The Appeal of 90’s Anime

Known for its unique aesthetic, the era of Japanese animation in the 1990s portrays captivating stories through visually appealing art.


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From Sailor Moon to Princess Mononoke, Japanese animated entertainment of the ’90s draws in viewers with its blend of appealing styles and intriguing plots.

Dazzling colors, hand-drawn lines, and grainy, distinctive art styles — as familiar indicators of a signature 1990s anime aesthetic, these visual attributes often also accompany recognizable characters who have grown to become childhood favorites. It is the combination of these complementary factors that brings a sense of charm and comfort to the screen. With such prominent and iconic characteristics, this era of Japanese animation has helped pave the way for its modern counterparts to flourish in both the domestic and global markets, drawing in audiences with this unique “brand.” 

Similar to much past entertainment, ’90s anime is popular and cherished among those who enjoyed it growing up. The distinct character designs and deeply saturated colors in the beloved magical girl series Sailor Moon (1992), for example, are synonymous with nostalgia for many in this series, following the adventures of a girl with magical powers fighting evil and middle school troubles. The bright visuals reflect the vibrancy of the world that one experiences in youth, bringing a sense of longing for a simpler time and allowing the audience to reminisce over blissful memories. 

The recurring hues of pink, yellow, and blue throughout the series cohesively wrap the story and characters in a sense of nostalgia and comfort, presenting an attractive display of animated enchantment. The tranquil and pleasing undertones in the colors create a dreamlike atmosphere, immersing the audience in each environment. 

Princess Mononoke (1997), another well-appreciated work of animated media from this era, carries this same thread of reminiscence, though differently from Sailor Moon. Created by Studio Ghibli, acclaimed Japanese animation studio with six Academy Award nominations, Princess Mononoke displays in a journey of reconciliation between man and nature both visually appealing animation and the “Studio Ghibli style” that is still praised today. Despite, and even because of, the lack of modern technology during the 1990s, with the first-ever computer-animated feature being Toy Story (1995), Princess Mononoke brings a sense of nostalgia through its traditional animation techniques and its hand-drawn frames. 

Compared to Sailor Moon, Princess Mononoke uses much more muted colors, yet this Ghibli film portrays a sense of wonder and awe with man-made animations that bring the environments, animals, and fantastical beings to life. 

Explaining why Princess Mononoke is her favorite ’90s anime film, Haleigh Heubeck ’24 said, “I love Studio Ghibli animation styles and plots, and it’s an all-around feel-good movie.” 

On a different end of the nostalgic ’90s anime spectrum, the widely popular animated series Pokémon (1997) attracted young audiences who naturally latched on to the loveable characters and enjoyed the visual effects used to demonstrate the abilities of the title creatures. Emily Xia ’24 said, “Pokémon is one of my favorites because I watched it with my brother in my childhood, and it’s just a classic, really.” 

These represent just a few works from a vast array of ’90s anime, which boast even more creative character designs and entertaining uses of color and aesthetics. Palpably, Heubeck’s and Xia’s sentiments indicate a common feeling of comfort shared among those who watched ’90s anime growing up. The animation, art styles, and endearing characters comprise a welcoming atmosphere through which many can immerse themselves in the many worlds and stories. 

Its discernable artistic style is not the only reason that ’90s anime is so memorable and appealing, as many of the narratives explored during the era are refreshingly imperfect and the characters are flawed. This complexity in characterization is one of the key factors that attract many people, as this complexity makes the stories feel ever more human and authentic. 

An admirer of Princess Mononoke, Emily Xia, said, “I really liked how realistic the movie was. Although Lady Eboshi [the main antagonist of the film] was depicted as the villain to the spirits and San, she was also praised as a hero who protected her people.” 

“Many of them touch on hard-to-understand or hard to talk about topics in a way that much of the anime’s audience can relate to or feel,” Tasneem Meem ’24 explained. “Many of them also took risks for the time that they were made in, including controversial topics and things we can more easily talk about today, such as LGBTQ+ issues and mental health issues.” 

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), one such retro anime praised for beautifully fleshing out the grief and humanity in its characters, sheds light on teenage depression, paints morally gray narratives of parenting, and experiments with the limits of the human psyche. The main trio of characters, teenagers chosen to pilot enormous robots to save humanity from monstrous creatures called “Angels,” each try to battle both external and internal conflicts, from brawling with the Angels to confronting childhood trauma, the fear of abandonment, and the search for meaning in life. Exploring such topics using both adolescent and adult characters allows Evangelion to cast a net of appeal on a wide set of viewers. 

The main characters of the series struggle with issues of validation and purpose — problems that are painfully human. By seeing these issues depicted, viewers can feel reassured and find hope to grapple with their own mental health. 

“From the art style to the dialogue, you can kind of put yourself in the position of the characters and have a glimpse of the insanity they face in the show,” explained Meem ’24. 

In a similar vein, the quality of the storytelling in many anime during the ’90s spoke to viewers. “I felt like I could see the characters grow and evolve and that I was a part of the journey,” Mariam Samake ’24, said while discussing One Piece, the critically acclaimed adventure anime. “The more that I watched, the more that I realized that the creator, Eiichiro Oda, created such vivid storytelling. While re-watching the film, I saw all the little details that were hinted at earlier in the series being revealed hundreds of episodes later. Not only that, but Oda does not shy away from addressing real-world issues in the context of his own story.” 

The racial discrimination and human experimentation depicted in One Piece provide context for the story as well as introducing issues from the world in which its audience lives. This not only creates stories and characters that feel authentic, as these plots have some grounding in reality, but also fosters more discussion surrounding these issues. 

Cowboy Bebop, a deceptively complex series following the journey of a group of bounty hunters traveling through space, stands as another masterfully crafted narrative. The show initially introduces the characters in a humorous manner, structuring each episode simply as a carefree adventure. However, as the backstory of each character unfolds, the audience discovers that each character is actually running away from their past. 

Through its beautiful visuals and symbolism, Bebop delves into the search for one’s identity and existentialism in a cruel and changing world. “The underlying themes and plot lines are not explicitly given to the viewer,” said Enzo Smajlaj ’24. “Taken together with the sporadic events, the show is fit for both the casual and experienced audience.” 

The implicit themes of loss, grief, and the struggle of moving on add more depth and empathy, mirroring real life. 

With its aesthetically pleasing style and the sense of authenticity in the stories, this classic era of Japanese animation has undoubtedly set itself apart from that of current anime. 

Comparing the appeal of animated series from the ’90s with those from contemporary times, Tiankuo Zhang ’23 said, “Older ’90s anime is much more grounded and relatable. They’re much more focused on people and their emotions and their struggles, whereas modern anime focus on “epic-ness” and hype, older anime focus on people.” 

From the cheerful Pokémon franchise to the existential Neon Genesis Evangelion series, Japanese animated media from the ‘90s offer a vast array of stories and art styles that are still welcome and appreciated on many audiences’ screens. 

“Many of them touch on hard-to-understand or hard to talk about topics in a way that much of the anime’s audience can relate to or feel,” Tasneem Meem ’24 explained. “Many of them also took risks for the time that they were made in, including controversial topics and things we can more easily talk about today, such as LGBTQ+ issues and mental health issues.”