How Toonami Became an Anime Gateway for Millennials

L-R: Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Jonny Quest. Photo: Cartoon Network

When most Americans of the last couple generations think back to when they first saw a Japanese animated television show, chances are it was after school, on an idiosyncratic, little programming block known as Toonami. Beginning on Cartoon Network on Monday, March 17, 1997, for two hours the channel was dedicated to action cartoons — Jonny Quest and Thundercats were on the first lineup, but so was giant-robot classic Voltron, and soon after, Robotech. They were later joined by Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, massive successes in their home countries, whose American dubbed versions had previously languished on Saturday mornings, often in heavily edited versions. On Toonami, they found their audience, and dozens of anime series — Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo! and later, One Piece and Naruto — found theirs as well.

This was a time when it could be daunting and expensive (and often technically illegal) to access anime, and it was still a relatively niche interest in America. Toonami not only brought dubbed shows to basic cable, it also contextualized them in a world of hip-hop, DJ culture, comic-book sensibility, and starry-eyed sci-fi earnestness. Toonami was a full-fledged meta show, and as much an exercise in world-building as it was in curation, with multiple robotic hosts throughout the years, and subplots and running jokes in between Gorillaz music videos and Cowboy Bebop episodes.

Toonami has gotten flack over the years from everyone from anti-dub anime purists to concerned parents, but it’s persisted as a labor of love. Former CN creative director Sean Akins and producer Jason DeMarco, who were originally brought on to figure out what to do with the channel’s stagnating after-school block, grew up on Voltron and the early space-opera import Star Blazers. DeMarco, now a senior vice president and creative director at Adult Swim, is still at the helm, and still actively involved with Toonami’s ever-passionate fanbase. After a four-year hiatus due to poor ratings, it returned as a late-night block on Adult Swim in 2012, where by all reports it’s going stronger than ever — the network is even co-producing 12 new episodes of fan-favorite FLCL (a.k.a. Fooly Cooly) with Japanese studio Production I.G. to premiere on Toonami sometime next year. And for the occasion of their 20th anniversary, this weekend they are premiering Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii’s short series, Sand Whale and Me. It takes time and trust to get this sort of access, especially across languages and cultures.

Vulture spoke to DeMarco over the phone about his hands-on approach to curation, and what it is that still gives Toonami its edge.

So take me back to the very beginning. What had to line up in 1997 for Cartoon Network to say, “Okay, we’re gonna go in on anime”?
What had to align was that we found a boss in Mike Lazzo, who runs Adult Swim now, and who then was running programming for Cartoon Network. [Lazzo] was sort of like, “I don’t get [anime], but I know you do, and you want to show this and build a thing around it. What would you do if I let you have a teeny bit of money?” And so we had someone who let us take this risk.

I will say, I don’t think anyone in the network really understood what we were doing, because when we came we said we wanted to use hip-hop; we wanted to use drums and bass; we wanted to interview skaters and comic-book artists. We wanted it to represent all of what we thought was exciting about youth culture at the time. And in a way that didn’t talk down to kids and wasn’t like, “Eat your vegetables.”

Cartoon Network was the Wild West back then. It was a young network, still searching for its voice. So we were able to convince Mike that our approach was a good one. And we didn’t sit down and say, “We want it to be anime.” We basically were saying, we want it to be action cartoons. Really, it wasn’t until Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon really popped, and then it suddenly became, “Okay, what other anime is out there that you guys think might work in this block?” And then it became slightly more focused on anime until where we are today.

In those first few years, social media certainly wasn’t what it was now. Other than ratings, how would you know, say, Dragon Ball Z was blowing up, or that people were really responding to it?
It’s so crazy how different it is now to have immediate feedback — not just the second we air, but the second we even say we’re airing it, I get feedback. Back then, it would be months, and then beyond ratings, it would be when we would go to speak at schools. I very vividly recall going to speak to a junior high about my job at Cartoon Network. And I remember every one of those kids were like, “Oh, man, Dragon Ball Z! When are the new episodes?” And the same thing when we would go to conventions and stuff for just promotional things, all of a sudden, people would come up to us and shake our hands and be like, “Oh my god, I first saw this music video on your show.”

And then people wanted to start writing about it. Very early on, reporters from The Wall Street Journal came and hung out and were like, “What is this Japanese cartoon, and why are people watching it?” And then they published a really — they published a piece that was like, “Kids are glued to a violent Japanese cartoon show.” It was crazy.

When you picked those first Japanese shows to bring to Toonami, as someone who had grown up with an earlier era of anime, what in particular did you want to show to this younger audience? How did you view your role as a curator?
We were not allowed to be swept away by serious [animated] stories in the U.S. It was never taken seriously, and for me, it became the bedrock that my whole life ended up being built around. I take the art of animation seriously, and I think any kind of story can be told in that medium. So I was trying to communicate that. I was trying to show other kids, “Look at this stuff that comes from other places, and look what artists are able to do in this medium and these stories that you didn’t even imagine could be told in this format.”

Before this interview, I was watching some of the old Toonami bumpers and promos on YouTube. There was a promo for when you ran the second half of Sailor Moon R and you called it “the Lost Episodes,” and the copy was like, “the episodes America wasn’t supposed to see.” And I remember as a tween just getting into anime being so excited about that. “I wasn’t supposed to see this? Oh my god!” Do you think that was part of the appeal early on?
[Laughing] Yeah. We’ve heard directly from fans over the years, and that’s definitely part of the appeal. And especially later on, when we had something called Midnight Run when we were showing less-cut versions of Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star. It felt exotic in a way that I don’t think you can replicate now, because we’re all so connected. While that is wonderful and we’ve gained a lot from that, one of the things we lost is the feel of discovery of that thing you didn’t know existed, just showing up on television. That’s not as common anymore.

Anime can be a very insular world, criticism and fandom of it aren’t always in conversation with culture at large. But it seems like there’s always been a concerted effort from the beginning for Toonami to get music and all of these mediums and genres talking to each other.
Oh, very much so. That’s something that many people have told me; they’re happy they watched Toonami or Adult Swim because they found out about stuff. And there is, of course, the contingent of anime fans that are totally unhappy because they want that world to stay insular. And for better or worse, Toonami has always been about exposing as many people as possible to things that we think are really good. And there is a subset of anime fans who are very invested in protecting that, and feel like anything that isn’t that is sort of normie bullshit. Toonami’s whole job, as far as I’m concerned, is to make new fans every single day. That is our whole focus, and always has been, and always will be. We’re the gateway drug. We’re not supposed to be the end stop. The end stop is you having a subscription to Crunchyroll, and a subscription to every other anime-streaming thing as it drops in Japan, and watching it subbed. You’re watching Yuri on Ice because you saw Dragon Ball when you were 10.

It’s funny you bring up Yuri on Ice, because that’s the beginning point I think for a lot of people now. Specifically that show.
It is.

It’s so accessible for newcomers. And there are so many recent anime shows, that aren’t necessarily within the shōnen world, which have become tremendously popular. Does that inform at all what you would want to bring to Toonami going forward?
I mean, we don’t know what Toonami will become, but traditionally, Toonami has done action-focused shows because that’s what our audience has told us they want. In terms of viewing numbers, when we veer too far from that, we’ve not had a lot of success. That doesn’t mean that that would never happen. As far as Toonami’s audience makeup, it’s actually more female than male-skewing, so it’s not necessarily about choosing shows that are boy-oriented action shows; it’s just choosing shows we think are good and have enough buzz. Obviously, we can’t show totally obscure shows very often, because our whole job is to find the stuff that appeals to the most people as humanly possible.

But I would say that anime itself is changing day to day, and even traditional shōnen are changing. If Toonami’s going to be around 20 more years, we hopefully will be showing more than just action shows. But action has just always been our focus and what people come to Toonami basically, usually want.

On that subject, and completely objectively, of course: Sailor Moon was obviously one of the early successes on Toonami, and an exception to the whole shōnen thing, while still being an action show. So why was there never another magical-girl show on Toonami?
I will say we tried. You have no idea how hard I tried to get Magic Knight Rayearth. I tried to get Slayers. We — believe me, we tried. The tricky thing is, with acquiring any of these shows, it’s not just about what you want. It’s also about the Japanese distributor and how cool they are to work with; and has the show been dubbed; and are there enough episodes that you can run it so it’s on every day, without running out after two months? Back in the day — when Toonami first became popular — it got so ridiculous, and when we would express interest to a distributor in a show, another company would hear about it and buy it out from under us before we could get it. So we got to a point where, if we said we wanted Slayers, someone else would lock it down, and then we would never be able to get it. They would make deals that would be like ten-year deals, and once a cartoon is 10-years-old, unless it’s a major hit, you can’t really show it anymore, because then the audience doesn’t want it.

And then, a weird thing that happened was, in the early 2000s, all the magical-girl shows started skewing way younger. They started being like Cardcaptor. Then it became a little too young for Toonami. So that is the main reason. But I promise you … particularly Magic Knight Rayearth. That one really hurt. I love that show, and I love the design and everything about it. And Slayers we sort of danced with for about four years. The way deals are made in Japan is so complicated … If, one day — if I ever wrote a book, I would write about all the deal-making. It would be so boring for anyone but a super-nerd, but I would write about all of the ways that deals were screwed up by stupid stuff over the years.

I imagine your understanding of the Japanese entertainment industry must have been a huge learning curve to overcome in the last 20 years.
It was, yeah. It required developing a lot of friendships with a lot of people at those companies, and those people helping the properties to make it over to the U.S. because they wanted more people to see it. It required passionate people at all levels to even begin to make sense. Because, especially 20 years ago, you’re talking about a totally different business culture when we were going to Japan. Nowadays, I’d say the similarities are a lot greater. But 20 years ago, it was rough.

In its first run before the hiatus from 2008–2012, Toonami always had this embattled narrative — I still remember people on forums always talking about this threat of cancellation. Since it came back in 2012, as far as I can see, it’s been more successful than ever, which seems counterintuitive, given all the streaming options and increased accessibility we’ve talked about. What accounts for that staying power?
I think about that all the time, I’ll be honest. In general, Toonami is doing really well right now, which is why we’re making Fooly Cooly seasons two and three because the network would never invest that kind of money if we weren’t doing well. And we benefit greatly from being on Adult Swim because Adult Swim is one of the few networks serving this demographic that has not lost tons of viewers. All of our competition — MTV, Comedy Central — they’ve lost tons of viewers. We’ve lost some, but nowhere near where our competition has. For whatever reason, people who watch Adult Swim, about 93 percent do it live. So whoever’s watching us wants to watch us in the old-school way of literally turning on the television and watching it.

Part of the reason people do that is because we put care into the presentations between the shows. It’s not just the shows, it’s also everything around the shows. Airing music videos, airing little animated shorts. It’s putting pieces of music in there. And for Toonami, it’s that we’ve built a narrative around the shows that involves hosts; and they have their own adventures; and they talk about video games; and they present movies. What we’ve done is build a little cultural bubble, and when we connect with that audience, we give them a reason to tune in beyond … “I’ve seen this episode of Dragon Ball, or I’ve seen this episode of Tokyo Ghoul — Why would I watch it again, and why would I watch it dubbed?” The reason our fans seem to do it is because they enjoy the communal experience, and they enjoy stuff like game reviews, and the inspirational speeches that T.O.M. might give.

It comes down to the difference between a dub and a sub. I’m a sub person personally, but there is an appeal to just being able to kick back and watch something casually — eat your night cereal while you watch some late-night cartoons.
I’m a both person. If the dub is good, I prefer dub, because then I can concentrate on the animation and let myself fall into it a little bit. And when I watch Miyazaki movies, because the dubs are usually great, I’ll just watch the dubbed version. Basically, if the dub is good to me, that removes a layer of you having to worry about it. If the dub is bad, it actually adds a layer that you have to muscle through because you have to get through bad performances and dialogues and writing.

You mentioned the new seasons of Fooly Cooly, which are a huge milestone for you guys. Beyond that, what’s another show that you don’t have right now that you would want to bring on?
If there was a show I would wanna bring on … the last show like that was One Punch Man. The very second we heard about it, we were like, we have to have that. So, obviously, when more One Punch Man comes out, we’ll want that. But I also really like Mob Psycho 100 a lot.

Beyond that, we’re developing other things besides Fooly Cooly, but nothing I can talk about yet. Especially with the 20th anniversary coming up, we did some really exciting stuff that’s gonna be airing this coming Saturday that I’m super pumped about. So it’s a really good time for all of us … most of the people who work on Toonami have been working on it for literally 20 years. It’s really weird for all of us, but it’s also cool because we’re still able to do this; and we’ve loved doing this since day one, and we still love doing it. So I have nothing to complain about.

Toonami Was an Anime Gateway for Millennials