The 90s saw a huge boom in anime popularity in the West. Many series from the decade are beloved by fans today, and while it’s difficult to whittle down a comprehensive list of the top contenders, we’ve done our best.
As stated in the title, this series follows a group of middle schoolers with a passion for ping-pong–or so you’d think. These boys are way more interested in telling dirty jokes and getting girls than winning any championships. One day, a new teacher arrives, intent on making this group of delinquents into ping-pong pros.
Crude, lewd, and unapologetically rude, Ping-Pong Club may not have the same level of notoriety or staying power as other series on this list. Laughter is the best medicine, however, and this is a series worth binging when your funny bone needs a quick tickle. With over 25 million copies in circulation, the original manga series remains a huge best-seller 30 years after the first volume’s publication.
While Ping Pong Club isn’t currently available to stream on any major services, DVD copies can be easily found floating around on the web.
Serial Experiments Lain
Following the tragic suicide of middle schooler Chisa Yomoda, the girl’s classmate Lain Iwakura receives a disturbing email from the victim herself. Opening the message, she finds herself pulled into the Wired, a virtual world similar to the internet we know today. More and more cryptic messages begin appearing and strange men start following Lain, asking her difficult questions and proving that they know everything about her. Lain’s perception starts to change, with the real and virtual worlds seeming to blur together.
The unusual sci-fi themes found in Serial Experiments Lain combined with its heavy focus on psychology and philosophy have led many to call it the most important anime series of the decade. It’s difficult to watch the show without engaging with it in a meaningful way, and viewers can expect to answer a few deep questions before the final credits roll.
The series is currently streaming on Funimation.
Now and Then, Here and There
Shu is an ordinary boy with plenty of friends and a love for kendo. Following a painful defeat by his kendo rival, he decides to climb a nearby smokestack to watch the sunset. It’s here that he stumbles on Lala-Ru, a blue-haired girl who doesn’t seem to take much interest in the boy despite his chatter. Out of nowhere, two machines appear to kidnap Lala-Ru, and Shu, as loyal as he is, attempts to intervene. Transported to a dystopian world, Shu discovers that Lala-Ru has the ability to manipulate water, a scarce commodity in the strange otherworld.
An incredibly emotional watch, Now and Then, Here and There calls upon audiences to engage in plenty of in-depth reflection. With themes of war and torture, comparisons have been made to Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. This isn’t a series for young children or the faint of heart, but its writing and final message will leave interested viewers reeling.
Episodes are available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video.
Hell Teacher Nube
Meisuke Nueno, nicknamed Nube, is a teacher at Domori Elementary. Though his career should be largely danger-free, Nube has the ability to sense ghosts and evil spirits, and these demonic forces have a tendency to target his students. Luckily, the teacher is able to fight back using his Demon Hand which he disguises with a black glove. The kindhearted and clumsy protagonist always seems to have his work cut out for him.
With its episodic monster-of-the-week formula and a cast of wacky characters, Hell Teacher Nube is a simple watch. Undemanding yet strangely engaging, the series manages to blend both comedy and horror without sacrificing the best bits of either genre. Viewers with an interest in Japanese superstitions will also find plenty to love.
Sadly, Hell Teacher Nube isn’t currently available to stream.
Protagonist Gene Starwind has a dream of taking to the stars on his own ship. Sadly, that dream seems out of reach, and the man lives his life taking on odd jobs along with his close friend James. One day, the two take on a job that will change things forever. Suddenly involved with a treasure-hunting outlaw, the duo is tasked with protecting a strange girl named Melfina as they take to the skies toward the mysteries of deep space.
Anyone who tuned into Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in the early 2000s will likely remember Gene Starwind, his titular ship, and the epic Toonami promos that accompanied the show’s run. The character designs and music are particularly notable, and while the series may not have the notoriety of a particular space opera appearing further down on this list, it’s a fun watch.
This classic sci-fi series is streaming on Hulu and Funimation.
Those Who Hunt Elves
When actress Airi Komiyama, fighter Junpei Ryuzouji, and student Ritsuko Inoue are suddenly transported from Japan to a magical world, they’re understandably desperate to get home. An elven priestess named Celcia agrees to cast a spell to send them back to Earth, but when she’s interrupted, fragments of the spell scatter throughout the realm. The three unlikely adventurers must then search high and low for these fragments which appear as tattoos on elven skin.
In a world dominated by the isekai genre, this series may not immediately stand out to most anime fans. Filled with silly shenanigans and a ridiculous premise, fans note that although it may not be the most well-developed series of the decade, it has a startling amount of heart, soul, and character. This is a great show to binge after one of the more heavy entries on this list.
While the series isn’t currently available to stream, DVD and Blu-ray copies are readily available on Amazon.
The Big O
Roger is a smooth ladies’ man residing in Paradigm City, a mysterious place massacred by a strange occurrence 40 years prior. A negotiator and secret agent, Roger has a bad habit of getting too involved in his cases, and as such, he knows more about the city than most. Along with his butler Norman, his android Dorothy, and his giant mecha Big O, the man saves the City from unspeakable dangers again and again as he uncovers more about what happened four decades ago.
With a style reminiscent of American comics, The Big O brings a more unique twist to the mecha genre, focusing heavily on character development. There are enough twists and turns in this series to keep even the most discerning anime fans happy.
This thrilling series is currently streaming on HIDIVE.
Yu Yu Hakusho
Yusuke Urameshi is a 14-year-old who doesn’t enjoy following the rules. Despite his delinquent tendencies, he jumps in front of a moving car to save a little boy’s life. Sacrificing yourself is a great way to get brownie points in the afterlife, and Yusuke finds that those in the spirit realm aren’t going to let him go so easily. The bad boy is allowed to return to life under one condition: become a Spirit Detective and keep humanity safe from evil threats. He’ll take on these tasks alongside his once-rival Kuwabara and the demons Hiei and Kurama, both of which have dark secrets hidden in their pasts.
Sitting at 112 episodes, Yu Yu Hakusho is a commitment. If you missed this supernatural adventure series when it aired on Adult Swim and Toonami back in the early 2000s, it’s not too late to embark on this epic saga.
Yu Yu Hakusho is available to stream in its entirety on Hulu, Funimation, and Crunchyroll.
Here is Greenwood
Kazuya Hasekawa isn’t having a great life. His brother just got married to the woman Kazuya loves, and to escape, he enters Ryokuto Academy. Unfortunately, he’s assigned to live in Greenwood, a dorm that was formerly an insane asylum. Home to the weird kids on campus, Kazuya has no choice but to make friends with these unique outcasts. In doing so, he learns more about himself and begins to heal.
With an old-school look and a short runtime of only six episodes, Here is Greenwood is a slice-of-life series perfect for a one-day binge. Simple and oddly nostalgic, it managed to bewitch plenty of anime fans in the early 90s.
Here is Greenwood isn’t currently streaming, but a 2-disc DVD set is available to purchase on Amazon.
The Irresponsible Captain Tylor
Tylor isn’t your usual protagonist. Lazy and money-hungry, his main goal in life is to find the easiest job possible with the highest pay. Sadly, those dreams are dashed when he accidently stumbles on a hostage situation in progress. Although Tylor seems like the furthest thing from a hero, he manages to save everyone and is subsequently awarded command of his own space cruiser. Now in charge of a number of mercenaries and pilots, Tylor’s life changes for the better, though he may not agree.
Despite his seemingly unlikable qualities, Tylor is an instant hit with fans. Happy and easygoing, his journey to win the respect of his crew is just plain fun to watch.
This classic comedy series is now streaming on Crunchyroll.
Record of Lodoss War
Embroiled in war for thousands of years, Lodoss and its surrounding kingdoms were created following the last great battle of the gods. As a tentative peace begins to settle throughout the lands, surprise–a new evil appears on the horizon in the form of an ancient witch desperate to rip apart any fool who dares to try and control Lodoss. Six warriors, led by a young man named Parn, gather together to take on this destructive force.
Inspired by a fantasy novel series of the same name by Ryo Mizuno, tabletop RPG fans will instantly fall in love with this series. In addition to anime adaptations, Record of Lodoss War has also inspired a manga series a several PC games.
Dungeons & Dragons fans won’t want to miss out on this fantasy tale. Stream it on Funimation and Crunchyroll.
Yukino is a high school girl who has it all. She’s smart, she’s sporty, she’s friendly–what more could anyone ask for? These talents don’t come easily, however, as the incredibly vain Yukino works nonstop to remain perfect in the eyes of her peers. Souchirou, the male rep for her class, is the only one more perfect than her, and that’s something Yukino can’t stand. When the boy suddenly confesses his love, she turns him down relentlessly. But when Souichirou visits her home to return something, he sees how she really lives. As it turns out, she isn’t the only one hiding something.
Kare Kano, also titled His and Her Circumstances, is a romance series similar in many ways to the recently-released Horimiya and Kodocha, which will appear later on this list. With more emotional realism than many other series in the genre, Kare Kano includes every aspect of a budding teen relationship, including the doubt, fear, and sadness that comes with a person’s first love.
The complete series can be purchased on DVD from Amazon and other anime shops.
In the future, humanity has lost it all. Our species is no longer at the top of the food chain, replaced by the Blue, bug-like alien lifeforms that have taken over Earth. Second Earth, a massive space station, is now the only safe space for humanity. Suffering from an awful disease, Yuji Kaido had been cryogenically frozen on Earth but is awakened when a group of soldiers come to his rescue. Things don’t go according to plan on their way back to Second Earth, and Yuji has to quickly learn how to fight back against the horrifying enemies.
If this series looks familiar, that’s because it appeared on Adult Swim in 2003. Originally planned for a Toonami release, it was deemed too graphic and was heavily edited to remove extensive violence and nudity. The horror mecha series is certainly worth watching in its original form if you’re old enough.
Episodes of Blue Gender can be purchased on Amazon Prime Video.
Please Save My Earth
High school student Alice Sakaguchi has recurring dreams about her life on the moon. They feel so real that the girl obsesses about them constantly, and as it turns out, she isn’t alone–a number of Alice’s classmates are also having the same dream. As it turns out, these aren’t dreams, but suppressed memories of the group’s past lives as a team of alien scientists. As they piece together the kind of lives they lived so long ago, they learn that disaster is not so easily avoided.
With only six episodes, Please Save My Earth is a series respectful of your time while still delivering a compelling story and engaging characters. A tried and true tearjerker, the series artfully combines sci-fi elements with elements of classical tragedy.
The series is most easily procured on DVD.
Sixth-grader Sana Kurata may be young, but she already has a dream life. The popular star of a children’s TV show, her mother is also a successful author. After enrolling in a normal school, Sana comes to class to find total chaos due to the troublemaker Akito Hayama, who constantly butts heads with Sana and who disrespects almost every adult in his life. Sana decides to figure out why Akito is such a jerk, and in doing so, she realizes that the boy is hiding plenty of secrets.
Kodocha can be watched on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube with a CONtv subscription.
Taichi Keaton is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. He’s an insurance investigator, a lecturer, an archeologist, a traveler, a former SAS agent, a war veteran, a historian, and so much more. Known for his unique abilities and his unorthodox investigation methods, people around the world seek Keaton out when they need a mystery solved. Whether it’s retrieving a stolen wine bottle or hunting a fugitive, he’s ready to take on the job.
It’s difficult to file Master Keaton under a particular genre. The series dabbles in just about everything under the sun, switching between mystery, action, and slice-of-life without batting an eye. With an undeniable charm, the series is proof that variety is the spice of life.
Sadly, the series is not currently available to stream on any major streaming sites. If you can get your hands on a physical copy, it may be worth the cost.
Magic User’s Club
After stopping an alien invasion, the Magic User’s Club is ready to celebrate. The creature’s UFO has transformed into a giant cherry tree in the middle of Tokyo, and while that’s a better outcome than could be expected, it’s still a huge annoyance to the city’s residents. As the club members begin searching for a way to remove the tree, which is blocking all sunlight, they deal with plenty of other issues–like love and schoolwork.
While it’s possible to describe Magic User’s Club as a magical girl series, that wouldn’t be entirely correct. This off-the-wall romp doesn’t fit snugly into any category or genre, throwing some magical boys into the mix alongside some UFOs, fanservice, and love triangles. The original OVA was also directed by Junichi Sato, known for his work on Sailor Moon.
Check out the series on Crunchyroll and Funimation.
GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
Eikichi Onizuka wants to become the best high school teacher in Japan. Formerly a biker gang leader, this goal isn’t as altruistic as it seems. Onizuka doesn’t care about helping students–he cares about finding a cute teenage wife. After landing a job at the prestigious Holy Forest Academy, this new teacher is pushed to the limit when he’s charged with handling a group of delinquents. While the kids think they can break him, Onizuka has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. He might just be a good guy after all.
With a blend of realistic and emotional human moments and over-the-top slapstick comedy, GTO is packed full of life lessons and childish humor in equal measure.
The hilarious GTO is available to watch on Crunchyroll, Peacock, and Amazon Prime Video.
Tenchi Masaki is a typical guy going through some significant events. After an infamous space pirate named Ryoko crashes her ship near his family’s temple, his life changes forever, and his home is suddenly filled with alien women from other galaxies including Princess Aeka of Jurai, her sister Sasami, detectives Mihoshi and Kiyone, and the scientist Washu. While this seems like the perfect recipe for disaster, Tenchi ends up becoming closer to each and every new member of his family, soon learning that he may have a bigger role in the universe than he could have ever anticipated.
The Tenchi Muyo franchise can be a tad confusing. Following a six-episode OVA series titled Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki, a 26-episode TV series titled Tenchi Universe aired in 1995, followed by Tenchi in Tokyo in 1997. These all aired on Toonami starting in 2000.
Tenchi Muyo is available on Funimation.
Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Nadia, a mysterious 14-year-old, and Jean, a young French inventor, meet in an alternate version of 1889. Technology is advancing at a miraculous rate, but Gargoyle, a strange evil force, is obsessed with bringing the former Atlantean empire back to power to take over the world. Nadia and Jean join forces aboard the submarine Nautilus alongside Captain Nemo to save Earth. The series was loosely based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.
Emotive and engrossing, Nadia‘s touching moments are tempered by its occasional ability to not take itself too seriously. Created by a young Hayao Miyazaki and Hideaki Anno, there’s some serious star power at play here.
This steampunk adventure can be purchased on YouTube or Amazon Prime Video.
Ranma Saotome is an incredible martial artist, but on a training trip in China, he and his father fall into a cursed hot spring. When splashed with cold water, the handsome man now transforms into a girl, with hot water able to undo the spell. If that wasn’t awkward enough, Ranma is engaged to be married to Akane Soun in order to save her family’s dojo. The two get into plenty of hijinks as they hurdle toward marriage, and this 161-episode series is absolutely packed full of nonsensical action.
This largely episodic series is packed with Rumiko Takahashi’s legendary charm. Those who value humor will want to chip away at this lengthy series–while sometimes predictable, Ranma includes some memorable moments and a brand of anything-goes humor that can’t be found as readily today.
Watch the series now on Peacock and Hulu.
Hanamichi Sakuragi is an absolute beast. Incredibly tall and with bright red hair, he enrolls in Shohoku High School with the hopes of getting a girlfriend after striking out countlessly during his middle school career. Despite his dislike of basketball, when a cute classmate named Haruko asks him about his interest in the sport, he instantly claims to love it, rushing to the gym to prove his skills–or, sadly, in his case, lack thereof. Joining the basketball team soon after, Hanamichi learns that camaraderie is a pretty powerful motivator.
If you’re not a basketball fan, that’s no reason not to tune into this legendary adaptation of Takehiko Inoue’s Shonen Jump manga series. From action and comedy to romance and tragedy, its critical acclaim is well deserved.
This quintessential sports series is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
During the Bakumatsu era, a terrifying assassin roamed Japan. Known as Battousai the Manslayer, his power was legendary, but he disappeared mysteriously at the start of the Meiji era. Ten years have passed, and the swordsman reappears, this time as a pacifist and protector of the weak. Crossing paths with the kendo instructor Kaoru Kamiya, Kenshin is invited to stay at her dojo. While his travels are put on hold, there are plenty of adventures to be had alongside his collection of new friends.
Rurouni Kenshin was a fan favorite when it hit the Western airwaves on Toonami in 2003. Although the anime is scheduled to be remade in 2023, the original holds a place in people’s hearts for good reason. Both violent and heartfelt, you’ll be rooting for a killer by the end.
Check out the action on Hulu, Crunchyroll, and Funimation.
Lina Inverse is a sorceress who uses her power for greed. In love with treasure, she travels around the world stealing from bandits and getting into trouble. During one of her escapades, she crosses paths with Gaurry Gabriev who assumes Lina to be some kind of damsel in distress. As the two begin an unlikely friendship, the sorceress also finds herself with a powerful magical object in her collection. Danger is suddenly hot on their tail, but the world itself might be in trouble too.
Inspired by the light novel series of the same name by Hajime Kanzaka, the fun doesn’t end with the first anime series. Following Slayers, fans can also dig into Slayers NEXT, Slayers TRY, Slayers REVOLUTION, and Slayers EVOLUTION-R.
Glimpse a bit of 90s magic on Funimation.
In the year 2071, humans have branched out across the universe, settling on planets across the galaxy. Despite this incredible step forward, humanity hasn’t changed all that much, and crime is rampant across these new settlements. Bounty hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black hunt down criminals aboard the Bebop along with the gorgeous Faye Valentine, the child prodigy Edward, and the bioengineered Corgi Ein.
Needing no introduction, Cowboy Bebop has remained engrained in the public consciousness since it first aired on Adult Swim in 2001. While criticisms have been made regarding the show’s focus on style over substance, many argue that it has some of the best audiovisual work of the era. The characters also remain a high point, and at the end of the day, Bebop is just cool. Sometimes that’s an instant recipe for success.
The legendary show is available on Funimation, Crunchyroll, Hulu, and Netflix.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Following the untimely death of her parents, Utena Tenjou is given a rose ring by a traveling prince as a promise to meet again. As romantic as it may seem, it inspires Utena herself to become a prince in her own right. Years later while attending Ootori Academy, the girl sees the beautiful Anthy Himemiya tending roses. Nearby students seem to be arguing over her, and as it turns out, Utena is soon to be dragged into the world of Duelists, all of whom have similar rose rings. These fighters duel for the ownership of Anthy, the Rose Bride, said to possess great power.
Revolutionary Girl Utena takes the magical girl genre to a more adult place, dealing with difficult subject matter ranging from sexuality and abuse to gender expression. The literal and figurative loss of innocence is the largest theme in the series, and if you start Utena seeking out standard shojo tropes, prepare to be disappointed.
This magical girl romp is streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.
A typical middle school student, Momiji Fujimiya lives her days quietly until she discovers that she’s a descendant of the Kushinada family. Momiji’s powerful blood grants her the power to stop the Aragami, terrifying plant-based monsters attacking Japan. The TAC, a unique government agency, is tasked with protecting Momiji as they fight back against this menace. In the meantime, Kusanagi, a mysterious man with blue mitama beads embedded in his skin, might just be falling in love with the powerful girl.
While Blue Seed begins with a standard monster-of-the-week feel, it soon develops into any emotionally-charged dramatic romance series destined to stay with viewers for years after.
Check it out on Crunchyroll, HIDIVE, and Amazon Prime Video.
The Vision of Escaflowne
Hitomi Kanzaki is your typical schoolgirl with a strange interest: fortune-telling. One night, a boy named Van Fanel appears from the sky along with a terrifying dragon, whom he soon slays with gusto. A pillar of light transports the pair to the mysterious land of Gaea, where a stunned Hitomi finds out that Van is actually a prince. His kingdom of Fanelia is under attack by an evil empire, and as Hitomi travels with the mysterious boy, their relationship evolves into something new.
Fans of this legendary fantasy series often cite the characters as a high point, with Hitomi, in particular, earning high marks as a realistic female protagonist. The worldbuilding, score, and themes of freedom and conflict have remained inspiring and impressive to this day.
Watch the series on Funimation.
Guts, a traveling mercenary, is known for his massive greatsword. While he isn’t shy about taking on difficult jobs, he never stays in a place for long. Ambushed after finishing a job, he encounters the Band of the Hawk, easily defeating a number of its members in combat. The group’s leader, Griffith, challenges Guts, who agrees to join the group if he loses. After Griffith wins in a single blow, Guts is inducted into the Band of the Hawk. But while he seems a good fit, something evil is lurking, and his friendships may not be all that they seem.
Running from 1997 to 1998, the original Berserk anime adaptation is seeing a resurgence in popularity following the untimely death of the original manga author Kentaro Miura in May 2021. Its dark setting and storytelling were captured expertly by OLM, while the more recent adaptations have managed to let fans down across the board.
The original series is streaming on Netflix in select countries. Sadly, this does not currently include the United States or Canada, though this may change in the near future.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Following a cataclysmic event known as the Second Impact, the world is threatened by terrifying heavenly beings called Angels. After these beasts start invading the new city of Tokyo-3, mankind is desperate to find a way to fight back. Hope rests in the hands of a few young children who have the ability to pilot giant humanoid robots called Evangelions. As straightforward as this seems, the psychological burden placed on the pilots is nearly indescribable, and evil may be much closer to home than they realize.
Mindbending and unafraid, each episode of Evangelion ends in a way that leaves audiences either scratching their heads or dropping their jaws. As confusing as it may be during the first watch, the series changed anime for the better, pushing mecha designs to a new level and tackling psychological themes that threaten to break the boundaries of the medium. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but regardless of which camp you find yourself in, Anno’s work will remain unforgettable.
Jump into the greatest series of the 90s on Netflix today. Enjoy the existential crisis!