Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 30, 2016


The facts in this case have come up once or twice before but I still feel the need to come clean. I am an anime fan. You’d think after an entire generation had been raised on “Pokemon,” there’d be less of a stigma about admitting you like Japanese cartoons. Yet in even 2016, you have lobbyists referring to anime in pejorative terms. I’m hardly an obsessive follower of the medium. I don’t keep up with the scene, I’ve never gone to an anime convention, and years sometimes passed between me watching a series. Yet I still consider kooky Japanese animation an essential part to my developing nerdom. Like many folks my age with an interest in this genre, a programming block called Toonami owes a lot of responsibility for this.

But it didn’t start that way. As a young child, I have vague recollections of seeing “Speed Racer” on television. Surely, I recognize the art style being different then American animation. Even then, my realization that these series came from another country came later. My older sister was dating a guy who was a dork. He was such a dork that he worked at a comic book shop. I was around six years old at the time when he brought over a VHS tape of something called “Ranma ½.” An action/comedy series about people who change gender, species, or shape when exposed to hot or cold water, “Ranma” also had some occasional female nudity. That was the obvious indication to me that these Japanese cartoons where different then what we have over here. I was intrigued, to say the very least.

Toonami – which I promise I’ll get to in a moment – did not emerge out of a vacuum. There was a rising interest in Japanese animation throughout the nineties. “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” had already hit. Video shops were starting to cater to the slowly growing market. I didn’t know about that stuff. TV was the way I saw Japanese cartoons. Anime must have been fairly cheap to acquire broadcast rights to. A number of shows where syndicated on weird channels at odd hours. I have vague recollection of “Teknoman” airing on Sunday mornings on my local UPN station. The same network would sometimes show “Dragon Ball Z” on weekday afternoons. At six in the morning before school, the WB station would show “Sailor Moon.” This show was a big deal for me. I was in the second grade at the time, which meant I couldn’t have been any older then seven. Not to be too blunt but those boom anime babes stirred something in me, the first time I can recall feeling a sexual attraction. Maybe that’s why I’m still fond of this genre of animation.

In the early nineties, Cartoon Network wasn’t the creature it is today. The cutting edge weirdness of Adult Swim and beloved neo-cult classics like “Adventure Time” were many years away. Instead, the network was initially built around old cartoons from Ted Turner’s archives. Which mostly consisted of Hanna-Barbera stuff, the occasional Loony Tune, and some newer programs like “Captain Planet” and “SWAT Cats.” Despite the apparent lack of quality on the schedule, I still watched Cartoon Network religiously. When Toonami premiered in 1997, it supplanted a programming block composed of reruns of “Super Friends” and “Jonny Quest.” “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” the grandfather of Adult Swim’s stoned-out weirdness, had already premiered. Toonami was initially hosted by the incarnation of Moltar from that show.

Those host segments are what made Toonami truly memorable, at first. I can still recall seeing one of the earliest first promo. There was a cartoon flying saucer zipping through space, zooming over a building on a moon’s surface, and brief glances at the CGI Moltar. The earliest programming on Toonami was not that distinct from what Cartoon Network normally showed. The latest alliteration of “Jonny Quest” was included, as where the Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoons. Yet one show glimpsed in the promos caught my eye: Giant robot lions combining to form an even bigger robot. As a pop culture phenomenon, “Power Rangers” had already peaked. Yet the similarity between the live-action series and the cartoon attracted my attention. Despite the sketchy animation and predictable stories, I ate “Voltron” up.

“Voltron” must have been a hit for the young Toonami. Though “Super Friends” and “Birdman” would stick around for a while, the entire programming block would soon be built around Japanese imports. “Robotech” was de-mothballed and reintroduced to a new generation. (I watched “Robotech” but, even as a kid, I found the mixture of giant robots, J-Idol pop music, and sci-fi politics to be a little melodramatic.) “Sailor Moon” soon joined the network, new episodes translated and dubbed, my passion for the series being reignited. “Ronin Warriors,” a similarly themed action show, would join the schedule a little later. Toonami is where “Dragon Ball Z” would find its audience, becoming a beloved pop culture fad in its own right. Even then “Dragon Ball” was more violent then most American action cartoons, which gave the show a certain edge. Like a lot of kids the time, I became a huge “DBZ” fan. The violence and stylized action hooked me but the escalating conflicts are what kept me watching.

All the above anime had something in common: The shows had already aired in syndication, the process of dubbing and re-cutting for American audiences already handled. I doubt the Cartoon Network executives expected much from Toonami. Instead, the programming block became appointment viewing for kids my age. “Dragon Ball Z,” especially, would become a huge hit. The network was obviously unprepared for that demand. The first 53 episodes of “DBZ” – what was originally included in the syndication package – would re-air endlessly, while new episodes were translated, dubbed, and edited. By that time that happened, it was an event.

It wasn’t just the focus on Japanese animation that made Toonami the hip thing to watch for young nerds. The block’s format drew us in. A host would greet you, introducing each show. Each series was introduced by a montage of scenes from the show, accompanied by rock and dance music. Starting in July of 1999, this aspect of Toonami would be emphasized. Moltar was traded out for T.O.M., a cute helmeted robot. Moltar’s Ghost Planet was traded out for the Absolution, a space craft that floated through space. The CGI budget was given an obvious boost. Low volume trance and electronic music would play during these segments, creating a specific mode. T.O.M. was sarcastic and hip, gently ribbing the shows and letting the viewer know what to expect. Toomani would even air music videos, composed of clips from the various shows and accompanied by semi-philosophical monologues. All of this combined to create a comfortable, likable atmosphere, breeding a fierce loyalty in viewers. Toonami felt like it was made just for the fans, as it didn’t talk down or make fun. Every day from four to six, it was a safe place you could hang out.

The popularity of “Dragon Ball” and “Sailor Moon” created a renewed demand for Japanese animation. Soon, Toonami started airing shows that I had never even heard of. I remember naively thinking that there couldn’t have been that much Japanese animation left. Because kids are dumb. A flood of new series would come to Toonami over the next four years. “Gundam Wing” would introduce the sprawling, ever-green “Gundam” franchise to American shores. The awesome robot designs, kinetic action, and serious seeming plot lines made me a fan of this show too. (As an adult, I recognize the show as self-important and humorless. The robots are still cool though.) Various other “Gundam” series, some of them better than others, would also air on Toonami. “Outlaw Star;” because of its memorable characters, sly sense of humor, fully-formed world, and lovely music; still holds up. “The Big O” also had a wonderful cast, some gorgeous animation, and fantastic art design.

One of the reasons anime appealed to cranky teenagers like me is because it was edgier then American cartoons. The shows were bloodier, sexier, and more serious then U.S.-produced toons, even after editing and censoring. In other words, the cartoons were growing up with us. Out of the fine and not-so-fine shows Toonami brought to my attention, “Tenchi Muyo!” is doubtlessly my favorite. The “Tenchi” franchise was honestly a weird choice for Toonami. The shows focused more on romance and comedy then action. The first series also had a lot of nudity, which Cartoon Network awkwardly covered up with digitally drawn-on swimsuits. Toonami also aired the three then-existing TV shows back-to-back, despite each show existing in its own continuity. This was very confusing for me. Despite this, the show still connected with audiences. Including me. The vivid, lovable characters, with their distinct interactions, still resonate with me. The “Tenchi” multi-verse also has a complex mythology, appealing character designs, and functions on some basic wish-fulfillment premises. Such as a nerdy guy having half a dozen babes throwing themselves at him. Or an ordinary person learning they’re secretly super-powered royalty.

Toonami’s host speaking directly to the audience made us feel included. The music videos, hyper show intros, and ambient soundtrack gave the programming block a personality of its own. T.O.M. and his computer sidekick eventually earned a fan following of their own. The robot would review video games and movies, which is how I learned about “Princess Mononoke.” (Toonami would also sometimes show movies, which is this essay’s tenuous connection to this blog’s film focus.) Cartoon Network realized we liked T.O.M. In 2000, Toonami aired “The Intruder,” a mini-series played between the various shows over the course of a week. In it, T.O.M. fought an alien organism invading his ship. In the end, his cute, squat body was destroyed, allowing T.O.M. to gain a beefier new form. Beloved voice-acting vet Steven Blum provided T.O.M.’s new pipes. Truthfully, “The Intruder” was done primarily to promote Cartoon Network’s new website. That didn’t stop it from feeling like an event.

In its original form, Toonami ran from 1997 to 2008, an unprecedented run for a programming block. By the time Toonami ended in 2008, I had long fallen out of love with it. Long before then, I had become disillusioned with “Dragon Ball Z.” The show’s flaws – the repetitive storylines, never ending filler, characters lacking depth – became apparent to me. In 2002, Toonami started airing “Hamtaro.” A children series about the comic adventures of sickeningly cute hamsters, “Hamtaro” was totally at odds with Toonami’s usual programming. Around the same time, new versions of American cartoons like “He-man,” “Transformers,” and “G.I. Joe” started to fill the hours. I also felt this was a betrayal of Toonami’s mission statement, moving the focus away from Japanese animation. (I must have had a short memory, since American cartoons were a part of Toonami from the beginning.)

The final straw came in 2003. By then, I had moved passed the anime series Cartoon Network approved for me. I started collecting on DVD, focusing on shows with more mature themes, watching in their original language. Cartoon Network shared some fault for this, as the Adult Swim block had started by then, providing me with edgier shows. TechTV – a topic for a future Memories column – was also airing anime by this point, providing more intellectually stimulating shows. In February of 2003, Toonami premiered Giant Robot Week. For five days, they aired episodes of “Evangelion” and “Nadesico.” The shows were heavily edited, to the point of incoherence. I was already a fan of “Evangelion” and found the network’s handling disgraceful. Now, I realize I overreacted. At the time, this was the breaking point. I washed my hands of Toonami. When the programming block was canceled in 2008, I hadn’t pay attention in years.

In the years since Toonami’s 2008 conclusion, the series became a nerd culture touchstone. An entire generation of anime nerds – people far more devoted to the medium than I – had their passion ignited. If you’re around my age and like Japanese cartoons, you probably have Toonami to thank for that. I’ve felt that nostalgia too. Fans clamored so loudly for Toonami’s return that Cartoon Network had to listen. The programming block first returned in 2012 as an April Fools Day gag on the Adult Swim block, itself an institution by this point. The next year, Toonami officially returned, taking over the network on Saturday nights. The new Toonami blatantly patterns itself after the block’s 1999-2003 glory days while airing shows that never would’ve flown in that original time slot. I’ll check on the new Toonami occasionally. (“Kill la Kill” is on my wavelength.) I admire the network’s move but the passion just isn’t there for me anymore. When I feel the need to watch some anime today, I usually just streamed it somewhere.

Yet I have a lot of fond memories to thank Toonami for. For example! I first bonded with JD – the guy who co-hosts the Bangers n’ Mash Show with me and one of my closest friends – over our mutual interest in “Dragon Ball.” Moreover, the sense of fun and discovery the programming block created in me sticks in my brain. During some turbulent teenage years, Toonami was a source of fun, excitement, and even comfort. There will be other attempts to recapture the feeling, even after Adult Swim’s most recent revival ends. But you can never quite perfectly capture the past.

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