Feature: Grading Toonami, Show By Show – The Start of ’14 (#7)

Going into 2014, there was already a good amount of intrigue for what Toonami would get throughout the year, with one big question looming on the horizon: what happens when Bleach finally ends? The end was drawing near for the long-standing series, but more than that, there was one other question on the minds of some folks:

What the hell is Space Dandy?

Space Dandy (January 4, 2014 – January 31, 2015; January 27, 2018 – Present)

Well, to answer that question, he’s a dandy guy. In space.

Okay, in all seriousness, this show was kind of a big deal when it premiered, given the circumstances of the show itself. For one, this was a comedy-centric series from acclaimed director Shinichiro Watanabe – you know, the guy who directed Cowboy f-ing Bebop – and for two, this was a series premiering in America before Japan. That kind of thing seldom ever happens, both then and now, so right off the bat, this show had a ton of hype and anticipation to it. Whether or not it delivered on that is all up to the individual viewer because, remember, this is primarily a comedy anime airing on Toonami and not a full-on action anime.

So what is the show about? Hijinks. Lots and lots of interstellar hijinks, everything from restaurant-hopping for the perfect ramen bowl to a zombie outbreak a la Dawn of the Dead, a galaxy-wide auto race for supremacy, and for some reason Bryce Papenbrook is a sentient ukulele. Who knew? But along with that, the series is a full-on animator showcase, with different producers and directors working on the show, with notable big names such as Shingo Natsume, Sayo Yamamoto, and even Masaaki Yuasa contributing to work on the series among many, many more. And with that taken into consideration, it’s worth noting that each episode are, for the most part, self-contained with no real connection to each episode aside from everything revolving around the trio of Dandy, QT, and Meow. Who is totally a space cat.

Alas, Space Dandy wasn’t a hit with everyone, really. Some weren’t too into the whole comedy aspect of this… which is kinda weird, since said folks are usually the ones that want Toonami to go beyond the confines of action. I think I can sum it up like this: “Well, we wanted different, but not this different. Kinda like… you know, Nichijou different.” Can’t win them all, if ever. But if you’re in the mood for something a bit off the beaten path that’s chock full of charming fun, intergalactic humor, and a good bit of “sakuga porn,” I would definitely recommend Space Dandy very high.

Also, in a way, Space Dandy is kind of responsible for the shift in business for anime companies such as Funimation and Sentai Filmworks, from tighter partnerships both domestic and abroad to a good chunk of shows getting the “simul-dub” treatment, a treatment that was revived thanks to the hard work put in for Space Dandy. It changed an entire business, what other show can say that? (Don’t answer, it’s rhetorical.)

When first hearing about Space Dandy, I was very excited about this from the start and with it being directed by one of my favorite anime director Shinichiro Watanabe (well, he’s the general director while Shingo Natsume got the ‘director’ title), I was psyched. I didn’t expect for it to simulcast at the same time as Toonami got it with an English dub that premiered a day before the Japanese airing did. This wasn’t just an anime premiere, it was an event! Man, it was a thrill ride from start to finish with this series as this is a bit different from the usual norm since Space Dandy is more of a comedy and it came through with outrageous and hilarious characters like the title character himself with his crew QT and Meow, the crazy adventures they go through in these episodic-but-not-really episodes, the visual styles of whoever is directing the episode (examples being Saya Yamamoto to Masaaki Yuasa) and its groovy music. Not to mention while the series is funny, there is definitely some genuine touching moments that make your heart sing, get emotional or have you screaming “Why didn’t Dandy and Scarlet got together?” at that one episode. The dub is also stellar with performances from Ian Sinclair, Alison Victorin and Joel McDonald as the main trio and, of course, this was the spark that got Funimation to doing their simuldubs and with it going 3-4 years strong, there’s no sign of them slowing down of their input.

– Mark/@MAK2HybridMedia, Surreal Resolution columnist and Decibel Boost co-host

Space Dandy represents an interesting landmark for the progression of the current Toonami era. While it may not have been an original co-production in the same vain as IGPX or even season 2 of The Big O, it was the first “world premiere” show of the revival. It was one of those scenarios where everything aligned perfectly, from the Toonami team’s relationship with the animation staff to FUNimation’s eagerness to try out dubbing a show with this quick of a turn-around. In fact, this was intended as a test prior to their proper rollout of Simul-Dubs, which went from just 2 or 3 shows in the first season of doing so to the majority of their simulcast line-up in recent seasons. In a way, Space Dandy was a pretty influential show in terms of American anime distribution. And on top of all this, Space Dandy is just a fantastic show on nearly every front. The show’s comedic chops speak for themselves, with hysterical jokes and excellent character interplay bolstered by some great dub work, but that’s only part of the experience. Episodes can be action-loaded, philosophical, or even deeply emotional while showcasing some vividly inventive animation from a wide array of creative talent. Space Dandy is a show that has a little bit of something for everyone, and is one of the most endlessly rewatchable anime shows of the decade.

– Robert/@RobBarracuda, EIC of Surreal Resolution and Decibel Boost host/producer

Grade: B+
While not a hit for everyone, Space Dandy was a great exclusive to kick off 2014 with, and at an earlier slot of 11:30. Well recommended.

Naruto: Shippuden (January 4, 2014 – Present)

A history lesson, folks: back in 2009, Disney XD nabbed the rights to air Naruto: Shippuden, roughly eight months after Cartoon Network ceased airing the first Naruto anime. They would air for about two years, with some inconsistent scheduling and some edits here and there, but by 2011, after 97 episodes, it would be gone from the network. So why did it take so long for it to jump back to the Turner ship? Well, it’s just a matter of business and availability, especially given Shippuden started on Toonami from EPISODE DAMN ONE. Business is tricky, yo.

So… Shippuden. It’s the continuation of Naruto with the entire elongated second half of the story going forward, and… well, I mean, it’s Naruto, I don’t have to explain it in big detail. Worth noting that it’s still airing to this day, over four years later, serving as a late-hour anchor later on in the night, and given that they don’t have to answer to Toei like they did with One Piece, they can sorta get away with airing Shippuden with diminishing returns over time. Now, personally speaking, I never was a giant Naruto fan so I don’t hold the anime with as much weight as others, but seeing how it’s served as a long-standing anchor for the block, even after four years and over 200 episodes, I certainly have to commend that.

Naruto Shippuden is a show that I have a lot of history with. A little too much history with. From the first days of covering it on Toonami United to being force at my will doing weekly recaps of it on Swim Squad. To making a full review of it, watching the show in its very censored form on Disney XD, to still someone doing it on Toonami at 2 AM, and somehow watching ALL the episodes of it in sub form (I’m a completionist. Esp. with long runners. Yeah, I know)… I don’t know if I should thank Shippuden or not. Because even though I detest a lot of things about it, from Sakura to Sasuke, to the long filler arcs, to Sakura, to all the stupid, all the talking for no reason, Sakura, and all the moments that make you drink… and did I mention Sakura? Despite all of that, the show has made me make a lot of friends, gave me some fun/stupid moments to make fun of, and has been a fixed staple of most of my short, reviewing tenure.

Even so, there’s still is some good that comes from Studio Pierrot’s cash cow. We got the Pain arc, how Hinata said she loved her, the transformations of Naruto, Killer Bee, the Asuma arc, and so forth. We still got some more good to go with seeing Naruto’s parents and how he and the Nine-Tails make friends. But oh man, there is still a lot of stupid to come forth yet. Don’t make me tell you about the filler boat arc that is coming, cause it’s gonna be awful. But even so, despite my tepid opinion of the show, Shippuden has been a constant in the ratings since it showed up in 2014, even if it has gotten little to no advertisement, has seen constant time-shifts on the block, and has gotten not even one marathon at all. Even One Piece got one. That just goes to show how Shippuden, and the blonde ninja and co. as a whole, is with America’s casual anime audience. So here’s to another 300 episodes and at least 5 years worth of the Great Ninja War arc of Boruto’s Dad on Toonami, and to however much Rob’s liver can hold out for it.

– Kadeem/@cedric_alpha, Surreal Resolution columnist

Grade: C+
Naruto: Shippuden does suffer from the usual shonen pitfalls, but it’s been serving as a solid and long-standing anchor for Toonami since its first broadcast in spite of those pitfalls.

Blue Exorcist (February 22 – August 9, 2014)

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this, but Aniplex of America actually announced Blue Exorcist coming to Toonami THREE MONTHS before it happened. It was in November, right around the start of SAO’s second arc airing, and it always made me think they knew it was gonna go south real fast, so they had to announce the next AoA show for the block ASAP. And so they did, giving me and others a light at the end of the creepy sexual assault-filled tunnel.

Ah, Blue Exorcist, a fine show about a good demon boy named Rin who wants to, quote, “beat the s**t out of Satan” with his blade and his flames. And that line, I should mention, aired un-bleeped on Adult Swim because Turner’s S&P department loosened their restrictions at the tail end of 2013, which helped out for their airings of Akira and Summer Wars. But getting back on track, I have to mention that Blue Exorcist, given that it’s about occult powers and demons, is less like Inuyasha and more like Soul Eater; welcome to True Cross Academy, high school for demon hunters. And welcome to anime in the 2010s, where most shows are either a sports anime, set in high school, or is an isekai.

And that kinda puts a damper on the show’s pacing, it’s very much a stop-and-go kind of show; one episode will be full of drama and fight scenes, and one will be a birthday party with fortune telling. Now, granted, buffer episodes are needed in longer series, but here? It’s only 25 episodes with a plot that’s more broad-based than honed-in. It doesn’t quite mesh as well as it should, especially with how much of a hot start the show has at the very beginning. But while the tone of Blue Exorcist is pretty hot and cold throughout, I’ll be honest and say I kinda like it. Sure, it’s not quite as par as can be, but it’s got enough to it to keep me entertained, and it drew enough in its 1:30 and 2am slots to keep others entertained through its run as well. Sometimes you want high-brow entertainment, other times you want something a bit simpler, and Blue Exorcist is very much a case of the latter. At the very least, I’ll recommend checking out the first series on Crunchyroll.

Don’t cross your fingers for that second series hitting Toonami anytime soon, though. Mostly because it’s got a REAL bad pacing problem. And it’s pretty boring, too.

You remember Neon Alley, that anime linear channel that Viz Media had for a relatively short time before ditching the linear format to online on-demand? Well, you remember that Blue Exorcist aired on that before showing up to Toonami and when Toonami got to it, it was mostly a big ‘eh’ for me, and I actually liked the show the first few times I’ve seen it on NA, but on Toonami… well, I still liked it, but it isn’t exactly bringing anything new to the table for shonen anime. Rin Okumura is that hot-headed protagonist in anime that always screws up, and you know the kid got heart but his head isn’t all screwed in right, and you got Yukio, his by-the-books brother who got accepted into this exorcism school; and yes, the two clash. You also get other characters in here that either be witty or the typecast school characters you see in there. Oh, and Bon… yeah, he’s my least favorite because his story is so blasé, he’s basically another Rin and he’s another hothead bitchy male character, the type that easily annoys me in anime.

A few good funny moments here and there, the usual backstory you get when your father is Satan and the English dub is not too shabby either, considering it along with SAO and Attack on Titan got us noticing Bryce Papenbrook as he was coming up in getting anime lead roles. But, yeah, Blue Exorcist, while not a perfect show, it’s still entertaining… and at least it’s not the sequel series.

– Mark/@MAK2HybridMedia, Surreal Resolution columnist and Decibel Boost co-host

I’m not sure I could tell you much about Blue Exorcist from memory… mostly because, despite having sat through the whole thing, I’m fairly certain I’m remembering details from 4 or 5 other shows that it’s extremely similar to. While Blue Exorcist is nowhere near the worst show the block has ever aired, it’s easily one of the most forgettable, precisely because of how derivative it is in nearly every respect. A story that’s basically “Harry Potter: The Anime,” [editor’s note: wait until we get to Black Clover, Rob] cliché character archetypes and designs (including an obvious knockoff of Yoko from Gurren Lagann), and other factors turn this into the textbook definition of a show that’s on auto-pilot. While it’s not unusual for shonen anime to feel a bit derivative of one another, they can usually be at least striking enough in terms of dialogue or visual iconography to leave some sort of impression, positive or negative. Blue Exorcist, on the other hand, is such a “been there, done that” type of story that it just goes in and out while watching it, save for the ending of the series which makes one of the dumbest attempts at “making evil sympathetic” that I think may have ever been done. It was a filler show that just occupied space in the block until something else came along, and hopefully we won’t have to deal with Kyoto Saga anytime soon… right?

– Robert/@RobBarracuda, EIC of Surreal Resolution and Decibel Boost host/producer

Grade: C+
Not the best shonen anime out there, but Blue Exorcist brings enough to the table to be a serviceable entry to the block.

Black Lagoon (March 22 – September 6, 2014)

Now THIS is a show that’s more my style. Loads of gunplay, a metal-AF opening theme, a badass lead that you will NEVER want to screw with, and enough intense action to savor anyone’s bloodlust. In short, it’s like if Robert Rodriguez decided to create an anime. Folks, Black Lagoon is one of my favorite anime series, solely on the ground of how flipping-damn awesome it is. And boy, let me tell you, this show is not for those at the faint of heart; it’s full of mafia warfare, a plethora of guns all over, a totally insane maid, and just a slight bit of stereotyping that really would make it feel like it’s a ‘90s action movie. Not to mention a LOT of obscenities; this show really pushed the boundaries of what Turner S&P would allow on the air, and I’m still amazed that this show aired virtually visually untouched, with the only major edits being the F-bombs, of which there are a LOT of. Though I think this show airing at 2:30 and 3am helped it get away with a lot of its stuff, personally.

Now, not to get in a whole “subs vs. dubs” debate, but a show like Black Lagoon really does benefit from its excellent English dub; from start to finish, this is a very American series, not just with its main cast (Dutch is a Vietnam War veteran Marine, Benny is a grad from UCF, and Revy is from the bad side of NYC). A series like Black Lagoon, when compared to the other shows in this piece, stands out among them all with its visually cold aesthetic, gritty and violent nature, and its very atypical characters for an anime. You look at shows like Shippuden and Blue Exorcist and they have a very clear sense of following the usual shonen tropes, but with Black Lagoon? Like I said, it’s like a ’90s action movie made into an anime. And among those terms I mentioned, the ones that best describe Black Lagoon are gritty and cold. That’s the show to a T, and it revels in its grittiness and violence, but it never dives too deep into the realm of nationalism or cynicism. It’s just a show that wants to have a fun and bloody time with carnage and excess, and atypical an anime as it may be, it’s still a great series that’s well worth watching and checking out, as well as its sequel OVA, Roberta’s Blood Trail; fair warning, though, the OVA is REALLY not safe for work. Or for that matter, airwaves.

Did I also mention there’s a three-episode arc where Revy and her crew take out a bunch of Nazis? Because taking out Nazis is always fun. Isn’t that right, Bethesda?

Hearing that Black Lagoon was going to air on Toonami in all its glory, I had a feeling it would be the perfect entry for the revamped block, and like Deadman Wonderland it’s something that is more mature than most of the anime airing alongside with it at the time; it’s definitely appropriate to the 2am slot as it got violent, bloody, and unlimited cussing… I think. It’s been a while since it premiered but everything about this show is pure adrenaline-pumping action with some dark drama and comedy along the way. Whether it’s the cast of colorful characters like the main crew of Rock, Benny, Dutch and the ass-kicking dynamo that is Revy, or the energetic theme song to kick it off; yes, I love that song! And yes, I even liked the ending theme, which I know sounds depressing and dour, but then, most of the episodes end in a serious note and it’s not exactly “FUNTIMES VILLE HOORAY!” type of s**t. It’s also the few times I did review this back on my own site a few years ago, but repeat viewings of it (saw it on Hulu once, then on Toonami, and I own the Blu-rays to them now) got me loving the show more and appreciating it for being this high-octane action adventure that’s reminiscent to earlier ’90s action movies. Hell, this seems like a perfect live-action adaptation if done right, that is.

– Mark/@MAK2HybridMedia, Surreal Resolution columnist and Decibel Boost co-host

Grade: B+
On top of being an excellent series, Black Lagoon served quite well late into the block, giving the later night-owls something a bit atypical and extreme to look forward to.

Well, that’s certainly quite a way to kick off 2014. Folks, I have to say that in terms of premiering shows and acquisitions, 2014 was the strongest year of Toonami’s revival on Adult Swim, pound for pound, and it would bring out the strongest lineups to date as well. I know this piece was kinda big, as well, so we’ll balance that out next time with a shorter entry. I mean, this is close to 3500 words, it has to be shorter by default, even if it involves the first entry of Titans. And there’ll be some bats and drills in there as well.

To be continued…

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