Anime is an endlessly versatile animated storytelling that grows more ambitious and creative with each passing year. There are modern anime classics like Attack on Titan, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, or Fruits Basket, but it’s fair to say that none of these current hits would be where they are without the innovative series from the ‘90s.
The ‘90s were a crucial turning point for anime that helped expand the medium’s horizons as well as introduce some series that have become permanent parts of the anime landscape. There are naturally some ‘90s series that are products of their time, but there are even more standout programs that pushed anime forward.
10 Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Mobile Suit Gundam is a franchise that’s practically synonymous with the giant robot theatrics of anime’s mecha genre. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is actually the seventh proper mainline Gundam series, but it became many international audience’s gateway into the series due to the success it found on Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block.
Gundam Wing features brooding protagonists and a considerably edgier attitude than the franchise’s other ’90s predecessors like Victory Gundam and Mobile Fighter G Gundam. Gundam Wing represents a darker shift in anime that many other ’90s series would adopt, only for it to have become rampant by the 2000s.
9 City Hunter ‘91
City Hunter is an anime detective staple that’s a slightly more mature alternative to its mystery peers like Detective Conan or even Lupin the 3rd. City Hunter is frequently more often associated with the ’80s, but City Hunter ’91 is a concise sequel series that proves that this formula still works in the ’90s.
Ryo Saeba is a sweeper who’s just as committed to eradicating crime in Tokyo as he is to courting any attractive woman that he runs into along the way. Ryo’s slapstick bravado becomes a growing trend in ’90s anime.
8 Initial D: First Stage
Sports anime are plentiful in the medium, but racing series are considerably more obscure, which has helped Initial D zoom past the finish line as the signature racing anime. Initial D is divided into six “stages” and three feature films, most of which are from the 2000s.
Initial D‘s introductory season, referred to as Initial D: First Stage, starts in a grounded place where Takumi Fujiwara’s expertise behind the wheel of a car becomes his family’s only saving grace at survival. Initial D: First Stage adeptly blends the human element of this story with thrilling action sequences, all of which is set against an anachronistic musical score that oddly fits this underdog tale.
7 Dragon Ball Z
Love it or loathe it, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball has become an unavoidable anime pillar that’s helped influence the shonen battle gene at large. The franchise’s ‘90s sequel series, Dragon Ball Z, dominated the decade with nearly 300 episodes and signature elements like colorful transformations and character fusions that are now the norm.
Dragon Ball Z gets quite formulaic and repetitive in its later sagas, but it consistently delivers excellent fight sequences and unforgettable characters. So many shonen protagonists have been modeled after Goku and Vegeta.
Yatsuhiro Nightow’s exaggerated action anime, Trigun, has made a modern return with 2023’s Trigun Stampede. However, the original 26-episode series exudes the ‘90s with its aggressive melodrama and larger than life characters. Trigun’s Vash the Stampede is a legendary gunslinger with a prolific bounty on his head that puts him in conflict with a myriad of murderers.
Vash’s skills and secret backstory give him unimaginable power, but he’s adopted a gentler lifestyle that celebrates love and peace over revenge and carnage. Vash’s heightened design and the anime’s electric guitar-blaring theme song are as ‘90s as it gets.
5 Slam Dunk
Slam Dunk is a coming of age sports anime where Hanamichi Sakuragi channels his aggression and hormonal hostility into a passion for his high school’s basketball team. The story of Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk ultimately goes down different paths depending on whether the anime or manga is enjoyed.
Slam Dunk‘s anime may provide easy answers and contrived closure, but it’s a cheerful conclusion that celebrates this momentous adventure. Plenty of sports anime have come before and after Slam Dunk, but it still stands out as a masterclass in character development, sports choreography, and the art of the game.
4 Yu Yu Hakusho
Battle shonen anime made up a huge portion of successful ‘90s anime, which became even more intense in the 2000s with series like One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto. Yu Yu Hakusho has all of the action and intensity of Dragon Ball Z, but at nearly a third of the length. The anime initially takes some time to find its footing when it comes to Yusuke Urameshi’s indoctrination of the spirit world.
However, once Yu Yu Hakusho connects, it never slows down. Yusuke, Kuwabara, Hiei, and Kurama are distinct warriors and Yu Yu Hakusho’s turn to steady tournament combat works in its favor. Yu Yu Hakusho is a masterclass in how to properly pace a shonen anime.
3 Serial Experiments Lain
Serial Experiments Lain gets into the idea of digital martyrdom and how the advent of the Internet can cause curious identity crises due to its limitless nature. Serial Experiments Lain is steeped in technology, but at its core is a story about acceptance and existence.
Serial Experiments Lain is only 13 episodes long, but it says just as much as any series that’s double or triple the length. Serial Experiments Lain set new standards for psychological storytelling and invasive cyberpunk narratives that’s still relevant and thought-provoking more than 25 years later.
2 Neon Genesis Evangelion
Hideaki Anno is the secret ingredient that helps elevate Neon Genesis Evangelion beyond a standard action mecha series and into an evergreen masterpiece that’s been studied for decades. The anime focuses on select teen pilots who must use gigantic monsters to fight against apocalyptic Angels. However, Evangelion turns into a gripping battle against nihilism and depression that attacks the characters and audience in experimental ways.
The anime’s second-half morphs into such a personal form of expression from Anno that presents the end of existence as a captivating internal struggle. Neon Genesis Evangelion set new benchmarks in the ‘90s for how far anime can push their existential themes.
1 Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop, much like Evangelion, is a rare series that’s transcended its medium and left an impression on general audiences who typically don’t check out anime. Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop sounds deceptively simple as it follows a team of outcast bounty hunters who are desperate to make ends meet. However, Cowboy Bebop draws inspiration from jazz, westerns, and eclectic genres that make it far more than an ordinary space opera.
It’s such pure, passionate lightning in a bottle storytelling that’s proven to be difficult to recapture, even for Watanabe. Cowboy Bebop is arguably the greatest anime triumph of the ‘90s, but one could extend that praise even further and say that it’s one of the best pre-2000s anime.
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