Feature: Grading Toonami, Show By Show – The Fall Expansion (#2)

There was a not-so-wise Toronto rap star who once spoke the bars of “started from the bottom, now we’re here.” In a way, the same could be said for the resurgence of Toonami, from its 2012 relaunch up to its current point of high-profile programs and premieres. It wasn’t all high-caliber snags and appointment television, no, things started out on the more affordable side of the coin at the start. But with enough eyeballs noticing, it could very well lead the way to some bigger game, such was the case three months into the revival, with added timeslots and them picking up some of the more affordable pickings available at the time: a Funimation bargain-bin deal, a Bandai deal in exchange for some ad spots, and two pickings from the “not the right audience for Cartoon Network” shelf.

Hey, we all gotta start – or in this case, restart – somewhere, right?

Samurai 7 (August 18, 2012 – February 9, 2013)

Right away, we have a show from deep within Funimation’s catalogue, one that has seen television presence long before this, and it’s a rather interesting show at that. Samurai 7 is, essentially, the anime version of Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed film The Seven Samurai, and while the film tells a tale about a group of samurai in Kanna Village fighting on the behest of farmers to protect their crops from bandits, the anime tells almost the exact story, only the group of samurai are instead hired to protect Kanna Village from bandits collectively known as the Nobuseri. Who have robot parts. And want to destroy and pillage regardless of crops. Trust me, it makes sense in context. And quick note, one of the main characters, Kikuchiyo, is also a robot with an exoskeleton. Again, context. It’s a tale full of a motley crew of characters: the wise veteran Kanbei and his comrade and confidant Shichiroji, the whiny and inexperienced Katsushiro, the skilled and crafty Gorobei, the ever cock-eyed optimist Heihachi (no relation to Mishima), the silent killer Kyuzo, and Kikuchiyo. Who I just mentioned is a robot, but a very jovial robot at that, inexperienced at samurai work as he may be. And all under the watch of Kanna Village’s mikumari Kirara, our ragtag group is set on protecting the village from the mechanical Nobuseri, with some payment of food along the way as well. And did I mention this was a GONZO joint? That would explain the janky CG scattered all around, at an unheard-of production price tag of roughly $300,000 per episode. In 2004.

Samurai 7 plays out in an episodic fashion with its layout, spending the first half of the show introducing the main protagonists before leading into its second half with the bulk of its storyline, which… well, let’s say that this show is pretty dang perfect for Toonami, as it focuses on action right in the foreground, at the expense of the character arcs and the main storyline, which can certainly feel a bit overlooked when most of the time is spent on the action scenes, impressive as they may be. And speaking of, let’s talk about that storyline element: expanding the plot of a film from 1954 into a 26-episode anime will definitely lead to some changes and additions, what with the robot elements and the steampunk and science-fiction atmosphere at play. But were these good changes made? Honestly, I’d call it a double-edged sword. Sure, it plays out like a very action-packed anime, but when you take the action element away, you’re left with some, if not most, of the characters feeling very one-note with not a lot of depth to them. The series, itself, is still enjoyable on its own merits, though, with more focus on the action scenes and elements, but do know that there are some demerits to be found below the skin surface of the show.

It’s readily available on home video and through streaming platforms, and it’s a show I’d recommend only in part: stay for the spectacle, because the story – or lack thereof – will leave you scratching your head a bit.

Grade: C+

Samurai 7 performed solid enough, even when bumped down from its 12:30 timeslot, but the show does lack that extra element of character in favor of more solid action, both to the show’s detriment and benefit, but only slightly for the latter.

Eureka Seven (August 18, 2012 – August 10, 2013)

Set 10,000 years in the future, Eureka Seven tells the story of a young man named Renton who has found himself lost in life, lost in the shadow of his late father’s heroism, trapped in a small town with nothing for him to reach out for besides lifting, or “air surfing.” It makes sense in context. All seems to be doldrum until one day, a giant mecha piloted by an interesting young woman named Eureka drops right into his house – and quite literally, at that. Soon after, Renton finds himself embarking in a different kind of life, among a ragtag group known as Gekkostate, but as things go forward, Renton will soon embark on a journey far bigger than he could have ever dreamed of. Heck of a sell, right?

Now, I’m only just scratching the surface on what this show has to offer, because there is a LOT to unpack in its 50-episode run with its wide group of characters, deeper elements of prejudice in some episodes, a much larger science-fiction element, a sprinkling of political intrigue, and romance. Boy howdy, the romance part of this show between Renton and Eureka played a pretty big role in Funimation’s marketing of this show, didn’t it? And for the record, the greatest love story ever animated isn’t Eureka Seven, it’s Yuri!!! On ICE. Just saying. But anyway, yes, with that element added in, it makes Eureka Seven a bit of a strong package deal; there’s an element of everything in this show, be it action, drama, romance, mecha, psychedelia, mystery, micro-political commentary, and surfing in the air. But one big point that this show has in its favor? LOTS of deep-cut pop culture references ingrained into the characters, up and down the show. Renton and his sister Diane were named after the characters Mark Renton and Diane Coulston from the film Trainspotting, their father Adroc is a nod to “Ad-Rock” Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, their last name is a reference to Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth, their grandfather and his wife are named Axl and Rose (as in Axl Rose from Guns ’n’ Roses), one episode is just a full-on homage to Captain Tsubasa, there are nods to famous poets and sci-fi writers and novels all over, and that’s just the start of the homages found in this series. And when you add in some very impressive mecha design and animation from the folks at BONES, you come out with a very, very unique program that’s equal parts visually stunning and emotionally charming.

I may be in the minority when it comes to Eureka Seven, given the reception among the audience seems to be more mixed than anything else, but I really adore this show, it’s one of my favorite anime titles, one that I was glad to catch during its past runs on Adult Swim in the late 2000s, and it’s a show I was very happy to see get a second shot on TV thanks to Bandai Entertainment, right before they announced their closure. And thankfully, Funimation has brought it back from that licensing purgatory for many more to discover and enjoy. This is a show I can’t recommend enough, it is well worth your time to discover, or even re-discover.

Also, regarding that sequel-of-sorts called AO? Big. Fat. NO. To. That. AO was garbage and you all know it. Keep it far away from television.

Grade: A-

Eureka Seven is one of the pound-for-pound strongest titles in BONES’ catalog, and even though it found its way pushed down to 2:30am (and 3:00 for its final three episodes), its audience remained fairly consistent and strong throughout. Highly recommended, as well.

Sym-Bionic Titan (October 6, 2012 – July 20, 2013; March 8 – July 20, 2014)

Alright, let’s get this out of the way early, ahem…


There, satisfied? Good, moving on.

Here we have the last project for Cartoon Network by one Genndy Tatakovsky (for now, anyway), a fun little show called Sym-Bionic Titan, a show that’s one part Ultraman and Kikaider, one part Voltron, a few parts The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, and all wrapped in a nice bow with some Castle in the Sky sprinklings in parts. Along with Brian Posehn supplying his usual bit of awesomeness. It’s a tale of an intergalactic trio of the princess of Galaluna, Ilana, a rogue soldier in Lance, and their robot companion Octus, whom have escaped their planet for the protection of the royalty on board, finding refuge in small-town Illinois and assuming new roles of “ordinary” high schoolers. Of course, that won’t stop any intergalactic monster battles and military fights from going on, but when you come from a faraway planet, that’s the kind of baggage you carry with you. But on the plus side, it makes for a remarkably great 20-episode run, so much so that Adult Swim aired a bump to promote it back in 2010 – that’s how you know you have a winner, folks.

And yes, sadly, this was a “misfit toy” from the mainline Cartoon Network shelf, just sitting around before – presumably – someone at Adult Swim called them up and said, “Hey, uh, we need some programs to fill our expanded slots,” and they gave them a double-shot of shows that didn’t move toys-I mean, find the right audiences-I MEAN… yeah, you get the idea. So while there wasn’t ever a chance for there to be a revival of this show – and later on in a more permanent manner – it was very nice for those who missed it the first time around to get a look at it, myself included. It is an excellent show that’s chock full of some great animation, a fine cast of characters with a bevy of emotional investment and depth, and much like Eureka Seven, it likes to throw in a pop culture reference or two, such as the “Jerk Store” or the fact that its location of Sherman, Illinois is, in itself, a nod to John Hughes.

Also, sadly, as much as I would like to recommend this show to everyone, it has since become a write-off for Cartoon Network, and it hasn’t been released on DVD (except in Australia) nor is it legally streaming anywhere. So if you haven’t seen this show, and you want to watch it in full, be ready to put $30 down on iTunes for all 20 episodes.

Grade: B

While Sym-Bionic Titan is full of strong writing and great animation work with Tartakovsky at the helm, it was a bit of a tougher sell for some folks and stayed put past 2am for the bulk of its run. The show would get a second airing in 2014, but it being written off by the network ended that run prematurely, I’m sad to say.

Thundercats (October 6, 2012 – July 20, 2013)

Now we come to the second of the misfit toys, the 2011 Thundercats revival. And boy, isn’t the timing for this fantastic. So let’s just ignore that giant elephant in the room and carry on with this, it’s for the best. As it pertains to this incarnation, this was a production between Warner Bros. and Studio 4C, hence the very anime-looking aesthetic going on, and with it came a gritter, more… well, anime-looking storyline to it all. You have the same core cast, Lion-O and Tygra, Cheetara and the “Wily-” kids, and of course you have Panthro and the big bad of Mumm-Ra making up the main cast for this remake/reboot of sorts. And it did make for a very solid show, with higher stakes, heightened drama and suspense, and some pretty strong characters with the reimagining of the main cast; they even made Snarf – SNARF – more likable by taking away his voice and making him more like… well, like a cat. Of course, there are some of those usual anime tropes to be found, like the belligerent romantic tension angle and those trademark anime-style eyes, but that’s all really just window dressing for a series that not only starts off really strong, but performed very well on TV, both in its original CN broadcast and later on Toonami; it managed to get bumped UP from its 2:30am slot to 1am by mid-December, with a 33% increase in viewers… granted, there was another reason at play for the bump, but that’ll come next time. Back on focus, it has a hot start and it’s drawing people to stay tuned – more people than expected, really – so it looked like a nearly-perfect addition for the block.

And then the second half of the show happened. And all of the critical good will I had for this show just went up in flames. Now, I won’t go too deep into spoiler territory, but here’s just a bit of the stuff that happened in the second half of Thundercats 2011: Lion-O gets, in a way, a vote of “no confidence,” the romantic tension is deemed void with Cheetara and Tygra becoming the canon de-facto power couple out of no-flipping-where, WilyKit and WilyKat turn into useless annoying children who become known just for their “Rankin-Bass” spell (yes, intentional reference), a good bit of time is wasted on do-nothing one-offs, and most egregious of all, after Pumyra is introduced the show does a last-episode reveal that she is, in fact, in cahoots with Mumm-Ra for… uh… reasons that are never explained. Mostly because the show was cancelled and more episodes were never made for broadcast, but still, don’t let that distract you from the fact that they turned Pumyra into a vindictive and manipulative villain, and it all amounts to it being a pointless and purposeless heel turn that caused far more damage that this show just didn’t need. Which, yeah, in the original Rankin-Bass TV show? Not a villain. Nowhere CLOSE to being a villain.

This show just bothers me in ways that it shouldn’t. It really is a tale of two shows, the first half is strong and solid and sets a great tone and pace, and then the second half comes in and just wastes all of that with too harsh of a tonal shift and some pretty inconsistent character writing across the board. I mean, sure, it’s great that they made Panthro resemble Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop, but that’s not enough to save a show from falling off a cliff and having a pretty bad crash at the end, ESPECIALLY with that unnecessary Pumyra heel turn. As it stands, I can’t really recommend this show to anyone except those who are really curious about the series as a whole, but for those interested, Warner Archive has the series available on Blu-ray.

All of that said, at the very least, we had this exchange in the first episode:

Lion-O: “I’m going to ring that bell.”
Tygra: “And I’m going to ring yours.” *wink*

Hilarious brotherly innuendos. Always welcomed by me.

Grade: C
Thundercats was certainly a bigger draw than anticipated, earning an earlier 1am timeslot and even breaking a million viewers a few times, but the quality of writing in its second half and its inconclusive cliffhanger ending cause this show to leave a really bad taste in some viewers’ mouths, mine included.

Going into the fall with a full six-hour schedule, things were looking to be on the up and up, especially with some surprisingly strong pickups to fill the slots. And next time, as we head out of 2012 and into 2013, we’ll be taking a look at the first feature film to grace the revival, as well as get a dose of modern shonen spookiness, the return of an anchor, and a show that I think we can all agree was a big… big… BIG mistake. And I don’t forget very easily, either.

To be continued…

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