Like many other Japanophiles, I first got interested in Japan because of anime. Growing up I was exposed to Japanese culture off and on because I lived in the Pacific Northwest where there is a large Japanese-American community and Japanese culture abounds. But I didn't truly fall for Japan until I first started watching anime and took an interest in the language and the culture.
To be totally honest, I rarely watch anime these days. I've outgrown a lot of the stuff I watched when I was younger, but the beauty of the genre is that it really does have something for everyone. There are very serious, mature anime that are targeted to an adult audience and are well worth the attention of anyone interested in Japanese culture. The mainstream image of anime has become the brightly-colored, kid's shows with their crazy spikey hair and high-pitched voice acting. Not that those can't be fun, but I often wish the anime that make the genre worthwhile would get the attention they deserve.
So here follows my Top 10 list for those of you who feel anime is too silly to take seriously. A quick comment on the ranking: these aren't necessarily in order of most popular or best quality; rather they're ranked by what I would show a non-believer in order to convert them.
10. Grave of the Fireflies - A visually beautiful and incredibly important story about two orphans trying to survive in the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Everyone really should watch this movie, but I'm ranking it at 10 because it is pretty damn depressing.
9. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust - Another truly stunning anime movie. The artwork, inspired by Amano's illustrations, paired with rich, atmospheric colors makes this movie worth watching.
8. Metropolis - Based on the manga by the famed Osamu Tezuka, known to otaku as the "God of Manga" and creator of such classics as Astro Boy, Black Jack, etc. I loved the epic feel and amazing animation of this movie.
7. Full Metal Alchemist - A fantasy story of two brothers whose lives have been forever altered by alchemy. On the surface this seems like a silly kid's anime, but if you look a little closer you'll discover a moving story that explores our beliefs about what it is to be human.
6. Tokyo Godfathers - a heartwarming story about 3 homeless people in Tokyo who discover an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. It's by Satoshi Kon, who has received lots of acclaim for works like Millennium Actress and Paprika. It goes beyond Western Christmas tropes to tell a very interesting, human story.
5. Ghost in the Shell - One of the most philosophically deep mecha anime, Ghost in the Shell offers not only great animation and lots of action, it's also a great intellectual story. (And unlike Evangelion it doesn't make you feel like you just beat your head against a wall.)
4. Samurai Champloo - I seriously love the style of this anime. It's the story of two samurai and a girl wandering around Edo Japan set to hip-hop music, with lots of great modern references and bits of interesting historical info. This is definitely conversion material.
3. Akira - This is one of those classics that even people with no knowledge of anime may have seen. The story revolves around kids in biker gangs in a futuristic, post-nuclear holocaust Tokyo. It's definitely bizarre at times, but it makes some really strong statements about modern Japanese culture and is considered one of the best anime ever created.
2. Cowboy Bebop - Easily one of the most universally fun and likeable anime ever made, Cowboy Bebop is what hooked many people on the genre. It mixes Western, cowboy culture with the scifi genre, with great action scenes and a great blues and jazz soundtrack. If this one doesn't convert you, you're probably a lost cause.
1. Studio Ghibli - Possibly the most well-loved anime studio, Ghibli and the works of Miyazaki have become ambassadors for the genre. Before I ever knew what anime was, I had seen Kiki's Delivery Service (aka Majo no takyubin in Japanese). In particular, I recommend Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and the Castle in the Sky.