So I’ve been watching a bunch of first episodes of Anime recently, and most of them are fucking terrible. Or just boring. But as someone who will willfully subject themselves to more terrible media than he probably should, I do try and have some kind of positive takeaway from doing so. One of these takeaways is a greater appreciation for the good stuff. First episodes are increasingly important in the media saturated world we now live in. There are so many shows, and so many other things, asking for my attention, a show needs to give me a reason to come back for a second episode. Or .at least it should right? Right?
I can’t think of a show I like that has a flat out terrible first episode. A first episode is rarely a show’s best work, but it’s still an indication of quality. I can think of shows that have a good first episode, but fall off a cliff and turn out bad, but even then not that many. It’s tough for a show to be both bad and good enough for me to forgive the bad parts. And if a show starts out bad I’m not going to be inclined to give it that second chance.
First episodes are hard and they have a lot of work to do. They need to both establish the world of the show and they need to sell the audience on that world, convincing them that it’s worth seeing more.
So I wanted to talk about some episodes that do a good job of this, but because first episodes are so much about making a case for their show, I figured I might as well couch that in actual recommendations. Also, because I want to give useful recommendations I have some criteria to limit myself on what I talk about:
1. The show cannot have more than 26 episodes. I want to recommend shows that aren’t an intimidating time investment.
2. The show has to be good obviously. Again, the nature of this is list is gonna depend on what I think is good and worth watching in general. It’s just that the first episode is good, it also matters where the show goes from there.
3. The first episode needs to be indicative of the rest of the show. Shows that take multiple episodes to get going, go off the rails, or only come into focus at the end don’t have a place here.
4. And finally the first episode itself needs to be good. I mean, obviously right? That’s what brought me to this dance. The point is, right off the bat, with any of these shows, you’re getting a sharp half-hour of anime. Even if it turns out to not be your thing, I think there’s inherit value in the first episode of all these shows. Something worth seeing, something worth talking about with the minimum investment for a TV show.
So, these are the Anime I have the easiest time recommending to anyone who hasn’t seen any of these shows. These aren’t presented here in any ranking, just the order I felt like putting them in.
Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Episode 1: “Asteroid Blues”
The first episode of Cowboy Bebop is not the best, and in my recollection of the series previously, mostly based on its plot, I would have marked this as one of the skippable episodes.
Watching it again, with an eye towards it specifically as a first episode. Fuck. This is a great first episode.
This is a distillation of the core elements of Bebop. We don’t get the full cast, just Spike and Jet, and the plot is just a straightforward bounty, These are reasons that it doesn’t stick out in retrospect, but it allows the show room to breathe. As important as Ed, Ein, and Faye are to the show, at the end of the day it’s about Spike. When the show gets really serious the other characters will usually fall into the background anyway. Jet gets established here too, but he serves as a foil to Spike as much as anything.
This episode exists to set up Spike, and does so without telling us anything about him. Every little hint we get about him is a result of him reacting to what the story presents him with. Either through his words or actions. The only exception being the cold open, which serves to give us a quick glimpse of Spike’s dark past that the show isn’t ready to share with us yet. This episode fully establishes baseline, iconic Spike.
The other purpose of this episode is to be an animation showpiece. Cowboy Bebop is that rare combination of great design and high fidelity animation. This show was an amazing spectacle in its day and it holds up. It just looks freaking great at its best. There are dips in that quality over the course of the series, but they made sure to put a food foot forward. So much of who Spike is conveyed through the way he moves and fights. He makes an otherwise throwaway fight a masterpiece.
Episode 1: “Fooly Cooly”
Another animation showpiece, FLCL was never broadcast on TV in Japan, though it was in North America. Over there it was an OVA, released direct to DVD a single episode at a time on a “when its done” schedule over the course of a year. Something for studio GAINAX to work on between other projects. It allowed them to experiment with different styles and just throw in whatever cool shit they felt like.
All this just makes it more impressive to me what a strong emotional core the show has, right from jump street. Even though the visual style changes all the time, and all the minor elements feel like they;re falling out of a “list of cool shit” someone wrote off the top of their head, it all works, because thematically it’s simple, straightforward, and confident.
The show is about entering puberty. It’s very unsubtle about this, and that makes all the surrounding insanity totally reasonable, because puberty is all about too much coming at you too fast. Leaving you confused, excited and embarrassed.
It masterfully establishes Naota’s world-weary teenage misanthropy and then gleefully tears it all away from him, leaving hm with an embarrassing, unwanted horn. Did I mention that the show is not trying to be subtle?
This episode sells you on being ready for anything, because the only rule for the details surrounding the show’s main theme is that “shit needs to be rad as fuck.”
Ouran Host Club (2006)
Episode 1: “Starting Today, You Are a Host!”
Ouran’s first episode is a simple gimmick, executed very well. What makes it work is that the gimmick doesn’t actually alter the normal dynamics of the show really. The tone is the same as it will be in future episodes. The straight man is the straight man and the jester is the jester.
So the gimmick doesn’t just act like a trick, it genuinely feels like a clever way to tell this story. It also serves to give us a little insight into the mind’s eye of our characters, letting us know how perceptive each one of them is.
This is a fun, silly, clever show and its first episode makes all those strengths very clear upfront.
Episode 1: “The Vice President Doesn’t Say Anything about the Possibility of Him Being the Main Character”
This is a first episode with a much more complicated gimmick, which is appropriate because Baccano is much more complicated story, told in an unconventional way. Hosting an immense cast (Who all show up in the opening credits for your convenience.) and not told in strict chronological order, there’s no clear central plotline, and no single main character.
Its first episode involves two extraneous characters discussing how to tell this story. It’s an admission that how you tell a story does effect what that story then means,
The show delights itself with savage bloody violence, full of nonsense and fun. You only get a taste of that upfront, but they are some good tastes, that make it clear that there’s more here than what you see on the surface.
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor (1993)
Episode 1: “The Mysterious Irresponsible Man”
This is a show that does take until the third episode until we get the real setup for the series, but it uses those first two to introduce characters in a space where they have the room to breathe. The first episode is all about introducing our title hero, the irresponsible Tylor. (He’s not a captain yet.) It also does a lot of world building, establishing the war that will carry through the series.
The full range of the series is on display here, giving us a scene on the new teenage Empress breaking down in tears over the recent death of her parents, and a scene where Tylor flirts with an A.I. Driving it insane with lust and accidentally stating the war a little early.
Despite these disperate tones, the show is incredibly thematically tight. This is not levity just for levity’s sake. The show knows what it’s doing, but most importantly it tells its story through its characters, and Tylor himself is one of the best.
Princess Tutu (2002)
Episode 1: “The Duck and the Prince”
Tutu opens its first episode with a pop-up book style story which serves as a backstory for the whole series, but its importance is not initially clear. The show lays some elements close to its chest and the full nature of its world are not clear until latter. What it wants to establish upfront is our heroine Ahiru. Awkward, clumsy and absent minded, she’s a delight to watch because she’s so full of good natured, nervous energy.
This series is all about fairy tales, classical music, and ballet. Ahiru herself is obviously heavily inspired b the ugly duckling. (Ahiru means duck in Japanese.) The blend of fairy tale sensibilities and real worl normalcy is meant to confuse the viewer. This is not just standard anime weirdness; there is a reason for the strangeness of the world, even if it is one based on fantasy magic.
There are sword fights and violence, and it can get dark for a kid’s show, but really it’s about finding another way, a better way. The important thing is that the show makes it clear that the better way is also the much more difficult way.
Spiraling towards tragedy, how can we find a happy ending?
Yurikuma Arashi (2015)
Episode 1: “Never Back Down On Love”
So while I do rank Ikuhara’s shows as top-tier, much of that has to do with their depth and complexity. His shows are dense, and challenging, and kinda demand multiple viewings. The key is that they’re entertaining enough to stand up to multiple viewings.
That makes them harder to recommend, but Yurikuma gets on this list because it’s only 13 episodes; there’s just less volume to sift through. And it’s still highly entertaining even if your only scratching the surface of what’s going on. Just know that the show expects you to be confused, and is deliberately fucking with you.
The reason Mawaru Penguindrum isn’t here is that it’s playing a longer con; you can watch half the series (Penguindrum is 24 episodes) and still have the wrong impression of what it is. Yurikuma has less time to work with and begins unfolding and breaking itself down by episode four. It asks a little less of the viewer.
Yurikuma is beautiful, deep, dark, serious, and very silly. It opens with adorable chibi bears nibbling on humans.
“Bears eat people. It’s what we do!”
I just think that’s a really strong pitch.