As a kid who spent his formative years deep in the trenches of television, I watched a lot of anime.
While there were other cartoons I watched – Inspector Gadget, Garfield, Pinky and The Brain, Doug, Dexter’s Lab – none of them captured me quite like anime.
It was a given that our television channels didn’t have the same selection of shows as in Japan, but YTV (Bionix being the anime-dedicated show on the channel) still had quite a few that they played usually starting at 8 p.m., which meant at that time the video games turned off, the television turned on, and the potato chip supplies were drained.
Here are a few from my past, and probably yours too.
The Vision of Escaflowne
Can someone tell me what the plot was of Escaflowne? Seriously, I’m pretty sure that even though I watched the show little to nothing of the plot actually remained in my brain. Wow Matthew, way to start the list. For anyone who might have temporary amnesia like me, Escaflowne is about the show’s heroine – Hitomi Kanzaki – who is transported to the world of Gaea.
On Gaea, Hitomi meets Van Fanel who is the heir to the throne in Fanelia, a town that soon becomes the forefront of the events in the show. During her stay on Gaea, Hitomi’s latent psychic powers develop through the use of her tarot cards. These powers also help Van on his quest to become king using… A GIANT ROBOT.
The show was created by Shōji Kawamori – Macross and Armored Core – and Yasuhiro Imagawa – Gundam Fighter – so you can imagine why the robot fighting was a BIG part of the series. While we’re used to seeing people dexterously controlling Gundams, Van really has to keep his wits about him in this giant suit of armor. There’s a sense of weight to each swing of the sword that makes any action scene that much more epic.
Could you imagine a time when VHS Players were a rare commodity? Hell, I’ve got three VHS players in my basement collecting dust and a collection of VHS tapes that would rival a 1990s Blockbuster store. In our neighbourhood, we were one of the only families to have a VHS player when they were still new and one of our family friends had us record every episode of Sailor Moon.
While there was that division of ‘Boys Watch Dragon Ball’ and ‘Girls Watch Sailor Moon’, I watched Sailor Moon and relished every episode that was on television… just not openly with my friends at school. It’s a shame that gender barriers play such a big role when you’re a little kid because this show was really awesome.
The best anime have similar formulas: They give you characters who you want to be. Sailors Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Uranus, and Jupiter (the OGs), along with having different costumes, they all had different personalities that appealed to different people. People love Sailor Mars because she’s fiery and tough, and each sailor is distinct in her personality. That’s the kind of variety that makes for good television.
Speaking of variety being the spice of life in anime, Digimon gave kids the faint hope that one day they could own a badass monster. However, I’ve got to mention that I was less of a Digimon fan than most of the other kids at school. Lots of the other kids at school had the cards and the toys, but I never really got into it as much as everyone else did.
The idea behind the show is that there are kids called the “DigiDestined” who are chosen to own Digimon. These little creatures create bonds with his or her master, and in the case of the show that means Tai, Matt (my favourite for obvious reasons), Sora, Izzy, Mimi, Joe, and T.K. are all inexorably drawn together in a similar fate. What’s even more awesome is that in the second season, we get to see them grow up!
The second season was set three years in the future when the DigiDestined were about to go into high school and characters like T.K. and Kari were a little older. It’s a pretty awesome transformation, but I can’t help but feel I know much less about this show than most others. According to some of the people I work with at Nikkei Voice, in Japan Digimon is for boys and Pokemon is for girls, which brings me to…
You guys know this show, well I hope you do. Ash Ketchum, or Satoshi Tajiri as he is known in Japan, is on a quest to explore the world of Pokémon. With a Pikachu by his side, Ash wants to be the very best, but as you might know he never really gets there. Ash is the biggest loser of all time never being able to win a single tournament, but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in nearly 17 seasons of the show.
At school Pokémon was the hypest. We had the cards, we had the games, we had the toys, we had the VSH tapes… we had everything the marketing teams at Game Freak and Nintendo wanted us to own and we ate it up like sugar-coated pixy stix. However, outside of school is where the series really took hold of kids.
The Pokémon anime has a simple formula to its success. Each episode put Ash into a position where he has to avoid asking help from adults to solve an adult situation. For instance, every episode Officer Jenny appears to help Ash deal with Team Rocket, but does he ever ask? Hell, no. He’s like a 10-year-old-kid and he’s all right dealing with a crime syndicate. It also helps having 150 Pokémon that could eviscerate your enemies if trained correctly.
Witch Hunter Robin
This is another show that was everywhere, but I never really watched an actual episode. Without researching, here’s what I think the show is about. Witch Hunter Robin is a show about a former witch turned good guy named Robin who helps hunt down supernatural baddies. It stars her alongside a brigade of other specialized detectives who help track and capture these witches.
How did I do? Yeah, pretty close. Solomon Toukatsu Nin’idntai is a secret organization that fights against the harmful use of Witchcraft and Robin Sena was trained to use her powers to track evil witches down. If you ever read Wizard Magazine, you probably saw this show plastered around every issue. From what I know about it, people really like Witch Hunter Robin, but as a youngling at the time it was perhaps too mature for me to have watched.
Almost all of the shows on this list were made for kids, but in the 1990s there were other shows like Berserk, Gantz, Devil Man, and a tonne of other anime that were around, but I never watched. Looking back, I think Witch Hunter Robin fit into this category, which is probably why I never watched it, but my oldest brother was a big fan of the show.
Also known as Cardcaptor Sakura, Card Captors played on Fox Kids in 2001-ish. Sakura, the show’s protagonist, opens a magic book that has a number of cards that possess magic qualities. The show starts off with her just as a normal schoolgirl living a normal life, but when she starts to discover her magic powers everything starts to change.
This is one anime of this list that I watched pretty rarely. While other shows on this list were marketed really heavily towards kids, Card Captors never really had the products around to really get kids into the show. Today in 2013, the show’s main character has also appeared in a number of other shows including Tsubasa Chronicles, so there’s an expanded universe, which made me feel totally lost when researching the show for this article.
Anyway, what I do remember about the show was how awesome rollerblading was in the 90s. Even though it played a small role in the show, Sakura’s pink roller blades were one of her biggest features. When she transformed into her card captor mode, she kept them on giving her mobility and that extra dose of awesome that was the 90s and early 2000s.
Dragon Ball Z
There’s a reason why I chose the Japanese opening for this one. When I was a lot younger, I lucky enough to travel to China with my family. We had an uncle who worked at the Canadian embassy in Beijing and during our stay there our cousins took us to some pretty cool places. One of them were the black markets that used to exist in the city.
Man, you could buy literally anything. The one thing our cousins had bought in spades – aside from laser pointers – were VHS cassettes of anime including Dragon Ball Z. While Dragon Ball first aired in North America in 1987, I didn’t watch the show for real until around 1997. As a human worm baby born in 1991, I was 6 years old when I first really watched the show and I was hooked from the first fireball.
For anyone born in the 90s, Dragon Ball represented what would be the first of many action anime that played on television. Alongside other shows – like a tonne listed here – gave kids a look into what animation could really do compared to a show like TinTin which is like a peanut butter sandwich in comparison. Also, being half-Japanese made me think I could go Super Saiyan. I can’t.
MEDAAABOTTTTTTSSSSS! If there ever was an example of two exceptionally different anime openings it would be the English Medabots opening and the Japanese Medabots opening. The English take on anime openings is all about action while Japanese take on anime openings is about the protagonist waking up in the morning into the world of the show.
If you watch most of the Japanese openings of the anime on this list and most of them feature the main character eating breakfast or changing for school in the morning. This creates a feeling of, “Hey, they do the same things that you do in the morning.” The openings we had in North American are more about seeing the main characters being just badasses kicking ass and taking names.
Medabots was a lot of kicking ass and taking names, but only in the first few episodes. The first fight featuring Metabee is the entire show’s animation budget, and the rest of the series is more talking than action most of the time. However, it was a great show that showed Ikki learning important life lessons alongside his Medabot Metabee, for more: https://matthewomara.com/2013/10/18/the-vagaries-of-owning-a-medabot/
This is a perfect example of a comic book series not translating to television. Cybersix debuted on television in Canada in 1999, and it was probably the oddest anime on television. Right from the intro sequence, you could tell that it wasn’t quite Japanese. The original comic was in fact created by Carlos Meglia and Carlos Trillo for Italian magazine Skorpio in 1993.
The show was produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha (Detective Conan, Devil Lady, and Monster Rancher) and aired on several channels including YTV in Toronto. Ok, now that the intro is over, here’s what really stuck to my memories. Cybersix, seen in the video above, is the result of a cloning experiment to create the perfect servants, or soldiers in some cases. She is a super soldier, but a lot of her past isn’t coverered by the animated series.
Cyber-6 is the sixth in that series of clones that were all but eradicated. In order to protect her identity, she masqueraded as a man during the day. Adrian Seidelman is a school teacher who lives pretty much a normal life, but at night Cybersix emerges who takes on the evil schemes of Dr. Von Reichter, who is also a Nazi, but the show doesn’t go into that. Anyway, what confused me when I was younger was the change between the sexes. I thought they were two separate characters, but they’re one in the same making Cybersix’s identity the main struggle in the show.
We only had one episode of Tekkaman and we watched it over and over and over and over. What I can tell you about this show – also known as Teknoman – is that it featured an amnesiac protagonist named Slade who can turn into a giant robot at will. Waking up inside of a military base, he escapes by taking one of the crew members hostage and all he knows is that he need to get back to space.
Imagine having someone telling you that inside of a hospital. Pretty insane, right? Well after stealing a space shuttle, he jumps out of an airlock and turned into Teknoman. For those keeping tally on this amenesiac insane person, he’s going by instinct. He doesn’t know he can turn into a robot that can survive in space, he just assumes that he can.
Anyway, the show delves into a conflict between the Earth and an evil alien race known as the Radam. In this future, humanity was just about to start exploring space, but the Tekkamen shut them down by invading and inhabiting people through parasitic means. The one episode of the show we had was pretty good, so I imagine the rest of it was pretty wicked. I also know that Tekkaman Blade also appeared in Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom, which was a really nostalgic experience. Speaking of Tatsunoko…
Samurai Pizza Cats
Do you remember what the best food was during the 90s? Pizza! This disc of baked dough, fermented bacteria, and slices of pig was the holy grail of food. Having a bad day? Eat a slice. Birthday party? Have a slice. Olan Rogers video not loading? Eat a slice! To say the least, to have an anime combining robotic, samurai cats, pizza delivery, and hyper hijinx was more than just awesome. It was radical.
That being said, I can’t really give you a favourite episode of Samurai Pizza Cats, but I do remember the show as one of the earliest examples of an anime I watched. It was also the show that introduced me to the anime archetypes that exist in most examples of Japanese animations.
There’s the Pizza Cat’s leader Speedy Cervich – obviously English names – who is the leader of the group. He’s strong-willed, but prone to making mistakes. Then there’s Guido Anchovy – the lust male – and Polly Esther – the female foil who controls Anchovy. It was an interesting show, though I think it came a little before my time as I don’t remember too many episodes. I wonder if pizza was as big in 90s Japan.
Gundam has a long history. First appearing in on television in 1979, Gundam was literally the first mecha space-opera anime, but North Americans – for the most part – probably didn’t watch Gundam for the first time until Gundam Wing aired in 1995, but it wasn’t until around 1997 did I start watching the show.
Overall, there’s little I can say about Gundam Wing that doesn’t make it seem like the best show in the world. The show’s anti-hero, Heero Yuy, is this crazy maybe 14-year-old kid who just so happens to be the pilot of two of the universes’ most powerful Gundams. With a mean streak and cold demeanor, Heero meets up with some of the other pilots to help rid the world of tyranny and evil.
Well, maybe that’s too general of a statement for Heero and his buddies. All I knew is that as someone who was about fourteen when watching the show, if I could pilot any of the suits in the show it would be Sandrock in the first series and Heavy Arms Custom in the OVA film that was released years later. Man, those guys were cool and they just blow them up!
Yoh Asakura is the chillest anime protagonist on this list. Right from the very first episode of Shaman King, you know he’s going to be one of those ‘so chill everything is easy’ kind of protagonist. The show follows him and a small kid named Morty as they learn about the world of spirits and yokai that exists in Japan.
While Yoh is the main attraction of the show, Morty is really where the viewer comes into the experience. As a bit of an outcast at school, Morty finds solace in learning that there’s more to life than just this reality. After a chance meeting with Yoh in a graveyard one night and an even more unlikely event of Yoh transferring to his school, he commits himself to finding out more about the spiritual world.
Anyway, what I also remember about this show was the first season’s villains becoming allies in the later episodes. Umemiya Ryunosuke – the guy with the big hair – was one of the main villains of the first few episodes until he discovers that he has Shaman powers as well. Looking to hone his powers, Ryu joins up with the team and becomes a good guy. That’s pretty cool. The show didn’t go out of its way to introduce new characters every episode, but it helped develop them. Also this was the first time I learned about the Bosozoku (Japanese gangster) look.
Wait, so were elephants summon-able? I don’t know the active use of that verb since no one actually summons things other than Bellbots in this day and age. Ok, no more tangents. Anyway, Monster Rancher was a showed that aired on Fox Kids in the late 90s and featured a kid named Genki, a tournament-ready player of Monster Rancher, which was Tecmo’s answer to Pokemon.
After winning a tournament and receiving a special disk of the game, Genki finds himself transported to a faraway land where monsters rule. In other words, it’s Digimon. Not to trivialize the show, but it’s pretty derivative save the fact that it was actually a game before it was an anime. However, the show was pretty interesting featuring a wide-range of characters all with back stories that actually get flushed out.
The really cool part of Monster Rancher was Genki’s roller blades. As the most awesome 90s kid ever, I bladed the hell out of Toronto’s streets (my small block, mostly). I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, if there’s ever a Monster Rancher movie I hope they cast me as Genki.” That would have been pretty cool and I have to admit I watched a lot of this show though it isn’t as memorable as the others on this list.
Anything I missed? Feel free to post more in the comments! Next article about anime, the best of Sports Anime and Manga!