Anime On Demand
20 Apr 2011
The city of Stern Bild is a brilliant, iridescent, futuristic metropolis – but bright lights cast black shadows; a dark soil in which crime can breed. This is a city which needs protecting, and the peace is kept by a band of superheroes enhanced by mutant “NEXT” powers. Crimefighting is an expensive business, though – the ability to cast fireballs or bench-press an elephant are impressive on their own, but will only get you so far when the crooks have guns and getaway cars. How can these superheroes marry their civic spirit with the need to pay for costumes, armour, jetpacks and Hero-mobiles (not to mention being sued for collateral damage) but still have enough left over to meet the rent at the end of the month?
The superheroes of Stern Bild are plastered up like F1 cars, contracted to the city’s various companies and corporations, who consider seeing bank-robbers being trussed up and busloads of schoolgirls saved by supermen bedecked in their logos and trademarks to be good PR. Meanwhile, the choppers of the Hero TV Network are hovering over every crime scene, looking for prurient pictures of the heroes in action and awarding points for catching perps and rescuing bystanders – and showman style for the audience – in a seasonal ‘King of Heroes’ contest, with lucrative sidelines in action figures and trading cards.
One hero not earning much in the way of media royalties however is Kotetsu Kaburagi, aka “Wild Tiger, Crusher of Justice”. He’s a veteran of the heroics circuit who has been fighting crime for a decade now, but in a publicity-driven industry that also means that he’s lagging behind and slipping down the leaderboard as a new generation of swifter heroes and sexier heroines are hogging the limelight. Kotetsu isn’t one to admit that he’s past it, though, and is still committed to fighting for justice (and sending money home to his daughter Kaede and her grandmother), but yet another spanner is thrown in the works when his sponsor is bought out and the new parent company decides the best way to capitalise on their new asset is to reduce him to the sidekick of Barnaby Brooks Jr. - the smug new kid on the block and a rising star with a flash suit of power armour. There are many troubles being heaped on Kotetsu’s shoulders that even Wild Tiger’s super-strength might find difficult to carry – but still, it’s a new season of Hero TV, and with the scores reset there’s everything left to play for. Besides, if Kotetsu ever feels down he can just poke fun at his new partner’s silly headgear, as those sleek spikes could just as easily be bunny-rabbit ears.
The conceit of the hero’s adventures being televised is played with brilliantly in the show’s action sequences, as we see the editors rush to capture snappy angles and deal out dramatic insets and cutaways like a Monte Carlo croupier, or slam-dunk a crash-zoom from their eye in the sky. All the while they are bedecking the screen in casino-rattling score tallies, histrionic tickertape captions and neon graphical effects which, cheesy as they are, do succeed in exciting the viewer, charging the challenges and enunciating each clash like brilliant bursts of fireworks. It’s comic and goofy but whereas Batman-esque Zappo!s and Kapow!s are now a bit flaccid and played-out, in this case the consistency and style – and the sly ability to look under the bonnet and see staff rushing about the editing suite to create that style – keep it fresh and vigorous. The effects are not just an overactive picture-frame either but well-integrated into the action – in several sequences the camera itself is an actor in the scene that the heroes must manage.
Of course, in this post-modern media age Tiger & Bunny isn’t the first show to treat superheroes as commercialised celebrities. Iron Man was the mascot of Stark Industries from its very first incarnation in the 1960s; Captain Amazing of the millennial spoof Mystery Men had Pepsico patches Velcro’d to his sleeves by his publicist and endorsed toothpaste; and more notoriously Ennis and Robertson’s appallingly grotesque comic series The Boys drowns superheroes with as much dignity as a drunkard tipping into a canal, depicting them wallowing in a fetid cesspit of self-indulgence with morbid misanthropic glee. This is not the case with Tiger & Bunny, however – indeed, it actually feels engaging and novel precisely because it isn’t self-consciously ‘deconstructivist’ in its approach in a pretentious effort to appear profound and is instead refreshingly free of cynicism. The Hero TV Network is not a dreary and ponderous anti-commercial diatribe (one that we’ve all heard in a hundred other stories, anyway) but a framing device and a source of entertaining handicaps to increase the challenge, as well as gentle humour as a put-upon Wild Tiger struggles to improve his image and even give away his character-cards. If you have a Bandai bumper-sticker, you can still save the day. The heroes are corporate icons, but so what? Does it have to be a bad thing? If people are being saved from calamity, it’s all to the good. It’s this open, straight frankness which really gives the show a spring in its step, a lightness of touch that lets enjoyment rise up unburdened.
There is a thin line between lightness and superficiality, though, and where Tiger & Bunny may stray across it is in characterisation. Kotetsu is the old proven veteran who relies on hard work, guts and good ol’ elbow grease, but needs to shake out the complacent cobwebs clogging his joints; Barnaby is the young fresh hotshot with a sense of style and flush with all the latest cutting-edge gear, but who needs the tempering of experience to deploy it effectively. Together they fight crime!
It’s a clear "buddy-cop" setup that’s firmly formulaic and paint-by-numbers - even at this early stage we can already see the two contrasting personalities clash in antagonistic rivalry with their competing methods but discover the value of teamwork through what they can learn from each other. The other heroes defending Stern Bild also seem to be defined more by gimmickry than personality – the Origami Cyclone, for instance, elicits plenty of laughs from the viewer as he uses his super-speed exclusively to manoeuvre himself into the background of every money shot, but I wonder how long it will be before the gag wears thin. It’s unfair to criticise Tiger & Bunny too heavily for this, though, because it is early days and there hasn’t been enough time yet to establish every character – the previews for episode four suggest that each hero will be getting his own thematic episode to develop in, so I have confidence that the characters will grow into their roles as the series progresses further. At present, Kotetsu’s gregariousness and some workmanlike physical comedy in his and Barnaby’s mismatched attacks prevent the central Tiger & Bunny duo from sagging, although there will need to be more dynamism in their relationship to bear it up in future (and one attempt to stir up drama with an early threat to Kaede's life falls completely flat). Still, it’s rare for actual adults to be the protagonists of an anime, so Sunrise deserve kudos for that!
The art and animation of the series so far is mostly positive. There is a pleasing variety to the character designs that gives everyone their own distinction around the theme of capes and tights, and not everyone is in slinky spandex or glowing cybersuits – for instance, Mr. Legend (an early-generation hero who inspires the young Kotetsu) has a visible paunch, like he’s a middle-aged man who decided to spend his midlife crisis punching out baddies instead of buying a sports car; it’s pleasing art direction that recognises that design can be as much a mode of expression as the dialogue itself. Backgrounds are quite detailed, although perhaps too clean, and while we are limited to cityscapes at present there’s enough monumental variety in Stern Bild’s architecture to keep the streets from looking too samey. There are occasional flashes of subtlety in the animation – when Kaede gushes about a boy to her father Kotetsu, his cocked eyebrow speaks volumes – and when it comes to action bodies move quite fluidly, even handling stampeding crowds without any too-obvious shortcuts. Where things fall down is in the plasticky CGI used for some of the heroes’ costumes – particularly problematic as the two main characters are included amongst them – which sticks out like a sore thumb against the rest of the art and whose animation is sometimes jerky and juddery too. Kotetsu at least seems to have had effort on his animation commensurate with his screentime, as his movements at least are swifter, snapping and whirling about.
The music that accompanies the action, however, is the weakest pillar of Tiger & Bunny – which is a bit unfortunate when the heroine Blue Rose is also supposed to be a famous singer! The opening and ending are both instantly forgettable J-Rock guitar yowls, and incidental music during the episodes themselves is also completely generic and sounds as though it was pulled from an audio library than actually composed for the show. It’s serviceable enough in signposting ‘Battle Scene’ here and ‘Gentle Scene’ there, but does absolutely nothing to prime or enthuse you.
Fortunately, there’s enough happening onscreen that we don’t really need a rousing score to keep prodding us along. The heroes have to deal with a variety of threats that avoids repetitiveness – yes, the first episode opens with the usual masked goons, but we move onto bomb threats and walking statues that the heroes can’t damage because the heritage agency would throw a fit. There are also suggestions of overarching plot with an unscrupulous producer who seems to be ready to stoop to dodgy dealings to improve ratings – not necessarily the most gripping mystery, but enough to get the motor started. However, Barnaby’s foreboding whispering of “ouroboros” is frankly embarrassing – as foreshadowing goes, this is about as subtle and mysterious as a frog jumping up your trouser leg.
Now, none of these revelations are the most radical of storytelling innovations, true, but what’s interesting is that they’ve been achieved without relying on the touchstone of the usual anime tropes – it’s a show that’s definitely not "moe", but that doesn't make it grim and gory by default. Really, beyond the antics of the openly-gay Fire Emblem which might need a bit of pruning and a couple of mildly risqué jokes that could easily be cleaned up in dubbing – Barnaby minimises a window on his computer and a visitor mistakenly assumes that he was hiding a porn site – this really is a show that wouldn’t look too out of place in a Saturday-morning cartoon lineup (although produced to higher values than they usually are!). Western anime companies have long yearned for the Holy Grail of a breakout show that taps into the lucrative mainstream beyond the committed but limited niche of anime fans, and while the issue of product placement would require careful handling – you can well imagine our shrill media wailing that a mere corporate logo is Brainwashing Our Children Won’t Somebody Think Of Them Ban This Sick Filth – Tiger & Bunny might possibly be one of the shows that could fit the bill. For the time being, though, Anime On Demand can congratulate itself with a smart choice to open its streaming channel – a show that can reach across demographics to the widest potential audience, and solidly enjoyable to give them a first dose of satisfaction – accessible does not have to mean anodyne.
Tiger & Bunny has built itself a promising foundation, showcasing good design, strong action, a base of gentle humour and a pleasingly open take on the concept of celebrity; I’m definitely interested in seeing what is built upon it.
You can currently watch Tiger & Bunny in streaming form via Anime on Demand.