On April 1st, 2012, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block decided to prank its audience by presenting them with the mother of all nostalgia bombs. Instead of doing their usual April Fool’s Day tradition of playing The Room, they aired some anime favorites from yesteryear like Dragon Ball Z, Tenchi Muyo, Outlaw Star, Gundam Wing and Big O, with bumpers in between by a CGI robot named T.O.M., voiced by Steve Blum. That’s right; it was the return of Toonami baby. Of course it was for one night only, but fans were nevertheless ecstatic. Later, Adult Swim asked fans on Twitter if they wanted it back for good, presenting us with the hashtag, “#BringBackToonami”. The reaction was sudden and immediate. Three days later, the responses were so overwhelming that Adult Swim announced that Toonami would be returning on April 22nd. With this new campaign to put anime back on TV, I thought I’d share my thoughts as an anime fan who witnessed the block’s downfall firsthand.
As a kid growing up in the early 2000’s, Toonami was an instrumental part of my growth as an animation enthusiast. Every day after school I would come home and tune in to a lot of great shows like Dragon Ball Z, Mobile Fighter G-Gundam (which is a million times better than Gundam Wing in my opinion), Zoids, Yu Yu Hakusho, Rouroni Kenshin and a whole host of others. As I grew older, my interests lead me elsewhere and Toonami’s new lineup could no longer satisfy my appetite. After all, why watch a heavily edited version of Outlaw Star at 5:30 when you could stay up ‘til midnight and see it in all its uncensored glory? I never would’ve guessed they would bring it back after it crashed and burned the way it did. Hell, I don’t think anybody saw it coming, especially since Adult Swim has been very vocal about wanting to focus less on anime and more on original programming. But after the excitement has died down, I found myself wondering if it’s really all that necessary.
Before I get into my opinions on Toonami’s return, let me give you a brief history on the block itself. Toonami first aired in 1997 as pretty much your standard action block. This was right around when Cartoon Network had very little original programming and aired mostly older stuff, so it was dedicated to action oriented shows from the 80’s like Thundercats, Johnny Quest, Space Ghost and Voltron, the latter of which was the only anime to air on the block at the time. When Pokémon exploded and stations were scouring Japan to find the next big thing, they saw fit to cash in and expand their catalogue a bit. Eventually they changed their lineup, adding shows like Robotech, Sailor Moon, Ronin Warriors and Dragon Ball Z (which would remain the block’s powerhouse for years) to the roster. Eventually, original host and former Space Ghost villain Moltar was replaced by T.O.M., they added little bumpers in between shows narrated by famed voice actor Peter Cullen, and several of the shows were being replaced with more Japanese imports. Once all the pieces were in place, Toonami would become a major pillar in Cartoon Network’s weekday lineup.
But all things must undergo change. Eventually, Toonami would move from weekdays to Saturday evenings. Normally this is considered a death sentence in the broadcasting world, but since it’s on a station whose target demographic is children, it didn’t change much. But by then, a lot of the block’s cornerstone shows had either ran their course and exhausted their reruns or were deemed too violent for their time slot. When the move was made, the block was expanded from three hours to four, and a new slew of shows like Zatch Bell, Rave Master, IGPX, Duel Masters and Bobo-bo Bo-bobobo came along, but didn’t quite match the popularity of their predecessors.
And then Naruto came along.
When Naruto was first brought to the program, it became Toonami’s biggest powerhouse show since Dragon Ball Z. Since the other shows failed to match up, Naruto began to hog all the ratings while the rest of the lineup struggled to hang in there. Naruto continued to run strong for about two years or so, but what Cartoon Network didn’t take into account when licensing the show was that after the Sasuke retrieval arc, there was an avalanche of pointless filler episodes that nearly lead to the death of the show in Japan. Worst of all, they actually aired them… all 76 episodes. Naturally, history would repeat itself and ratings for Naruto eventually began to plummet. By this time, Cartoon Network was already beginning to lose faith in the block. Eventually it was cut from four hours to two, and the last lineup before its eventual cancellation was two back to back episodes of Naruto filler that they obviously wanted to get rid of, and reruns of Ben 10 and Samurai Jack.
So now that I hear that Toonami is coming back, I am conflicted between two reactions. The first reaction is sheer excitement. The downfall of Toonami was really tragic and was considered a big loss for anime fans. Sure, there was still anime on Adult Swim and the SyFy network and the like, but most of those eventually went down the tubes as well. For a while, anime fans that depended on TV for their dosage were left unsatisfied. For the networks to throw us a huge bone like that is a real treat. But on the other hand, I begin to wonder if we really even need Toonami anymore. A lot has changed in the years since Toonami’s cancellation. During its heyday, it was very hard to find anime on video and anything that wasn’t broadcasted was doomed to obscurity. Nowadays, thanks to the power of the internet, fans are able to find any anime they want with the click of a button, a good chunk of which wouldn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in Hell of making it on North American broadcasting. Because of this coupled with the more anime friendly (at least at the time) Adult Swim, fans had seen the writing on the wall for a long time and knew their day of reckoning was approaching.
Some say that this is all a sick joke on Adult Swim’s part and a final “fuck you” to the anime fans for being so demanding and fickle. Knowing the kind of pranks that Williams Street has pulled in the past, I wouldn’t be shocked in the slightest if this was all really just an elaborate hoax. But if it really was, it would just be absolutely mean, even for them. While they did play a part in taking anime off the air, I personally think they were being pushed over the edge by fans who couldn’t make up their minds, but that’s another rant for another day. Simply put, no one person or thing is responsible for it.
But now that they’re back, what direction will they take this? The April Fool’s Day lineup featured a lot of older shows, but is that what they’re going to show when it finally settles in? Or are they going to introduce some new shows? I guess it all depends on who they’re aiming at this time around. Are they trying to pander to the kids who grew up with Toonami and have a nostalgic attachment to it, or are they trying to bring new anime back to the network under an old banner? At this point it’s hard to say. For the past few years, anime was really getting the short stick on Adult Swim. Bleach was dominating the same way Naruto did back then, and the few new anime that was being licensed like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (which they only aired out of obligation) or Kekkaishi and Durarara! (Which they only licensed because fans wanted something) were being pushed back to later times. So you could probably say that this is either Adult Swim apologizing for screwing fans over, or it could be one last act of desperation since a lot of Adult Swim’s original programming was pretty embarrassing. (Seriously, for every Metalocalypse and Boondocks, they have like three Squidbillies.)
Hopefully they’ll do the right thing and try to strike a balance. Toonami wasn’t just a constant stream of anime. There were also the sci-fi bumpers in between (a lot of which had overarching stories), music videos, game reviews, and even some western shows thrown in for good measure. It was this variety that made Toonami so popular and why it’s so fondly remembered. Despite what they tell you, people don’t just want to watch the same thing over and over again. If they just played reruns of Gundam Wing and Tenchi Muyo, the block would go down the tubes and we would be back to square one. Obviously, Adult Swim is a bit smarter than that. So what I’m guessing is that come April 22nd, Toonami should still air the classics, but present some new anime as well (Baccano! and Soul Eater would be the most logical candidates from where I’m standing), and throw in some superhero shows for balance like Young Justice or reruns of Sym-Bionic Titan (which I could see gaining a cult following similar to Firefly).
Right now there’s no way of telling what they have in store, which is probably why the rumor mill’s imagination has been running rampant. Despite all I said, I wish nothing but the best for Toonami’s return. Right now all we can do is hope for the best and spread the word. It’s nice to know that Adult Swim is finally listening to their audience, so let’s make sure they don’t fuck it up this time.