The 1990s were a fantastic era for anime, and if you’re looking for some great movies to watch, you’re in luck! During the ’90s, anime movies gained immense popularity, both in Japan and around the world. These films played a pivotal role in introducing anime to Western audiences. They not only showcased anime as a genuine art form but also set the stage for the industry’s future success.
What makes ’90s anime special is its captivating storytelling and unique visual style. Characters from this era have bold outlines and a distinctive, almost comic book-like appearance. Plus, there were groundbreaking VFX techniques that expanded the possibilities of animation. So, let’s dive into the best anime movies of the 1990s that are definitely worth your time.
1. Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997)
“Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion” is a science fiction anime film – brought to life by Gainax – that serves as an alternate ending to the Neon Genesis Evangelion series. It comes into play as Hideaki Anno’s 26-episode series had a complex and somewhat unsatisfying ending. This film provides a fresh conclusion and sheds light on some of the enigmatic elements.
The story unfolds in a world where teenagers pilot robots to defend humanity from enigmatic beings called Angels. Among these pilots is Shinji, a product of a unique experiment that fuses human souls. This grants him exceptional piloting skills but affects his mental well-being. The film focused on his journey to adulthood, adding depth and understanding to his character development.
One standout feature of the film is its remarkable art direction. While the story may prove challenging to grasp at times, it remains engaging from start to finish. To fully appreciate this film’s narrative, watching the entire series is crucial.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
“Princess Mononoke,” directed by the renowned Hayao Miyazaki, is an epic fantasy film that presents a multi-faceted exploration of humanity’s impact on the natural world. While Miyazaki’s anime often caters to both children and adults, his seventh directorial venture, “Princess Mononoke,” is notably geared towards a more mature audience due to its level of violence.
The tale kicks off with Prince Ashitaka, who finds himself in a confrontation with a possessed demonic boar. In his bid to defeat the creature, he succeeds but acquires a potentially deadly curse in the process. To rid himself of this curse, Ashitaka embarks on a journey to unravel the mystery behind the boar’s furious rampage. This journey leads him to the enigmatic Iron Town, ruled by Lady Eboshi. The town’s inhabitants relentlessly exploit the nearby forest in search of valuable ore, igniting a fierce clash between the indomitable Mononoke and Lady Eboshi.
The anime boasts some of the most breathtaking set pieces and exquisitely detailed animation, all while profoundly depicting the ever-evolving relationship between humans and their environment. This film offers a thought-provoking and visually stunning experience for mature audiences.
3. Perfect Blue (1997)
“Perfect Blue” takes the ‘psycho’ in ‘psychological thriller’ to another level. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese entertainment industry’s dark underbelly, Perfect Blue delves into unsettling aspects, including the exploitation of women. Perfect Blue’s narrative centers on Kirigow Mima, a former pop singer who decides to make a career transition into the entertainment industry. While her decision is met with resistance from devoted fans who wish to preserve her pop idol image, Mima craves the fresh experiences this new path offers.
As the plot unfolds, her journey becomes increasingly thrilling and psychologically gripping. She is confronted with the industry’s murky and lascivious side, which she never anticipated. To complicate matters further, a stalker from her past, who was once an ardent fan during her modeling days, resurfaces. Now, Mima must navigate these turbulent waters while attempting to unravel the mystery surrounding her life.
This ’90s anime pushed the boundaries of the medium, offering blurred lines between reality and illusion, spine-tingling suspense, and vividly intense visuals. It’s Satoshi Kon’s ultimate nightmare presented on screen. You might find it hard to look away from its mesmerizing twists and turns.
4. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
One of the most popular classic anime movies, “Ghost in the Shell,” takes a futuristic approach, immersing viewers in a world of cyborgs. The story unfolds in the year 2029 when technological advancements enable people to replace their limbs with robotic counterparts. It tells the story of Makoto Kusanagi, a cyborg police agent who faces a perplexing case where a criminal erases victims’ memories after committing a crime.
While the rest of the world fretted about the Y2K digital disaster during the Internet boom era, this sci-fi anime delved deep into discussions about the interplay between humanity and machinery, the existential dilemmas of artificial intelligence, and the concept that we might all just be lines of code in the grand scheme of things.
“Ghost in the Shell” isn’t merely a product of the 1990s; it catapulted anime into the 21st century with its fusion of action, philosophy, and the idea that we’re all a part of the digital code. It also explores profound themes such as identity and self-awareness in the digital age, paying homage to iconic works like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
5. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
A heartwarming romantic anime film, “Whisper of the Heart,” is based on a one-volume manga, Mimi wo Sumaseba, by Aoi Hiiragi. This Studio Ghibli gem introduces us to a book-loving teenage girl who crosses paths with a boy interested in the same books. Little did she know, he was checking out those books just to get her attention!
The story takes us on a journey of love, literature, and the crucial decision of whether to attend high school. In the end, they choose each other and ride off into the sunset on a bicycle, hand in hand. It shows a genuine, honest portrayal of its characters’ emotions, making it easy to cheer for them throughout their journey.
What makes this movie stand out is its ability to give us an intimate look at the characters’ lives. The animation is so well done that you can feel the coziness of their apartment and the authenticity of their world. It perfectly balances everyday life, feeling both mysterious and grounded, without falling into clichés.
6. Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994)
While the title might suggest a sequel, it’s actually an adaptation of the popular video game of the same name. The Street Fighter video game series had taken the world by storm, and this movie was a way to bring those beloved characters to life on the big screen. It follows Ryu, the game’s protagonist, as he battles the sinister mastermind, Bison, who’s on the hunt for him.
“Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie” is a real treat for video game fans, showcasing sharp and stunning animation that still holds up today. The characters make a seamless transition from the game to the animated world, and the fight scenes and visual effects remain impressive even by today’s standards.
If you have fond memories of playing Street Fighter as a gamer in the ’90s, watching this retro anime movie will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It’s a classic that captures the essence of the game and its iconic characters.
7. Only Yesterday (1991)
“Only Yesterday” is a hidden gem in Studio Ghibli’s repertoire. It’s directed by Isao Takahata and offers a departure from the fantasy worlds typically associated with Ghibli. Instead, it delves into the complexities of real-life experiences. Through the story of Taeko Okajima, it explores how our past shapes us and the challenges we face when trying to move forward.
The story revolves around a 27-year-old office worker who decides to take a trip to the countryside and meets an acquaintance from her childhood. She begins a journey of realization and sees how this acquaintance has significantly influenced her life. In the end, she chooses to stay in the countryside and start a relationship with him.
Adapted from a 1982 manga with the same name, “Only Yesterday” became a hit at the box office and a top-grossing Japanese film of 1991. It’s a touching tale of self-discovery and nostalgia that resonates with audiences of all ages.
8. Memories (1995)
“Memories” is a science fiction trilogy that took three years to create, and it presents a trio of thought-provoking stories. This anthology offers a compelling exploration of diverse themes of space development, chemical weapons, and war.
In “Magnetic Rose,” a space crew encounters paranormal forces on a deserted space station. As they investigate, they become entangled in a mesmerizing mystery. “Stink Bomb” follows the light-hearted tale that delves into the misadventures of a nerdy scientist who turns into a living weapon. Lastly, “Cannon Fodder” portrays a father and son struggling for survival during a perpetual, senseless war driven by paranoia.
These anthology films are based on the manga created by Katsuhiro Otomo, known for his work on “Akira.” It’s a must-watch for anime enthusiasts and fans of thought-provoking storytelling.
9. Porco Rosso (1992)
“Porco Rosso” is one of the standout ’90s anime movies because of its nostalgic retro aesthetic art style. This film is a testament to director Hayao Miyazaki’s passion for aviation, which shines brightly throughout the story.
In this movie, we meet Marco Pagot, a former Italian World War I fighter pilot who has been mysteriously transformed into a pig due to a curse. Now, going by the name Porco Rosso, he’s taken on the role of a bounty hunter, using his red seaplane to chase down air pirates. Meanwhile, his longtime friend Gina, who harbors feelings for him, stands firm against the advances of the American pilot, declaring her commitment to waiting for Porco, no matter how long it takes.
This film combines elements of adventure, romance, and a touch of magic, making it a must-watch for anyone seeking a classic anime experience. It delivers a delightful happy ending that’s sure to warm your heart.
10. Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1993)
“Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama,” a 1993 Indo-Japanese animated film that draws inspiration from the great Indian epic, Ramayana. Initially, this project was intended to be a collaboration between the governments of India and Japan, commemorating the 40th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. However, it eventually took shape as a privately produced endeavor, with the collaborative efforts of hundreds of Indian and Japanese technicians. The film’s direction was handled by Yugo Sako, Ram Mohan, and Koichi Saski.
The movie eloquently portrays the deep brotherhood between Lord Rama and Lord Lakshmana, the unwavering devotion of Hanuman Ji towards Rama, and the pure, unbreakable love between Mother Sita and Rama.
The film presents a straightforward, chronological retelling of the epic saga, but what truly dazzles are the vibrant action sequences and visually striking effects that continue to captivate audiences even today. This animated adaptation of Ramayana remains a marvel to behold, showcasing the creative synergy between Indian and Japanese talents.
11. Ninja Scroll (1993)
For many anime enthusiasts of a particular generation, “Ninja Scroll” served as their introduction to this medium. This hyper-violent action-adventure classic played a pivotal role in bringing mature-themed animation to a wider audience. It continues to captivate viewers with its magnificent animation and thrilling action, securing its place as a timeless classic in anime history.
The story centers around Kibagami Jubei, a mercenary swordsman in feudal Edo-era Japan, reluctantly tasked with stopping the Shogun Of The Dark. To achieve this, he must confront the Eight Devils of Kimon, an elite ninja unit with supernatural abilities, with the assistance of Kagero, a beautiful yet poisonous ninja, and Dakuan, a cunning spymaster.
Jubei’s journey, set against the backdrop of Edo-era Japan, offers a compelling blend of doomed romance, dark fantasy, and historical elements. It broke new ground by demonstrating how well anime could handle adult themes, and its influence can be seen in subsequent sword-fighting films and even American sci-fi like “The Matrix.” However, it’s worth noting that certain scenes have not aged well due to the objectification and violent treatment of the female lead, Kagero.
12. Pom Poko (1994)
“Pom Poko” is a delightful anime film that draws inspiration from the legendary Japanese raccoon dog, also known as Tanuki. In Japanese folklore, Tanuki is renowned as a shape-shifter with mischievous and magical tendencies. This folklore dates back centuries in Japan, and much like the famous maneki neko (the beckoning lucky cat), the Tanuki statue symbolizes prosperity. Director Isao Takahata’s “Pom Poko” embraces the whimsical and magical reputation of Tanuki in a heartwarming comedy-drama.
The story unfolds around a clan of shape-shifting raccoon dogs residing on the outskirts of Tokyo during the mid-1960s. City planners have set their sights on the Tanuki’s homes, intending to erect massive structures to accommodate the growing human population. In response, the raccoons unite, utilizing their unique abilities to devise a plan that could save their colony from destruction.
“Pom Poko” shines with its creative humor and endearing characters. While its message about environmentalism is explicit, Isao Takahata skillfully weaves together elements of Japanese folklore, history, and entertainment to deliver a captivating and entertaining narrative.
13. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)
“Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade” is a gripping action thriller based on the manga series “Kerberos Panzer Cop.” it’s set in an alternate history where we follow Kazuki Fuse, a member of a special police unit in the 1950s. Amidst the Japanese riots of that era, he faces a moral dilemma when ordered to kill a girl carrying a suicide bomb.
The story delves into his visit to the girl’s grave, where he encounters her sister, sparking an unusual relationship. The movie explores the complex dynamic between this police officer and a terrorist’s sister within a broader conflict. Its stunning animation that relies on classic techniques rather than flashy effects sets it apart. In this alternate history, it weaves a somber narrative about post-World War II Japan.
While “Jin Roh” may feature somewhat enigmatic characterizations and heavy visual metaphors, it offers a visually captivating experience filled with thrills and breathtaking action sequences. Over the years, this anime has garnered a cult following, and in 2018, it even inspired a live-action Korean adaptation by Kim Jee-woon.