Review

by Theron Martin,

Cannon Busters

Episodes 1-12 streaming

Synopsis:
Cannon Busters
Sam is a friendship robot who was separated from her best friend, Prince Kelby of Bodica, when Bodica was attacked by powerful invaders. She seeks to reunite with him at Garas Keep, a traditional safe point for the Bodican royal family. Along the way, she befriends the maintenance 'bot Casey and the wanted outlaw Philly the Kid, much to the latter's chagrin. While Kelby travels to the keep under the protection of Royal Guard Captain Odin, Philly unwillingly finds himself transporting Sam and Casey in the same general direction. The world is a dangerous place even if your method of transport is a huge car that can turn into a bull-themed mecha by inserting four quarters into its slot, but Philly has an extra ace up his sleeve: he's immortal thanks to a sorcerer's curse. There's also more to Sam than meets the eye, and woe to anyone who endangers one of her new friends!
Review:

Cannon Busters carries an unusual pedigree as anime go. It is based on an early 2000s graphic novel by LeSean Thomas, an animator and comic book artist best-known for character designs and co-direction on the first two seasons of The Boondocks, a run on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, and writing/directing the Children of Ether animation for Crunchyroll. In 2014, Thomas successfully crowd-funded a pilot for an animated version, which was released in 2016. Netflix picked up the concept in 2017 and now, after various delays, the project has become a 12 episode series animated by studio Satelight.

The influences on the series are clear, as an overt homage to what made anime cool in the '90s and early 2000s. The most obvious references are Cowboy Bebop and Trigun, with perhaps some Outlaw Star mixed in, but the series as a whole is a mishmash of elements from a broad number of sources, flavored with more American sensibilities in terms of character archetypes. As a result, the series often comes across as an American animated series aping anime aesthetics, although the animation are distinctly Satelight's in style.

That mishmash of elements is both the greatest strength and one of the biggest weaknesses of the series. On the plus side, Cannon Busters is loaded with cool things sure to appeal to teens and fans of action cartoons. It has a massive convertible that uses an arcade game-like coin slot to change between various modes, with an interior space about the size of a small sailing vessel's cabin. It has a protagonist who returns to life from any kind of death, with a number tattoo on his body to indicate how many times he's died. (He's up to the late 30s by the end of the series.) It has robots with human behaviors, including one that can transform into the titular offensive weapon under the right circumstances. Later, there are appearances by ronin and ninja, cyborgs, an assassin who appears to be a little kid, and ancient magic. It also has some more graphic moments, with psychopathic hicks who skin their victims for clothing, a fair amount of swearing, moments of sexual innuendo, and even some near-nudity featuring a catgirl stripper. Then there's the eclectic setting, with Wild West frontier towns existing alongside advanced civilizations capable of recording all their knowledge digitally, including a floating city likely inspired by Zalem from Battle Angel.

The problem with all this eclectic design is that it doesn't come together well to generate consistent world-building. It feels like a mishmash of whatever the writer thought was cool, rather than a lived-in world with cohesive traits. For instance, animal people of all kinds are present without much development or exploration. And how are there ninja and ronin in a setting that otherwise looks Western-themed? Did they come from a distant land for some purpose? Primarily because of this, the series stumbles whenever it tries to explore more serious subject matter, but fortunately it does not try for drama on a regular basis, nor does the series have much ongoing plot beyond getting everyone to the keep while the Big Bad hunts them down.

However, the Rule of Cool that defines the series keeps these problems from being too great a drag on the story. Philly as the scummy anti-hero, Sam as the friend-obsessed airhead, and Casey as the little guy who finds no greater joy than in fixing things make for an entertaining central trio, and the series has no shortage of colorful characters in the supporting cast or villain side of things. There are also a number of flashy action sequences that are relatively well-animated even by Satelight's standards, including standout scenes featuring the drunken ronin. While the graphic content is not overwhelming, be sure that you can handle scenes of skinned corpses, severed limbs, and a body dissolving in acid before trying this title out. It is rated TV-MA for a reason. It also features some interesting character designs, including a female assassin who has no arms but manipulates floating clawed hands through some kinds of devices at her shoulders. On the downside, the animation quality is not flawlessly consistent, with minor deviations becoming more apparent especially in later episodes.

The music is likewise defined by its coolness. Opener “Showdown” is an upbeat jazzy number sung with English lyrics. Closer “Regardless,” which is also sung in English, is a more adult contemporary song that features visuals partly suggesting Sam's origin and early connection to Prince Kelby. The musical score in between varies between rock numbers, dramatic orchestration, and a mix of lightly jazzy and electronica sound – basically, whatever seems cool in the moment. While not a top-tier effort, it works well enough at supporting the series' high-spirited tone.

The English dub for the series is provided by NYAV Post. While Casey is played by long-time anime veteran Stephanie Sheh, others with more limited anime experience fill key roles like Philly and Sam. Despite that, the dub effort is flawlessly smooth and natural-sounding, with each actor getting fully into their roles despite some cheesy choices in accents and characterization. Alternate dubs in German, Spanish, French, and Japanese are available (though dubs in other languages are listed in the credits), with subtitle options including English, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

Maybe the most annoying thing about Cannon Busters is that its 12 episodes do not stand alone; the story is not even close to complete at the end of this season, with a major task still awaiting the motley assemblage of heroes and the Bodica part of the story not even close to being resolved. There's no indication yet of whether or not the series will get a second season, but overall, I can see this catching on more with casual anime fans than diehards, and it's definitely not fare that will catch on for its quality of storytelling. Still, there's enough verve and flash to the presentation that Cannon Busters should find an audience with fans of animated action.

Grade:
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B

+ Lots of cool factor, some interest design concepts
Tries to balance too many disparate elements, incomplete on its own

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Production Info:
Chief Director: LeSean Thomas
Director: Takahiro Natori
Series Composition: Matt Wayne
Storyboard: LeSean Thomas
Music:
Kevin Beggs
Bradley Denniston
Original creator: LeSean Thomas
Original Character Design: Thomas Romain
Character Design: Tetsuya Kumagai
Art Director: Ken Naito
Mechanical design: Taiyō Yoshida
Art design: Tsukasa Ohira
Sound Director: Takatoshi Hamano
Director of Photography: Honami Ōta
Executive producer:
Lee Hsu
Colin Lomax
Jerome Mazandarani
Mitsushi Ono
Alan Rudoff
Taiki Sakurai
Joe Simpson
LeSean Thomas
Simon Williams
Producer: Fumio Kaneko

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Cannon Busters (ONA)

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