Remember the 1990s? It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was an era marked by a cacophony of dial-up modem noises when you tried to use your 1,000 free hours of AOL for the very first time, the sweet sensation of stabbing straws through precariously produced juice pouches, and the rise of Toonami, Cartoon Network’s programming block dedicated to putting anime directly into my eyeballs. While we, thankfully, cannot go back to the ’90s and stop ourselves from spending a truly preposterous amount of money on Pogs and Beanie Babies, we can relive the glory days of ’90s anime thanks to the plethora of streaming services that have them for our binge-watching pleasure.
Considering we’re all trapped inside for the foreseeable future as we flatten the curve of COVID-19 and we can only rewatch The Office so many times, take a walk down memory lane with me as we round up the very best ’90s anime that you can watch right now no matter what mood you’re in.
For when you need giant robots
Image: Sunrise/Nozomi Entertainment
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
A staple of Toonami’s lineup, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is about as 90s as it gets, especially when it comes to the fashion. That’s weird to think about considering we all live on a clothing spectrum that ranges from “acceptable Zoom call athleisure” to “oops I just fell out of a laundry basket.” But its story of five teenage boys sent to Earth in extremely powerful mechs is full of enough intrigue, skullduggery, and wild-ass robot fights to lure you into its weird, wonderful world full of birthday party death threats and giant robots doing righteous battle. Plus, the theme song absolutely slaps. I listened to it on a midday walk around my neighborhood and it made me unreasonably pumped. (Hulu)
For when you’re missing live sports
Image: Toei Animation
With everything from professional sports to the Olympics being canceled and postponed, fans are champing at the bit to scratch that competitive itch. While pro athletes are increasingly turning to esports as a substitute for the real thing, sometimes you want to experience the thrill of competition without any heated gamer moments. That’s why Slam Dunk is exactly what the doctor ordered. This endlessly bingeable story of a delinquent student turned high school basketball phenom is full of all the best sports anime tropes: overwrought inner monologues, high-stakes drama, and ridiculous moves. (Crunchyroll)
For when you’re in the mood to watch a True Classic™
What can you say about Cowboy Bebop that hasn’t already been said (or echoed in the countless shows and movies inspired by it)? This relentlessly stylish series has perhaps the greatest soundtrack in anime and its memorable cast of characters will stay with you long after the credits roll. Equal parts spaghetti western, crime noir, and cyberpunk drama, Cowboy Bebop is a unique vision of dystopia and a grounded cyberpunk saga about a group of bounty hunters living on the fringes of society trying to eke out a living. The show doles out violence, heartfelt emotion, and high drama in equal measure. There’s a damn good reason that Cowboy Bebop ranks so on people’s all-time anime lists, and there has never been a better time for your first, second, or thirtieth viewing. (Hulu)
For when you’re missing your classmates
Image: Discotek Media
GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka
Whether you’re wishing you could just finish out your senior year or homeschooling your kids and wondering why teachers aren’t paid a million dollars per year, GTO: Great Teacher Onizuka takes you back to a simpler time when we all left our homes to do our learning. GTO tells the story of Onizuka, a former biker gang leader who sets out to become the world’s greatest teacher… and probably get a much younger girlfriend.
What follows though is far more than its lecherous premise would suggest. As Onizuka butts heads with straitlaced administrators and obstinate students, his tough-guy facade begins to slip, revealing the giant dork within. Well, a dork with a violent streak and some unorthodox teaching methods, but a dork nonetheless. But as the series unfolds, he begins to connect with his students on a human level and that’s when the show becomes something truly special. It runs the gamut from slapstick comedy to CW drama in the blink of an eye, but always leaves you with a smile on your face. (Amazon Prime Video)
For when you want to lean into your depression
Neon Genesis Evangelion
For some reason, during this pandemic, I’ve been steering clear of feel-good stories and embracing the darkness. Few stories do this better than Neon Genesis Evangelion, which on paper is a story about a group of teenagers tasked with piloting giant robots to fight massive monsters who are attacking their city. But as anyone who has seen Evangelion knows, that is truly the tip of the iceberg. Delving into everything from childhood trauma to sexual awakenings to existential quandaries, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a psychological thriller masquerading as a mecha anime that will take your mind off of the horrors of the real world as you ponder the deep philosophical questions about whether or not Shinji should just get in the damn robot already. (Netflix)
For when you’re uncomfortable in your body
Image: Discotek Media
Key the Metal Idol
Without the ability to go lift weights at the gym and the sudden spike in Extra Toasty Cheez-Its entering my body at a medically alarming rate, I have found myself spiraling about my body image moreso than usual. But that visceral discomfort is nothing compared to the feeling of being trapped within a body that could be so much more. This happens in the classic series Key the Metal Idol. The show follows a young woman named Tokiko Mima, a.k.a. Key, who learns she is a robot that her grandfather created. However, when Key’s grandfather is on his deathbed, she learns she can finally become human with the aid of 30,000 friends.
What follows is a dark reimagining of Pinocchio as filtered through Japanese conceptions of sci-fi and mecha anime. It’s an underappreciated classic that should resonate with all of us during a time where many of us don’t feel quite like ourselves. (Amazon Prime Video)
For when you’re feeling hungry and hopeful
Image: Viz Media
Whether she’s fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, never running from a real fight, or eating her body weight in snacks, the one called Sailor Moon will turn that frown upside-down. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Sailor Moon was my introduction into the wider world of anime and remains as poignant and powerful as it was when my cousin Jennifer first popped in a mysterious VHS so many years ago. The epitome of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon places an emphasis on self-care, healthy support structures, and strong friendships in a way that feels empowering rather than preaching. While it doesn’t shy away from challenging its protagonists and putting them through the ringer, the series always brings you back to a beacon of light shining in the darkness, which we could all use right about now. (Viz)
For when you’re spiraling about climate change
Image: Discotek Media
Blue Submarine No. 6
While news about the Himalayas being visible for the first time in 30 years is heartening, the thought that all of this ecological healing will be undone the moment our collective national lockdowns come to an end is not. So rather than wander down the corridors of this particular thought-spiral, why not embrace the abyss of a different sci-fi eco-fable? Blue Submarine No. 6 is a dark, post-apocalyptic story about a world in which a mad scientist named Zorndyke engineered mass flooding, claiming countless lives and destroyed cities. The last bastions of mankind have largely fallen at the hands—or should I say claws—of Zorndyke’s monstrous, half-animal “hybrids.” Humanity’s last hope lies with a fleet of submarines—specifically the crew of Blue Submarine No. 6—who must stop Zorndyke from inducing a cataclysmic polar switch at the South Pole before it’s too late. Just remember, things could always be worse. (Tubi)
For when you’re feeling romantic
Image: Media Blasters
Have you ever wanted to lose yourself in a book? I’m not just talking about pageturners that you can’t put down; I mean to literally lose yourself inside the pages of one of your favorite fictional worlds. Well, that’s exactly what happens to junior high school students Miaka Yuki and Yui Hongo when they find themselves transported inside the world of a book about a mystical version of ancient China. These two best friends suddenly find themselves archenemies; the book casts them in the roles of priestesses serving rival gods and kingdoms. A healthy dose of political intrigue, sweeping romance, and more bishounen than you’ll know what to do with follows. Long before the isekai trend took hold of Japan’s anime industry by the throat, Fushigi Yugi set the bar for what we should expect from being transported to another world. (Amazon Prime Video)
For when you don’t want to live on this planet anymore
Image: Right Stuf, Inc.
Martian Successor Nadesico
Are you tired of living on Earth? I don’t mean in a dangerous or suicidal way; rather, do the looming threats of climate change, the real threats of global pandemic, and the prospect of having to deal with an election year news cycle on top of all of that exhaust you? Well, unless you’re Elon Musk, peacing out from our pale blue dot for Mars might not be a reality. Fortunately, you can live vicariously through the sci-fi comedy stylings of Martian Successor Nadesico, which tells the story of Akito, a goofball who grew up watching mecha anime on Mars, but would rather cook a nice meal than pilot a giant robot.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a choice. When his home on Mars is destroyed, Akito finds himself transported back to Earth where he is recruited to wage a war to avenge the attacks on Mars. Aboard the battleship Nadesico, Akito finds himself as part of a ragtag crew of weirdos, but as always, there’s more than meets the eye. While it sounds silly, Martian Successor Nadesico is a love letter to sci-fi and giant robot anime, lampooning some of the genre’s more ridiculous tropes while telling a worthwhile story all its own. (YouTube)
For when you’re tired of yet another freakin’ Zoom call
Serial Experiments Lain
Are you having stress dreams about Zoom calls with coworkers and clients? Is your screen time through the roof? Are you in the mood to potentially have a non-pandemic-related existential crisis? Then Serial Experiments Lain is for you! Lain Iwakura is a taciturn teenager, then an email from her classmate Chisa throws Lain’s life into disarray. This wouldn’t be cause for concern normally, but Chisa recently took her own life, so it was unexpected to say the least. In Chisa’s e-mail, she claims to have left her human form behind. Now she has ascended to a new digital form within the Wired, a virtual world akin to the modern-day internet.
As Lain follows the proverbial white rabbit, she arrives at some truly horrifying realizations as she explores questions about identity, reality, and self. This avant-garde cyberpunk mystery expertly captures the horrors of a world in which we’re perpetually glued to our screens. Considering the world right now, that feels like equal parts escape and prison. (Funimation)
For when you’re pondering the afterlife
Yu Yu Hakusho
These uncertain times likely have many of us pondering our own mortality in ways that may or may not be the healthiest. While I encourage everyone to try self-care routines like meditation and mindfulness exercises, as well as seek the services of a therapist through telemedicine, sometimes it’s helpful to confront these feelings directly. That’s why you should watch Yu Yu Hakusho. Admittedly, Yu Yu Hakusho is ultimately more concerned with kicking butts and taking names in perhaps the greatest tournament arc in anime history, but it also tells the story of a teenage delinquent who sacrifices his life to save an innocent child. Then he gets a new lease on life of sorts: investigating supernatural mysteries in the land of the living.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t the headiest meditation of mortality within anime—or even on this list, to be honest—but I would argue that Yu Yu Hakusho‘s shonen trappings not only make it more bingeable, but more accessible because it’s trying to communicate to a broader audience. And if nothing else, you’ll be glad that you lived long enough to see (or rewatch) the Dark Tournament arc. (Hulu)
For when you just want to scream…
Dragon Ball Z
To quote literally any character during literally any fight in literally any episode of Dragon Ball Z, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
Just let it out. It’s cathartic. (Funimation)
If you want even more suggestions for which anime to stream, we have you covered:
Which anime would you add to this list and for what emotion? Let us know in the comments below.
Featured Image: Netflix/Viz/Funimation