Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 18th 2011
Tiger & Bunny
When people the world over suddenly develop paranormal abilities the question isn't what they should do with them; after all what else would they do besides become superheroes? No, the real question is how to exploit their abilities for profit. And how better to squeeze money from an evolutionary leap forward than with a reality television show? Thus is born Stern Bild City's "Hero TV," a heavily-produced program that pits corporate-sponsored heroes against the city's criminal element. Crime happens, heroes get called, and cameras follow. Points are assigned based on performance and each year a King of Heroes is crowned. Naturally it's a huge hit. Kotetsu (AKA Wild Tiger) is a veteran of the program, and of costumed crime-fighting. His old-school ways aren't very popular with the younger demographic though, and his disregard for the costs of his actions (justice knows no cost) eventually bankrupts the small independent company that represents him. Which is how he finds himself sold to corporate greedmongers who, in their lust for something new to market, pair him with an upstart named Barnaby to form Stern Bild's first superhero duo. Uh-oh.
Someone somewhere during the process leading to Tiger & Bunny's creation asked themselves "what would really happen if superheroes existed?" The answer they came up with is very funny, but also has an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. Hero TV's vulgar spectacle, with its running point-counts and WWE superhero entrances, is painfully familiar, as is the whirlwind of branding (think NASCAR), merchandising (think anime) and gambling that it spawns. It's all too easy to imagine corporate interests draining the dignity (what there is of it after the tights) and integrity from superherohood. It's hard not to see in Tiger's fictional heroes the fate of our real heroes: the athletes who've become franchises, the rebel rock stars turned corporate shills, the doctors who have given up helping people to become TV personalities. Even if its real intent is to entertain (and it is), watching Tiger & Bunny we are inevitably reminded of our own culture, where even the home-grown heroism of volunteer firefighters has its would-be corporate sponsors, and forced to give a little shiver.
For having such a loaded premise, though, Tiger & Bunny is curiously disinterested in social commentary. It is far more interested in its characters, their motivations and interactions, and in simply providing generally light, American-comics-flavored entertainment. That isn't a criticism. It casts a cynical eye on corporate culture, throws scalding water on venal media and prompts us to think whether it wants to or not; that's simply inherent in its setting. In choosing not to focus its stories on that, the series avoids coming across as didactic or preachy and also allows itself to engage on more than an intellectual level. Hero TV players like Blue Rose and Fire Emblem get their own episodes to shine, Kotetsu's immensely likeable old-fashionedness is given all of the space it needs to woo us, and as much time is spent establishing the Hero TV competitors' effortless off-screen camaraderie as is spent detailing their competitive on-screen derring-do. The result is a fun and surprisingly deep cast, and a reasonably convincing portrait of what happens when ordinary people are given extraordinary powers. And then promised great wealth for using them on TV. Which in turn yields a lighthearted, periodically hilarious and yet consistently sympathetic parody of American superhero tropes.
Unfortunately, not every choice the series makes is so beneficial. For reasons unfathomable, it avoids exploiting many of its most interesting potential stories. Middle-aged Kotetsu's struggle to keep up in the young-man's game of superheroism is played mostly for laughs. The battle between his principles and the realities of corporate-sponsored heroism has its moments, as when his unbending devotion to saving lives briefly wins over Hero TV's producer, but is mostly just given lip service. Instead the series opts to focus on his buddy-cop pairing with Barnaby. Why? Who knows. The two of them have zero chemistry and nearly every moment spent on Barnaby is a wasted one. He's a frosty, amoral cipher and an all-around dick to boot. Next to Kotetsu's wounded idealism and irrepressible verve he seems decidedly shallow and wan. The show knows this. There's a reason why, despite Barnaby's good looks and obvious skills, Kotetsu is the one who ends up getting the attention of the female cast. And the male cast for that matter. Yet still the series insists on giving Barnaby and his tragic past and quest for vengeance (yawn) priority over Kotetsu. There's probably a reason for that, likely tied up in the evil organization that Barnaby's flashbacks hint at, but even so he casts a pall over the series that even its inborn satiric bite can't completely mitigate.
What the satiric bite can't mitigate, however, the series' inborn action sense does. Karas director Keiichi Satou crams the action scenes with all of slow-motion CG showboating that made his previous work a delight for the eyes. Putting most of his cast in powersuits frees him up to use Sunrise's vast mecha experience while also avoiding the issues inherent in animating (3D) human bodies. The result is impossibly slick and cool, if less visceral than it should be. What intensity there is is thanks mainly to the loving realism that Sunrise's animators lend to the massive destruction wreaked by Tiger's oft-bumbling heroes, as well as to our emotional investment in them. Helping our emotional investment along are Masakazu Katsura's bold, positively delicious character designs, particularly those for Kotetsu and the luscious Blue Rose. None of which is particularly surprising if you've ever seen Karas (or seen any of Katsura's manga art). More unexpected is Satou's facility for easy character-based warmth and ability to squeeze interesting emotional possibilities into tiny behavioral tics—the complicated look that Blue Rose gives Kotetsu when he gives her a fatherly pat on the head, say, or a moment of off-balance intensity as Hero TV producer Agnes watches heroes risking their lives to save hers.
Yoshihiro Ike adds another winner to his growing catalog of fine anime scores. His largely orchestral score delightfully evokes the overblown heroism of American superhero spectacles without sounding slavish or obvious. You won't be throwing your money at the soundtrack CDs any time soon (a fact as attributable to the lively but uninteresting opening and closing themes as to anything), but it fits the series like a glove.
Given its concern with American-styled superheroism, the possibility of crossover appeal is not inconsiderable. There's a little something here for anyone who likes flashy action with a dash of depth, and it assumes no prior knowledge of anime, manga or even Japanese culture. In fact, its jabs at the culture of profit are more applicable if anything to America. Still, Tiger & Bunny is a little too airy and conventional in its storytelling to see it pulling a Bebop and indoctrinating a new generation of anime fans. That's no aspersion against it. Series this enjoyable are rare enough, and one that finds a new, and caustic, way to put the "American" in American superhero is to be treasured.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Excellent premise; some cutting satire; superior, often very funny action; Kotetsu.
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