Modern anime fans don’t know how good they have it. Back in the late ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, you had to know a guy who knew a guy to burn a VHS tape of the latest show or movie, and you were lucky if it was even subtitled. With everything streaming on demand now, there are not nearly as many “essential” anime that are worth driving four hours to buy a bootleg copy of.
Without the passionate dorks out there who wouldn’t shut up about these Japanese cartoons back in the ‘90s, anime wouldn’t be a socially acceptable thing today. Well, maybe not entirely socially acceptable, but you’re not going to get shoved in a locker for wearing a Dragon Ball shirt anymore. If you consider yourself an anime fan, these are the most essential shows from the 1990s you must have on your resume.
Listen, some items here didn’t get official U.S. releases until after the ‘90s but I’m still counting them because they made their way over and helped spread the good word on anime. Don’t be a stickler.
Cowboy Bebop — Japanese release 1998, U.S. release 2001
Bebop, even at the time, was the hipster anime series among the already niche audience. This was late in the ‘90s and there were already a good deal of shonen fans in the U.S., so Bebop became the “adult” show.
Hype aside, this show completely slaps. All you need to do is watch the OP and you’ll know what I mean. This is also one of the rare shows where you won’t be tarred and feathered for saying you prefer the dub.
Dragon Ball Z — Japanese release 1989, U.S. release 1996
How could DBZ not be on the list? If you ask a room full of people whether there's anyone who hasn't tried to go Super Saiyan or fire off a Kamehameha at least once in their lives, anyone who doesn't raise their hand would be a liar.
Hell, it’s so mainstream it wasn’t just Goku that got a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, but Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan Goku (or just Super Saiyan Blue if you’re a casual).
Neon Genesis Evangelion — Japanese release 1995, U.S. release 1996
Essays could be, and have been, written about how absolutely batsh*t nuts this anime is. On the surface, it’s just another giant robot show, but from episode 1 it’s clear this thing is a different beast. This was one of those anime series that kind of messed kids up.
Famously written and directed by suicidally depressed Hideaki Anno, nothing else at the time looked, sounded, or felt like Evangelion. It isn’t fun, but it’s not supposed to be.
Sailor Moon — Japanese release 1992, U.S. release 1995
Call it problematic or whatever, but Sailor Moon kind of was the “anime for girls” of the time. Honestly, when you look at all the other shows focusing on shirtless dudes screaming and shooting lasers, it was a welcome bit of variety.
When you actually watch the show, it isn’t pandering to girls at all. Sailor Scouts are damn tough, plus have real, relatable issues as middle schoolers.
Pokémon — Japanese release 1997, U.S. release 1998
No one talks about it, but Pokémon was absolutely the first great video game adaptation. It took us arguably up until 2023 with The Last of Us to get a second good one, and even that can’t hold a candle to Ash and Pikachu’s adventures.
We don’t have to defend Pokémon. Either you love it, used to love it, or know someone who loves it.
Ghost in the Shell — Japanese release 1995, U.S. release 1996
Right behind Akira, Ghost in the Shell was one of the first “big” moments for anime films in the West. The vision of the future in this movie is scarily accurate in how we seem to be heading directly for a cyberpunk future where human consciousness and machines have merged.
Its influence is still felt today in things like The Matrix, Westworld, and really anything that deals with AI, robotics, and cybercrime.
Serial Experiments Lain — Japanese release 1998, U.S. release 1999
What if Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell had a fever dream? That’s basically Serial Experiments Lain.
What starts off as a murder mystery where the victim is sending emails devolves into a complete mindf*** of collective consciousness and technology.
This is one you watch to say you’ve seen it and sound smart, but never actually try to explain because, face it, no one knows what the hell this thing is about.
Princess Mononoke — Japanese and U.S. release 1997
You knew there was going to be a Ghibli entry, and we just got lucky that the only ‘90s release was a banger in Princess Mononoke. This was a step toward the more “serious” side for Miyazaki, with strong themes of environmentalism and the nature of people.
This one still looks like it could come out today and be impressive.
Berserk - Japanese release 1997, U.S. release 2002
You like Game of Thrones? Well, Berserk is kind of that, only darker, if you can believe it.
Just to give you a taste, the main character of Guts was born after his pregnant mother was hung from a tree and adopted by a band of mercenaries who abused him … and it only goes downhill from there.
I have to be very clear on this: do not watch anything but the OG anime. Yes, it ends on the biggest cliffhanger in anime history, but the 2016+ continuation is a travesty. If you like what you saw, read the manga.