It was the decade that brought us boy bands, roller blades, grunge, and the mullet. The Simpsons had only just become a thing, classrooms were flooded with Pogs, Trolls, and Tamagotchis, and everyone argued about who had the superior console: Sony or Nintendo. But as much as the 90s were defined by certain (now-iconic) things, so too were they represented by the anime created during the era.
Studio Ghibli was at its peak, and the decade as a whole was pivotal in shaping the development of anime. It sparked much of anime’s ongoing evolution of style and quality, and in many ways changed it forever by introducing the world to what had previously been a very niche genre.
In addition, there was some truly unforgettable anime released in these years. Check out these decade-defining examples of exceptional anime.
Feeling even more nostalgic? Check out our top picks for anime from the 70s.
Dragon Ball Z
Few anime can compete with Dragon Ball Z when it comes to ongoing popularity and influence. Following on from 80s hit Dragon Ball, the sequel follows Son Goku’s coming of age and entry into adulthood. The narrative follows Goku and his friends doing battle against a series of villains putting the world at risk.
The sequel pays considerably more attention to secondary characters than the original, with Vegeta, Piccolo, and Goku’s son, Gohan, getting quite a lot of development and screentime. While the concept is far from original today, and probably wasn’t truly original then, the animation and characters allowed DBZ to become a cult phenomenon that helped define a generation.
The Magnificent Zorro
An iconic character even outside the 90s anime sphere, Zorro featured in a classic anime series during this decade, when the love of the character was at its peak. Antoni Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones would star in the live-action movie The Mask of Zorro in 1998, but before that The Magnificent Zorro ran from 1996 to 1997.
The anime delivered all the vigilante justice, sword fighting, and secret identities we’ve come to expect from the Zorro franchise. The series was very light-hearted in its tone for much of the run, peppered with a good dose of comedy and some real belly-laugh moments. However, it did become more serious towards the end, and all for the better.
We won’t spoil it for those who have yet to watch, but it’s a corker of an ending.
Pokemon’s original series struck a strong chord with 90s youth in much the same way DBZ did. In this case, however, Pokemon offered a completely original concept and phenomenal worldbuilding, coupled with the ever-adorable Pokemon.
It pretty much merchandised itself.
The original anime followed young Ash Ketchum as he attempts to ‘catch them all’. His quest to become a Pokemon Master and the imaginative and colorful Pokemon he chased week after week captured the hearts of millions.
Pokemon continues to dominate pop culture today, as the series spawned a seemingly endless parade of games, anime, and apps – we’ve all almost crashed the car or walked into a wall playing Pokemon Go at some point…
Shoujo at its finest, Sailor Moon remains one of the most – if not the most – popular series of its ilk. Running from 1992 to 1997, the highly popular anime resulted in movie adaptations and a cult following that grows every year as new people are introduced to the series.
Based on Naoko Takeuchi’s exceptional manga series, Sailor Moon follows schoolgirl Usagi Tsukino as she meets a talking cat named Luna, and learns she has the power to transform into ‘Sailor Moon’ – a legendary warrior who protects the Earth with the aid of other girls, ‘Sailor Senshi’ (scouts). Together they battle evil and fight for justice in the name of the Moon, all while looking cute and being super funny.
This is girl power on a level the Spice Girls could only dream of, and what could be more 90s than that?
Based on the light novel series by Hajime Kanzaka, and the illustrations of Rui Araizumi, Slayers follows the antics of Lina Inverse – a teen sorceress – and her cohort of companions as they misadventure through the world. It’s rife with bandits, wizards, and demons while featuring a lot of magical shenanigans and swordplay. It was one of the favorite releases of 90s anime, and for good reason.
If you’re a fantasy purist, this one is definitely for you. Slayers is one of those epic series you can simply lose yourself in. Despite the fantastical nature of the plot, the characters are highly relatable, and the world is completely believable. Full of genuinely funny comedy and a choice few exceptional fight scenes, this isn’t a constant battle in the moral fight against evil. It’s mostly just a bunch of friends fooling around, knocking each other about, and occasionally getting drunk.
Spellcasting is beautifully rendered, and the animators clearly gave these points a lot more attention to make them truly magical. While we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the best fantasy anime going, it’s certainly up there with the best, particularly if your goal is to take your brain out and enjoy a bit of mindless viewing.
The Vision Of Escaflowne
Another teenage girl drawn into magical mysteries, The Vision Of Escaflowne follows Hitomi Kanzaki and her exploration of tarot reading and fortune-telling. A chance encounter with a dragon and a boy called Van Fanel leads to Hitomi being magically transported to ‘Gaea’ – a strange realm where Earth hangs in the sky and daring feats of bravery are carried out in the name of love and adventure.
The show boasts a lot of great eye candy in the form of ‘Guymelefts’. These mecha battle suits are worn by various characters, including the titular Escaflowne which is used by Van (who, as it turns out, is Prince of Fanelia). There’s a compelling meta element to the show too as this strange dimension seems to cross over with the real world, but indirectly, as real-world characters appear with different personas.
Serial Experiments Lain
The unusual visual style and philosophical themes of Serial Experiments Lain (including the nature of reality, identity, and communication) set it apart as a unique yet exceptional series. Beginning in 1998 the show ran for only 13 episodes, yet they were highly impactful.
The series follows Lain Iwakura, an introverted young girl struggling with her troubled family. When a dead classmate begins emailing various people in her school, Lain’s life takes a dramatic turn. Upon investigating the source of the emails, Lain discovers a dark and mysterious virtual realm known as ‘The Wired’.
As Lain becomes increasingly enamored with The Wired she loses some of her awkwardness, gains confidence, and develops new personalities within the network. The show feels like an incredibly foreshadowing allegory about the social media generation, years before it started.
Of course, the list would not be complete without an entry from Studio Ghibli. While several of their best movies were released in the 90s, the one that most typified the decade and caught the imagination of the masses was Spirited Away.
Chihiro (or Sin as she comes to be known) is stuck in an awful situation as a result of her parents’ refusal to listen to her warnings when they decide to eat from a strange buffet without permission (with disastrous results). Despite this, she fights to free them while developing a budding friendship/adorable romance with Haku, a boy who finds her when she first stumbles into this strange world and teaches her to survive there.
For many, it was their first encounter with anime, as it broke into the mainstream and captivated audiences around the world. Following Chihiro as she stumbles into a magical world of peculiar characters and strange rules, the combination of Japanese mythology, cool creatures, and a relatable main character struck a chord.
Ghost In The Shell
The 90s also saw the birth of a phenomenal cyberpunk future resplendent with robots, cybernetic implants, interconnectivity via an electronic data stream, and an uneasy coexistence between humans and machines.
Yes, Ghost In The Shell – and the entire franchise that followed – began in 1995 with an animated movie, adapted from the original manga of the same name.
The profound nature of the themes this movie dealt with, combined with the ‘ghosts’ inhabiting this futuristic world, digital turf wars, techno-terrorists, and cyber hackers put the film well ahead of its time. The legacy of this film is so great it’s infused everything from fiction and television to Taylor Swift’s music videos.
The close of the decade saw the release of One Piece, a franchise that’s still going strong today. Based on the manga series of the same name by Eiichiro Oda, this ever-evolving tale follows Monkey D. Luffy, a young boy who’s determined to become the Pirate King. This enigmatic character accidentally eats a Devil Fruit and as a result, picks up all the properties of rubber, making him super strong, super fast, and exceptionally agile, with great reflexes.
And, of course, a King needs a crew. Monkey sets about recruiting a group of misfits to aid him in his odyssey, the Straw Hat Pirates are one of the most relatable group of misadventurers ever to sail the seas.
Together they explore the Grand Line ocean route in search of the ultimate treasure, the titular One Piece, for he who discovers it becomes the Pirate King.
Searching for more anime from back in the day? Check out the best of the 80s.