If the titles Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Jack, Dragonball Z, Ruroni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, or Gundam (Wing, 0083, 8th MS Team, etc), ring familiar, it’s in no small part thanks to Toonami. A pioneer in bringing Anime to an American audience, Toonami celebrates its 20 years with the premiere of the much anticipated 5th and final season of the Toonami Original, "Samurai Jack".
Cartoon Network Producer Mike Lazzo hired Sean Akins and Jason Demarco to come up with a block focusing on action cartoons in the after school slot to spice up the network which predominately ran established classics like Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and Scooby Doo (no shade, an avid fan of them as well). The block they came up with first aired on March 17th, 1997.
New Kid on the Block
It was certainly a case of humble beginnings with a CGI’d Voltar from "Space Ghost" orchestrating the programs as the Toonami host, and was certainly a far cry from instafame. The program started with animated shows like “The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest,” “Thundercats,” and “Voltron.” Akins admits “There was literally no money to do anything,” regardless of their restraints, there was a silver lining: “there was an appetite to take some creative chances… we felt we had to knock it out the park every time.”
Becoming a Contender
Two years later and Toonami was on to something. They played ball by buying the rights to “Sailor Moon” from the USA Network, along with gaining the rights to “Dragonball Z”, which Akins fought for: “when I was a kid we were still getting up at like six in the morning… to watch Dragon Ball Z… I know there are other kids like me doing this… if we can get this thing and put it on at five in the afternoon, we might have a hit on our hands.” The block started to make some ripples and it wasn’t long till Bandai noticed and offered Toonami the US rights to Gundam. Before they knew it, Toonami was the king of televised anime. “That’s the way it is now, it’s still a mix of opportunities that come along, or us pushing for something because we like it or fans want it.”
No One Trick Pony
Toonami found no leisure in their success, they continued to challenge themselves and push the limits of what a television block can be. Demarco wanted to incorporate musicians into the program. Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” music video made its premiere on Toonami. The block went on to air many other featured artists including Gorillaz, The White Stripes, Beck, and Kenna.
The block also incorporated video game reviews and guest interviews (Comic Book Artist Alex Ross, NASA astronaut Robert Courtney, among others). Looking back, Demarco relates that “I’ve heard many, many times over the years from Toonami fans, that that’s the first time they saw Daft Punk or Gorillaz…for me that’s the top of the mountain.”
Toonami also broke the mold by incorporating a TIE (Total Immersion Event) between their on air program, and the Cartoon Network website in the form of multi-level games following CGI host Tom’s, attempt to defend his spaceship from an alien intruder.
“The Intruder Special” was a hit and spawned a sequel called “Lockdown” with a new and improved Tom, re-designed and voiced by Steve Blum (Spike from ‘Cowboy Bebop,’ and Zeb in ‘Star Wars Rebels’), who had to protect his ship from a giant trash compactor (wink wink). DeMarco saw “Lockdown” and “Intruder” as opportunities to “have fans be a part of the narrative in a way that felt organic and not just ‘vote for what color you want Tom to be’.”
“Sean designed it to be a catchall for everything that we as a group thought was cool. Its allowed us to be a whole bunch of different things... its allowed us to interview really interesting people, musicians, astronauts, scientists… to write speeches when we’re in the mood to talk about a subject and inspire kids and adults… allowed us to work in the world of CG… to make shows… and you couldn’t ask for a better setup than that.” (Jason Demarco)
Trouble in Paradise
2004 saw trouble brewing as the Toonami block dwindled from a weekday afternoon slot down to exclusively Saturday afternoons. DeMarco attributes the move to the growing number of Toonami replicas on competing networks, “and our network having different priorities… when they moved us to Saturday… the writing was on the wall” (DeMarco). Refusing to be discouraged, Toonami celebrated its 10 year anniversary on March 17th, 2007, with a collection of Animated movies including Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” One year later, however, they were cancelled.
A New Hashtag
Four years after Toonami sank, Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim program pulled a quasi-April Fool’s prank by running an old fashioned Toonami block with it’s key players including DBZ, Yu Yu Hakusho, Outlaw Star, and Tom as the host. The following day, Adult Swim tweeted: “Want it back? Let us know, #BringBackToonami.” And on May 26, 2012, Toonami officially made its comeback.
Cartoon Network not only listens to its viewers, but also incorporates their voice, sometimes literally. Richie Bronson was a young rap artist and anime fan who put pen to paper about his feelings towards Toonami’s departure.
Moved by his “Bring Toonami Back-Rap” Cartoon Network offered to use it as part of their official Toonami Revival campaign. “I couldn’t believe it-someone wants to use my music?” Bronson remembers vividly “the night they brought back Toonami… I’m at my first paid show, and I run back to my hotel room to catch Toonami… and the intro song is the song that I made.”
The year is 2017 and Toonami is strong as ever. Maintaining its code as a pioneer for anime, it has been running new titles like Attack on Titan, Gurren Lagan, One Punch Man, and is also home to the 5th and final chapter of the Samurai Jack saga (a Toonami Original). Genndy Tartakovsky, Jack’s creator and director, had taken a break after season 4 to work on other projects including the Star Wars animated series “Clone Wars,” and Adam Sandler’s “Transylvania” movies.
But after a meeting with Mike Lazzo, both decided now is the time to wrap up his samurai saga. “It was fun to go into [Jack’s] mentality more, into his psyche, rather than keep it on the surface.” Tartakovsky remembers the recurring dream he had at 10 years old “about the world being destroyed and run by mutants. I’d find a samurai sword, pick up the girl I had a crush on, and we’d go through the land, surviving.”
Tartakovsky maintains his youthful and hungry imagination to this day: “I don’t think of myself as a 47-year-old with a mortgage and three kids, I think of myself as a virile young 25 year old at the beginning of my career.”
The next hurdle for the block has yet to be known. DeMarco recognizes that Toonami’s currently “talking to three different audiences: people that grew up on Toonami, people that have never heard of Toonami and hardcore anime fans who have Crunchy Roll (one of many anime streaming services).”
DeMarco embraces today’s age of social media and connectivity “the feedback is so immediate and so passionate that we get way more guidance… 15 years ago we were just in the dark… now we have the benefit of going ‘This show already has a huge following among the hardcore fans, we think it has the ability to go farther than that. Let’s find the dub and get it on Toonami.”
With streaming services like Netflix producing their own anime (“Seven Deadly Sins” and a new “Cyborg 009” series) the competition is definitely stronger than ever. But Toonami has a very loyal fan base, and as long as the block sticks to their decades old code, they will continue to be the powerful contenders that I remembered them to be.