For many born in the 90s, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and Naruto weren't anime. We just knew them as cartoons. But, as we saw more of these Japanese shows through Toonami and niche channels like Animax, we realised how different they were from western animation. This was how many of us started on the path to being 'weebs' – non-Japanese people obsessed with Japanese pop culture.
Being a weeb in the early to mid-00s wasn't the coolest thing. For most people, being really into Japanese animation was weird. However, as more of these shows became available, breakout hits like Attack on Titan and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood changed the narrative.
Now mega-popular shounen anime like Demon Slayer and My Hero Academia rake in the viewers, and anime has become just another part of the pop culture landscape. People even follow the seasonal cycles of anime carefully as each round of shows brings something for every flavour of anime fan.
The limitless supply of choices is a terrific win for the formerly frowned-upon gentlefolk known as weebs. Still, it has become easy to forget earlier eras when anime was not being mass-produced.
Overall, contemporary anime production is of higher quality, with crisper and more fluid animation and exponentially greater production value. But some of us older folks still miss the grittier, more organic feel to a lot of 90s anime.
Whether you're a newer anime fan who hasn't had a chance to check out these classics, or an OG who's looking to revisit a favourite from youth, here are five great anime from the 90s:
'YuYu Hakusho' - A shounen anime that actually ends
Some of the most successful shounen shows of the 90s need no introduction for newer viewers. After all, Pokemon, One Piece, and Naruto are still airing in one form or another. This is typical of the action genre, where shows keep going, seemingly with no end. While some dedicated fans eagerly await each episode, many viewers tend to drift off before the end. YuYu Hakusho is an excellent choice for a more finite action experience. The show combines a detective story, martial arts tournaments, supernatural duels, and even some interpersonal drama for an excellent shounen entry. And it even runs a paltry 112 episodes – which seems eminently manageable given the scope of the genre.
Crass, but kind comedy in 'GTO'
Great Teacher Onizuka is far from politically correct. In fact, our protagonist Eikichi Onizuka is profane, perverted, and highly problematic. But his unorthodox path from hoodlum to school teacher gives him a fresh perspective that shakes up the strict Japanese education system and allows him to connect with his students on a different level. GTO is outlandish, crass, gross, and hilarious, but it can also be moving. Though Onizuka's answers to his students' crises are ridiculous and over-the-top, the themes and ideas are relatable. Onizuka might be a nasty mess, but his ideals are decent. In terms of academics, he's a horrible educator, but as an imparter of life lessons, he's genuinely great.
'His and Her Circumstances' is a romance that evolves
A common complaint among viewers of high school romance anime is the narrow focus on the will they/won't they phase of the relationship instead of showing us what a couple are like together. His and Her Circumstances does the unthinkable by starting with our leads already dating and following their journey as individuals and as a couple. If you can get past the older character design and rougher art, the show portrays the joys and woes of high school love with care and nuance – something newer shows could learn from.
A 'Slam Dunk' for sports anime
Kuroko's Basketball has gotten mainstream attention in recent years, but Slam Dunk remains the king of the basketball anime court. Unlike Kuroko, Slam Dunk does not capitalise on flashy, superhuman moves but showcases the hard work and growth needed to improve in any sport or discipline. If newer sports anime fans can get past the retro designs and slightly stiffer animation, they'll find a must-watch that breaks up the thrilling, down-to-earth action with goofy and well-developed characters.
For those looking for the best, there's 'Cowboy Bebop'
This list has highlighted a few hidden gems instead of more established classics, but no best of the 90s list is complete without Cowboy Bebop. From the first notes of the iconic intro song 'Tank!', the series had left its mark on the world. Like that song, Bebop blends a host of genres – western, sci-fi, crime thriller, slice-of-life – into a unique creation that feels as fresh and revolutionary as the time of its original release. The show's plot – following a crew of misfit bounty hunters – is pretty straightforward, but its characters are incredibly complex. Their interactions drive the show, turning it into a subtle and satisfying emotional rollercoaster with enough real-world texture to ground its fantastical elements and make them feel alive. It's essential viewing for any anime fan, old or young.
Though they are often less polished than today's plethora of anime, the shows from the 90s have their own distinct flavour and helped pave the way for the current anime scene. Many of them still stand the test of time today. While this list offers a few highlights, the decade has enough variety and quality to satisfy all anime fans. With the range of streaming and viewing options online, newer fans have no excuse if they're looking to catch up on more classics.
This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.