Beyond the 1980s, when anime was favored by a small group of otaku and became popular with many people, the 1990s saw a more impactful explosion of modern anime hits. The 1990s was also the era when long-lived series such as Detective Conan, Pokémon, and One Piece began, and some masterpieces of anime movies released at that time still remain on many people’s bucket lists. The mainstream anime of the time was not serious, but rather fantasy, sports, and battle genres were popular.
At the same time, let’s look back at some of the major events that took place during the 1990s. In Japan, the bubble burst, the professional soccer league J-League has begun, Sony’s PlayStation was released, the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake struck, Nagano Winter Olympics were held, etc. Turning to global events, you see the Gulf War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the release of Microsoft Windows 95, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Asian Financial Crisis, the introduction of the euro.
In this article, I will introduce you to 15 best anime of the 1990s including the classic series and the top-rated movies! How about taking this opportunity to look back at the nostalgic 1990s anime, which saw the birth of many legendary titles that are still talked about today, such as Slam Dunk, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, etc.?
15. Dragon Ball GT
Dragon Ball GT (ドラゴンボールGT) is a sequel to the hit anime series Dragon Ball Z. Produced by Toei Animation, it aired from 1996 to 1997, consisting of 64 episodes. Unlike its predecessors, Dragon Ball GT is not based on the original manga by Akira Toriyama but still retains the high-energy battles and comedic moments that the franchise is known for.
Dragon Ball GT picks up the story five years after the end of “Dragon Ball Z,” following Goku’s departure to train with Uub. Goku is transformed back into a child by the Black Star Dragon Balls. He embarks on an intergalactic quest to recover these powerful artifacts before Earth faces destruction. Alongside his granddaughter Pan and the reformed Trunks, Goku fights against new adversaries and uncovers the mysteries of the Dragon Balls, presenting fans with a different take on the beloved Dragon Ball universe.
Studio: Toei Animation
14. YuYu Hakusho
YuYu Hakusho (幽☆遊☆白書) can be considered as the forerunner of Hunter x Hunter. Both of these popular titles were created by the talented manga artist, Yoshihiro Togashi. Before creating the world of Hunter x Hunter, he captivated audiences with the thrilling adventures and intricate narratives of YuYu Hakusho. It is a popular anime series that aired from 1992 to 1995, made by Studio Pierrot. It contains 112 episodes and covers the major arcs of the original manga. Its compelling characters, intense battles, and complex narrative made it one of the most popular shounen anime of the 90s.
The story centers around Yusuke Urameshi, a teenage delinquent who unexpectedly dies while saving a child from a car accident. Given a second chance at life, he becomes an Underworld Detective who deals with supernatural occurrences within the human world. Yusuke, alongside his comrades, embarks on thrilling adventures that involve battling demons and navigating the politics of the spirit realm, all while trying to live his everyday life as a high school student.
13. Whisper of the Heart
A cherished classic of Studio Ghibli’s repertoire, Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば) is a tender coming-of-age story released in 1995. The film stands out as it shifts from Ghibli’s common fantastical themes, focusing instead on the daily life of its characters. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo and featuring a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, it is adapted from Aoi Hiiragi’s manga published in 1989.
Whisper of the Heart orbits around Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old student with a deep love for reading. Noticing a pattern where all her borrowed library books were previously checked out by the same individual, she’s driven to find out who this person is. This path leads her to Seiji Amasawa, a fellow literature enthusiast with dreams of becoming a violin craftsman. Encouraged by Seiji’s aspiration, Shizuku embarks on a journey to write her own story, which becomes a transformative journey of self-discovery and personal growth.
Runtime: 111 min
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Yu-Gi-Oh! (遊☆戯☆王) is a popular anime series based on Kazuki Takahashi’s manga of the same name. Produced by Toei Animation, it aired with 27 episodes in 1998. The series, known for its unique blend of strategy-based card game battles and adventurous storytelling, has spawned numerous spin-offs, movies, and a real-life version of its featured game, Duel Monsters. The first anime series was followed by its sequel titled Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters, which contains 224 episodes broadcasted from 2000 to 2004.
The story of Yu-Gi-Oh! revolves around Yugi Muto, a young boy who solves an ancient puzzle known as the Millennium Puzzle. This act leads to Yugi becoming a host to Yami Yugi, a gaming Pharaoh spirit from ancient Egypt. Together, they navigate through various challenges and duels in the Duel Monsters card game, facing off against formidable adversaries while unraveling the mysteries of the Pharaoh’s past.
Studio: Toei Animation
11. Rurouni Kenshin
As a symbolic Samurai anime, Rurouni Kenshin (るろうに剣心 -明治剣客浪漫譚-) first aired in 1996. Adapted from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga series serialized on Weekly Shonen Jump between 1994 and 1999, it was produced by Studio Gallop and Studio Deen. The historical action anime is composed of 94 episodes.
Rurouni Kenshin follows Himura Kenshin, a former assassin known as “Hitokiri Battosai” during the turbulent Bakumatsu era. Now living as a wanderer, Kenshin has vowed never to kill again and uses a reverse-blade sword to protect the innocent. The anime explores his journey, seeking redemption from his past sins while being drawn into conflicts that challenge his newfound ideals. It’s a tale of atonement, action, and the struggle for peace in a society transitioning from chaos to modernity.
In 2023, Rurouni Kenshin comes back into the spotlight with an entirely new anime adaptation by Liden Films. This second anime series is generating considerable anticipation, with fans expecting it to surpass the original series in its depiction of Kenshin’s journey and the historical world in which he lives. The reimagined series carries the hopes of both long-time fans and newcomers, all eager to see how this beloved samurai tale will be retold for a new generation.
Studio: Studio Gallop (Episode 1-66)/Studio Deen (Episode 67-94)
10. Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon (美少女戦士セーラームーン) is a legendary magical girl anime that aired from 1992 to 1997. Based on Naoko Takeuchi’s manga, it was produced by Toei Animation, spanning five seasons with 200 episodes. This iconic series is famous for its enduring influence on the magical girl genre and its wide international popularity. The first series was followed by Sailor Moon Crystal, which was broadcast with 39 episodes from 2014 to 2016. The second series also includes some anime movies Sailor Moon Eternal in 2021 and Sailor Moon Cosmos in 2023.
The story follows Usagi Tsukino, an ordinary and somewhat clumsy 14-year-old girl, who stumbles upon a talking cat named Luna. Luna reveals that Usagi is Sailor Moon, a magical warrior destined to save Earth from the forces of evil. Along with other Sailor Soldiers, Usagi must navigate her daily school life while battling against various antagonists and uncovering the mysteries of their past lives in the Moon Kingdom.
Studio: Toei Animation
9. Digimon Adventure
Airing between 1999 and 2000, Digimon Adventure (デジモンアドベンチャー) is a Japanese anime television series derived from Digimon, a virtual pet game released in 1997. Produced by Toei Animation, it is the first installment in the Digimon franchise and features a total of 54 episodes. The series has left a significant impact on the anime world, with numerous sequels and reboots that keep the Digimon universe thriving to this day. Its following movie Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! is famous as one of the masterpieces of Mamoru Hosoda, who is also known for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2009). The new version of Digimon Adventure was released as its remake with 67 episodes from 2020 to 2021.
Set four years after the 1999 first movie’s events, Digimon Adventure focuses on seven kids at summer camp, who unexpectedly transported to a mysterious digital world. Here, they befriend creatures known as Digimon (Digital Monsters) that they must work with to survive the perils of this new world. As they seek a way home, they face various evil Digimon that threaten both the digital world and the real world. Along the way, the children grow, and so do their Digimon partners, evolving in powerful forms to protect their human friends.
Studio: Toei Animation
8. Slam Dunk
Slam Dunk is a sports-themed anime that dominated the 1990s. It is based on the manga series by Takehiko Inoue, who is also famous for other works Vagabond and Real. Airing from 1993 to 1996, it spans 101 episodes. The series is known for its realistic depiction of basketball, combined with comedic and dramatic elements. Its protagonist is Hanamichi Sakuragi, a delinquent turned basketball player who becomes a key player for Shohoku High School’s basketball team. The latest anime movie of the series titled The First Slam Dunk has been highly acclaimed throughout the world since it was released in the end of 2022.
Slam Dunk centers on a high school delinquent Hanamichi Sakuragi, and he is introduced to basketball by Haruko Akagi, whom he has a crush on. Despite initial reluctance, he soon finds himself devoted to the sport. The anime follows Hanamichi’s growth as a basketball player, his interactions with his team members, and their collective effort to become the best in Japan by competing in the national championships. In addition to his team members such as Kaede Rukawa and Noritake Akagi, even their rivals are portrayed in a fascinating way.
Studio: Toei Animation
7. Porco Rosso
Unveiling the magic of Studio Ghibli, Porco Rosso (紅の豚) is a celebrated anime movie that graced the screens in 1992. As a completely original anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, Porco Rosso stands as the first of its kind since Castle in the Sky, which was released in 1986. Crafted under the masterful direction and writing of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, this narrative is set between World War I and II, offering an adventure drama brimming with intricate animation and distinctive allure.
The plot weaves the tale of Marco Pagot, a veteran of the First World War, who now spends his days as a bounty hunter, pursuing air pirates over the Adriatic Sea. Struck by a curse that transformed him into a pig, Marco assumes the name Porco Rosso. His journey includes encounters with pirates, a competitive rivalry with an American pilot named Curtis, and an engaging relationship with Fio, a young and gifted mechanic.
Runtime: 93 min
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Pokémon (ポケットモンスター), which is known as Pocket Monsters in Japan, is a cornerstone of anime that debuted in 1997. It was produced by OLM and based on the globally popular video game franchise by Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures. The Pokémon anime can be divided into two significant eras. The first era, featuring Ash Ketchum as the protagonist, is composed of seven series that total to 1240 episodes. The second era, which began in April 2023, marks a new direction for the series, with Liko and Roy as the central characters.
The series follows the adventures of Pokémon trainers, primarily focusing on Ash Ketchum, a young boy from Pallet Town, and his indomitable Pokémon partner Pikachu. In the series, Ash Ketchum embarks on a journey to become a Pokémon Master. Alongside his trusty Pikachu, he travels across various regions, competes in Pokémon battles, participates in tournaments, meets new friends and rivals, and encounters different species of Pokémon. It is a story of adventure, friendship, and the shared bond between Pokémon and their trainers.
5. One Piece
One Piece, one of the longest-running anime series in history, is an adaptation of Eiichiro Oda’s manga by Toei Animation. Sharing its origins with other masterpieces like Dragon Ball and Naruto, One Piece also hails from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. The manga began serialization in 1997, with the anime following suit just two years later. In 2021, the action adventure series surpassed a staggering 1,000 episodes.
One Piece is an epic adventure anime that follows Monkey D. Luffy, a young pirate with the unique ability to stretch his body like rubber after accidentally consuming the magical Gum-Gum Fruit. Luffy embarks on a quest to find the legendary treasure known as “One Piece” and become the Pirate King. Along the way, he forms a diverse crew called the Straw Hat Pirates, each member possessing their own distinct skills and ambitions. This epic tale masterfully weaves together intense battles, heartfelt friendships, and the unique personal quests of each crew member, delivering a captivating and unforgettable viewing experience.
Aired: Since 1999
Episodes: More than 1,000
Studio: Toei Animation
4. Ghost In The Shell
Ghost in the Shell (GHOST IN THE SHELL / 攻殻機動隊) is a 1995 Japanese cyberpunk anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii and produced by Production I.G. The movie is based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, which was first published in 1989. The film explores themes of self-identity, consciousness, and the merging of technology with humanity. It has achieved international success and has greatly influenced the science fiction genre in both anime and live-action cinema. It was followed by its sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence in 2004.
In the near future, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg and member of the elite counter-cyberterrorist organization Section 9, is on the hunt for the mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master. Throughout her investigation, she questions her own existence and what it means to be human in a world where technology and humanity are becoming increasingly intertwined. The film delves deep into philosophical and existential themes while showcasing a visually stunning and immersive cyberpunk world.
Runtime: 85 min
Director: Mamoru Oshii
3. Dragon Ball Z
Dragon Ball Z (ドラゴンボールZ) is one of the best anime series in the 1990s, following the first part that stated in the middle of the 1980s. It is a renowned anime series produced by Toei Animation, which aired from 1989 to 1996. It’s the direct sequel to the original Dragon Ball series and adapts the latter 325 chapters of Akira Toriyama’s iconic manga. The series is known for its high-octane battles, complex character development, and unique story arcs, significantly contributing to its status as a global phenomenon in the world of anime.
Dragon Ball Z follows the adult life of Goku, now a father and defender of Earth. Alongside his companions, Goku faces increasingly powerful foes ranging from intergalactic warriors, androids, to magical creatures. Each battle pushes Goku and his friends to their limits, leading to new transformations, notably the introduction of the Super Saiyan form. The series is an epic tale of perseverance, friendship, and the endless struggle between good and evil.
Studio: Toei Animation
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン) is a critically acclaimed anime series directed by Hideaki Anno and produced by Tatsunoko Production and Gainax. Airing from 1995 to 1996, the mecha and drama series is known for its complex narrative, psychological depth, and exploration of existential themes. From 2007 to 2021, the four-part series of Rebuild of Evangelion was released, demonstrating a strong presence even after the 2000s. This franchise truly concluded with the release of Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time in 2021.
In the year 2015, Tokyo-3 is under attack by powerful beings known as Angels. The only hope for survival lies with the organization NERV and its giant humanoid mechas called Evangelions piloted by teenagers. The series revolves around Shinji Ikari, a reluctant pilot chosen to control an Evangelion. As he battles the Angels and grapples with his own inner demons, a complex web of secrets behind NERV and the Evangelions gradually unfolds. Meeting other 14-year-old pilots such as Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley, he grows both mentally and physically.
Studio: Tatsunoko Production/Gainax
1. Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫) is one of the best Studio Ghibli movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a critically acclaimed epic historical fantasy film released in 1997. The film was a major box office success, and it played a significant role in popularizing Japanese animation in the global scene. It is renowned for its deep thematic complexity, stunning animation, and profound environmental message.
Princess Mononoke tells the tale of Ashitaka, a prince cursed by a demon. His quest for a cure leads him to the heart of a conflict between the gods of a forest and the humans who consume its resources. Amid the strife, he meets San, the human-raised Princess of the Wolf Gods, and together, they seek a peaceful resolution. The film is a powerful exploration of the relationship between humanity, nature, and technology.
Runtime: 133 min
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
3 Author’s Exceptional Recommendations: in the Best Anime in 1990s
- Neon Genesis Evangelion
- Slam Dunk
- Porco Rosso
Neon Genesis Evangelion is, no matter what anyone says, one of the best anime series to come out of the 1990s. If you watch it now, I recommend the new anime movie series Rebuild of Evangelion, which concludes with four films. That inspiring and hot story of Slam Dunk is also a must-see, but the anime series is a bit dated. So I recommend reading the manga by Takehiko Inoue or watching the new movie The First Slam Dunk, which was released in 2022. There are lots of Studio Ghibli movies you should watch in your life, and I think Porco Rosso is a hidden gem representing what Hayao Miyazaki really wants to depict.
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