It’s the distant future for us… Okay, it’s just an alternate version of the mid seventies, but who’s counting… and a bizarre mutation has started to occur among our population. Human beings with superhuman powers are popping up everywhere, and we’ve taken to calling them Nexts… Presumably because ‘mutants’ was taken. We initially rejected these outcasts, until they decided to don costumes and assume the role of superheroes, defending the very people who judged them on live, national TV!
Unfortunately for the widowered single father Kotetsu Kaburagi, the human genome isn’t the only thing that’s been evolving. In the decades since Hero TV was established, he finds that he’s become irrelevant, with younger and more capable fighters joining to overshadow him. His rank is low amongst his co-workers, nobody ever buys his merchandise, and to make matters worse, a new superhero named Barnaby Brooks has thrown his hat into the ring, sporting the exact same power that Kotetsu has… And to keep himself from getting fired, he has to take up a new mantle as this rookie’s partner!
At first glance, Tiger and Bunny seems to have one of the most tired premises in recent anime history… That is to say, a large cast of both heroes and villains who’ve mysteriously developed their own unique powers. Just off the top of my head, I can name several titles with that exact same premise… Darker than Black, the Index Franchise, Canaan, S-CRY-ED, Speed Grapher, and Getbackers, to name a few. And that view point isn’t completely unfair, since the array of powers it features is probably the least imaginative in the bunch.
But where Tiger and Bunny differs from these other shows is in it’s core concept, which is essentially an amusing combination of X-Men and Nascar. The heroes are sponsored and basically controlled by wealthy real-life corporations, who tell them how to act and dress while decorating their costume with different logos. They advertise these logos by competing on Hero TV, earning points based on just how successful their defense of the city was that season. I can honestly say I’ve never seen an idea even close to that one in my entire life.
The animation was produced by a company named Sunrise, a prolific animation studio with a lot of very impressive previous work under their belt. They’re known by fans as Sunrise Smooth, a reference to the fluidity of most of their efforts. Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said for Tiger and Bunny. It uses both 3D and 2D style animation, but it doesn’t blend them… The 3D is used in action scenes, or just whenever the heroes are in costume, and the 2D is used practically everywhere else.
The 3D animation is actually very impressive, and yes, very smooth. It turns just about every action scene into a pulse pounding, exciting thrill ride that it should be. Unfortunately, the 3D is still in effect when our heroes are wearing their costumes outside of action, as well… Whether they’re giving an interview, lounging around the company gym, or just interacting with one another, and at times, this can sometimes look really… Really… Awkward. It’s mostly due to the fact that with so much money going into the 3D animation, the regular animation obviously took a huge budget cut. With this side of the coin, we get some of the cheapest looking animation I’ve ever encountered, from hideous walk cycles to the heavy abuse of key frames. Seeing that in the background, the three dimensional characters look out of place to an almost creepy degree.
The artwork, however, almost completely makes up for it. This show is set in a fictional American city, and as such, the art and character designs have a very surprising western aesthetic to them. Aside from a few wide-eyed children, the characters almost always look more like American comic book characters than anime characters. I’m serious, too… Virtually every single frame of this show looks like it could have been taken directly from a Marvel or DC comic book, which is a touch that makes the sometimes stiff animation a lot more palatable. The backgrounds, too, are highly detailed, and the bustling metropolis known as Stern Bild looks like a dead ringer for a futuristic New York City. The architecture of this setting is beautiful and imaginative, even if some of the structures look entirely implausible in design.
The characters inhabiting this city, much like they would be in real life, are racially diverse, forming a shockingly progressive melting pot with nary a stereotype in sight. Normally, if I were watching an anime that featured White, Black, Hispanic, Russian, Japanese and especially Chinese characters, I would be on the edge of my seat waiting for something offensive to happen. But aside from a few exaggerated physical traits… Nope! Every character’s given a proportionate amount of respect, with their ethnic backgrounds never even slightly becoming an issue in the story.
Well, that is, except for the gay character. Granted, he’s cool and likeable, and I appreciate that they made him the only hero rich enough to own his own sponsor company, but the homophobia in his design is still pretty blatant. He talks in a throaty, effeminate falsetto and flirts with pretty much every other male character in the show… Especially Kotetsu, who already has the barely clad Blue Rose inexplicably pining for him. If you were to create a sliding scale that ranked all of the LGBT characters in anime history in terms of how offensive they were, he’d be somewhere close to the crossdresser from the Battle Royal manga. It’s a disappointing step backward for a series that’s otherwise been able to take two giant steps forward against the abundant racial homogeny of the anime medium.
Ironically, though, if this show were ever adapted into live action, there’s no doubt in my mind that every single character would be Japanese.
As for the other characters? Well, the main focus of the series is on the ups and downs of Kotetsu and Barnaby’s partnership, so several of the main characters got the short end of the screen time stick. Characters like Dragon Kid and Origami Cyclone are barely featured outside of having an episode each to themselves, and Rock Bison doesn’t even really get that much. Fire Emblem, Blue Rose and Sky High get a bit more than that, but they all still play supporting roles to our two mains and their families.
Thankfully, it wasn’t for nothing… The titular characters are fleshed out, interesting, and very well developed. Kotetsu, or Wild Tiger as he’s publicly known, is very thoroughly portrayed as the aging veteran trying his damnedest to keep up with new ideas and techniques while still holding on to his more traditional values by the skin of his teeth. As altruistic as he may be, he’s a very flawed character, who refuses to let anybody ever worry about him… This stubborn attitude causes strain in both his professional and personal life, as he has a lot of trouble connecting not only with his partner but also with his ten year old daughter. Despite his insistence that saving people is more important than earning points or selling merchandise, he still clearly cares about his placement in the rankings. This could make a lot of leading men unlikeable, but in Tiger’s case, it just serves to make him more sympathetic.
His partner, Barnaby Brooks Junior… Or Bunny, as Kotetsu irritatingly came up with… Is in many ways the exact opposite. He’s the newest super hero on the circuit, and he rejects a lot of the older notions to the point that he doesn’t even bother keeping his identity a secret. He fights with his head rather than his heart, preferring logical strategy to Kotetsu’s bold, gallant approach. He’s very direct with people, to the point where he jumps to conclusions at all the worst times. His tragic past is your typical ‘Batman’s parents’ story, but the way it’s portrayed… And the way it shaped his views on justice… is so genuine that you can’t help rooting for him.
They clash a lot in the beginning, working together solely out of the interest of their employment, but as time goes on they do become closer, and they stop having to pretend to be friends. This development is shown very naturally throughout the series, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s portrayed through the outstanding, flawless performances of Wally Wingert and Yuri Lowenthal. The entire dub is very well cast, with nearly all of the actors melting seamlessly and in some cases unrecognizably into their roles, but it’s the main duo by far that takes the cake.
Unfortunately, this is the part where I have to talk about the writing, and it’s not a part that I’m really looking forward to. The story in Tiger and Bunny is fast paced, well executed, and hits all the right notes, with exciting CG battles, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and just enough down time to let us form attachments to almost all of the main characters… Even the ones that don’t get a lot of screen time. However, that story wouldn’t have progressed at all without the help of inexplicably childish behavior, constant coincidences that directly challenge the suspension of disbelief, and foreshadowing so clumsily handled that a lot of the more serious plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away.
There are dozens of conflicts and mysteries that could easily be solved in ways that the viewer will often wind up SHOUTING at the screen, and it almost feels insulting when the answers you come up with are put into play at the last moment for dramatic effect. Yes, timing is important in a story, but even Dora the Explorer doesn’t make the audience shout out obvious answers as often as Tiger and Bunny does. Hell, some of the villains are so obviously villains that they might as well have had the last name Palpatine. Early in the first few episodes, an astute viewer may start wondering things about the nature of Hero TV, ultimately coming to a conclusion that just has to be, and of course winds up being, one of the biggest reveals of the series.
And that’s to say nothing about the lack of originality at play. While the two titular characters and the final villain have some interesting and unique abilities, there doesn’t seem to be an original idea in the bunch. Most of the heroic supporting characters have commonplace powers that manipulate ice, fire, lightning, and wind. There are also powers based on Colossus, Morph, and a lighter version of Rogue from the Xmen. As far as the villains go, you’ll find characters who’re based on Emma Frost(Or more likely the diamond woman from Speed Grapher), Sandman, The Hood, and others. Even when you put Kotetsu and Barnaby’s powers aside, the Iron Man suits they wear are just that… Iron Man suits.
While the vigilante Lunatic may have a somewhat original power, think about this; He’s a judge who experienced emotional trauma as a kid, and grew up believing all evil doers must be killed… And he uses his powers to do just that, murdering the wicked while criticizing those who let them live. He’s basically Teru Mikami, except that he has the long white hair and shady face that have become trademarks of any obvious villain. And by comparison, he’s actually one of the better villains in the series… He’s nowhere near as obvious as the main villain, whose convoluted master plan and backstory turn the entire final story arc into a rat-king sized clusterfuck of plotholes that had me more confused than excited. It’s actually kind of amazing.
Tiger and Bunny was dubbed and released stateside by Viz Media, and is reasonably priced both online and on common store shelves. Two films have also been released in the following years, but in typical anime fashion, they’re just slightly altered retellings of the series. In other words, they’re full fledged cash grabs. I haven’t seen them myself, but apparently the first one is available stateside, undubbed, and also fairly cheap.
Tiger and Bunny is an enthusiastic love letter to American comic books, and it damn well feels like it. It’s a really fun story, with an intriguing idea, great comedy, and it has a highly diverse cast of likeable characters. It’s not very original, but it’s sincere, and it’s clear that some very real heart went into it’s creation. It looks beautiful when it tries, but it doesn’t try often enough. It’s also heavily flawed below the surface, and there’s a lot of points where you have to turn off your brain to fully enjoy it… I don’t like doing that, so there were a lot of times where I just felt alienated from the fun that I should have been having. It’s heart is in the right place, but it’s just not attached to it’s head. I give Tiger and Bunny a 7/10.