The 90s were a wild time for anime and a period that I am glad I got to experience as consciously as I did. There were so many new players entering anime, risky projects got greenlit, and there were better movies and shows coming out more frequently. I don’t mean to diss on the 80s and 70s, but the 90s were so bountiful that I just had to give it a list of its own.
Rules similar to the pre-90s countdown apply:
- This is merely the opinion of one mortal man who has not seen literally everything. Perhaps my favorite movie of all time is one I haven’t seen yet, so if you have suggestions then I urge you to share them.
- There will only be 1 Ghibli movie.
- And I am excluding Ghost in the Shell because it’s super obvious and I have literally nothing to say about it that hasn’t been said by people infinitely more fanatic about it than I am.
#10 Appleland Story (1991)
Set in the early 20th century as war once again looms on Europe’s horizon, Appleland Story takes place in a fictional, idyllic mountain country called Appleland. We follow the life of a young pickpocket, a boy named Ver, who in his thieving escapades accidentally uncovers an attempt of mysterious foreigners to kidnap a young girl. Even worse, this girl is but the first step in a plot that could cost Appleland its independence.
It’s an adventure movie, as Ver and his companions set out to prevent the plot, which takes them deep underground and into the very skies. Action scenes help keep up the excitement and I found myself much enjoying the slightly-fictionalized historical setting. It has the characters to make it work, even if it isn’t quite up to Indiana Jones standards.
#9 Comet in Moominland (1992)
I have never seen The Moomins as a youngling. My first encounter with them was while visiting Norway, where a friend told me you get all sorts of Moomin merchandise if you donate blood. That is what got me curious and this movie seemed like a great first step into the popular franchise. I expected some happy-go-lucky kids movie and got something else entirely.
The Moomin world appears fun and lively enough, but this movie distinctly is not. After a brief introduction to the relevant cast members, including the Moomin family themselves, a prophet arrives at their door, foretelling that a comet will strike the land and wipe out all life. And the old man was not kidding. Much of the movie involves Moomintroll going on a journey to find an observatory where he hopes to learn more of the comet, along with his friends My, Sniff, and new allies found as they go.
It’s another delightful adventure movie, but one with a very serious threat in the form of the incoming comet. Comet in Moominland doesn’t play nice for the benefit of young viewers, as the latter part feels very much like an apocalypse movie. It’s atmospheric and really makes you wonder, even worry, how it will all go. At the same time, it does a great job introducing and endearing the characters from the show. In fact, I kinda want to go and see the rest now that I am invested in the characters.
#8 Ninja Scroll (1993)
While Comet in Moominland merely has questionable content for kids, Ninja Scroll is almost nothing but questionable content. Kicking off with a bunch of warriors being slaughtered and their female ninja raped, the story then proceeds to follow a mysterious swordsman that is involuntarily dragged into the drama after rescuing her.
Together with a seedy government spy, the duo uncovers a plot from a “Shogun of the Dark” to overthrow the current government. Central to this plot are 8 devils, warriors with strange superpowers who are all evil, cruel, and a little on the crazy side. The warrior and the ninja, Jubei and Kagero, must travel through Japan and defeat all of these devils before finally putting a stop to the plan.
This is one violent and gory movie, so those who are squeamish may want to avoid it. Those who do watch it will find that it has creative action scenes, great villains, and visuals that look far ahead of their time. This is an early Madhouse production, after all, and you will definitely notice that. The movie would also receive a TV anime adaptation 10 years later, again courtesy of Madhouse, but a proposed second movie has been in development hell since 2012.
Ninja Scroll is honestly just a fun, gory romp, a movie that looks badass and is consistently exciting. Definitely worthy of a spot on this list, but I am going to keep it merely at #8 because it does sell itself on gratuitous violence alone. And I like violence in my anime, but we have a lot more movies to go through that did more than just that.
#7 Perfect Blue (1998)
When popular idol Mima Kirigou is pressured into switching careers to the movie business, her life begins to take a social and psychological downturn under the stress of high expectations and uncertainty. And to top it all off, Mima soon finds out that she has a stalker and her life might be in danger.
Perfect Blue is one of the great works of the late Satoshi Kon and draws viewers into a fascinating and horrifying drama where not all is as it seems. It’s a surreal and beautiful movie full of symbolism. A fascinating look at celebrity & idol culture and the obsessive tendencies found within it, given a murder-mystery twist.
There is not much I can say without getting into spoiler territory, but I consider it to be one of anime’s Must Watch movies for anybody looking to get into psychological or horror anime.
#6 The End of Evangelion (1997)
I feel it’s a bit cheap to include a movie tie-in to an anime I really liked, but The End of Evangelion is such an amazing creation that I couldn’t help but appreciate it. Neon Genesis Evangelion is already a confronting and deeply psychological show, and this movie does a great job of supplementing its controversial TV ending.
It ramps up the violence to 120%, fights are bigger than ever before and feel appropriately apocalyptic as mankind turns on itself and the NERV headquarters is raided by Japan’s army, commanded by the shadowy SEELE council. Storylines from across the series come together and form an amazing and exciting final chapter. The arcs of Rei and Gendo are properly concluded, we get to see the Human Instrumentality project fire from a different angle, Asuka gets her moment of epic redemption, it’s absolutely stellar.
Adding to my enjoyment of the show was the untimely arrival of a third friend. A guy who has never voluntarily seen an anime and sure as hell hadn’t seen NGE, but who was now stuck watching The End of Evangelion with us. This poor, unfortunate man.
#5 Memories (1995)
Memories is a bundle of 3 short movies directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, and Tensai Okamura, each with a completely different tone and purpose. Magnetic Rose is the story of a crew investigating a distress signal from a curious, abandoned spaceship, and having to delve deep into its eerie core to unravel what happened on the ship and where its occupants went.
Stink Bomb, by comparison, is a comedic apocalypse story where an absolute buffoon winds up taking a drug that causes his body to emit a devastating miasma that makes people in a wide radius faint. The military desperately tries to kill him and prevent him from spreading it further, but he doesn’t understand why people keep attacking him and keeps barely surviving through streaks of absurd luck as the country plummets into chaos around him.
Finally, there is Cannon Fodder, a beautiful short story about a country that is 100% militarized all the time. Countless people work to man hundreds of buildings equipped with powerful cannons, all of them firing away at an unseen enemy that is implied to not even really exist. It’s a very political inclusion, but one that is dense in style and manages to deliver its message in such an absurd way that it’s even comedic.
#4 Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (1990)
While Ghibli films hog the attention of animation fanatics the world around, interesting movies similar to their work tend to go under the radar. This is the sad fate of Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, a historical drama about the Chinese Imperial court.
When the emperor passes away and is succeeded by his son, young women from all over China are brought before him to become concubines within his court. As they receive education and training, the women are also competing for who will become the emperor’s main wife. Among these women is the young Ginga, an energetic, young girl who is little more than a country bumpkin, but it is her straightforward nature and curiosity that set her apart from her classmates/competitors.
In the background, intrigue within the court starts to form a delicious plot and, in the distant countryside, a warlord is preparing for a rebellion. This has the unfortunate effect that a lot of the early and middle portion of the film felt sluggish, but it’s a slow boil that pays off tremendously. The final portion of the movie is an absolute blast that addresses everything that the early build-up was working towards and makes it feel worth it. Like the Clouds, Like the Wind is an excellent movie from a romantic, political, and even an action viewpoint, and the Chinese setting lends the story some good historical context.
#3 Porco Rosso (1992)
Made by the anime industry’s resident airplane fanatic Hayao Miyazaki, Porco Rosso is the story of a war veteran who has been turned into a literal pig. And this little piggy is packing heat.
The end of the war did not mark the end of Porco Rosso’s career in combat, as he now operates as a mercenary/bounty hunter from the confines of his hidden base. However, a budding romance with the beautiful Gina lands Porco in hot water with a fellow ace pilot, who cowardly shoots him down and leaves him stranded without a plane in a country that wants to arrest him.
Porco Rosso is just a classic adventure movie. Beautifully put together, lovable characters, and a delightful plot filled with memorable moments. And, no doubt much to his delight, Hayao Miyazaki got to include as many airplanes as he could possibly ever want.
#2 The Diary of Anne Frank (1995)
The life of Anne Frank is one of the most famous stories here in The Netherlands, and her diary is among the most important pieces of literature in our language. I approached Anne no Nikki with cautious expectations, unsure of what to expect from a Madhouse-developed take on her life.
You shouldn’t watch The Diary of Anne Frank if you are hoping for an exciting war story. This movie is very much a slow-paced drama, chronicling Anne’s life starting at the last moments of freedom she enjoys before her family has to take shelter. The entire rest of the runtime is spent in their hide-out and shows the day-to-day life and interactions Anne has with her parents and the strangers she is forced to live with. It’s not so much interesting as it is harrowing to think about, to see these everyday people locked up and forced to share a handful of dusty, old rooms, for several years, and realize this actually happened and these people have existed.
There is a lot of bias behind me putting this movie as the #2 and I can’t even begin to imagine how well it would resonate with people from other nations or somebody who hadn’t heard of Anne Frank before. If you have seen it yourself, I’d love to hear other people’s take on it.
#1 Roujin Z (1991)
I was talking a big game in the rules section by excluding Ghibli films and the acclaimed Ghost in the Shell, but I am not exactly proving myself original by choosing Roujin Z. A screenplay by Katsuhiru Otomo, key animation by Satoshi Kon, it’s fair to argue that Roujin Z was destined to be on this list. Still, I want to defend my decision for placing it first.
And that defense comes down to Roujin Z being absolutely fucking amazing in every sense. The story feels heavy at the start as we explore the difficult subject matter of the growing elderly population and the strain the care for them puts on society. Then a big company swoops in and presents their solution: a nuclear-powered bed that has all the machinery, AI, and flexibility needed to provide 24/7 care. When an old man is stuffed into the machine for testing, his young nurse Haruko takes issue and argues that he appears to suffer under the rough, loveless care provided by it.
She and her fellow medical students mount a rescue operation and everything that follows was an amazing ride that left me and my partner in crime in perpetual laughter for the entire runtime. And that is no exaggeration, I had so much fun with this and laughed so much, that I was in pain after it was all over. It hits the right emotional strings and the attempted escape is exciting to watch, but as the machine goes increasingly haywire, the entire operation becomes a destructive adventure that keeps surprising. We were in a perpetual state of “no way!” all the way through, literally up until the credits rolled.
We enjoyed. We cried. But by God, we mostly laughed.