The dawn of the 1990s saw Japan entering a period of economic turbulence and upheaval. Rampant speculation, coupled by inflation from the Plaza Accord saw the economic bubble of the ‘80s burst, plunging the nation’s economy into a recession. The Nikkei stock index plummeted in 1990, and remained depressed well into the 21st century, leading to a “Lost 20 Years” of economic and sociological declines. Nevertheless, televised anime and OVA releases continued, with such works as Yu Yu Hakusho and Akazukin ChaCha debuting during the decade. It was against this backdrop that several significant mecha titles made their debut.

Notably, the 1990s saw significant changes to the iconic Gundam franchise, with the advent of the first shows to break away from the main timeline. Previous productions, such as Zeta Gundam and Gundam 0080, all adhered to the Universal Century timeline, which originated with the original Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979. Mobile Fighter G Gundam, which premiered in 1994, introduced the Future Century timeline:  an alternative universe, in which various space colonies vie for control of space through a mecha tournament held every four years. Each nation sends its best and brightest fighters, all of whom have their own form of Gundam robot. The colony whose representative wins the Gundam Fight is allowed to rule space for the next four years.

The series, itself, revolves around Domon Kasshu: the pilot for the Neo Japan colony and a pupil of Neo Hong Kong’s Master Asia. As he travels from colony to colony, doing battle in the Shining Gundam, Domon searches tirelessly for his long-lost brother Kyoji, who disappeared with the mysterious Devil Gundam.

G Gundam helped to establish the possibility of alternate universes within the Gundam franchise, which would allow for stories that didn’t carry the baggage that came with three decades of lore. The Gundam Fight concept is an innately intriguing idea, as G Gundam ostensibly presents it as a means of resolving conflict through individual combat. Unlike the series’ predecessors, which feature the horrors of war as a powerful undercurrent, the world of G Gundam is one of strict regulation. Gundam Fights are fought under a bevy of rules, including one which prohibits a pilot from attacking another mobile suit’s cockpit.  That’s not to say that the universe is free of strife, though, as characters express a simmering anger toward the Gundam Fights and the ruin they’ve brought upon Earth.

Image from Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, which depicts Heero Yuu standing in front of the Wing Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Of course, it would be remiss to mention Gundam works from the 1990s without mentioning Gundam Wing, which ran between April 1995 to March 1996. The show’s popularity in the United States—where it was broadcast on Cartoon Network, the first in the franchise to have a televised release in the country—helped to spur interest in not just Gundam, but anime as a whole among mainstream America. Gundam Wing follows the story of five pilots sent to Earth in retaliation against the United Earth Sphere Alliance’s militaristic behavior towards the federation of interstellar colonies. The pilots specifically target OZ: a military organization whose members ultimately revolt against their Alliance colleagues.

In a first for the franchise, Gundam Wing fared better in its 2000 U.S. broadcast on Cartoon Network than in Japan. The series’ success in the States led to interest in the Gundam franchise as a whole – it was a major success for the still-young Toonami. The title dominated in the TV ratings and ultimately  helped to give rise to an entire generation of anime fans.  The title would go on to receive a sequel in the OVA Endless Waltz, which was released in three parts in 1997. Cartoon Network aired Endless Waltz in 2000. The OVA was  popular with American audiences, who showered the title with critical acclaim, and set up numerous fan pages on free hosting services like Tripod and Geocities.

Of course, Gundam wasn’t the only mecha franchise to make waves during the ‘90s. The decade would see a veritable cavalcade of icons that would inspire and delight a new generation of mecha fans. In particular, 1995 saw the advent of Gainax’s iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion is set in the aftermath of a cataclysmic known only as the Second Impact, which devastated the Earth and its population. In its wake, scientist Gendo Ikari helped to found paramilitary organization Nerv, which is tasked with fighting against monstrous beings known only as Angels. The only weapons that can do battle against these life forms are Evangelions: biomechanical robots that are piloted by talented, teenage pilots. Ikari’s estranged son, Shinji, is the newest Evangelion pilot, forced to do battle against the angels as the mysterious machinations of Nerv unfold behind the scenes.

Screenshot from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which depicts EVA-01 suspended in LCL Fluid.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

The series quickly became a landmark within the industry. – It greatly helped popularize the DVD as a home video format, as Gainax adopted a strategy of merchandising and DVD sales. Its merchandise sold extremely well (with 700 billion yen in pachinko and pachislot revenue by 2015, as well as around $400 million in merchandise by 1997). Its ending became controversial, however, as the audience was divided over the final two episodes — Hideki Anno even received death threats because of the show’s conclusion. Regardless of the controversy, though, Evangelion would go on to receive two film sequels, Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion, as well as a tetralogy known as Rebuild of Evangelion. The fourth film in the tetralogy, Thrice Upon A Time, was released on March 8, 2021; it was the first Toei-distributed film to achieve 10 billion yen at the box office.

Screenshot from Martian Successor Nadesico that depicts Akito seated in a cockpit.

Martian Succesor Nadesico

This was also a decade for the mecha genre to show its lighter side, with a little bit of help from Ruri and the rest of the crew of the Nadesico.  Martian Successor Nadesico aired on TV Tokyo between October 1996 and March 1997. The series is set in the year 2096, and follows the crew of the space battleship ND-001 Nadesico as they are sent to oppose the invading Jovian Lizards, who recently conquered Mars. Helmed by the scatterbrained Yurika Misumaru, the ship boasts a crew of eccentric, albeit gifted  technicians, from the earnest Akito Tenkawa, to the brilliant-yet-stoic Ruri Hoshino.

The series, which premiered in the Fall 1996 season, marked the directorial debut of Tatsuo Sato, who went on to direct Cat Soup, Bodacious Space Pirates and Stellvia. Kia Asamiya (Silent Mobius, Steam Detectives) handled character designs for the work, and the team of mechanical designers included Takeshi Takakura (Evangelion: 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon A Time, Macross Frontier) and Takumi Sakura (Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2).

Nadesico also features an in-universe anime, known as Gekiganger 3 which, fittingly enough, is also a mecha program. Introduced in the second episode, it is an homage to the Super Robot genre that developed in the 1970s. Gai Daigoji, a pilot working for the Nadesico, happens to be a fan of Gekiganger 3 – he shows the full work to Akito Tenkawa, who becomes a fan himself. While it began as a fictional series, Gekiganger 3 received an 30-minute OVA in 1998; Nadesico was followed by a 1998 film, Prince of Darkness, set two years after the series.

Toonami ran three episodes of the series in 2003, as part of its Giant Robot Week event.  In addition to Nadesico, Giant Robot Week also included two episodes each of Evangelion and Dai-Guard, as well as two of Robotech. Nadesico’s appearance on the block marked the first time the show was broadcast on American television.

The four works mentioned were major mecha releases in the 1990s — G Gundam and Gundam Wing helped popularize alternate timelines in the Gundam franchise, and Evangelion had a profound impact on anime in general. Several more mecha productions existed in the decade, however, with examples including Brave Exkaiser and Patlabor 2: The Movie. The 1990s was a fairly active decade for mecha productions, and the next article will examine some of these works.

Header Image: Mobile Fighter G Gundam