#17 – The Toonami April Fool's “Joke” That Everybody Wanted To Be Real
At midnight on April Fool's Day this year, Cartoon Network changed its usual late-night programming to “Toonami”, the fondly remembered programming block from the late 90s.Though there have been many watershed moments in the history of anime in the US in terms of wide exposure and new fans, Toonami was among the largest. For a few years, millions of American kids were coming home from school to watch not just Pokemon, not just Dragon Ball, but to dig wholeheartedly into this new and exciting thing called “anime”.
Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon were grassroots successes: at first they landed terrible time slots (5 and 6 in the morning), and with little promotion, kids had to come upon them by sheer chance. Dragon Ball wasn't a success at all until the broadcast skipped to Dragon Ball Z. But the people who did see these shows on TV-- or the few who had watched them in their Japanese broadcasts-- were fanatical. Driven and spread by wildly passionate fanbases, the shows went to afternoon slots on Cartoon Network.
Toonami was originally a block for action cartoons, but with the success of these shows the focus changed specifically to Japanese action anime for boys. It was now clearly proven that Japanese anime could sell in the States to its target audience. The question was: “what anime will hit as big as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon did?” In short, nothing could, but Cartoon Network succeeded in making a lot of happy anime memories for American kids and certainly spawned an entire generation of new anime fans.
Gundam was the first thing to be tried out, not with the original series but Gundam Wing. This was the perfect show for the adolescent audience: flashy, angsty, over the top, with plenty for both boys and girls. The ridiculous and wonderful G Gundam was broadcast next and is also well-loved, perhaps more now in retrospect than at the time of its broadcast. The story of the failure of the original Mobile Suit Gundam in the US, however, is one for another time.
Jump anime that weren't Dragon Ball, like Rurouni Kenshin and Yuu Yuu Hakusho, enjoyed some popularity, but not on Naruto's scale. To round things out just a little bit, Toonami also ran a large portion of the Tenchi Muyo franchise in a lightly censored form that kids could enjoy while still feeling funny new feelings about that silver-haired space pirate.
There would be many other titles run, but we don't have all day. In 2008, Toonami signed off with Spike Spiegel's famous final line from Cowboy Bebop (his English voice actor had been the announcer for years): “Bang”. A generation has been in mourning ever since.
As such, Toonami's rebroadcast led to an outpouring of nostalgia online, and Cartoon Network has formally asked on Twitter if viewers would like to see the block return. The response has been positive, and Toonami actually managed to make it to trending topics on Twitter.
When I saw this question, I wondered: “Would there be a point?” It's been fifteen years, the novelty of Japanese animation has faded as stuff like Pokemon, Bakugan and Yu-Gi-Oh are kids' cartoon standards, and kids don't really run home from school to watch cartoons in the afternoon anymore. A new Toonami would have to be something firmly aimed at the adults who grew up watching anime on Toonami as kids. That was tried on Toonami's spiritual successor, Adult Swim... but they don't run anime anymore. Why they stopped is, again, another story.