The scope of the anime industry has changed tremendously since its inception. Now with hundreds of cons and fan events worldwide, the anime community continues to experience massive amounts of growth. Out of any medium, anime has perhaps undergone the most drastic change regarding popularity and quantity, especially with the arrival of the internet.
Every medium has a period that defines how people perceive it in the future. From there, it undergoes an evolution and continues to draw in more and more fans as the years go by. For anime, a strong argument can be made that this period was the 90s, which introduced a number of iconic anime series that continue to be discussed at great length to this day. The following list does not measure these anime shows on their quality but rather their impact on the anime industry. These will also only be shows that premiered in the 90s. With that criterion outlined, our list is as follows.
The first entry on our list is the epic space opera Outlaw Star, which debuted in 1998. The series’ protagonist, Gene Starwind, and his young companion, Jim Hawking, acquire a state-of-the-art grappler ship that they dub Outlaw Star. They build up a team of fast friends and comrades who undertake missions to obtain the currency necessary for maintaining their ship. They also run afoul of the MacDougall brothers, a duo of bounty hunters responsible for the death of Gene’s father, sparking further conflict.
Spanning multiple planets and balancing deftly between comedy and drama, Outlaw Star is a show that puts its own very approachable spin on the Western space genre.
Premiering in 1992, Yu Yu Hakusho follows a young delinquent named Yusuke Urameshi, who dies in the real world and becomes an “Underworld Detective” after proving his worth and being brought back to life. As payment for being restored to his body, Yusuke embarks on adventures with his friends to solve supernatural goings-on in the Human World. The gang encounters demons and eventually fights in tournaments to prove their strength and accomplish their goal. Well received for its characters and high amount of action, Yu Yu Hakusho remains quite popular.
A brutally violent saga of death and misery, Berserk premiered in 1997 and takes place in a dark fantasy world that took inspiration from Medieval Europe. It follows lone mercenary Guts and a group known as the Band of the Hawk from their rise to prominence to their role in the war gripping their land and eventually their dispersal and destruction. Berserk analyzes the true meaning of comradery and the conflicting interests that arise due to the thirst for power inherent in the other characters. For its unflinching insight into the complexity of human nature and the unrelenting chaos that war creates, Berserk is by far one of the grimmer anime viewers can watch.
While previous Gundam material had been dubbed for North American audiences, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is fondly remembered for being the first Gundam series to air on American television instead of being distributed through home video. As a result, it is what popularized the Gundam franchise.
Taking place during a war between the population of Earth and its orbital colonies in the 23rd century, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing focuses on five talented young men who pilot giant, humanoid mecha known as Gundams. They are tasked with destroying the Organization of Zodiac and liberating the colonies of the oppressive rule they have been subjected to. Weaving in a healthy dose of politics and a complex main character, this military-science-fiction epic proves itself a staple of 90s anime through its execution and sweeping scale.
This series started in the second half of the 90s, running from 1996 to 1998. A samurai-centric show, Rurouni Kenshin presents a very persistent and evocative message of peace. Its titular character, Kenshin Himura, feels guilt over having killed so many in the past. As such, he has vowed never to take another life, even going so far as wielding a non-lethal sword to preserve this mandate of his.
Rurouni Kenshin consistently promotes a theme of peace and responsibility, encouraging viewers to let their negative emotions dissipate as they watch Kenshin try to hold true to what he has promised himself with the aid of characters like Kamiya Kaoru. This positive and spiritual take on a genre that regularly involves passionate romance and revenge is what made Rurouni Kenshin stand out. Its success persists to this day, with a new manga series consisting of five original arcs starting next month, and for that, it more than deserves a spot on our list.
Despite receiving a lukewarm response in Japan when it first started airing in 1998, once Trigun made its way over to North America, viewers ate it up. It follows an expert marksman known as Vash the Stampede, who is tailed by two beleaguered female companions, Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson, who try to make sure his antics don’t cause the insurance company they work for to lose too much money. Their adventures are chronicled in a series of haphazard and destructive stand-offs where Vash tries to save the lives of any in danger that he may come across.
Fun, charming, and delightfully adventurous, it’s easy to see why Trigun has retained its popularity. It is challenging to maintain the balance between fun and outright absurdity, but the series manages to do it through a series of events that are all equally entertaining and stylish.
Very few shows can capture characters with such inherent flaws and complicated relationships with one another the way Neon Genesis Evangelion does. It premiered in 1995 and followed Shinji Ikari, a teenage prodigy living in the aftermath of a global apocalypse. He and a select few other prodigies aim to destroy otherworldly beings known as Angels, who are believed to have initiated said global apocalypse by piloting bio-machines known as Evangelions. What ensues is a deconstruction of typical science-fiction and post-apocalyptic tropes, highlighting the stress and difficulties of going through adolescence by pairing it with the dismal situation the cast faces. The anime series spawned a few movies and even a reboot series back in 2007.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the more thought-provoking and insightful anime series out there, spawning memorable characters that not only included Shinji, but also some very strong female characters like Rei Ayanami, Misato Katsuragi, and perhaps the most popular out of them all, the fiery, ginger-haired Asuka Langley. These characters form the basis of the show, and the amount of depth given to their psychological states of mind and how they interact with one another is where the true strength of the series lies.
To reiterate, this is not a “best of” list. If it were, Cowboy Bebop would have landed the number one spot. But this is a list of the most iconic anime from the 90s. Cowboy Bebop doesn’t have quite the same amount of widespread recognition as the final two on this list, but its heavily stylized neo-noir setting and story are what sets it apart from all the other shows here. Additionally, its voice acting and writing for both the original Japanese and English dubs have been widely praised, especially for a medium with has a level of notoriety regarding the quality of its English dubbing.
A space Western and existentialist saga of 26 episodes that aired from 1997 to 1998, the story takes place in the year 2071 and follows bounty hunters consisting of Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Jet Black, a young female hacker prodigy named Edward “Ed” Wong, and an adorable Corgi known as Ein. They all travel in search of the biggest paycheck they can find but regularly run into old enemies from their past. Incorporating a unique aesthetic and a hefty dose of tension between its complex and distinct cast, Cowboy Bebop may very well be the best place to start for anime newcomers. It’s only 26 episodes long, with the film adaptation taking place between episodes 22 and 23.
Cowboy Bebop has also been licensed for an American, live-action remake set to start production sometime in the next few years. Hopefully, it manages to live up to the spirit and quality of the original because it deserves nothing less.
It just missed number one! Persisting as a feminist icon and one of the most recognizable female superheroes ever, the character of Sailor Moon (real name Usagi Tsukino) teams up with other Sailors named after different planets to defend the Earth from extra-terrestrial and even inter-dimensional invaders seeking to cause harm and incite destruction. The different arcs follow Sailor Moon in her battle against evil, and she occasionally runs into the enigmatic Tuxedo Mask, who helps her whenever he arrives.
Sailor Moon is such an empowering series for young women because it presents audiences with female characters who give as good as they get regarding their responsibilities. The series is also markedly cheerful and bubbly, making its 200-episode run from 1992 to 1997 feel like it goes past in no time. As one of the most successful manga and anime franchises ever created, Sailor Moon is best described as a breakthrough.
What other anime series from the 90s is there that can even hope to obtain the same level of popularity that Pokémon has? Its widespread recognition from multiple demographics around the world, originating all the way from its pilot episode in 1997, makes it the clear choice for the number one most iconic 90s anime.
Following Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum and his loyal Pikachu, the Pokémon series chronicles Ash’s adventures as he travels across the world to accomplish his goal of becoming a Pokémon master. This premise about a character striving to reach the top is easily identifiable and relatable for people of all ages and ethnic groups, which, coupled with friendly outgoing characters and a bright, peppy tone, allowed the series to reach heights that very few anime shows can even come close to achieving. Pokémon is simply on another level.
Are there other 90s anime that you would put in place of these? Or did you agree? Regardless, thank you very much for reading, and hopefully you walked away encouraged to watch a few of the shows mentioned here. And don’t forget to check out our most iconic 80s anime as well.