Thematic elements. There’s also a surprise violent scene or two but nothing graphic. Still definitely a PG.
One character makes a joke about asking another character to buy a pornographic magazine for him. She refuses. Again, nothing else is sexual about the entire show, so the line was completely pointless.
6. Patema Inverted
Truly gorgeous, imaginative movie, where the sky animation is so amazing you’ll get acrophobia. I showed my whole non-anime-watching family this movie at Christmas and even my dad enjoyed it. They said it was unique and a really entertaining story.
Basically, the world has been divided into two groups of people with opposing gravity, and one girl and boy find each other. Think a younger Upside Down without all the terrible plot holes and bad pacing. So much better.
Warning: None. Just a fantastic movie. The plot isn’t even set in Japan, so there’s nothing culturally confusing about it in the least.
This anime-style show is actually American, but is always grouped with its Japanese sisters. The art and graphics in the show get better with each season, but can take getting used to in the beginning. A story about hunters and huntresses in a magic-type school learning to defend their nation while working together.
Warning: Many of the females in this show are pretty immodest, so it might be one I recommend to watch by yourselves, ladies. The first season has silly teenage drama, but when you get to season 2, the plot thickens. By season 3, you’re thrown into an epic story that’s highly entertaining. RWBY also has some of the best animated battle scenes I’ve ever seen.
8. Avatar: The Last Airbender
Again, this is American, produced on the Nickelodeon channel, but it’s no secret it was succeeded in borrowing a lot of Japanese anime elements. Safe enough for kids (who can look past the Buddhist-undertones), this show thrilled many adults too. Highly recommend if you’re thinking of breaking into the anime scene but want a safe marriage between something American and something Japanese-feeling. Poignant characters and huge battles between good and evil, it’s one of those shows where I wish I could wipe my brain just so I can rewatch it with all the delight of seeing it for the first time all over again.
Warning: Some New Age/Buddhist talk – maybe for the older, mature child and adults
Live Action (Korean/Japanese Dramas and Movies)
(Most can be found legally on Dramafever.com and Viki.com)
1. Bara no nai Hanaya
One of the most Christian dramas to ever come out of Japan, this is a show with the most selfless male character I’ve ever seen. In a slow-paced, beautiful display of love (both to his little girl, as well as to the woman pretending to be blind to cheat him), Shiomi Eiji is a fantastic character. I watched this drama a second time and showed it to my mom and sister. My mom cried every single episode without fail, and then went out and bought the show for herself.
Unfortunately, though, this show is pretty unknown and hard to find. One would like to imagine the writer was a believer himself, so maybe it wasn’t as popular in spiritually-dark Japan. This is a beautiful Christlike love story in every way.
Warning: There is the most random cross-dressing character that shows up for one quick scene near the end. It makes no sense and has nothing to do with the story.
2. Death Note and Death Note: The Last Name (movies)
I don’t recommend the Death Note anime to American newbies, even though it’s fantastic, because the ending goes down a very strange path that frustrated a lot of people, including me. The Death Note movies clean up the ending and change it a bit to make it more tidy and sensible. If you want to get this highly intellectual, cat-and-mouse thriller, but you’re not a purist who needs it in its original manga form with its bad ending, choose the Death Note movies instead.
Basically, an intelligent high school student finds a notebook that claims if he writes someone’s name in it and picture their face, he can kill them on the spot. The highschooler is then forced into a moral dilemma of playing god and goes to battle against the world’s most brilliant – and quirky – detective.
Warning: There are a lot of warnings on this one. Definitely a PG-13, there is a death god spirit who is pretty scary-looking who follows the main characters around. A very morbid set of movies, I recommend it for the mature viewer. However, it’s not about blood, guts, and action like you’d have to put up with in America. Instead, this slower-paced dark show treats the viewer like an intellectual equal by letting you into some really brainy heads. Very well-written.
Do NOT watch “L: Change the World” as it is a non-canon, highly violent side story that I couldn’t stomach or get through. It has nothing to do with the original plot and should be ignored.
3. Dream Knight
If you enjoyed High School musical, you can put up with the one or two song and dance numbers in this adorable short drama from Korea. A teenager’s dream, a girl has a group of guys magically show up when she’s alone and having trouble in school. The short series takes a very serious and meaningful turn, though, and I was enchanted by how much emotional sweetness they packed into the twelve 13-minute episodes. A really charming liminal fantasy highschool romance that would make sense to any American viewer who watched Disney channel. I might have squealed out loud a time or two. *cough*
Warning: (Cute) teenage drama, and a mention of suicide
Have you ever wanted more Jason Bourne coupled with a sweet romance? You got it in Healer. Having nothing to do with medical illness, “Healer” is the codename of a night courier, basically the Korean version of Jason Bourne, who faces a big moral dilemma when he starts falling in love with the woman he’s been hired to investigate and protect. This Korean drama has it all: action, love, backstory, political evil, mystery, a hilarious computer guru, and outstanding acting. I also had to watch this one through twice – showing it to my husband the second time, and I still enjoy reruns of my favorite scenes.
Warning: PG-13 for the action and thematic elements. A couple is shown in bed after kissing, but it’s not clear that anything sexual happened. A few scenes later the young man tells her father they didn’t do anything. Korean shows tend to be very modest, culminating the romance with kissing only, so even while sleeping they are shown entirely clothed and purity is often implied.
5. I Hear Your Voice
Imagine if a little boy had the super power of hearing people’s thoughts, and was the only witness to his father’s murder, along with an older high school girl. Now imagine that girl grows up to be a lawyer and the boy a young man whose only goal in life is to protect her so that when the murderer gets out of prison, she can survive.
Mixing in great Perry-Mason-courtroom scenes with a budding “noona-romance” (younger guy with a woman older than he), I Hear Your Voice is a deep, thoughtful, psychological courtroom romance with a fantasy twist.
Warning: Definitely violence and scary characters. There are a couple of murders and very tense scenes. PG-13
6. Mirai Nikki (THE JAPANESE DRAMA)
I repeat again, the Japanese drama from 2012, NOT THE ANIME. The anime is a piece of disturbing, violent nastiness that I refuse to see, being so revolted by the descriptions of the show I couldn’t sleep at night.
HOWEVER, the Japanese put out an 11-episode drama with the same name that supposedly bears only a slight resemblance to the manga and anime with the same name. This drama was a real treat! Fascinating mystery, kept us guessing the whole time, and, I repeat, CLEAN. A great clean drama that we could enjoy without feeling in the slightest bit dirty. I highly recommend it to an American breaking into watching Asian dramas. Just please avoid the anime.
Warning: Definitely psychologically tense and thriller scenes. PG-13
Happy watching! And remember to watch everything at your own risk. My recommendation is, by no means, infallible for every viewer. Do your research and enjoy eastern storytelling! :-)