March 17, 1997: Toonami was born and the revolution was televised. Yes, it's Toonami’s 20th anniversary! It’s hard not to understate how important Toonami was for anime in the West. Who knows where anime would be today if Cartoon Network never decided to air shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing every afternoon after school. Toonami has been monumental in developing the tastes of an entire generation and, despite all odds, still remains relevant today. The block may have lost its way at one point, but it found its footing again and now we can all celebrate with a new episode of Samurai Jack rather than mourning the block’s loss. Twenty years is a long time, and there’s been some really incredible moments, so join me as we take a trip back through twenty years of building a better cartoon show.
Remember when Adult Swim started and most of the original programming was perverted versions of Hanna-Barbera's classic library? Toonami started out a little bit like that. The original version of the block was hosted by Moltar and broadcast from Ghost Planet. It had a mix of classic H-B owned properties like Thundercats, Johnny Quest, and Superfriends, while mixing in anime like DBZ and Sailor Moon. Fun fact: Did you know the original name for Williams Street Productions was Ghost Planet Industries?
I only have very vague memories of this time (Moltar was host between the ages of 6 and 9 for me) but looking back at some classic clips, it was still clearly the Toonami we know and love today.
In 1999, Moltar was replaced with an all new original character known as TOM, the Toonami Operations Module. He was about three feet tall and had a beer belly and was somehow the coolest thing ever. He was voiced by Sonny Strait, aka Krillin from Funimation's DBZ dub.
This was when Toonami really hooked me. Floating through space with a little robot dude and his AI companion on a ship the size of Texas. At this point, the classic toons were gone and replaced with like the likes of Batman The Animated Series and The Powerpuff girls, along with more anime classics like Gundam Wing.
Back before Adult Swim, and even after for a few years, Toonami ran a block in the middle of the night featuring more mature or uncut anime. I guess it was sort of a prelude to Adult Swim's own anime blocks. Originally, it ran all night Saturday starting at midnight before being an hour long weeknight block.
Recently, Adult Swim has been airing reruns of a few Toonami programs on other nights of the week and I'm baffled as to why they don't have a shorter Toonami block during the week. Maybe someday...
Toonami airs all sorts of weird music videos nowadays (they always used to do this) but on one particular occasion they ran some great (then new) music videos from Gorillaz and Daft Punk during the Midnight Run. It was an awesome night.
You know who I'm talking about: Peter Cullen! Optimus Prime himself was the announcer of the block for many years until its terrible redesign in 2007. This man could make anything sound cool, but of course it helped that most of what Toonami aired was actually cool. One of my favorite promos was for Rurouni Kenshin. I'm not sure why it is. Maybe it's the way he says "battousai the man slayer". I've been missing Peter Cullen's soothing voice for years. It would be so great if they brought him back for one special broadcast.
I do have to give serious credit to the production team, though. Even without Peter Cullen, they could pretty much manke antying look awesome. Example: This promo for Dimension W which got me crazy hyped even though the actual show tured out not to be very good.
Poor old pudgy TOM didn't last long. One of the things that really made Toonami stand apart was how much the packaging of the block itself was part of the experience. Toonami is known for these things called TIEs or "Total Immersion Events" that are basically little short episodes of TOM having adventures. Usually these result in some changes to the block. In the case of Toonami's first TIE, Intruder, it resulted in TOM being destroyed by malicious space goo. He was replaced with TOM 2, now voiced by Steve Blum. This is the era of Toonami that most people probably remember best.
Toonami didn't invent these, but they were basically doing it before it was cool. They have an incredible team of editors that have been making some absolute magic for two decades. You are no doubt familiar with Toonami's Broken Promise music video, perhaps the most famous thing they've ever done:
Recent music videos have been shorter, but they're still just as good. Back when the block was revived on Adult Swim, they aired this music video in the early weeks and we all knew the king was back:
A big part of Toonami has always been the awesome music that really sets the tone for the whole block. Back in the day, an official Toonami soundtrack was released called "Deep Space Bass". Some of you might be familiar with it, but did you know there was a second one in the works that was never released called "Black Hole Megamix"? Well, it was never released commercially, anyway. You can find it online... like on YouTube for instance.
Did you know Toonami made an anime? It's true! Animated by Production I.G and produced by Cartoon Network with the involvement of the Toonami team, it used the same great music as the Toonami block and even featured Peter Cullen as the announcer. The series proper debuted in 2005, but a few years earlier Toonami aired the IGPX "micro series" consisting of several-minute short episodes. If you're unfamiliar, the two projects were basically unrelated in terms of content.
March 17, 2003 was Toonami's sixth anniversary. On that day, they refreshed the block completely for the first time since TOM joined in 1999. Everything was new. For the short time that it lasted, until Toonami was so rudely relocated to Saturdays, it was my favorite era of Toonami. Best TOM, best Absolution, best packaging, best lineup. Fun fact: This was co-creator Jason DeMarco's favorite look too.
Unfortunately, unlike last time, they never explained on-air what happened to TOM, but they did direct you to the Toonami website to download a free comic book that told the tale. They didn't have to make it, but the Toonami crew is just cool like that. The block was chopped to two hours, but they were the greatest two hours ever.
In 2004, Toonami was moved to Saturday nights (replacing the awesome SVES block) and was replaced by Miguzi (ugh). It was expanded to four hours, but having episodes on every week instead of every day was a drag. Still, the lineup remained pretty solid and we even got Megas XLR, so it wasn't all bad. I was never a fan of the logo and packaging, though. What's up with those insectoid Clydes anyway? What are they even doing?
Not much more to say than that. Toonami aired four classic Miyazaki every Saturday night for a month, and it was the first time I saw any of them.
In 2007, the block's tenth anniversary, somebody thought it would be a good idea to redesign the whole block and throw away everything that made it cool. TOM was on some jungle planet now instead of floating through apace. Instead of his AI Sara, he now had a team of two other random robots. But most of all, they had faces! Horrible, nightmare, Thomas The Tank Engine faces! Who though this was okay?
Imagine this: You're watching Samurai Jack on Toonami one night and it's time for the block to end, but instead of the usual "Later" message you see this:
My friend was just telling me the other day that this was exactly what happened to him. With no warning whatsoever, Toonami was over. Perhaps not surprising considering it had turned into a horrible abomination, but sad nonetheless. It was something we took for granted would always be there even if we didn't watch it, except the problem was that we didn't watch it. So it was cancelled. Goodbye forever, Toonami! It might be the block's 20th anniversary, but it's a solemn reminder that it's no longer with us. Wait, what's that you say? Toonami's back, bitches?
April 1st 2012 was absolutely bonkers. That night at midnight, Adult Swim began airing "The Room" as they had for the past several April Fool's Days, except during the opening credits the camera panned out and suddenly we were in the Absolution and TOM said hi and then Toonami started! I didn't typically watch Adult Swim, but something deep within me was telling me this day that I needed to be watching. I kid you not, I randomly remembered out of the blue that night that Adult Swim had a Saturday night anime block so I tuned in on a whim only to be met with Toonami. I missed the intro and had no idea what was going on, so I took to the internet to find out. I stayed up all night watching random episodes of classic shows. They even reviewed Mass Effect 3! The next day, social media was blowing up about it and Adult Swim was telling people to let the network know how much you wanted Toonami back.
Less than two months after the April Fool's gag, Toonami was back on the air permanently. Viewers that tuned in May 26, 2012 were greeted with the perfect opening:
They used an updated version of the 2004 look for a while and, damn, was that animation beautiful. It's the most fluid stuff they've ever done and I still can't figure out why it looks so good. Something about the dark bloom lighting and soft glow of the updated visuals was really appealing to me. It was clearly stripped back and kind of empty, and for a while used bumps that were nearly a decade old, but it was so good to be back. They even acknowledged TOM 4 (no, they never quite did tell that story of why TOM 4 retired).
Toonami got another complete overhaul in 2013 with a new TOM, new Absolution, new logo, and new packaging. It was perfect. Toonami was back for real! For a while, the block ran all night Saturday for about six hours like the old Midnight Run days.
Believe it or not, Space Dandy was very important. Not only did it bump up the block's start time to 11:30, but it was the first time ever an anime was broadcast simultaneously on television in Japan and America. In fact, the English dub aired before Japan. That was big. Huge, even! They've not quite done that since, although some subsequent Toonami shows have been close (like Dimension W being a few weeks behind). Also, Space Dandy was just plain great. It was the perfect show to air in a weekly format.
Intruder 2 is the best thing Toonami has ever done. In this new Total Immersion Event, the space goo from 1999 has returned for revenge, but it's taken taken on the form of the original TOM that was absorbed by it all those years ago. They even brought back Sonny Strait to reprise his role. At the end of it, TOM 5 ends up stranded on an abandoned desert world Shogo-162 where he sets up shop in an abandoned outpost to continue broadcasting Toonami. I loved the story of this, and I especially enjoyed how the events unfolding affected the packaging like the bumps and show intros.
In what seems to be a yearly thing since Intruder 2 was so successful, 2016 brought with it Intruder 3, an even that had absolutely no ties whatsoever to the previous Intruder events. Instead, Shogo-162 is dying and with the help of giant sand worms, TOM and Sara escape with the last baby worm on a new ship The Vindication that it turns out was buried beneath them the whole time. The ship is, once again, as big as 1,000 football fields, and now Sara is a hardlight projection of a fairy. I wasn't big on the last time she had a body, but this one looks pretty good.
Another future trend for the block appears to be original programming made for Toonami, Samurai Jack is now back for one final season exclusively on the block. Toonami's gotten a bump up again to steal the entire 11 o'clock hour now, and probably has the best lineup its had in a while (with Tokyo Ghoul replacing One Piece in a week).
Adult Swim has already announced it's developing two new seasons of FLCL with Production I.G to begin airing late this year, just because they can. Genny Tartakovsky says he's been talking to the network about a new original series because his experience making Samurai Jack was so great. We're getting another TIE at the end of 2017, and as of next week there will already have been six new shows premiered this year. We're in for a hell of a time.
Toonami was off the air for four years, from 2008 to 2012, but the love never died. Fans missed it so much, they took it upon themselves to keep the Toonami spirit alive. In 2010, a website launched called Toonami Aftermath that streamed classic Toonami programming (and some other old Cartoon Network stuff) 24/7. Somehow, it's still around today. If you ever need a Toonami fix at some random time of the day when Toonami isn't actually on, they've got you covered.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere on the internet a group of fans were gathering to literally make their own Toonami in their spare time. It took years of hard work making everything from scratch, but the result was the absurdly impressive NeoToonami. Take a look:
Unfortunately, by the time the project was ready to launch, regular Toonami made a comeback out of nowhere. For about a year from 2012 to 2013, NeoToonami streamed live every night with a great lineup of shows. It was really cool while it lasted, and I regret not watching it more. It remains one of the greatest and most ambitious fan achievements of all time. Toonami really does have the best fans.