By Aedan Juvet
It’s hard to look at anime today and not see mainstream pop culture success. Series like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia have left the confines of the anime industry and become keystones in what is an incredible time to be an anime fan.
There’s a chance we wouldn’t have as many versatile options to absorb without the resilience and unwavering stories that came before today. In particular, ’90s anime coming to the West was a turning point, introducing series that defied perceptions of morality, humanity as a whole and the importance of self exploration — to an audience not used to seeing that kind of content animated.
Titles like Yu Yu Hakusho (1992 in Japan), Dragon Ball Z, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop challenged the norm and brought something new to Western audiences. Even the introduction of the Toonami block on Cartoon Network proved to the West that these creators had something to say — and something worth experiencing.
This is what made the decade so special, and helped pave the way for the major anime players of today.
Want to re-experience some classic anime hits? Check out our curation of the best of ’90s anime!
A Structured, Ongoing Narrative
Anime stories have utilized just about every possible method of storytelling out there, but the use of a structured, serial narrative saw prominence in the ’90s.
Whether ten seasons long or just 26 episodes, anime of the decade embraced ongoing arcs, establishing each world in an original way. A staple series like Dragon Ball Z ran for an impressive 291 episode count, playing a pivotal role in the adoption of sagas as a norm, an extension of the concept of manga arcs. It was a prime example of the successful use of a steadily-evolving universe.
Each villain was stronger, faster and more threatening than before, constantly pushing heroes to adapt. For Dragon Ball Z, this meant distancing itself from the cheeky humor of its preceding series, only using it to enhance moments of peace throughout the series.
Others, like Yu Yu Hakusho, continued the trend, bringing together an unlikely team, one unafraid to challenge themselves and each other. Even though Yu Yu Hakusho didn’t air in the United States until the early ’00s, it was a series unlike anything at the time, and helped set the stage for series like Hunter x Hunter, Bleach or Blue Exorcist to succeed, thriving on similar themes and diving into the supernatural.
Just under the decade cut-off in 1999, One Piece became another example of a series that acted on the opportunity for a desired ongoing run — one that’s now surpassed a 900-episode milestone, cementing itself as one of the longest-running anime ever.
There’s something undeniably enticing about the process of binging anime, and thanks to iconic titles like these, there’s no shortage of modern anime that followed suit.
Anime Inspires Film & Vice Versa
Sure, anime wasn’t invented in the ’90s, and titles like Akira and Speed Racer certainly pushed the medium further years before, but this decade served as the perfect transitional period into a modern age of storytelling.
Case in point: Cowboy Bebop. The series ran for just 26 episodes, with each focusing on its characters’ past and how it affected their present. We met Spike Spiegel and Faye Valentine, characters that embody tragedy inspired by Hollywood film noir, with Spike fighting his inner demons and Faye fueled by her mysterious past. It quickly found its footing with Western audiences.
Then there’s Trigun, a series often overlooked because it tends to take a less serious approach to fairly mature themes. Trigun sports a bit of unconventional humor, intentionally inserted by Yasuhiro Nightow as a contrast to action film at the time.
Nightow told Neoseeker in 2009 that main character Vash was a direct response to action movies where gunmen abruptly die. He wanted to make Vash a more pacifist character that defied the shootout-death stigma.
Cowboy Bebop and Trigun may have been inspired by films of the era, but that inspiration was mutual. The 90s was packed with films like The Matrix, which drew inspiration from Ghost in the Shell and Akira, and helped Bebop and others influence a generation of Hollywood films to come.
RELATED: The Great And Powerful Akira
The Power of Protagonists
If ’90s anime was known for one thing in the West, it was the power of a central protagonist. Many series that achieved reputable status found it through the use of a main character as an anchor for the audience.
Today, there’s no shortage of protagonists with quirky attributes or personality traits, not just in shonen, but across a spectrum of anime genres.
The ’90s were packed with unforgettable characters like Yusuke Urameshi (Yu Yu Hakusho), Gene Starwind (Outlaw Star) and Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon). Even characters like Shinji Ikari (Neon Genesis Evangelion), who might not feel like heroes with limitless power, overcome great obstacles on the search for self-acceptance or respect.
These characters established groundwork that helped fans to see themselves in their anime heroes, cementing the likes of Goku and Spike Spiegel as timeless characters.
For every one of them, when things came down to the wire, they stepped up to the plate and went all-in against anything preventing them from their ultimate goal. Above all else, they set the bar.
The ’90s may not be solely responsible for the anime boom we have today, but the decade clearly played a part in bringing the worlds of niche anime fandom and mainstream popularity together on a global scale.
For some audiences outside of Japan, the ’90s showed them anime could be a world for them to explore, new characters to understand and experiences to have, ones impossible to experience in another medium.
Whether it was a block on Toonami or a rental VHS tape, it was a decade of proof that anime now had a global foothold — and it wasn’t going anywhere.
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