I’ve been an anime (read: cartoons from Japan) fan for most of my life. If there’s one generalization I hate hearing, it’s that the 90s were considered the “dark age” of anime. That is, until the advent of Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star and their ilk. Since my otaku (read: geek) side blossomed during this decade, I get rather defensive when I hear 90s anime being derided. Sure, there was a lot of crap. (I’m looking at you Genocyber.) However, there were several gems, too. Many of which most normal folks have probably never heard of.
So, I thought it high time to list off a few of my more esoteric favorites from the dark-aged decade that was.
My Top 90s Anime You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
In no particular order.
I would never have heard of this OVA (Original Video Animation) if it weren’t for an anime group I was loosely affiliated with in high school. It was released in Japan in 1994, but never jumped across the Pacific pond. And, to this day, I’m confused as to why.
Billed as a parody of the “supernatural high school” genre, the story centers around Hasumi - the titular “guardress” of the title. Her high school is built over a “hellmouth” of sorts, and her duty is to protect her step-brother - the key to unlocking said gate. Demons called Remnants repeatedly invade the school to take said key out. Luckily, the students and faculty are trained in supernatural combat.
Sounds a lot like Buffy, doesn’t it?
The animation and fight scenes are incredible for the time. And despite its lampooning style of storytelling, some of the characterization is rather well thought out. Hasumi remains one of my favorite female protagonists in all of animedom.
At only four episodes, it’s painfully short.
In the early-to-mid-90s, Pioneer (yes, that Pioneer) tried to get into the anime game. Many of the titles under their umbrella were rather impressive. El Hazard, Tenchi Muyo, and Bastard!!! were all thanks to them. However, the series they hyped up as one of their flagship titles never got much fanfare after its initial release.
The Hakkenden is based on a 200-year-old Japanese novel originally titled Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (or “The Eight Dogs Chronicles”). The story is long and epic. To summarize, it deals with eight samurai half-brothers who are all part-dog. I’m…not kidding. The chapters focus on their attempts to find one another, and their quest to bring the Satomi clan back to prominence and prosperity. It’s all very Bushido.
The animated version took a more surrealist and subversive turn, emphasizing the horror elements of the series. It also added a bit of grey to the normally black-and-white/good-vs.-evil events of the story. Clocking in at only thirteen episodes (and one clip show), the sprawling epic was sometimes difficult to follow. I had to re-watch it twice to finally pin all the plot points down.
The animation, the music, and the characters. The story has a very deliberate pace, and the visuals are always striking. The eight protagonists are some of the most fascinating and diverse of all the samurai fiction I’ve absorbed.
For some reason, directing duties for some of the episodes changed hands, leading to dramatic shifts in animation style. The experience wasn’t too jarring, but two episodes in particular stood out as complete eyesores - “Horyu Tower” and “Hamaji’s Resurrection”, episodes 4 and 10 respectively. The former’s style was too cartoonish compared to the rest of the series, and the latter opted for hideous rotoscope animation. Never a good idea.
Three words: Female. Space. Pirates.
The story centers around the crew of the pirate ship for which the series gets its name. Said crew are also named for months out of the year - Janny, Feb, April, May and June. The ship itself is an ancient vessel of unknown technology with the capability of “diving” into hyperspace, as opposed to warping like normal vessels. It is also implied that the ship is biotech in origin.
The series only spanned two episodes; the first was a bit of a stand-alone, while the second tried to set up a larger story-arc. Unfortunately, NEC and AIC - the corporate entities funding the project - scrapped any future development, leaving several plot threads dangling.
In the late-90s, the female crew were given a second lease on life with the Pioneer-backed, six-episode Sol Bianca: The Legacy. The series had nothing to do with the previous incarnation. Aside from the ship design and the character names and likenesses, everything else was changed.
Everything. Simply everything. The first episode of the original series was lightning in a bottle. Storytelling, character development, scenarios, everything about it worked. The second episode was a tad weaker, but still held up to the first.
Everything about Sol Bianca: The Legacy. God, what a celluloid abortion that was.
Yet another anime that never saw a stateside release. I first caught wind of it when I saw various scenes in an AMV (anime music video) a fan had made. The animation was so breathtaking, I had to track it down. Keep in mind, this was 1993. Pre-Internet. By “track it down”, I had to beg a smelly bearded man for a bootleg VHS.
Thankfully, it was well worth the awkward effort. The story focused on a youth from the 25th century who escapes his despotic world. Unfortunately, his vehicle is damaged in the escape attempt, and he makes a pit stop in the 20th century to jury-rig his time machine to a bus. Unlucky for him, though, the bus is already occupied by students and a teacher who join him on his time leaping against their will.
The movie actually came out in 1986, but since I didn’t discover it until the 90s, I’m flimsily including it on this list. It was far darker a story than I’d anticipated, but I rather liked the direction it took. Some of the events play out far differently from other time travel tales.
The animation. Man, this was a fluid piece of work. The detailed art was impressive as well, especially considering that this was pre-Akira.
The pacing and the 20th century characters - particularly the women. They were annoyingly, stereotypically Japanese. That and the movie ended on a rather open-ended, abstract note. A trope in anime I never liked.
There are plenty of other anime from this dark age I could recommend, but I’d better cut this short for now. That’s enough geeking out for one entry. I may jot down more at a later juncture. Do give those titles a looksy if you find yourself in need of a good time-waster.
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