20 Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1998

by Daryl Surat,

We've reached the point now where multiple generations of anime fans have relied on the Internet as their primary means of organization and interaction, to the point where they accept it as given. The thing about my retrospective pieces on anime from thirty years ago, the latest of which is Thirty Years Ago: The Best Anime of 1988, is that it hails from such a bygone era of fandom that there weren't even dedicated anime conventions in every single state yet. By contrast, the 1990s are a different beast altogether, as many current Internet denizens grew up then and are now just old enough to have their childhood nostalgias weaponized and sold back to them at deluxe edition pricing!

Perhaps no single year embodies this better than 1998, as its hit titles stayed in the American anime fan consciousness for years longer than is typical now thanks to fansubs/bootlegs of the Japanese releases, followed by domestic home video releases that came out one volume at a time over the course of roughly a year and a half, before extended syndicated runs on cable television. Each would usher in a new wave of fans, especially the television broadcasts which helped define entire anime fan generations; when Cartoon Network established their Adult Swim anime block, 1998 was the year they went back to, time and again. But always remember: many current otaku weren't even alive in 1998, and no matter how critically important a title may seem to you, I GUARANTEE YOU that every single anime I'm about to name remains unseen by a lot more people than you think. Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair! As always, I consider something “from 1998” if it started in that year, and this listing is neither complete nor ranked, so if you've got a favorite from 1998 which I didn't mention be sure to bring it up in the comments! Because I'm done with talking about Brain Powerd, okay?! Especially since Sunrise put all their top efforts into this other work that it ran alongside of:

“The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called…Cowboy Bebop.” This lavishly animated, musically eclectic, excellently dubbed sci-fi action series about some hapless outlaws with melancholy pasts was the first anime title shown on the inaugural broadcast of Adult Swim and set the standard for what “Japanese animation” should be to a generation. Its art style, setting, and relative lack of Japanese text, names, or cultural references was accessible to those unfamiliar with anime—yes, I know, such a notion seems unfathomable today, but once upon a time those were major roadblocks—helping to keep it on American TV for years after its popularity diminished in Japan, to such an extent that Cowboy Bebop is frequently named by fans of this generation as their definitive “anime” period, much as was the case with Akira ten years prior. And, just like Akira, there never truly was “the next Cowboy Bebop.” The reasons are varied, as detailed in Why Wasn't Space Dandy the Next Cowboy Bebop?, but ultimately the series didn't usher in a wave of derivatives or have its approach to action, characterization, music, or English dubbing influence what came afterwards aside from subsequent titles from the same creative staff.

You may think it preposterous to need to explain anything about Cowboy Bebop. The Blu-Rays are sold in Wal-Mart, it's streaming on Crunchyroll, and they still sell T-shirts for it at Hot Topic for crying out loud. But for years now, whenever I run the opening credits sequence to Cowboy Bebop at an anime convention, I've been asking the crowd to raise their hands if they've never seen what I'm showing before. On average, half the audience raises their hands. As Elisa said to Jet in “Ganymede Elegy,” “the way you talk about it, you seem to think that time really has stopped here. That's a story from long ago, and I… I've forgotten about it. Time never stands still.”

For me, just saying the name Trigun elicits flashbacks to an era of anime conventions in which cosplayer after cosplayer roamed the halls carrying oversized, hallway-blocking massive crosses, wearing full-body dusters in summer, or brandishing other outlandishly sized weaponry. I understand; Yasuhiro Nightow's penchant for slick character designs grab one's attention. Trigun, much like Cowboy Bebop, was a sci-fi action series about some hapless outlaws with melancholy pasts which was far more popular outside of Japan. Its English dub, while perhaps not as celebrated as Bebop’s, cemented Johnny Yong Bosch as the go-to “dubbed anime main character voice” guy, where he has remained ever since. But while Cowboy Bebop took only partial influence from the classic Western, Trigun went all in. Its setting was intuitively accessible to American viewers, for it resembled the American Wild West despite being on another planet and thus didn't feature anything too egregiously “foreign.”

Twenty years later, the anime con hallways may be blocked by other large prop-toting cosplayers now, but the legacy of Trigun lingers on. Its theatrical film installment, despite being excellent, just came out too long after the height of the series’ popularity. Perhaps there was less appeal to Vash the Stampede's absolute pacifism once the more murderous Alucard from the heavily-Trigun inspired Hellsing was available? Fortunately, these days Yasuhiro Nightow has a new hit: Blood Blockade Battlefront, which features Trigun Easter eggs and continues the tradition of sneaking in Kuroneko-sama the black cat!

…and with that, it seems that I've hit my quota for 1998 sci-fi space Western anime, so we'll be passing on Outlaw Star. That's fine, since it was only good for about 3 or 4 episodes anyway!

Serial Experiments Lain was decades ahead of its time, but even in 1998 we all knew it was something cool. It certainly helped that the US DVDs started out coming shortly after the first installment of The Matrix hit theaters! Anime cons already had enough people in full-body dusters thanks to Trigun, and now THIS. Created in an era where the notion of high-speed Internet availability in homes was still relatively novel such that having access to an online world via mobile devices wasn't yet reality, the cyber sci-fi tale of Lain which put Yoshitoshi ABe on everyone's geek radar revolved around online activity actually having ramifications in the real world. Shocking, I know…but what exactly is reality, anyway? Narratively obtuse, thematically dense, and with a visual aesthetic and soundtrack that had a lasting resonance among anime convention ravers and techies alike, those of us who do remember Lain still hold it up as a masterpiece. Of course, the trouble with being so forward-thinking is that twenty years later, it's difficult for first-time viewers to notice its innovations; just think of our everyday lives now! Much as I bag on Evangelion, its success paved the way for Serial Experiments Lain to make it on television. Then again, it also gave us Gasaraki, Brain Powerd,and His or Her Circumstances. Oh wait, people like that last one. NEVERTHELESS.

The card battling anime to rule them all is Yu-Gi-Oh! which began in 1998…or did it? For you see, twenty years later it's easy to forget that the original “king of games” series did NOT revolve around collectible/trading card battles, because it was never shown in America! Hmm, perhaps I should have written that as “…IN AMERICA” to show how attuned I am to Internet jokes from…wait, 2008?! Regardless, the original series revolved around a variety of high-stakes games of chance, the outcomes of which were, shall we say, a whole lot more graphically violent than what we typically associate with Yu-Gi-Oh! nowadays, because once everything shifted over to believing in the heart of the cards, Yu-Gi-Oh! never went away. Decades later and it's still going strong to the point that most of the people into the card game rarely even watch the anime or read the manga. No complaints here; as long as I get those ultra-rare cards included with Weekly Shonen Jump just a day or so before everyone else, selling them pays for my subscription! The lack of D-D-D-D-DU-DU-DU-DU-DU-DUELS in this initial season means that the true top seat of 1998 card merchandising anime belongs to none other than…

With Sailor Moon having concluded in the previous year, the anime magical girl throne sat unoccupied until 1998's Card Captor Sakura. It seemed impossible for CLAMP to make a more popular series than what they'd previously done but the exceptional animation, elaborate character designs, action, comedy and of course card battling resulted in the rare feat of attempting to make something for everyone …that ACTUALLY IS something for everyone. Of everything listed here, the legacy of Card Captor Sakura is the least disputed, for its 2018 continuation has currently got fans buzzing anew. Yes, they made some alterations, but it lives on for a new generation…as DEVILMAN crybaby! Think about it. Good kid discovers they have superpowers and has to round up all the monsters rampaging about, all while their “really good friend” follows them around with a handheld video recorder and then it turns out there was an angel right there all along---oh wait, there's an ACTUAL sequel, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, currently airing. Just remember, thirtysomethings and up: this sequel to the children's show from 20 years ago is still a children's show!

The same cannot be said for 1998's super robot pandemonium extravaganza Getter Robo: Armageddon, a grimdark 13-episode anime sequel to an CD audio drama in which several of the classic heroes were dead or reinterpreted as evildoers. It's an alternate universe take that flips the classic Getter Robo status quo and formula which pioneered this whole “combining robots” thing in anime, and Armageddon assumes that all viewers clearly knew this as a matter of course so nothing is (initially) explained. What's more, the original director Yasuhiro Imagawa had no doubt planned out another ornate narrative as he'd previously done in G-Gundam, Giant Robo, and later on Mazinger Edition Z: The Impact! ...but he was fired after the third episode, which ended on a cliffhanger note of “was the world just destroyed?” Left to pick up the pieces, the new staff from episode 4 on decided “yes it was, and therefore the rest of this story will take place years after all that!”

Getter Robo: Armageddon had a rough reception at the time due to the rocky start and restart, but twenty years later fan appreciation has come around now that we're better equipped to understand just what the Hell is even going on. I like to thank Gurren Lagann for that, as its dedicated fans have rediscovered this installment of Getter Robo in particular for sharing the same wild energy, eventual celestial body-scale escalation, and penchant for giant drills. The series remains available on Blu-Ray, and this interpretation continues to be used in videogames such as last year's Super Robot Wars V. Now, can they PLEASE reissue the Revoltech Black Getter already?!

1998's Princess Nine is one of those anime which every critic who saw it would insist was great, yet hardly anybody was willing to watch. The reasoning was as follows: it was a sports-themed anime about high school baseball featuring an all-girl team squaring off against highly dismissive all-boy teams while also incorporating a fair amount of [admittedly weak] on-screen romance yet being devoid of traditional fanservice. In other words, three strikes and it was out: general audiences didn't want it, the subset of fans we now refer to today as “shippers” didn't want it then and don't want it now, and fans craving for T&A took a pass. It's also quite the slow burn, since they don't even play a proper baseball match until…the second half of the series, and it's 26 episodes long! Still, with its diverse cast of ladies given time to not just be one-note characters, Princess Nine in many ways is the embodiment of what people say they want in 2018. It's all on Crunchyroll and the DVD box set remains in print, so if you can get past those “three strikes” then give it a shot.

Yasuomi Umetsu is a guy who reminds me of Kenichi Sonoda, in the sense that both really like drawing guns, cars, explosions, and wanton bloodshed (hooray!) …but likes drawing underage girls having sex even more (boo!). Kite is Umetsu's most popular work, for it offers up all of the above. The slickly animated, stylishly gory action aspect of it at least was enough to result in a not-so-slick, not-so-stylishly gory live-action film that's most notable for co-starring Samuel L. Jackson (I believe the L stands for “Loves Hentai, too!”), but the most vocal proponents of Yasuomi Umetsu anything outside of that one short in Robot Carnival (shameless plug) tend to focus on the lurid sex bits. A pity; Megazone 23 Part II has a lot more going for it! So does Kite, really, which is why itwas released in multiple cuts, all of which differ solely by how much of the sex scenes remain, since it turns out they're effectively superfluous to the story to the point that it's actually better without them. Such was the state of things in the late 1990s-early 2000s; you needed to ADD graphic sex scenes to a story to shore up a production! Twenty years later, such a notion sounds patently absurd; between streaming Internet sites and Source Film Maker, there's just not as much money to be made in graphic cartoon sex. Still, while the current trend is to excise the full-on sex stuff from anime, I suppose the sequel Kite: Liberator from ten years later wasn't nearly as well-known, now was it? Perhaps it needed more shots of “MAKE FAT” brand French fries and “Häagen-Kazs” ice cream.

Still, I was never as big into Kite as others were, because not only did I hate having to extensively argue with people saying “actually, the term is EPHEBOPHILIA” the truth is that anime in 1998 already had its top assassin. COME BACK, PUMPKIN JOE:

Listen up. Duke Togo, The Man with the Custom M-16, The Perfect Machine of Snipe is simply too awesome for anime to contain, which is why he's only allowed to have one anime installment made per anime medium, and even those are spaced out by 10-15 years for the sake of public safety. Golgo 13: The Professional was the one theatrical film permitted. Only one TV series was permitted, and that came in the late 2000s. I can only assume by the 2020s we will get an Internet series. This leaves us with 1998's Golgo 13: Queen Bee, the only direct-to-video OVA installment. Anime's most unstoppable “go big or go home” duo of director Osamu Dezaki and character designer/animation director Akio Sugino reunited to give us the entirely plausible story of the then-future 2000 United States Democratic Presidential primary, in which the anti-drug “morality” candidate is actually a junkie who needs Golgo 13 to take out Queen Bee: a sexy big-busted leader of a South American rebel army who is so named because she um, does it with all her soldiers. There are like eight sex scenes in Queen Bee, which is quite the feat since the running time is about one hour with credits, but unlike Kite the underage girl flashback one happens OFF camera because, per the director commentary track, they were being RESPONSIBLE. How unfortunate that after all this bloody murder, the Democrats were forced to run Al Gore instead…and then Golgo 13 shot the ballots that would have given Gore the election. Be sure to watch through the end credits!

Oh no.

What is this doing here, I don't even—

Okay, fine. Look. I have practically nothing positive to say about Initial D, but that really doesn't matter now does it? Sure, I could rightly and accurately point out that its character art is awful, its decision to use 3D CG for its cars looked laughably poor to audiences even back then, that its characters are actively and aggressively uninteresting, and on and on and on. I could note the only positive thing I will ever concede about this interminable waste of time is that Initial D was the global ambassador to Eurobeat music, such that the “DÉJÀ VU I'VE JUST BEEN IN THIS PLACE BEFORE” memes are going stronger than ever in 2018 ...and now, the latest installments have done away with even that.

But it's irrelevant what I or other rational, correct-thinking people think; the results speak for themselves and cannot be disputed. For twenty years Initial D has been a global phenomenon, giving rise to multiple sequels, videogames, and live-action films all of which are beloved by its fans, several of whom are somehow NOT even the frothing diehard automobile otaku that are literally the only people on the planet whom I can envision as willing to tolerate this thing. It has inspired such intense fervor across the entire world that its fans have made a collector's item out of A FREAKIN’ COROLLA FOR PETE'S SAKE, IT'S A FREAKIN’ COROLLA. But that's the [initial] dream, isn't it? Slacker kid working a dead-end job and driving a junk car is in fact the baddest drift car racer the world has ever seen, defeating all challengers in their souped-up rides thanks to the power of late night tofu delivery, as inspired by biographical events and everything. EXCEPT I DON'T CARE ABOUT CARS ONE SINGLE BIT. If truly “no one sleep in Tokyo,” the solution is to just make them watch this, because Initial D is car otaku heaven at the expense of everything else.

There were other noteworthy titles of 1998 I wanted to mention, such as Blue Submarine No. 6, and I also intended to note that the year was an absolute gold mine when it comes to the incredibly bad to the point of being unforgettable and highly entertaining sort of awful anime such as Tekken: The Motion Picture, Spectral Force, Spriggan (okay, I like the first third or so), Knight Hunters: Weiss Kreuz (remember when THIS was massively popular?!), Ninja Resurrection, and such. But I had to think about Initial D just now, and it's sapped me of all will to watch or think about anime. Not even Hellshake Yano can snap me out of this one.

Therefore, it's up to YOU now! Do you still have fond memories of any of these series mentioned? Maybe you strongly disagree with my assessment of Outlaw Star, due to that one space bathhouse episode where digital bathing suits had to be painted on the girls to make it suitable for US television, because that was legitimately a thing companies used to have to do? Let me have it in the comments! Don't worry, now that I had to remember the existence of Initial D, I'm completely numb to emotion and the concepts of joy, anger, or sorrow elude me entirely.

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