The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
I still remember April Fool's Day 2012, when the switch flipped and the anime dork conversation shifted from “Will they ever bring Toonami back?” to “When will they bring Toonami back? How soon?” It was because of a PR stunt, with the cable TV network running a late-nite redux of the action cartoon block, which once ruled a significant portion of the cable TV landscape in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Intriguingly, the telecast was a huge hit on social media, and just two months later, the block's return was announced—but not as a weekday afternoon lark, but as a late-Saturday-night affair.
That move made sense. The audience for the block is a little older nowadays, and Cartoon Network's weekday afternoons are now dominated by its own programming, which is a hit with kids and a better moneymaker for them. I admit to feeling a twinge of disappointment at this news—I think there's still a bit of room for anime on weekday cable TV, but let's be honest, wanting Toonami back in the after-school hours is really just me pining for a time when I'd rush home from my lousy, entry-level job to see what had happened on that day's G-Gundam telecast. Several shows were resurrected with Toonami's return, like The Big O and Eureka Seven, but there are a number of shows that slipped through the cracks after the block's mid-decade heights. Let's have a look at some of them.
Ronin Warriors’ arrival on broadcast TV in 1995 was kind of startling. Anime on TV was starting to feel almost ordinary, with broadcasts of Dragonball, Sailor Moon, and Teknoman debuting at the usual fall premiere time, but Ronin Warriors didn't arrive until the summer—it was a bona fide midseason replacement. A sturdy, modestly-edited localization of the 1988 Sunrise series Yoroiden Samurai Troopers, the show had some support despite its odd arrival time, including a set of action figures that sold hilariously poorly, allowing me to buy ‘em up for 99 cents each months after the fact. A few years later, Ronin Warriors was the first TV series to premiere on the emerging Toonami block, which had just rolled out its new host, a canny, wisecracking CG robot called Tom.
But what was Ronin Warriors? It was part of a small boom of “boys in armor” shows, series where the protagonists, inevitably a team of several color-coded personality archetypes, would suit up in mystical armor, build friendships, battle evil, and suffer heroically. The standard-bearer is Saint Seiya, though interestingly that TV series was stumbling and would face cancellation at about the same time that Ronin Warriors, plus the similarly-themed Shurato from Tatsunoko, were first hitting the airwaves in Japan. Here, protagonist Ryo suits up to fight the evil Talpa with his compatriots Rowen, Kento, Sage, and Cye, each of them bearing color-coded armor with different elemental powers. What made Ronin Warriors so interesting at the time of its airing was that its localization wasn't that intrusive—a few names were changed or simplified (my favorite example will always be changing a bad guy's name from “Anubis” to “Kale” and another bad guy's name from “Shuten Doji” to “Anubis.” Why didn't they think “Anubis” was right for the original character?! And what did they have against kale? The stuff's delicious!), but the show's brisk, action-packed storyline and fight scenes were left mostly untouched. It's common to see that approach now, but in the late 90s, it was anything but common. The show became a cult hit in Japan, leading to OVA sequels. It followed a similar path here, instead spawning a mountain of fan fiction and consistently high demand for the DVDs.
I mentioned Ronin Warriors’ toys, because toys are a very important part of getting cartoons on TV. When Toonami first started, its offerings—fare like Sailor Moon and G-Force—either had toy lines that were a bit moribund or nonexistent. But as the block grew, much like so many anime shows in Japan, its fate was tied to toys. Gundam Wing, plus a lot of other shows, were leveraged onto Cartoon Network in trade for toy commercial airtime. Later, shows debuted as obvious vehicles for toys, card games, and other detritus—shows like Duel Masters, D.I.C.E. (anyone watch that? Anyone…?) and Hamtaro. To me, one of the toy-commercial shows stood apart, and that was Zoids.
Zoids, a line of snap-together motorized robot animals (my favorite!) from Tomy, has actually been around since 1982. In the 1980s, they were one of those toy lines that didn't have a cartoon or comic book tie-in—all of the story details were printed on the boxes, and you were left to use your imagination to fill in the details. The toys sold well enough in North America that Tomy, facing sagging sales of the line back in Japan under the title Mechabonica, swiped and used the U.S. release name for a relaunch. It worked! Twenty years later, history would repeat itself with the Zoids animation.
Toonami's Zoids cartoon was Zoids: New Century, which debuted in 2001. Despite the really obvious toy stuff, I always thought this was a really, really good fit for the block, a series I always found myself watching despite my lack of interest in the toys at that point. Protagonist Bit Cloud (love that name) may have been a typical shonen hero, but it was fun to watch him build a team of Zoids pilots around him, he had an amusingly rough relationship with his robot, Liger, and the show was filled out by adversaries and enemies that were just as fun to watch as the good guys. With the show performing well, more Zoids episodes were needed, and the solution was pretty clever—in Japan, the show had a predecessor, Zoids: Chaotic Century, with a storyline that took place millennia before New Century. With its rougher character designers and noticeably simpler, clunkier CG a little too obvious to bill it as a prequel, the show was redubbed “Classic Zoids” and shown on the block. That part about Japan taking back from the brand's success in the US I mentioned earlier? That would manifest itself again in Zoids Fuzors, a follow-up series that was actually created for U.S. broadcast, but soon dubbed for airing in Japan as well. At that point, the public was getting tired of motorized robot dinosaurs for some inexplicable reason, and Fuzors was quietly cancelled halfway through its run. The final follow-up, 2005's Zoids Genesis, was announced to air on Toonami Jetstream but strangely never materialized.
Oh my god, I just remembered that Toonami Jetstream existed! Nowadays, streaming anime is something we all do, but the Toonami gang was experimenting with it as early as 2001, with an online service called Toonami Reactor. Reactor ran some of the TV content, along with shows that didn't air on the block, like Star Blazers and Harlock Saga. Reactor eventually gave way to Toonami Jetstream, launched in 2006 when video services like YouTube were starting to take off. Jetstream's appeal was a little more obvious—rather than simply offering low-quality streams of content that was already out there, it was a mixture of catalog shows, recently broadcast stuff, and premieres. I had my eye on a couple of these premieres: Eyeshield 21 and Kiba.
At first, it was hard for me to take Eyeshield 21 seriously—anime about football? Dai-Apollon already tried that, and how could you top mixing good old American football with super robots? Turns out that manga writer Riichiro Inagaki and artist Yusuke Murata took to the task quite handily, infusing the gladiatorial game with sports manga tropes we all know and love, and keeping the tone very lighthearted. The result was a hit in Japan, and given the popularity of the NFL and college football here, it was only a matter of time before we saw it pop up. But instead of home video or TV, it popped up on Jetstream, complete with some sort of weird NFL branding. The service only ran five dubbed episodes before the title quietly disappeared, only to resurface years later on home video, in a subtitled-only Sentai Filmworks release that also didn't make it to the endzone. (Anyone got those dubbed episodes? They seem to have been forgotten…) Nowadays, the NFL makes their own cartoons, but you have to wonder if they'd done it without Eyeshield 21’s example.
Kiba was another premiere title on Toonami Jetstream, and one that I mainly recall as a hallmark of the anime boom's halting disintegration. Trading card games like Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh were a big deal, which led to a slew of imitators, some of which I mentioned in this column. Kiba seemed to be another entry in that vein, financed by Upper Deck Japan and featuring a rougher, more action-packed storyline. The series was dubbed and released on home video by ADV Films, but here's the kicker—that crucial product tie-in, the card game? Never happened over here. If you go searching for “kiba cards,” you'll get Naruto cards featuring the guy named Kiba from that show. Instead, Upper Deck supplied more and more Yu-Gi-Oh cards, until Konami sued them to make them stop. That had to be a heartbreaker for ADV Films, which sorely needed a hit and were going from convention to convention, flogging their DVDs and the forthcoming card game angle. The TV series, a fantasy adventure, did get dubbed in its entirety. It's not bad, but without a supporting product, it sank without making an impression.
Let's step back from anime bust of the mid-2000s and look at one of Toonami's early success stories: Blue Submarine no. 6. Blue Sub was a prestige project right from the beginning, Bandai's first anime OVA release that was an entirely digital 2D/3D hybrid, courtesy of the wizards at Gonzo. Featuring a story and visuals radically revised by author Satoru Ozawa from his original 1960s manga, Blue Sub no. 6 features a drug-addicted hero, humankind pushed to the brink of extinction by rising sea levels and an ascendant race of hybrid animal-humans, a mad scientist behind it all, and the only thing pushing back: a cool, state-of-the-art submarine with the best crew in the world. The whole thing is pinned together by my favorite single element, a hard-changing, brassy jazz soundtrack by the Thrill.
It's kind of hard to explain just how daring and weird Blue Submarine no. 6 was when it came out on video, nevermind TV. But Toonami broadcast it over the course of a week in 2000, feeding the public's hunger for action animation, and would later re-run it both piecemeal and as a single special. It's funny, when Blue Sub came out, I was left a bit cold by its visuals, lamenting what I saw as a lost opportunity to create a swingin’ retro-futuristic remake of the Cold War-era manga. In retrospect, Blue Sub's aged pretty well.
In the mid-2000s, Toonami was in ascendancy. Its mixture of American action cartoon reruns and first-run anime was proving potent, captivating kids, teens, and twentysomethings alike. But hey, why license anime when you could produce your own? It was during this period that Cartoon Network overall was slowly shifting their resources towards producing more and more of their own stuff, keeping their money in-house—a savvy move. So it made sense to get their own anime made, and after a pilot micro-series performed well, the network teamed up with Bandai Entertainment, Production I.G., and the dubbing studio Bang Zoom to produce IGPX.
Over the years, I've spoken casually to a few people involved with IGPX—producer Ken Iyadomi, I.G. studio chief Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, I.G. USA's Maki Terashima-Furuta, plus some of the actors. Every single one I've spoken to has gotten a sort of sad thousand-mile stare in their eyes when discussing it, because every involved party really poured their hearts into it, and it was a pretty huge flop. It had real talent behind it on both sides of the pond, with direction by Koichi Mashimo and a cast of real-deal movie stars, like Haley Joel Osment, Michelle Rodriguez, and Lance Henriksen. But it stumbled hard out of the gate, featuring a premiere episode with no actual racing (not a good idea when your show is about racing), and folks just didn't tune in. They kept not tuning in until the full-length version of the show - which aired as part of the Saturday-only Toonami block - was yanked midway through the second season and shuffled off to die quietly on Fridays.
I look back at IGPX, and to me the biggest problem is obvious: the pilot micro-series, a slick, kinetic ride about robot pilots battling it out, is a little too different from the TV series, a slightly more meditative show about the people who pilot racing robots that also happen to be equipped for combat. Still, the show's sponsors spent big on it, there were tie-in products like video games, and it failed to reach the finish line. I hate to say it, because you watch the show and can tell its creators worked their asses off to create something cool and different, but to me IGPX failure to make an impression is the definitive moment when the western anime market started to deflate. Happily, the series is rounding back and will do another lap on a new home video release soon. I'm looking forward to revisiting it, and seeing how the old jalopy holds up.
For me, the absolute best Toonami show that wound up airing on Adult Swim's "action block" instead (I could've sworn this aired on Toonami but I was corrected by several eagle-eyed forumgoers) is s-CRY-ed. Yes, it has an incomprehensibly dumb title that never really intersects with the show's plot or characters. Its characters are some of the most flat, by-the-numbers stereotypes you'll see in anime, featuring a good guy who's determined to overcome all odds (Sample dialogue: “If the source of our power exists, I'll find it—and if it doesn't exist, I'll still find it!”) and an antagonist who's trying to save all you idiots, why won't you listen. Our hero, the hot-blooded Kazama, fights bad guys by punching them with his beefed-up right arm over and over again. Other characters use their alter powers to conjure up a bizarre, nonsensical variety of magical appendages, robots, and vehicles with which to do battle, all in the name of capturing a section of old Tokyo ravaged by earthquakes. I can't explain how or why it works, but it does.
s-CRY-ed never got much in the way of toys or supporting products over here, except a tie-in manga that was no damn good. But Japan's always given the show some respect, with Story Image Figures and Figuarts figures coming out steadily in recent years. There was even a 10th-anniversary revival in 2011, a pair of digest movies featuring some reworked animation and changed story details. Despite the already threadbare story suffering from the compression, these movies, entitled s-CRY-ed: Alteration, really hold up—they don't always look great (upscaling old digipaint animation is very chancy) but they're full of crazy action and fun dialogue. And hey, even if you don't like Kazama's rote fiery-young-man dance, just watch it for Straight Cougar, an older hero who does battle using his blazingly fast legs and incessantly flapping gums. With the show long forgotten in the west, these movies are sitting in limbo. Hey Toonami, how about airing ‘em?
Toonami was an engine that drove a lot of success for the shows we love back in the day—it made Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z household names, introduced the American TV-watching public to Gundam and Outlaw Star, and made fans from coast to coast crave the look and style of action animation from Japan. But as fun as it is to remember the big hits, it's also fun to look back at weirder moments, like those Tenchi Muyo videocassettes and toys at K-Mart, that Reel Big Fish song that served as the theme for Rave Master, and the way that the gloriously incomprehensible Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo used to anchor the Friday Toonami broadcast. In light of all that: what's your favorite Toonami also-ran, a show that never hit it big that deserves a second look? Talk it up in the comments!
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