The 1990s were a fascinating decade for pop culture on multiple fronts, with examples such as Quentin Tarantino, CGI-animated shows, a rise in independent films, and more. Despite all of these innovations, one of the most popular and enduring trends to emerge from the ’90s was anime, which was thoroughly popularized in the west in this decade. This included tv series and films. It’s created industry legends and pop culture juggernauts with staying power maintaining some franchises into the present day, so it’s important to recognize the best ’90s animes in television and film.
10 Best ’90s TV Animes that Defined a Generation, Ranked
Anime television is such a saturated form of animated entertainment, but if not for these trailblazers and the trends they set for the industry, we might not have seen the anime boom here in the west. Some are certainly more popular than others, but there’s an undeniable impression left behind by each entry on this list, evaluated by their quality and contribution to the anime zeitgeist.
10. Yu Yu Hakusho
Generally better as a manga than it was as an anime due to the amount of censorship the show received, Yu Yu Hakusho was a fun exploration of the Shonen formula. A teenage delinquent, Yusuke Urameshi, dies while saving a child’s life, and is brought back to life as an “Underworld Detective” who combats demonic threats using martial arts and spirit-based energy attacks. It feels like a more grounded Dragon Ball Z at times, with none of the filler, and while it also has far less of a cultural footprint, it’s remembered fondly.
Pokemon is the most successful multimedia franchise out there, undeniably. Part of its lasting appeal is the regular, consistent airing of the Pokemon anime to tie in with the video games, and for the first time in its 25 years of airing, Ash Ketchum will no longer be the protagonist from 2023 onward. The anime didn’t turn many heads artistically, but bringing the hundreds of fun creatures to life on screen for audiences of all ages for all this time is a testament to its staying power.
8. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Gundam Wing was many western viewers’ first taste of the mecha genre, and despite the series focusing more on its characters and story at points than simply mecha action, it struck a chord with fans. The show holds up well today, and despite it having aired in March of 2000, the anime ran from 1995-1996 in Japan and is a staple of ’90s animes.
7. Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is a vital piece of 1990s anime history thanks to its balanced marketing allowing it to appeal to more than female viewers like how the original manga was promoted. It’s simple to know why: it’s stylish, entertaining, and undeniably iconic. It is one of the most financially successful anime franchises ever conceived, generating billions in revenue and maintaining a ubiquitous merchandise presence even in the present.
6. Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball Z fans were the kid equivalent of the water cooler conversations grown adults would have about who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. The kids would argue about which DBZ character was strongest (Goku, Goku is typically the strongest due to plot armor) and how the latest villain was defeated. The anime was notoriously poorly-paced, with the Frieza saga, in particular, being noteworthy in overstaying its welcome, but the fans didn’t care, they were entertained and awaited each episode.
The media franchise this Dragon Ball sequel series spawned is the stuff of anime legend, with some of the world’s most recognizable fan merch available, and it even produces hit anime films to this day.
5. Serial Experiments Lain
Serial Experiments Lain is the first entry on this list which might not be recognized by everyone, but it was an artistic achievement that was ahead of its time in the 1990s. It’s a surreal, insightful glimpse into human reliance on technology, and our perception of intelligent design, reality, and existence. The animation is also superb, and the themes alone keep this series relevant well into the present day, making it a series worth viewing.
Many of the best animes from the ’90s were of the Shonen variety, marketed for boys, and while that put some series in a box, it didn’t stop some from being bold, innovative, or of notable quality. Trigun was far more successful in the west due to its themes and concepts considered to have greater appeal outside of Japan, and its visual style was noteworthy if falling slightly short of other great anime series from the 1990s.
Berserk is undeniably the greatest dark fantasy anime to come out of the 1990s, with its visual style, characters, designs, and mature themes being emulated far into the present. Berserk itself remains relevant today, with many of its challenging stories being more readily received by a wider mature manga-reading audience. While creator Kentaro Miura has tragically passed away before its was finished, his plans for the story’s continuation and conclusion are being honored, as the manga lives on.
While the 1997 anime didn’t even come close to covering all of the story, it remained highly influential, and was praised for its visuals, storytelling, and a soundtrack so iconic that Guts’ theme is seared into the public consciousness even to this day.
2. Cowboy Bebop
One of the ultimate examples of how good an anime television series can be, Cowboy Bebop stands tall among its peers. For many first-timers looking to get into anime, this is a common recommendation that covers many cerebral themes, is reasonably easy to digest and process, and oozes absolute style. It checks off many boxes for fans of different genres, branching from neo-noir to Western and sci-fi while remaining deeply philosophical. The music was great, the visuals and animation were stellar, and like many great animes of the ’90s and beyond, it received a soulless Netflix adaptation.
1. Neon Genesis Evangelion
When will we not feature a list that Neon Genesis Evangelion can easily top? Eva is commonly cited as one of the greatest animes to come out of the ’90s, with challenging spiritual and existential themes throughout. It also examines the idea of otherwise young individuals being traumatized after getting thrust into combat by adults. Some of the most provocative moments in all of anime stem from this series, and sometimes it’s good to take a small break from watching more as the series puts you through the emotional wringer.
But when you get through, it’s one of the most important, influential anime series ever conceived, living on in its influence through film retellings and even pastiche in modern shows like Chainsaw Man.
Best 1990s Anime Films
Additionally, the 1990s saw the expansion of some incredibly well-animated anime films, with some truly iconic contributions. These include influential movies from big studios like Studio Ghibli but also films that have inspired big franchises and pushed the medium as an art form beyond simply a commercial product.
5. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie
Don’t sleep on this one. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie was surprisingly well-animated despite it being a video game adaptation, normally a designation that drops a film’s reception by at least 40%. The animation of fight scenes was strong, and it’s a far more engaging experience than the live-action treatment. It’s fair, too, as the franchise being adapted is one of the single greatest-selling franchises in history, with Street Fighter II’s numerous versions alone generating billions in revenue. Whether you’re a fan of the games or want some good martial arts action, this one’s certainly a crowd-pleaser.
4. Whisper of the Heart
Whisper of the Heart was Yoshifumi Kondō’s debut fully in the director’s chair before his tragic passing. But the film stands the test of time, an exceptional work by Studio Ghibli that captures the spirit of its greatest films and adds to its legacy in charming fashion. It deals with themes of love, self-discovery through the eyes of those you hold dear, and self-actualization. Despite it not being the biggest seller or the most iconic, its charm and excellent visuals are undeniable, and it continues to be lauded by critics.
3. Princess Mononoke
Certainly one of the most mature stories put out by Studio Ghibli, dealing with more serious themes than usual. It deals with the conflicts between humans amongst themselves, as well as with nature, and even internally. Princess Mononoke is also one of the most significant animes to come out of the ’90s to deal with environmentalism and is even cited by James Cameron as a primary influence for his creation of Avatar. Many Ghibli fans confidently list this as their favorite, and it’s no wonder, as the film holds up well today as an exceptional, mature, nuanced epic.
2. Ghost in the Shell
Cyberpunk anime is interesting in its adherence to storytelling in the near future, often showing us a grim dystopia while bearing themes that are relevant to the present. Ghost in the Shell is highly emblematic of this, with exceptional visuals and animation, post-modern themes of memory and identity, and the use of an ostensibly female protagonist to turn typical main character expectations on their head.
It has spawned a multimedia franchise and, while underperforming at the box office at the time, garnered a passionate following and helped influence the Wachowskis and James Cameron for future western projects like The Matrix and Avatar.
1. Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue is a masterpiece in terms of visuals and storytelling. It’s a surreal twist on the life of a Japanese former pop idol, exploring themes of mental health, obsession, and poisonous fandom culture all wrapped up in one of the greatest anime films ever made. People will cite the movie for its countless beautiful shots, but sitting through it can be a wholly different experience, and is not for the faint of heart, as it is by essence a potent psychological horror tale.
Whether your poison is fanservice, action, or wonderful storytelling, anime exploded into the mainstream in the ’90s, and we haven’t looked back. There’s no wrong answer when picking which story to watch, but we hope that these recommendations are taken to heart when scoping out your next viewing experience.
- This article was updated on January 5th, 2023