Science fiction is notorious for pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. As anime's popularity continued to soar in the 1990s, animation studios used their work as a vessel to brave the unknown and challenge various themes in their own unique ways.
Capable of skillfully crafting incredible, believable worlds on distant planets or in cyber-enhanced futures, anime has the astounding ability to make the seemingly impossible appear possible. The '90s introduced some of the most iconic anime of all time. With varied, complex characters and affecting storylines which still resonate today, here are 10 sci-fi anime shows and movies from the decade that everyone needs to see.
10 Trigun (1998)
A carefully blended mix of dystopian sci-fi and the old west with a large dash of comedy, Trigun was a huge hit with American audiences. Following the adventures of the notorious Vash the Stampede—a legendary man with a sixty billion double dollar bounty on his head, capable of clearing entire towns with the mere mention of his name—we soon learn that Vash might not be the threatening gunman the rumors would have us believe.
Vash's story gradually unfolds over the 26-episode series, carefully revealing his human side. It's a touching story exploring ethics and violence, filled with both darkness and heart by the bucketload.
9 Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 (1998 - 1999)
When worker androids called Boomers go rogue in the futuristic Megalo City, a special police unit begins to take down the evil machines. However, the team has to compete with a mysterious group of vigilantes in power suits known as the Knight Sabers, who are always one step ahead of the authorities. Linna Yamazaki becomes determined to join the super group and help them destroy the Boomers.
Building upon 1987's Bubblegum Crisis, this series features stunning visuals and jaw-dropping action sequences as the Knight Sabers fly through the city on their motorcycles. Most compelling of all is the group dynamic, revealing the drama the group faces within the team as well outside.
8 Battle Angel (1993)
Based on the first two volumes of Yukito Kishiro's Battle Angel Alita manga series, this OVA barely scratches the surface of Kishiro's epic, but is still an excellent watch. Cyberdoctor Daisuke Ido rebuilds young cyborg Gally after finding her on a scrapheap. A skilled fighter with no memories, she begins working as a bounty hunter. Befriending a young boy named Yugo, she sets out to help him achieve his impossible dreams as she attempts to rediscover her forgotten past.
Battle Angel has everything needed for a cyberpunk epic, and the series is only enhanced by Gally's wonderful characterization. It's unfortunate there was no sequel to this anime, but it's easy to see why James Cameron was inspired to make this into a blockbuster.
7 Outlaw Star (1998)
Pure, simple Space Western fun, Outlaw Star follows Gene Starwind and his motley crew aboard his ship (the Outlaw Star), a technologically advanced spacecraft which can travel faster than light itself. As they speed across the galaxy, they encounter the worst aliens, pirates, and rogues the universe has to offer.
A rip-roaring adventure through the cosmos with unique characters, it brilliantly blends drama with comedy. It's difficult not to root for the ragtag crew as the series progresses. The Japanese version was heavily edited before US release, but the dub still makes for an enormously fun series.
6 Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Adapted from Masamune Shirow's manga, Ghost in the Shell is perhaps one of the most influential movies from the 1990s, with many creatives citing it as their source of inspiration. Set in the vastly technologically advanced year of 2029, cyborgs walk amongst humans and the brain can connect directly to the internet. Major Motoko Kasunagi works for an elite special operations police division which combats cyber-crime and terrorism, and is on the trail of a criminal called the Puppet Master.
Beautifully animated, excellently designed, and with an outstanding story that combines philosophical ideas with a thrilling plot, Ghost in the Shell is a powerful fable about technology, intelligence, and identity in the digital world.
5 Magnetic Rose (1995)
Technically one third of anthology film, Memories, Magnetic Rose really stands out—and stands alone—as a solid sci-fi thriller. When a deep space freighter receives a distress signal, it finds its way to a ruined space station which is run by the AI imprint of the opera star Eva Friedel who disappeared after her fiancé's murder. The AI has complete control over all of the station's systems, from the basic functions to the VR hologram system.
Magnetic Rose feels like classic sci-fi, with a deeply menacing atmosphere reminiscent of Alien. Brilliantly complemented by the Madame Butterfly score, this short provides an interesting (and horrifying) look into artificial intelligence.
4 Mobile Suit Gundam F91 (1991)
While this might not be a fan-favorite entry in the wildly popular Gundam series, it still captures Gundam's essence. New colonies arise as a new generation thrives in peacetime. However, the aristocratic Crossbone Vanguard have plans to seize some of these colonies for themselves. Caught in the midst of the conflict, Seabook Arno and Cecily Fairchild arm themselves with a Gundam F91 and try to stop this latest threat.
Originally intended to be a series, Mobile Suit Gundam F91 saw various roadblocks on its production journey, eventually finding new life as a film, condensing the plot into just 115 minutes. Nevertheless, it still has all the lovable characters and stunning action sequences we've come to expect from Gundam.
3 Serial Experiments Lain (1998 - 1999)
Serial Experiments Lain still feels very relevant over twenty years later. After a student commits suicide, middle school girl Lain Iwakura hears rumors from her classmates who claim to have received emails from the dead girl. Disbelieving, Lain switches on her old computer only to find a message from the girl stating she is still alive, living in a world called The Wired. With mysterious deaths on the rise and the lines between The Wired and reality beginning to blur, Lain struggles as she questions normality in the digital age.
It's a poignant series which isn't afraid to confront modern life, diving headfirst into technology's dark side and the philosophical and psychological quandaries that come with it.
2 Cowboy Bebop (1998 - 1999)
Travelling on the Bebop with bounty hunter crew, Spike, Jet, Faye, Edward, and Ein, is one of the most exciting experiences in anime. Considered to be one of the greatest anime of all time, Cowboy Bebop has all the ingredients essential for a successful Space Western, and expertly blends it with romance, comedy, suspense, drama, and crime to make a truly thrilling genre-defying series.
As we travel through space with this memorable cast of well-developed characters, it succeeds in weaving its unique, warm charm into an emotional, gut-wrenching story. Enhanced by an excellent soundtrack, stunning animation, and breathtaking action sequences, it's an indisputable classic.
1 Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 1996)
The series responsible for breathing new life into the mecha genre, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a striking anime which not only impacted its global audiences, but Japanese pop-culture as a whole. When an alien race known as Angels launch an attack on a devastated earth, only a handful of teens are capable of piloting earth's giant mechas. Shinki Ikari finds himself piloting the EVA-01—the only mecha capable of stopping the alien assailants.
While the final episodes proved controversial (spawning an 'alternative ending' film in 1997, The End of Evangelion), the impact of the series cannot be underestimated. Full of complexity and emotion woven together with a wonderfully written story, it's a captivating series with detailed characters and gorgeous animation that shouldn't be missed.