Back in the 1990s, internet streaming services or Netflix’s movies by mail program were not an option. So if you wanted to watch a movie or show, you either had to buy it, rent it, or hope that it aired on tv.
This meant that for a niche genre like anime, there were minimal viewing options. But fortunately, between the few movie rental stores near my rural hometown, I watched a handful of great anime in the 90s.
As a kid, I loved animation, and Saturday mornings were my favorite time of the week. And after watching my first anime, I was captivated by the quality and aesthetic of the animation.
These are the movies that cemented my long-lasting love of anime.
Ghost in the Shell
Cyberpunk anime rose in popularity during the early 90s after the release of Akira in 1988. In the US, sci-fi movies such as Total Recall and the Crow showed that America was had a love affair with cyberpunk. So this was perfect timing for a movie like Ghost in the Shell.
Ghost in the Shell was released to US markets in 1996, and 200,000 copies were sold on VHS in the first year. I vividly recall the first time I saw one of the most memorable opening shots of any anime movie ever.
Many other cyberpunk anime titles came out during this time, such as Battle Angel Alita, Armitage III, and Genocyber. Still, Ghost in the Shell stood out at the time for its high production value and gripping storyline.
Macross Plus is an OVA released in 1994. It features the directorial debut of the legendary Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Kids on the Slope…).
The animation is high quality, the storyline is compelling, and the dog fight sequences are visually stunning. And in true Watanabe fashion, the show features an incredible soundtrack and a complicated narrative.
Also, as a point of interest, the dubbed version features the voice talent of Bryan Cranston.
When I first saw this show, I was struck by the beautiful CGI graphics melding together with the 2d animation. Macross Plus still strikes a chord with me and has held up incredibly well.
Ninja Scroll was another incredibly popular anime movie released in the United States in the 90s.
This was the first anime I actually bought on VHS. My friends and I watched it multiple times over the summer of 1996. And we were absolutely blown away that something so awesome existed.
Ninja Scroll is a well-animated and violent story. It follows a mercenary swordsman who takes on eight evil ninjas with supernatural powers.
Some scenes in the movie are unnerving and may be too disturbing for some. But as far as 90s anime is concerned, it doesn’t get much better than Ninja Scroll.
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie
In 1992, Street Fighter II was released on the SNES and became a cultural phenomenon. It is the 5th highest selling SNES game of all time, and the impact of this game is reflected in the theatrical release of the live-action movie in 1994 (featuring a-list actors). Everyone, including parents, knew about Street Fighter II.
So the anime movie was one of the more widely released anime on VHS in the United States in 1995. The soundtrack features music from Alice in Chains, Korn, and Silverchair. Between popular music and a popular game, it didn’t seem like this movie could have more going for it.
I wouldn’t consider this movie a classic like some of the other titles on this list. But given the pop-culture significance of Street Fighter II at the time, it impacted my early days of anime watching.
Full disclosure; Akira was initially released in 1988, so it’s not technically a 90s anime. But, in the United States, Akira didn’t rise in popularity until wide distribution on VHS between 1991 to 1993.
I’m not going to make a backward argument that Akira is a 90s anime, but it’s worth mentioning because of the profound effect it had on anime popularity in the United States.
This movie was unlike anything I had ever seen. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed, the action is violent and bloody, the storyline is tragic, and the animation is very high quality.
Before Akira came along, shows like Speed Racer and Astro Boy were mostly what the average person knew of anime. However, most people didn’t realize that these shows were “anime” because they looked like other cartoons on tv.
So Akira is the movie that many people credit with sparking mainstream acceptance of Anime in the United States. And this is the movie that hooked me on anime forever.