It’s complicated — my relationship with Toonami, the anime gateway drug for a generation

Toonami, the legendary after-school programming block, launched on March 17, 1997. It was hosted by Moltar from Space Ghost and featured episodes of ThunderCats, Cartoon Roulette, Voltron, and The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest. Jason DeMarco and Sean Akins were in their 20s when they pitched the idea to Cartoon Network using a mashup of skateboarding clips, giant robots, and bootleg footage of Dragon Ball Z.

Despite anime being in the initial pitch, it wasn’t always part of the schedule. Toonami needed to prove itself first with content already owned by Cartoon Network. A year later, DeMarco and Akin were given the green light to acquire broadcast rights for Robotech and Sailor Moon. However, it wasn’t until August 31, 1998, that anime had what DeMarco refers to as the “Big Bang.” That’s when Toonami debuted The Ocean Group’s dub of Dragon Ball Z.

The importance of Toonami can’t be stressed enough. It was the anime gateway drug for the majority of fans of my generation. We may not have known that we were watching anime at the time, but we found out soon enough. 

Toonami became the reason to rush home after high school. Rurouni Kenshin was on 30 minutes after the final bell, and I didn’t want to miss it. My friend Kirsten and I could hang out over the weekend instead.

They moved the block to Saturday in 2004, a year before I graduated. I was not happy with this change, but it makes sense when I think about it now. The Toonami generation was getting older. We had jobs now. We didn’t have time to watch Mobile Fighter G Gundam after class anymore. The anime they were airing was also starting to get too violent for a weekday slot.

After an impressive 11-year run, Toonami was canceled on September 20, 2008, due to poor ratings. While I mourned the loss, it had been several years since I tuned in. I still loved anime, but between working full-time delivering pizza and playing shows with my band every weekend, I was usually busy during the broadcast.

Things had also changed too much. The schedule kept getting shorter, and the programming became less diverse. My beloved block had been gutted and turned into the Naruto Power Hour.

Fortunately, I had a regular income at this point and didn’t have to rely on TV for my anime fix anymore. I could just buy the DVDs. High-speed internet was also becoming more widely available, which led to the rise in popularity of downloading fansubs.

But Toonami wasn’t gone for long.

On April 1, 2012, Adult Swim revived the programming block as an April Fool’s Day prank. I was running a panel at the Minneapolis anime convention Anime Detour when the news broke online. 

After two months of people spamming #BringBackToonami on Twitter, Toonami was reimagined as a Saturday night block on May 26, 2012. Devoted fans organized weekly hashtag campaigns during the broadcast. Getting Toonami trending on Twitter helped bring it back, so they wanted to keep it trending to ensure it stayed.

While I was happy for them, the cult-like fervor was exhausting to deal with. For years my timeline would be flooded each Saturday with Toonami related hashtags. Sites like Toonami Faithful continue to encourage this behavior by reporting on the trends.

Things might have been different if I was watching along with everybody, but my work schedule continued to make it difficult. It’s been eight years since Toonami came back, and even though I have weekends off at my current job, I’m still not watching.

Something just doesn’t feel right. It almost feels too late to reconcile. Cartoon Network broke up with me as an anime fan in 2008. That moment is at the top of my list of Anime’s Greatest Betrayals. Why should I take them back now when I’ve already moved on? Sure, they’re playing good shows again, but I can’t get the sour taste out of my mouth.

It doesn’t help that Toonami currently runs from 12:00am – 3:30am. What’s the point? I’m not staying up that late to watch anime I can stream on my iPad during my commute to work.

At the same time, I feel bad not supporting something so critical to my becoming a fan. In an attempt to make sense of these conflicting feelings, I started watching Toonami again. Not for the whole lineup, but for whatever was on when I remembered to tune in. Maybe seeing T.O.M. introduce the latest Fire Force episode would trigger some nostalgia, and I could make peace with what happened.

That’s when I learned something about myself that I should have known all along. I was never a Toonami kid to begin with; Adult Swim was my anime gateway drug.

My family didn’t get cable until 2003. Cartoon Network was a treat that I only got to partake in when we visited my grandparents, so it was exciting to finally have it at home. So exciting that it was the only channel I watched for weeks.

That’s how I found Adult Swim. The logo in the corner was confounding. Apparently, the concept of a branded programming block eluded me when I was 15. I thought I left my TV on Cartoon Network. Why does that say Adult Swim? If this archive of the schedule is correct, it was February 5, 2003.

That was the day I became an anime fan.

Inuyasha was playing when I turned on the TV. It was the first episode, and I’d only missed the opening scene. Yu Yu Hakusho was on next. While it wasn’t the first episode, it was the beginning of a new arc — Beasts of Maze Castle. To round out the night was “My Funny Valentine,” the episode of Cowboy Bebop that tells Faye’s origin story. I couldn’t ask for a better anime entry point.

The unique art style and non-American character names had me captivated. I went to bed having no clue what I had watched, but I knew I needed more. I spent the next day searching frantically online for more information. My unfamiliarity with Japanese made it difficult to remember the names of what I had watched. They were part of something called Adult Swim, I think — maybe I’ll try searching that.

Found it!

This is what Adult Swim’s website looked like on February 7, 2003 (Source: Wayback Machine)

Once I learned that what I was watching was anime, there was no hope for me. I immediately became obsessed, and my timing couldn’t have been better. It was the Golden Age of Anime on TV. Adult Swim was playing new anime every night. I actually found out about Toonami through Adult Swim when Yu Yu Hakusho changed time-slots.

Toonami was okay, but Adult Swim had more and better anime. It was hard to beat Adult Swim when they had heavy hitters like FLCL, Trigun, Paranoia Agent, and Samurai Champloo. By comparison, I usually skipped the first hour of Toonami which played SD Gundam or Justice League.

And let’s not forget about Tech TV’s Anime Unleashed block that aired at the same time as Adult Swim. They had serious bangers like Boogiepop Phantom, Serial Experiments Lain, and Last Exile. Each night I had to make a difficult choice — do I watch Reign the Conqueror or Gungrave? It was like the fucking console wars for anime on TV.

Then something happened.

Just like with Toonami, the anime started to disappear from Adult Swim. Ratings weren’t what they used to be, and I remember hearing that management changed at Cartoon Network. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that they stopped spending money licensing anime and started making their own shows. It was probably the right call for business, but it still burned.

My break from Adult Swim echos my break from Toonami — real life happened. Instead of going straight to college after high school, I spent two years working and focusing on writing music. Moving out of my mom’s basement was more important to me than getting a degree.

I was finally able to do that after I got a job working the second shift as a janitor. The apartment was a converted office space that I shared with seven other people. We didn’t have cable, so watching Adult Swim or Toonami was out of the question. Not that it mattered, they stopped playing anime anyway.

Right?

Wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense. I moved into that apartment in 2006. Toonami wasn’t canceled until 2008, and Adult Swim was showing anime until at least 2010. Sure, I didn’t have cable, but nothing was preventing me from ordering it.

It’s not like I grew out of anime either. If anything, I was at peak consumption. I watched all of Fullmetal Alchemist in five days, and there was more than one all-day Bleach session. There were two weeks where I made a point to get up early to watch Grenadier and Lamune before work. I also put episodes of Chobits and Yu Yu Hakusho on my iPod 5th Generation so that I could watch them in bed. If I wasn’t watching anime, I was listening to anime podcasts like Anime Pulse and Weekly Anime Review Podcast.

This whole time I’ve been blaming Cartoon Network for the death of anime on TV, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Cartoon Network didn’t break up with me; I broke up with Cartoon Network.

Anime on TV will probably never see another Golden Age, but that’s okay. The way people consume media has changed a lot in the 17 years I’ve been a fan. Toonami will still attract viewers with dub premieres and exclusive titles like FLCL Progressive and Alternative, but most people will still choose to watch things on-demand.

I may not be a fan of how the block is being handled, but I don’t doubt that DeMarco and Akin are doing the best they can given the circumstances. The fact that Toonami went from being canceled to producing original anime content again is pretty incredible in itself.

Anime on TV’s biggest strength will always be…that it’s on TV. It’s just on. You turn on the TV at a certain time, and it’s there. It’s how I became a fan, and it’s probably how you became a fan. That’s why things like Toonami are still important even if I’m not watching anymore. If they can only do one thing in the modern era, I hope they can still make people feel like I did in 2003 when I first discovered anime.

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Gary Piano
Fake Anime Fan. Professional Audio Boy. Founder of GONZO.MOE.

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