For Americans of a certain age, Toonami served as the gateway to anime. Before streaming made thousands of shows available at our fingertips, we had a harder time coming by anime. Broadcast television, scarce and expensive home video, and the very occasional theatrical release brought some anime into our lives. In this landscape, the Toonami programming block reigned. And it all started on Cartoon Network in 1997. For a long time, Toonami delivered the most consistent, concentrated collection of anime to viewers. Airing daily or weekly (depending on the particular schedule), Toonami made shows like Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Gundam household names in America.
But the block came to an end in 2008. It had limped along for a while with a shortened schedule consisting more and more of reruns. Fans mourned the loss for four years. Then, on April 1, 2012, Toonami returned on Adult Swim. Instead of Adult Swim’s usual tradition of airing The Room, TOM, the host of Toonami, returned to the screen. And he brought all of our favorite shows with him. Fans rallied on Twitter around the hashtag #BringBackToonami in support of reviving the block for real. On May 12, 2012, Toonami officially returned to the airwaves and lives on to this day.
The prospect of bringing back Toonami was already a tenuous one in 2012. Fewer and fewer people relied on fixed-schedule traditional broadcasting in favor of streaming. This was especially true of anime fans, who became accustomed to watching shows subtitled within a day of their broadcast in Japan using services like Crunchyroll. But in the last 10 years that trend has gone into overdrive. Since 2014, Adult Swim has lost a shocking 71.3% of its viewership. Traditional television is at death’s doorstep. So where does Toonami fit in this modern world?
One way Toonami has remained relevant is by increasing involvement in its shows beyond simply airing them. In 2013 Toonami experimented with the simuldub system by airing Space Dandy, the then-newest show from Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirō Watanabe. Through Toonami, it became the very first anime to air its English dub in America before airing its native Japanese language version in Japan. Toonami also got involved financially and creatively in the production of brand new shows. This isn’t new for the network, as in its original incarnation the block helped produce IGPX: Immortal Grand Prix. But in the post-revival era, it’s gotten even more ambitious. Toonami has been financially and creatively involved in the productions of many other projects including two sequel seasons to Fooly Cooly, original show Fena: Pirate Princess, and the upcoming anime adaptation of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki.
But it takes more than shows for Toonami to stand out. Programming block branding is a dying art in the age of streaming. Although most did not put in the level of commitment that Toonami did, it’s always served as an important tool in elevating the television experience. But now that so much of television is moving to streaming, it’s seemingly less necessary. Why make a wacky promo with a catchy jingle to remind people that the new hot show comes on Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. when the hot new show is available for viewing on-demand?
Toonami feels like more than just a sequence of shows: it’s an experience. The strongly-crafted brand identity of the block has kept it in high regard even as shows come and go. The Toonami programming block has always had a host, most often TOM (Toonami Operations Module) and his ship’s AI SARA. Toonami comes as a complete package with a full suite of bumpers, episode previews, trailers, music videos and more. The block even released several Total Immersion Events—series of shorts featuring TOM that create an ongoing narrative from week to week. No other TV block matches the level of craft Toonami puts into the viewing experience. Toonami faithful appreciate the effort, too. Toonami’s style and atmosphere are so prolific that, just like network favorite Cowboy Bebop, it has become a genre in itself.
Although the traditional broadcasting system is becoming a relic of the past, it still has value. The tremendous increase to our access for media has a downside: it can overwhelm. Between all the anime streaming services, viewers have over 100 shows releasing brand new episodes available to them. And that’s on top of the thousands of shows in the back catalog, plus all the available non-anime options. With that many choices, it’s easy to feel paralyzed and revert to rewatching your old comfort shows. Toonami takes some of the pressure off by providing a curated selection of anime with broad appeal. If you want to watch some enjoyable anime without digging through mountains of shows, Toonami has your back. Toonami has always been an accessible entry point into anime fandom. While viewing habits might change, it still performs that duty today.
Toonami survived cancellation and has held onto its post-revival life for 10 years now. It’s maintained its relevance by taking a more hands-on approach to its programming and giving us the things streaming doesn’t. If current trends hold, who knows if Toonami will last another 10 years. But since it’s survived this long, I’m sure it will continue to find ways to adapt and innovate.
Norbert Daniels Jr. is a freelance writer and lifelong Toonami Faithful. You can keep up with his work at NorbertDanielsJr.com and follow him on Twitter @ NorbertD96.