Considering how the 80’s went, it’s pretty easy to imagine that mecha could have remained a genre that continued to evolve gradually, but would never be completely revolutionized again. Then again, it’s also possible the genre would have declined into a small isolated niche. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and in fact 1994 was a good enough year for mecha that I think it was clearly already rebounding. G Gundam is one of my personal favorites, but didn’t really “change anime” as much as most of what I’ve been mentioning.
Depending on how you look at it, I think it took until Magic Knight Rayearth in 1994 (the manga started in 93, but the Mashin/Rune-Gods didn’t appear early) before there was a great example of a series that had mecha where mecha were nowhere near the core concept.
Also in 1994 there was Macross Plus, which was the first anime directed by Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy) and one of the first with music by Yoko Kanno (Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), as well as groundbreaking in its combination of cel and computer animation. It’s also notable for Sharon Apple, a holographic computer idol singer. It’s hard to see Sharon now and not compare her to Vocaloids, and especially Hatsune Miku’s “live” concerts. Though Miku isn’t usually this trippy.
I’m just going to mention 1995’s Gundam Wing briefly because a few years later it played a large role in North America’s biggest anime boom.
And then came Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hideaki Anno of Gainax was at it again, and this time he was depressed. Much like Gunbuster was an unlikely fusion of Aim for the Ace!, Top Gun, Getter Robo, and Starship Troopers, Anno’s next work was even more of a chimera.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is so much more famous than the majority of its own influences that there have been some fairly deep analyses of it that didn’t even mention Ideon, Devilman, Ultraman, or Childhood’s End…none of which are remotely obscure (okay, maybe Ideon is). There have even been some that didn’t mention Gunbuster, despite Shinji pretty much being a gender-swapped Noriko.
In terms of Evangelion‘s own influence, it’s obviously responsible for the rise of psychological themes, meaningful symbolism, meaningless symbolism (the fact that Evangelion had both is what makes it one of the hardest anime to understand), and bizarre endings. Of course it popularized organic mecha. Despite being intended to be creepy, Rei has become the basis of a moe archetype, and Evanglion‘s influence on otaku merchandise…is a thing that exists, like it or not. And EVA-01 itself is an iconic and much-homaged design.
(And so it actually worked out so that of the four series I said were the four most influential, one did come up in each of these four posts.)
The following year, Martian Successor Nadesico took deconstruction in an entirely different direction; parody rather than psychological dissection. It’s the first of a few anime I can think of that manage to be both a parody of a genre and a good regular example of that same genre at the same time, and it is hard for me to describe without using phrases like “an anime about anime”. With several otaku and a voice actress in the crew, it was certainly the most meta anime of the 20th century.
There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned Transformers, Brave, or Eldoran yet. Transformers is among the most popular American cartoons in Japan and has had a number of Japanese-made series, but as far as anime is concerned these three franchises mostly influenced only their own sequels, and each other in a linear order. (Very specific exception; Bokurano is a direct (and brutal) deconstruction of the first Eldoran series, Matchless Raijin-Oh.) The final Brave series, King of Braves GaoGaiGar, is an exception. It didn’t even bother to reconstruct what Evangelion had deconstructed; instead, it defiantly rejected any need to, and played classic super robot tropes to the absolute limit without looking back; there was even an enforced “no betrayals” policy as a reaction to the excessive distrust in mecha anime of the time. GaoGaiGar also has quite possibly the greatest mecha combining sequence ever.
At the Gutsy Geoid Guard, even someone with a desk job has to be hardcore enough to break glass with her bare hand every week.
GaoGaiGar is the biggest case of Brave influence looping back into Transformers (most notably Galaxy Force/Cybertron, but also even American series like Transformers: Animated), but beyond that it managed to earned itself a place on the short list of mecha series to commonly be specifically referenced/homaged/parodied by non-mecha anime, ranging from Yu-Gi-Oh! GX to Nanoha again, as demonstrated by how well the sound from one fits the animation from the other:
And since the closer it gets to the present, the harder it is to judge the long-term influence (and the harder it is to be objective), I’ve decided to make the end of the 20th century the cutoff point. I’ll just note that the most influential ones since then have been Full Metal Panic! and Gurren Lagann without elaborating.