The Best Characters From ’90s Anime, RankedThis post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Learn more).
I think the nineties, quite unfairly, gets a lot of flak.
Granted, I was a small child for most of it so there’s a good chance I just missed all the worst bits.
But one thing I can say for sure that was ace way back in the day was the anime scene. There were hundreds of incredible anime floating around, each with its own set of memorable and enjoyable characters.
This is what we’re focusing on today – the most iconic ‘90s anime characters to ever grace our screens. Each one might be on here for a myriad of reasons, but they all have one thing in common: their propensity for standing out the most in days gone by.
15. Shin Chan
Anime: Shin Chan
Shin Chan is the cheeky, cheerful, and always mischievous star of the show.
He was a bright spot in a usually very good, but occasionally very weird anime.
There was stuff for the kids and adults in equal measure here. For every non-sequitur bit of strangeness that Shin Chan spouted, there was an equal bit of frankly outrageous innuendo or double entendre.
But at the center of it all was that impossible-to-hate toddler, who by the standards of the English dub of the show, could spout dirty one-liners that would make a sailor blush – alongside more traditional childish shenanigans.
14. Ash Ketchum
We’d be remiss to not mention the big man on campus of all nineties anime, wouldn’t we?
Yes, the hero of Pallet Town might not have been exactly the role model for kids, leaving home at the ripe age of 10 and all.
But there’s no denying the hero’s journey that Ash went on, and his sheer dedication to overcome every obstacle, made for some pretty exciting and inspirational viewing.
He even had a few good one-liners scattered in for laughs – although I guess next to Brock and his infamous quips, anyone else would look pretty good by comparison, wouldn’t they?
13. Sakura Kinomoto
Anime: Cardcaptor Sakura
You’d be forgiven for thinking that side by side, Card Captor Sakura was a fairly obvious rip-off of the Pokémon brand.
Well, you could think that if you’d never seen either anime in any depth before!
They may have debuted in the same year, and Pokémon may have had the larger success of the two. But there’s no denying the charm and tenacity of Sakura.
Her “Everything will surely be alright” spell-turned-mantra fits her determined character to a T. And nothing would ever get in the way of her mission once she had her mind set on it.
12. Misato Katsuragi
Anime: Neon Genesis Evangelion
While there are handfuls of characters in the Evangelion universe who would qualify for this list, I’ve chosen Misato for the sheer impact she had on how the entire universe of the show turned out.
I mean, the NERV operations director not only kickstarts Shinji Ikari on his path to becoming a pilot, but also has him and Asuka live with Misato at one point or another.
She’s a fiercely professional woman, with a rarely-seen soft side. And her tragic backstory would have been enough to turn weaker-willed characters into cartoonish villains.
But with Misato, it’s a case of getting her head down and getting the job at hand done.
11. Shinichi Kudou
Anime: Detective Conan
Here’s a character that takes the huge anime eyes trope to almost unbelievable levels.
Shinichi Kudou might be one of the few ‘90s characters who would benefit from those eyes in his role as an amateur detective.
After he’s poisoned with something that reverts his physical form back to how it was when he was six (don’t ask, it’s anime logic at work), Shinichi uses his keen senses and razor sharp intelligence to solve crimes… for someone else.
He’s trying to turn his girlfriend’s rubbish dad into the world’s greatest detective, not himself.
It’s a journey that shows us exactly how clever the character is – especially when he has to work out of the body of a first-grader.
10. Lain Iwakura
Anime: Serial Experiments Lain
Imagine finding out that your friend has committed suicide, then you wind up being tortured in a bizarre digital world while trying to find out the truth of it all while she talks to you.
Yes, Lain is certainly put through the wringer in this series. There’s no doubt about that.
But for a character who could have started out as any shy fourteen year old, Lain becomes quite simply an unstoppable badass in search of the truth of what has happened to her friend.
…or is she?
There’s a chance that her trip through the world of the Wired may have left her less a changed person and more a different person altogether… you’ve got to watch it to decide for yourself.
9. Heero Yuy
Anime: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Our MC really starts out as a bit of a jackass, for a character with the name “Heero” (yes, Mobile Suit Gundam as a franchise has some very on-the-nose naming conventions).
When he’s not ripping up birthday invitations & then threatening to kill the girl who sent them, Heero has such a staggering path of character development that it’s almost impossible not to be on his side by the end.
Once he’s over his tormenting little brat phase, Heero is as much of stand-up a character as you could ever hope to have on your side – and a darn good pilot to boot.
8. Hanamichi Sakuragi
Anime: Slam Dunk
Slam Dunk might not be the first sports anime to follow the conventions it plots out.
But it has one of the strongest central characters to back it up.
Hanamichi has no natural talent. Or in the case of some sports anime, no supernatural talent either.
He takes up the sport because he wants to look cool in front of a girl he likes.
But he soon discovers his love of the sport is taking him from rung to rung on a ladder of success as he learns and practices – and we get to see the full development of one of the most well-written anime characters to date.
Slam Dunk is a great show.
And Hanamichi Sakuragi is one of the key reasons why.
7. Usagi Tsukino
Anime: Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is a cultural touchstone of the nineties in its own right.
But it also introduced us to a classic character in Usagi Tsukino – AKA Sailor Moon herself.
The Guardian of Love and Justice might have started out as a slightly immature teenage girl – but she wound up showing strength, bravery, and determination above any of her contemporaries.
And yes, that immaturity does shine through every now and again.
But it adds a bit of depth to a character that could so easily have been every run of the mill magical-girl-trope for the last thirty years.
6. Yusuke Urameshi
Anime: Yu Yu Hakusho
Yu Yu Hakusho is a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride that I urge everyone to see at some point.
And it wouldn’t have been half as successful without the influence of Yusuke Urameshi, for my money anyway.
As the undisputed leader of the gang, Yusuke started out as – say it with me now – an immature teenager who lacked discipline and direction.
But the Spirit Detective pulled his socks up and became not only indispensable to his team, but also a character who pretty much anyone could look up to and learn from.
Anime: Berserk (1997)
I could have just written the word “Berserk” and you’d know exactly who was coming.
Yes, fan-favorite antihero Guts introduced a generation of people to a new breed of anime character styles that could be heart-wrenchingly sympathetic, as well as bone-crushingly brutal from episode to episode.
He was also shown to be beatable, too.
Which is a trait that a lot of the more modern anime don’t dare impose on the main character.
This made him seem so much more relatable. And in the end when he did triumph, it made him feel a whole lot more well-rounded.
Anime: Princess Mononoke
A lot of people were first introduced to the idea of a badass female anime character through the no-nonsense Princess of the Forest.
And there are many, many worse places you could start than her.
This wolf-reared eco-warrior is not to be messed with, either – she could take you out as quickly as she can look at you.
She’s one of the high standards of female characters in any anime to date – and a worthy addition to any list celebrating 90s characters.
Anime: Dragon Ball Z
If Pokémon wasn’t the thing that got the anime bug to bite you, I’d be willing to bet it was Dragon Ball Z in its place.
So it had to be Goku here, didn’t it?
He’s a warrior with a heart of gold. And kids around the world looked up to Goku in the 90s – and plenty more wanted to be him.
His strength and bravery were inspiring. But at times he felt genuinely at risk of being overpowered by the foe-of-the-week, and that helped to develop Goku into a very good character overall.
So out of all of DBZ’s diverse alien and human characters, none of them could ever knock Goku off of this list.
I mean, physically some of them could… But that’s for another list!
2. Spike Spiegel
Anime: Cowboy Bebop
If you were asked to define what “cool” is, there’s no way a picture of Spike Spiegel wouldn’t be involved somewhere in the demonstration.
He’s certainly not the only character in the show with that panache.
Hell, he’s not even the only character in the show with an intensely tragic backstory.
But there’s just something so effortless and smooth about the man that makes him impossible to hate – and nearly impossible to take out of any discussion about ‘90s anime.
1. Motoko Kusanagi
Anime: Ghost in the Shell
This is quite possibly one of the most badass characters in any anime series, full stop.
Motoko Kusanagi can fight, hack, or love her way into (or out of) any situation.
The Major goes above and beyond the call of duty time and time again. And she looks damn good doing it – though it’s often to the chagrin of friends and colleagues around her.
But while her reckless disregard for her own safety is the bane of everyone who cares about her, it’s all in the name of protecting and serving the innocents around her.
I couldn’t think of a much better character to top our list!