The 90s had some incredible anime released throughout, ranging from popular shounen to iconic romances, that defined the medium in terms of genre and tone.
Today, I’ll be taking a look at 31 different entries that deserve revisiting 20 to 30 years later. Grab your lunchbox and action figures, we’re going back!
- 31. His and Her Circumstances
- 30. Mobile Suit Gundam
- 29. Now and Then, Here and There
- 28. Digimon Adventures
- 27. Sailor Moon
- 26. Memories
- 25. Pokémon
- 24. Initial D
- 23. Samurai X
- 22. Golden Boy
- 21. Trigun
- 20. Kiki’s Delivery Service
- 19. Slam Dunk
- 18. Akira
- 17. My Neighbor Totoro
- 16. Great Teacher Onizuka
- 15. Porco Rosso
- 14. 1001 Nights
- 13. Revolutionary Girl Utena
- 12. Ghost in the Shell
- 11. Perfect Blue
- 10. One Piece
- 9. YU YU Hakusho
- 8. Berserk
- 7. Hunter X Hunter
- 6. Neon Genesis Evangelion
- 5. Whisper of the Heart
- 4. Cowboy Bebop
- 3. Serial Experiments Lain
- 2. Princess Mononoke
- 1. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
31. His and Her Circumstances
The largest problem with His and Her Circumstances is the ending, which most people (myself included) believe let down the initial premise somewhat and leaves a feeling of inconclusiveness.
This isn’t to dismiss what came before, a wonderfully poignant romance about two students who fall in love and become inseparable.
In many ways, it was a trendsetter and still unique (especially if you’re familiar with most romance anime).
30. Mobile Suit Gundam
Gundam needs little introduction. It’s one of the biggest franchises in the world, with a care and detail placed into its world that’s nearly unparalleled.
From an animation and art standpoint, the 90s series doesn’t stand up as well as it once did.
However, it’s still held together by a strong audiovisual awareness that elevates the experience beyond many (few) contemporaries.
29. Now and Then, Here and There
This is an under-sung relic of the 90s, with the style and world-building of a Ghibli film but the emotional and mature sensibilities of a seinen.
Yet it’s also a beautiful story about companionship and standing up for oneself, with powerful moments sprinkled throughout the mad bleakness.
It’s tragic through and through and a very tough watch, so heed my warning but go in blind if you’re into sad or emotionally despairing narratives.
28. Digimon Adventures
Digimon Adventure is the first Digimon anime, and man, did they hit it out of the park on their first go.
Featuring a well-designed and beloved cast with an aesthetic indicative of the late Square Enix 90s, Digimon actually tells a competent and dramatic story.
There are stakes, there’s development, there’s a constant pace to the whole thing despite being a children’s show.
Sure, it’s not as iconic as Pokemon and is flawed in many, many respects, but that isn’t to diminish it’s high points (which are constant and always engaging).
27. Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is certainly a trendsetter, revitalizing and modernizing the magical girl genre into something fresh and unique.
So many aspects of it have been emulated in later MahouShoujo series, but nothing has come close to capturing the Sunday 90s Daytime Cartoon vibe that Sailor Moon possesses whilst still telling an entertaining and competent story.
It’s one of a kind, for sure, and that’s why so many people have gravitated around it as a franchise.
This is a quirky film that’s never really blown up in the public eye for a number of reasons.
Its limited cinematic release paired with its cult status has made it a hidden gem, so where better to start this list?
It’s split into three distinct narratives, each directed by a well-known director.
The first is the best: Magnetic Rose, a horror thriller following a number of cosmic engineers who have been led to an abandoned and haunted space station.
The second and third are still wonderfully animated but nowhere near as sublime or gripping.
There’s Stink Bomb – a scientist accidentally increases the potency of his flatulence and becomes a governmental terror threat – and there’s Cannon Fodder, revolving around a city of cannons and a boy who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps to become an artillery officer.
Pokémon is as frustrating a watch as it is entertaining. While many films are great, and there are a few shows that stand out – such as Origins and Twilight Wings – but the main series is… Quite the slog at times.
Nonetheless, this list would not be complete without mentioning the pocket monsters.
There are thousands of episodes by now, so if you’re a Pokémon fan, you’re certainly not starves for choice. It features the occasionally wonderful animation and an always present warming heart and soul.
24. Initial D
Takumi Fujiwara happens to be brilliant at drift racing through total skill due to his frequent escapades around the winding mountains as a tofu delivery driver.
This catches the attention of the Akagi Red Suns street racing team, who take an interest in Takumi.
This anime is hype to the max, with a Eurobeat soundtrack keeping the energy constantly rising.
It came out towards the latter parts of the 90s and perfectly indicates the styles and sensibilities of that time to the point of nostalgia baiting those who weren’t even around then.
23. Samurai X
Rurouni Kenshin (or Samurai X) is one of a surprisingly little number of samurai anime worth watching. It follows Himura Kenshin, a pacifistic samurai fighting through Japan in the name of love and peace.
However, his story can technically start in Trust and Betrayal, where we watch Kenshin adopt his pacifist creed.
He was an orphan turned over to slavery that is saved by a roaming swordmaster and decides to learn beneath him.
However, his anger and rage towards those who ruined his life and those ruining his country drives him to briefly renounce pacifism to pursue the darker parts of him. The contrast between the two stories is fascinating.
22. Golden Boy
Golden Boy is a short 6-episode ecchi comedy centered on KintarouOoe, a young man who roams Japan’s land, partaking in various part-time jobs.
His main goal is to learn about the world around him and the people that inhabit it, and if he occasionally steals a woman’s heart along the way?
Well, to Kintarou, that is all in service of education! It’s unabashedly 90s in tone and subtext, for better or worse, but still features some of the funniest dubbing and scenes I’ve seen in anime.
Vash the Stampede has gained in insurmountable bounty and the nickname of ‘The Humanoid Typhoon,’ despite being anything but.
He’s an earnest pacifist misunderstood by the powers that be, traveling the world with his companions and trying to keep out of trouble.
That is until a legendary band of assassins mark him for dead, throwing his party into a survival gauntlet that will let Vash define who he is to the public and himself.
It’s still brilliantly animated and excited, and honestly wouldn’t look out of place in the current climate of anime, really showing how timeless a simple classic this series is.
20. Kiki’s Delivery Service
Kiki has finally earned the right to be a witch, and so she chooses to strike out into the world and become independent through a career of her own making.
She decides to become a courier, delivering post and packages around the country with her best friend, a little black.
It’s got the common, celebrated Ghibli animation and aesthetic, of course, and will more than certainly make you smile a number of times throughout.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is a charming and delightful story about finding oneself in the world of adults.
19. Slam Dunk
Slam Dunk follows Hanamichi Sakuragi, a large man with red hair and a fiery temperament, who finds himself wrapped up in playing basketball after lying to his crush that he was a player.
Despite embarrassing himself, the local team nonetheless takes an interest in his innate abilities and enlists him.
Slam Dunk is the basketball anime, Kuroko be damned. It’s testosterone-fueled drama without any supernatural gimmick, telling a hype as all hell and exciting story of fitting in and proving oneself.
Don’t go into Akira expecting a masterpiece of narrative and voice acting. It’s not perfect, and that’s not why people respect it so much.
Technically, it came out in 1988 – but due to so many cinematic releases and the way it truly took off in the 90s, I decided to just include it here.
It reinvigorated the medium and inspired countless anime from thereon, thanks to its gorgeous yet graphic depiction of a neo-Tokyo fallen to the dogs.
It follows two young gang members – Shoutarou and Tetsuou – who become embroiled in a governmental scientific experiment that irreparably changes the world.
The sense of scale is insane, and considering each frame was drawn individually, the animation and art definitely ages well.
17. My Neighbor Totoro
Most Ghibli films excel at telling a narrative made for all ages, and while that is somewhat the case here, it’s certainly more of a childish affair than, say, Spirited Away.
Yet, it has one of the largest souls of any of their films, telling the story of two sisters adapting to their new house and surroundings while their mother is terminally sick in the hospital.
It’s while wandering that they stumble upon a great fat forest spirit by the name of Totoro, who quickly becomes their new best friends.
Beautifully animated, wonderfully soundtracked, and just consistently heartwarming; of course, Totoro is worth a watch.
16. Great Teacher Onizuka
This anime is not only hilarious but heartbreaking and heart-touching.
It follows EikichiOnizuka at the age of 22 after he left a biker gang to become a high school teacher.
Initially, his reasons are pretty sketchy, however, he quickly comes to realize the merit of being an educator and strives to teach better than anyone else.
GTO has aged well in most respects, still able to get a chuckle out of me and endear me with some of its more serious episodes and moments.
15. Porco Rosso
Miyazaki loves directing anime set in the sky. From the very beginning his, and Studio Ghibli’s, portfolio has comprised gorgeous aeroplane artwork and engineering detail. So, it’s not surprising he would tackle a story about a World War I pilot.
The twist this time is that Marco Pagot was cursed to look like a pig and take up the name PorcoRosso, living on an estranged island and occasionally visiting his friend.
However, his life has become one of a bounty hunter, and when a rival place shoots him down, he decides to stand up for himself and fight back. It’s an engaging and rooted story concerning emotion and people and the consequence of war.
Many sleep on this one, but it’s absolutely worth a look.
14. 1001 Nights
Ripped straight from the art book of the wonderful genius Yoshitaki Amano, 1001 Nights is a cinematic color show exploring love, commitment, and connection.
It’s art through and through, with no voice acting and a gorgeous operatic score setting the scene.
Some may find it boring – as indicated by its low MyAnimeList score – but I feel that truly undersells the beauty of 1001 Nights.
It’s a must-watch for artsy people keen to see some eclectic and bombastic art that’s entirely open to interpretation.
13. Revolutionary Girl Utena
This anime deserves its name. It’s a revolutionary story that aims to deconstruct various aspects of society ranging from sex, abuse, the self, feminism, story tropes, innocence, and love.
This is all done in a fantastically stylish coming-of-age narrative following the titular Utena and her trials to save the princess Anthy from patriarchal subservience.
Every episode is as exciting as it is thematically deep, and it’s all tied together with a wonderfully artistic bow that keeps the entire production alive in the minds of many.
While its popularity has declined since release, its impact and importance certainly haven’t – so I urge you to check it out if you can!
12. Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell is very much a household name now. It innovated many aspects of anime as a medium, and its inspiring touch can be felt across other art forms around the world.
The cyberpunk depiction of the self and what it means to be human, touching on Turing-Esque and philosophical topics with a high degree of self-awareness and sublimity, is near unmatched.
It concerns MotokoKusanagi, who at a young age lost most of her body and has went through life swapping between new ones. She becomes a soldier tasked with cyber warfare and terrorist control, and so begins Ghost in the Shell.
It’s still one of the best looking anime available, with a soundtrack that refuses to age.
11. Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue is what would happen if Orphan Black and Misery has a baby in anime form.
Directed by the late but incredible Satoshi Kon, it tells the story of an idol girl quitting to pursue a career in the film industry, however, it’s not as easy as she’d think.
One of her parasocial attached and obsessed fans isn’t happy with her decision, and the world around her seems to derail out of control.
It’s one of the more mature anime out there, refusing to pander to otaku or the medium and instead tell a very Western story in numerous aspects but is certainly its own uncomfortable experience.
10. One Piece
Oh, One Piece? You haven’t heard of One Piece? Well, I’m not surprised, it’s relatively unknown…
Who are we kidding? It’s one of the longest-running series, one of (if not the) highest-grossing comic series ever crafted.
It’s got a scale and world unlike any other, where a moment in chapter 50 can be more relevant than ever 300 chapters later.
It’s got a gargantuan cast of incredulous yet somehow rooted characters spread across hundreds of islands.
The story never stops and never drags. It’s a master class of fun that does have issues in the anime (with filler arcs and flashbacks being in abundance) but nonetheless delivers on the entertainment.
9. YU YU Hakusho
Written by Yoshihiro Togashi (the author of Hunter x Hunter), Yu Yu Hakusho tells the story of Yusuke Urameshi, who is made an Underworld Detective and determined to investigate supernatural post-death mysteries and happenings following his own death.
It’s got a wonderfully human center, all wrapped up in one of the best and most climactic shounens to ever have been created.
Somehow, despite the praise lofted upon Yu Yu Hakusho, it never truly blew up in the West, which is a real shame because it’s one of the greatest shounen ever crafted.
Guts’ life is misery. He lost his parents at birth, was adopted by a group of mercenaries who end up abusing him, and then spends his teenage years wandering the land with a sword like a rabid and frightened dog.
When he meets Griffith, he finds a reason to live – adopted into a band of warriors who are more like family than friends and given the opportunity to fend for him and others and soften up.
However, things go horribly wrong, and that’s why Berserk is considered a tragic yet master class work of art. It’s grim, dark, hopeful, harrowing, yet gorgeous all at once, with twists and turns that will never be forgotten.
The 90s adaptation tries its best to capture all of this, but I’d definitely recommend reading the manga above all else.
7. Hunter X Hunter
Hunter x Hunter is large. It’s got a huge sense of scale and a progression of arcs ranging from all genres.
It follows Gon, a young boy keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an adventurer (and find his father, too).
While it received a remake a decade later, the 90s version is still gorgeous – nearly perfect, even – with some truly brilliant artwork and animation coupled with a better score than the remaster, in my opinion.
It’s a shame we never got to see the Chimera Ant Arc in this iteration, but at least what we did get was nonstop great.
6. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Shinji Ikari is invited by his neglectful father, Gendo, to meet him and chat after years of estrangement following the death of his mother.
Excited to rekindle their relationship, Shinji leaves only to become caught up in a world-changing experiment wherein he is the primary candidate, and Gendo is the mastermind.
He’s forced into an Evangelionmecha and tasked with fighting Angels (large geometrical alien invaders) in this deconstructive story of self-loathing, mental health, responsibility, and consequence.
It’s got a fascinating story behind its development and is as critically acclaimed as it is for a reason, so check it out if you have the chance as it’s really nothing like other mecha (Gundam, for example), and many people don’t realize that.
5. Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart is a beautiful romance where the focus isn’t on the couple but on the individuals. It concerns Shizuku, who adores reading and writing but never finished the stories she starts.
Through happenstance, she meets Seiji – a young boy dreaming of becoming a master violin maker – and his ambitions force her to pull up her bootstraps, sit down, and finish a story.
It’s a sweet and simple narrative that left me inspired and enamored by the end. I really cannot recommend this one enough.
4. Cowboy Bebop
This is Shinichiro Watanabe’s magnum opus. Which is saying a lot, considering how wonderful the rest of his portfolio is.
It perfectly blends jazz and Western cowboy narratives with a science fiction adventure aesthetic, encapsulating on the philosophies of each of them to tell a story of ennui, loneliness, existentialism, purpose, and self-loathing.
Set in 2017, it follows a gang of bounty hunters as they travel from star system to star system, completing odd jobs and gambits in order to escape their pasts.
It’s deep, mature, funny, immature, and emotionally human in a way few anime are. That’s why people love it so much, so it’s definitely worth a watch.
3. Serial Experiments Lain
There aren’t many anime as prophetic as Serial Experiments Lain. Releasing in 1998, it encompasses ‘The Wire’ – an in-universe equivalent to the internet – and the distinct ramifications having a digital persona can have on a tangible person.
The main character is Lain Iwakura, an introverted teenager who serves as our conduit into the online world after her classmate commits suicide.
From there, the lines between realities blur further and further until they are near indistinguishable.
It’s a masterfully done short series with a slow but thematically deep plot that can keep you guessing if you have patience. It also works wonderfully for rewatching.
2. Princess Mononoke
With so many ridiculously good films coming out through the 90s, is it any surprise another Ghibli production would be so close to the top? Princess Mononoke is the quintessential Ghibli experience.
It tackles all the topics the studio is known for efficiently, from environmentalism to family, but with a larger focus on world-building and scale.
It follows Ashitaka, who, after meeting the Princess of the Forest, is caught between allegiances towards his industrializing roots and natural love.
Featuring one of the best scores in animated cinema history and with every frame carrying the wonderful presence of some masterpiece painting, Mononoke definitely deserves its place as the second-best anime of the 90s. However, it is not the first…
1. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
There is no anime out there like Legend of the Galactic Heroes, being more like Asimov’s Foundation series blended with Game of Thrones or War and Peace more than anything.
This series epitomizes the looping progress of time and society, telling a long and winding narrative set across centuries of intergalactic warfare in 110 wonderful episodes.
You’ll laugh, cry, gasp, and be amazed by the pure magnitude and scale of this show.
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