From Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) Ghost in the Shell (1995), we bring you some of the best and most loved 90s anime.
Pop-culture has often served as a pivotal source of soft-power. Cultural exports are not only a lucrative commodity that offer economic incentives, but also improve a nation’s image across the globe. One such cultural phenomenon was the explosive popularity of the Japanese anime industry. By the early 1990s, anime became a significant part of the Japanese content industry. In 1988, Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyberpunk action drama Akira achieved international commercial and critical success. It paved the way for the unprecedented boom of manga, and its counterpart, anime. With the emergence of VHS, anime gradually integrated itself into international television markets.
In the 1980s, Japan’s two greatest animation filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata founded Studio Ghibli, the most innovative animated company outside of Disney. In the 1990s, Studio Ghibli movies were starting to gain global recognition, and their filmmakers’ brand of storytelling enchanted anime lovers. While animation was only seen as a medium for children’s entertainment, the 1990s anime entirely changed that perception. From Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell to Princess Mononoke, and Serial Experiments Lain, the 1990s anime tackled mature themes and withheld deep philosophy that were aimed at adult audiences.
With that said, let’s dive right into some of the most influential and nostalgic anime from the 90s that shaped the industry. The 25 best anime from the 90s!
Best 90s Anime
25. The End of Evangelion (1997)
Hideaki Anno’s 26-episode anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) was highly entertaining. However, the complex ending was poorly executed and left the fans baffled. Evangelion revolves around a huge battle between alien monsters, known as ‘angels’, and teenagers-piloted giant robots known as ‘mecha’. The final episodes were burdened with nonsensical religious symbols and psychedelic effects, which made everything narrated before very hazy. Hence, Anno created End of Evangelion to give a new conclusion, and shine a light on some of the dark mysteries.
Naturally, watching the whole series is important to understanding the context of this film’s narrative. The film isn’t as vague and disappointing as the original ending. It offers resolutions to few of the plot threads and there are a decent amount of action set-pieces too. The series emphasizes on protagonist Shinji Ikari’s journey of becoming an adult. In that manner, The End of Evangelion gives a little more clarity to Shinji’s journey.
24. Samurai X: The Movie (1997)
Tsuji Hajiki’s Samurai X: The Movie is based on the manga series Rurouni Kenshin, created by Nobuhiro Watsuki. A three season anime series was made between 1996 and 1999. And, five live-action movies were made between 2012 and 2021. It is a must-watch for samurai fiction fans. The anime is set in the 19th century during the Meiji era, where Japan was largely influenced by the West and their culture. Samurai X is established as a revenge flick. A samurai named Takimi Shigure has witnessed the murders of his friends and family, and subsequently vows to settle the score.
He brings together a band of rebels. However, a wanderer and ronin — former assassin named Himura Kenshin — remains a challenge to them. Kenshin’s true identity adds more suspense and intrigue to the tale. Samurai X: The Movie covers the basic storyline of the manga with enough action sequences and touching emotional moments. Anime fans interested in exploring more of this world can give the series a chance.
23. Macross Plus (1994)
Shoji Kawamori & Shinichiro Watanabe’s Macross Plus is an epic mecha anime set in the year 2040. The narrative revolves around two competing fighter pilots, Guld and Isamu. They are on a planet named Eden, where a top-secret program is underway. Guld is half-human and half-Zentradi. Zentradis are genetically engineered humanoid warriors who are created as a space-faring race. In the Macross Plus universe, Zentradi forces have fought with Earth years before, a battle that has impacted the lives of both the races.
Guld and Isamu have once been friends, but hate each other because of their past relationship with a mutual high school sweetheart named Myung. Macross Plus efficiently juggles between space battles and a love triangle, and treats both the aspects with depth and complexity. The aerial combat sequences and landscape animation are marvellous. The vibrant soundtrack from Yoko Kanno of Cowboy Bebop fame is another plus.
22. Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990)
Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s three-part anime series, Cyber City Oedo 808 is a lean, mean action entertainer. It’s set in the year 2808 in the futuristic Japanese city of Oedo. Crime is rampant in the metropolis, and the Cyber crime chief resorts to unorthodox measures to track down criminals. He gives three dangerous criminals a chance to reduce their life sentences by becoming bounty hunters. The three criminals, Benten, Sengoku, and Goggles wear explosive collars that could go off if they don’t keep up with the deadline.
Each of the three episodes revolves around different crimes. And each episode focuses on one of the three central characters. Yoshiaki Kawajiri is known for his crude and grisly imagery in anime like Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. The stories here are a bit hackneyed and conform to the familiar tropes of cyberpunk anime subgenre. Yet the dark and weird world plus Kawajiri’s animation style makes this an engrossing anime.
21. The Dog of Flanders (1997)
Yoshio Kuroda’s The Dog of Flanders is based on an 1872 children’s novel by English author Marie Louise de la Ramee. She published it under her pseudonym ‘Ouida’. A comic book series was made based on the story, which gained immense popularity in Japan. In 1975, an anime series was made. The Dog of Flanders, however, isn’t a cutesy children’s tale. It tells a very tragic and heart-breaking story about a boy named Nello and his beloved dog Patrasche. The boy lives with his grandfather and grows up on a run-down farm.
Nello loves painting and befriends Aloise, a rich girl whose father disapproves of her friendship with Nello. They both find a dog which soon becomes Nello’s loyal companion. Hard times hit Nello, and the boy strives to survive in an unforgivable world with the faithful Pastrache. Kuroda’s vivid animation brilliantly brings to life this bittersweet story. It’s simple and straightforward yet very affecting.
20. Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)
Japanese comics artist and filmmaker Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame has created and scripted Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. It was directed by his protégé Hiroyuki Okiura. In fact, the animation clearly exudes the ambition and brilliance of Oshii. The film takes place in an alternate history, where Nazis have taken over Japan leading to years of internal violence and the creation of an elite, fascistic police squad, known as Kerberos Panzer Cops. The squad often fights groups they consider anti-government. In one such violent demonstration, Constable Kazuki sees a frightened little girl delivering a bomb to a terrorist. His inability to pull the trigger and the ensuing breakdown gradually unmask startling truths.
Jin Roh does suffer a bit from opaque characterizations and heavy visual metaphors. Nevertheless, it’s a rewarding visual experience loaded with thrills and incredible action sequences. The anime has gained cult status over the years, and in 2018, Kim Jee-woon made a live-action Korean adaptation.
19. Ninja Scroll (1993)
Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira are probably the two well-known non-Studio Ghibli anime that familiarised the genre to international audiences. This influential anime was set-up as a violent action adventure which was strictly aimed at adults. The story is set in feudal Japan and follows a wandering samurai named Jubei. He inadvertently gets into a conflict and is forced to go against a clan of demonic ninjas. Jubei is aided by a female ninja named Kagero, and an elderly spy.
Kawajiri is known for his gory, violent anime. He previously made Wicked City (1987) and Demon City Shinjuku (1988). In Ninja Scroll too there’s plethora of violent action set-pieces and sexual content. Of course, it isn’t as deep or profound as Akira or Ghost in the Shell. There’s a little socio-political element in the narrative, but Kawajiri largely relies on crisp imagery. Many filmmakers took inspiration from its fight sequences including the Wachowskis’ for The Matrix.
18. Memories (1995)
Memories is a sci-fi anthology of three tales, based on manga stories created by Akira-fame Katsuhiro Otomo. The first short Magnetic Rose, directed by Koji Morimoto, is clearly one of the best anime shorts. It revolves around a space garbage crew, receiving an SOS call. They go to investigate the wrecked spaceship and are confronted with a surprising mystery. The build-up to the mystery and aesthetic details (written by Satoshi Kon) are the best thing about this short 90s anime. The next one is titled Stink Bomb. This one is the relatively light-hearted among the three, and follows the misadventures of a nerdy scientist.
The third and final short Cannon Fodder was directed by Katsuhiro Otomo himself. It has a unique animation style and offers a great visual feast. The short unfolds just over a day in the life of a kid, whose city is engaged in a perpetual, meaningless war with the neighbouring city. The story reminds you of George Orwell, whereas the art style reminded me of Metropolis (1927).
17. Hunter * Hunter (1999)
Created from Yoshihiro Togashi’s manga of the same name, Hunter * Hunter is a brilliant action, adventure, and comedy anime series. It’s largely known to the current generation of anime fans due to the 2011 adaptation. While the 2011 adaptation stays more faithful to the manga and is well-paced, the 1999 version has some well-developed subplots and interesting character moments. The 62-episode anime series revolves around Gon Freecss and is set in a fantastical land. One day Gon learns that his father, who he’d thought all this while is dead, is not only alive but a top hunter.
Subsequently, Gon too decides to become a hunter. He leaves his island to undertake the Hunter Examination. During his quest, Gon becomes friends with three other applicants. The series builds the drama in an engaging manner and has no dull moments. It deals with themes like self-identity, integrity, self-esteem, revenge, fatherhood and friendship.
16. Ocean Waves (1993)
The coming-of-age anime Ocean Waves is probably the most underrated work in the Studio Ghibli canon. It was also the first Ghibli that was neither directed by Miyazaki nor Takahata. The anime tells a sweet and messy little story about adolescence through a nostalgic perspective. It revolves around a few high school characters, and predominantly unfolds from the perspective of a young man named Taku. Taku on his way to the high school reunion reminisces about his first crush, Rikaku.
Director Tomomi Mochizuki focuses more on the mundane aspects of adolescence and ekes out some beautiful moments from it. With a running time of just 72 minutes, Ocean Waves doesn’t have an elaborate plot. Even the love triangle between Taku, Rikaku, and another friend isn’t full of strong conflicts. Mochizuki simply uses Taku’s emotional journey to the past to reflect on the nature of our memories. The anime is also a commentary on the nostalgia over the formative years of our life.
15. Patlabor 2: The Movie (1993)
Anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii gained international recognition after the critical acclaim of Ghost in the Shell. But it was Patlabor 2 which defined the animation style and universe of Mamoru Oshii. Moreover, he visually expanded on the idea he conceived in Patlabor 2, while getting into the world of Ghost in the Shell. This was also a rare occasion when a sequel was better than the original (Patlabor, 1989). The narrative is set in an alternate future, where robots known as ‘Labors’ have revolutionised modern industries. But robot-related crimes too escalate alongside. And a special patrol unit, known as Patrol Labor is created.
While the first Patlabor was an action-oriented cop adventure, the sequel has lots of political drama, nuanced characterizations, and philosophical discussions. The narrative starts with a terror attack on one of Tokyo’s bridges. The search for the man behind the attack uncovers a complex political plot. The animation and character designs are crisp. And the anime is impressive even by today’s anime standards.
14. Berserk (1997)
Berserk is a 25-episode dark fantasy anime series, which is adapted from the manga of same name that’s illustrated by Kentaro Miura. The manga drew inspirations from 80s mediaeval-era based movies like Conan the Barbarian and Flesh + Blood. The story is set in the fictional kingdom of Midland and revolves around Guts, a young mercenary carrying a massive sword. The kingdom is engaged in a 100 years’ war with the neighbouring Chuder Empire. When Guts proves his worth in the battlefield, he is recruited by a powerful man named Griffith and joins his Band of the Hawk.
Berserk maintains its dark tone throughout, though its animation techniques don’t seem to have aged well. Besides, the series may not work for those who dislike graphic cartoon violence. Nevertheless, Berserk avoids most of the clichés and stereotypes of the dark-fantasy sub genre. Its characters are pretty well fleshed out and some of the animated artwork still remains as the most iconic images in anime history.
13. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
Isao Takahata’s stories and animation style withhold a great deal of eccentricity. Made after the weird and amusing Pom Poko (1994), My Neighbors the Yamadas is a sweet and funny chronicle of a family’s misadventures. The Yamadas belong to a typical middle-class family. There’s mom, dad, grandma, teenage son, little daughter, and a dog. The anime unfolds in the form of episodes and looks at everyday challenges of these characters. A lot of moments are so relatable, and would make you laugh as well as leave you emotional.
The most memorable thing about the anime is its delicate and simplistic animation style. Unlike the realistic drawing of everyday spaces in Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, Takahta opts for a sketchbook-like look. It also has a lot to do with the story’s source material. Takahata’s narration and animation offers the feel of a comic strip it’s based on — ‘Nono-Chan’ by Hisaichi Ishii.
12. Pom Poko (1994)
The Japanese racoon dog, also known as Tanuki, has inspired many legendary tales. The legend of Tanuki is that it is a shape-shifter with a strong reputation for mischief and magic. The folktales involving Tanuki go back centuries in Japan. Similar to the well-known maneki neko (the waving lucky cat), Tanuki statue is seen as a symbol of prosperity. Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko is an adorable comedy/drama which makes use of Tanuki’s magical reputation.
The narrative revolves around a clan of shape-shifting raccoons, who live in the outskirts of Tokyo. It is the mid-1960s, and the city planners raze down Tanuki homes in order to build huge structures for the growing human population. The racoons come together to use their skills and execute a plan that could prevent the destruction of their colony. Pom Poko shines with creative humour and witty characters. The message about environmentalism is blatant and unsubtle. Nevertheless, Takahata offers an interesting blend of Japanese folklore, history, and entertainment.
11. Porco Rosso (1992)
Porco Rosso aka Crimson Pig is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s strange and personal films. His later film The Wind Rises (2013) had more autobiographical elements. But both these films revolve around characters who love flying and are set in the wartime. Miyazaki loves the imagery of flying and flights. In fact, the fascination for it goes back to his childhood since his father owned an aircraft parts manufacturing company, Miyazaki Airplane. The idea for Porco Rosso came from the short Miyazaki was asked to make for Japan Airlines. But Miyazaki expanded on the idea, and set his anime in an alternate reality with a flying anthropomorphic pig protagonist.
The narrative is set during the rise of Fascist Italy. Porco, an ex-fighter plane pilot, serves as a bounty hunter and goes after the air pirates. As is the case in every Miyazaki project, the anime is full of adorable characters and beautiful backdrops. It’s a simple adventure story that could work for all ages.
10. Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1993)
This Indo-Japanese animated film based on the great Indian epic Ramayana was initially meant to be a co-production between the governments of India and Japan. It was supposed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of India-Japan diplomatic relations. Eventually, it was privately produced through hundreds of Indian and Japanese technicians collaborating for the project. Yugo Sako, Ram Mohan, and Koichi Saski served as the directors. Ram Mohan began his animation career with Cartoon Film Unit in 1956.
Ramayana was his dream project, and he wanted to merge the different Asiatic styles of art, particularly the traditional Indian storytelling methods with the standard of anime storytelling. Sako came to India in the 1980s and was working on a documentary. During his trip he came across Ramayana, and became obsessed with turning this popular mythological tale into an animated film. These two like-minded people came together to make this spectacular anime. It was a simple, chronological retelling of the epic, but the energetic action scenes and visual effects are still a marvel to behold.
9. Trigun (1998)
Fans of 90s anime can’t easily dismiss the nostalgic quotient that’s attached to the 26-episode Trigun. Based on a three-volume manga series by Yasuhiro Nightow, the anime series chronicles the adventures of Vash the Stampede. He is an outlaw with a great bounty on his head. At the same time, Vash is good-natured, funny, and follows his own moral code. In the first few episodes, Vash comes across as a typical optimistic hero. But his character’s nature and backstory are gradually and brilliantly fleshed out.
Trigun also features an interesting array of supporting characters and antagonists who all fascinatingly challenge Vash’s ideals. In fact, all the major characters have a very well-developed character arc. Besides, the engaging action keeps us glued to the screens. Like most of the 90s anime, the animation style does look a bit dated. Nevertheless, Trigun remains one of the best character-centric anime which maintains comedy and optimistic sentiment, despite delving into darker themes.
8. Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
Serial Experiments Lain was one of the most audacious and atypical anime series. Its weird protagonist character was developed by Yoshitoshi Abe and was written by Chiaki Konaki. Though Lain was made at the time when the internet was beginning to gain its foothold across the globe, the series’ examination of our obsessive, self-destructive behaviour in the digital space sounds very prophetic. The series revolves around an introverted 14-year old named Lain Iwakura. To encourage her budding interest in technology, Lain’s tech-savvy father buys her an efficient personal computer.
Soon, Lain traverses into the world of ‘Wired’, an interconnected network that looks like a precursor to social media. The 13-episode anime series is slow-paced and offers a very puzzling viewing experience. At the same time, its complex and incredibly accurate portrayal of virtual lives gives us much to reflect on. The bleak animation style perfectly maintains an eerie and desolate atmosphere.
7. Perfect Blue (1997)
Satoshi Kon’s films are groundbreaking in their own way. He has treated animation as a separate medium rather than as a genre. Almost all his movies can’t be easily turned into a live-action picture. He employs editing techniques and animated imagery in a way that only works well in the animated medium. His feature-film directorial debut Perfect Blue deals with the darker side of fan culture. It is an adaptation of a novel of the same name written by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. However, the most distinct aspect of Perfect Blue is how Kon tells his story through detailed animation and superb transitions.
The narrative revolves around Mima, a young pop idol, who decides to stop singing and pursue a career in acting. While Mima is trying to make the change, one of her obsessed fans can’t digest the fact that she is trying to shed her pop idol image. And when Mima finds a role in a murder mystery series, her life starts spiralling down.
6. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
The 26-episode anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion takes us on a grand, epic adventure. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where nearly half of the Earth’s population is killed after a meteor strike. Besides, the meteor brings upon an alien invasion. To combat the monstrous extra-terrestrial creatures – known as Angels – an organisation called NERV creates giant bio-machines the size of the Angels. It is called Evangelion. The story revolves around Shinji Ikari, a teenager who pilots an Evangelion.
The anime series is popular for its spectacular mecha (giant robots) fights. The initial world-building aspects of the series also keep you hooked. Series creator Hideaki Anno brilliantly explores the protagonist’s existential crisis alongside other philosophical ideas. Nevertheless, the final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion were underwhelming. The ending did have some great action and richly stylized atmosphere, but the writing felt a bit muddled and wasn’t very engaging.
5. Cowboy Bebop (1998)
Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion have stood the test of time. They still prove to be innovative entertainment for the next generation of anime fans. Created by Hajime Yatate, Cowboy Bebop is set in the year 2071, where humankind has colonised the solar system. In this futuristic timeline, planets and their moons are terraformed, space stations are established all around, and space travel is made easy through warp gates. Since humans are spread across the solar system, crime is also rampant. Therefore, bounty hunters move across space to bring fugitives to justice.
One such group of space cowboys travel around in their spaceship that’s named Bebop. The series follows the wild adventures of the crew as they chase bounties across space. Cowboy Bebop is an anime classic that’s made with wonderful creativity and energy. Each episode is a perfect blend of action, drama, humour, and sci-fi. Another highpoint of the series is Yoko Kanno’s phenomenal musical score.
4. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Studio Ghibli anime often creates characters that are more relatable than any live-action ones. Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart gives us endearing characters and makes it easy to emotionally invest in their story. The film revolves around a young feisty girl’s small adventures and first love. Shizuku is a voracious reader and spends the summer reading books from the library. One day, she finds out that someone named Amasawa has checked out all the books she’s read. Thus begins Shizuku’s quest to find who might just be her soulmate.
Whisper of the Heart glows with nostalgia for youth, young love, and Japanese culture. Director Kondo’s intricately detailed animation elegantly visualises the mundane everyday elements of life. Hayao Miyazaki was behind the anime’s writing, and his influence can be felt in the character sketches. The anime has a timeless feel to it. Though it’s set in the era before cell phones, the underlying themes and emotions feel very universal.
3. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Hayao Miyazaki’s anime often works for both kids as well as adults. But his seventh directorial venture, Princess Mononoke is clearly aimed at an “adult” audience for its violence. The story begins with Prince Ashitaka who fights a possessed demonic boar. He kills the beast, but receives a curse that could be fatal. To lift his curse, Ashitaka goes on a journey to find the reason behind the boar’s murderous rage. This leads him to the Iron Town, which is run by Lady Eboshi. The townspeople strip the neighbouring forest to look for ore. This sets off a fierce conflict between the fearless Mononoke and Lady Eboshi.
Princess Mononoke is a very multi-faceted examination of humankind’s destruction of nature. Miyazaki doesn’t demonise any characters and his message isn’t very simplistic. The anime has some of the greatest set pieces and extraordinarily detailed animation. At the same time, Miyazaki profoundly conveys humans’ constantly changing relationship with their immediate environment.
2. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is a landmark animated work of the 1990s. It came after the trailblazing success of Akira (1988) which opened up viewers to more mature and artistic sci-fi anime themes. Based on the manga series by Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell is set in 2029 Japan. In this future, the humans have achieved their technological peak, producing cybernetic enhancements that can give us superhuman strength. Since people are made of cybernetic parts, the only thing which makes them human is their consciousness. It is called the ‘ghost’ which inhabits the mechanical ‘shell’.
The narrative largely follows a cybernetically enhanced security officer, Major Motoko Kusanagi. Kusanagi and her team’s attempts to track down a cyber criminal raises some complex questions about human nature and our extreme reliance on technology. The anime packs in deep philosophical themes alongside ambitious action set-pieces. It fares even better in repeat viewings.
1. Only Yesterday (1991)
Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday is one of the most poignant and profound anime ever made. A signature Ghibli anime, it had a multi-faceted female protagonist, a journey of self-discovery, respect for the nature and environment, and a captivating commentary on human existence. Nevertheless, Takahata’s masterpiece is very much grounded in a realistic setting, unlike many of Ghibli’s magical universes. In fact, this particular aspect makes Only Yesterday deeply touching and perfectly realises the themes of memory and nostalgia.
The anime revolves around 27-year old Taeko. Tired of her humdrum life in Tokyo, Taeko embarks on a long holiday trip to visit her distant relatives in the countryside. The trip kindles memories — from Taeko’s childhood, first crushes to blissful and embarrassing moments. Takahata beautifully captures the bittersweet nature of nostalgia and the importance of nourishing our inner child while pursuing things that bring us joy. Despite the differences in culture and time, Only Yesterday will resonate with everyone.
There you go! These are some of the best 90s anime across genres and moods. Their retro aesthetics have not only helped shape and define the many dimensions of the anime medium but leave us nostalgic every single time. Of course, there are other iconic 90s anime series that deserve a mention. Pokémon, Slam Dunk, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and Yu Yu Hakusho.
Over to you now! What is your favourite anime from the 1990s that gets you nostalgic? Let’s talk in the comments below.
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’