For those from or adjacent to the ‘90s, the word Toonami will surely evoke a sense of nostalgia. The programming block, which was created for Cartoon Network on March 17, 1997, was unlike anything to have ever been shown on a kids network. Focusing on dubbed anime series, Toonami ultimately served as a gateway to Japanese action cartoons such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Gundam Wing and more. But the programming block didn’t stop there, curating everything from rising artists and bands to popular video games and extreme sports. Toonami was exporting cool and treating their demographic as such, speaking to pre-teens and teens in a way that wasn’t patronizing but genuine.
In honor of its 20th anniversary Complex has created an oral history on the iconic programming block. From its inception and its rise to its cancelation and return, this tells the story of how an action cartoon block redefined television for kids, and came to represent something that continues to mean so much to people around the world today.
The story goes: Mike Lazzo, who was handling programming and original production at Cartoon Network, wanted a block centered around action cartoons, which already existed in Super Adventures, but those cartoons were primarily comedy based. So, Lazzo enlisted Sean Akins and Jason DeMarco to help create what would ultimately become Toonami.
Sean Akins: The funny thing was the guys [Adam Reed and Matt Thompson] that went on to do Sealab and Archer, had an afternoon franchise that was in the Toonami time slot. They left and Lazzo hired me to take over the Super Adventures block, but there wasn’t a lot of effort put against any sort of franchising, so mine was the first foray into that. In the beginning, we just used the cartoons that were in the Hanna-Barbera library; Herculoids; the old original Space Coast cartoon. We acquired different cartoons throughout the years, and built the block into what you see today.
Jason DeMarco: This would be 1996. I was working at TNT as a production assistant and Sean [Akins], the guy that got my foot in the door, had moved to Cartoon Network. Lazzo had asked him to come up with a block of action cartoons we could run in the afternoon, because the block they had wasn’t working. I would walk downstairs to Sean’s cubicle and the two of us would brainstorm what we thought our ideal action cartoon block should be. There was several months where Sean and another guy named Michael Cahill, who ended up being the main editor of the Adult Swim bumps, would go and get edit sessions and cut together these reels with music we thought was cool like Goldie and Timeless, because drum-n-bass was the big new thing. Here in Atlanta we had a few Japanese video stores that catered to Japanese expatriates that had new anime and a lot of it wasn’t translated. But we would watch it, and cut that together with skateboarding and make a reel that was the Toonami vibe.
Fifty names later and Lazzo, Akins and DeMarco settled on Toonami: an action block that was originally going to have an AI and teenage girl as its hosts, but ultimately went with a more cost-effective (but still great) choice with Moltar, voiced by Clay Croker. They animated Moltar with CG and, after working on the programming block for about eight months to a year, premiered Toonami on St. Patrick’s Day in 1997. A lot of the shows Akins and DeMarco wanted they didn’t get, but they started off strong with Thundercats, Robotech and Voltron. Still, the early days of Toonami were a challenge.
Akins: In the beginning it wasn’t glamorous. There was literally no money to do anything. We always felt the need to knock it out of the park whenever we were given the opportunity because we didn’t know how many we would get. We were definitely doing everything we could to make our numbers and be successful.
But what helped the block stand out was that we got to do whatever we wanted—we could really let our own individual voices be heard. And there was really an entrepreneurial spirit that existed at Turner that was maybe even a holdover from Ted Turner himself, where there was an appetite to take some creative chances. And I think that’s what really allowed the voice to be honed over time and allowed us to have the success that we had.
DeMarco: We would, week to week, not know if we were going to get canceled. The ratings were better but they weren’t amazing. They didn’t understand what we were doing, and they didn’t know if leaving us to continue doing it would work. Sean was running the block at the time, and he would come back from his weekly meetings with the bosses and a lot of the time he would be like “I don’t know man, I don’t know.”
Then came along three very integral anime series that put Toonami on the map—Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Gundam Wing. And although Toonami benefitted from their inclusion, it inevitably presented a new set of challenges for the programming block as it was gaining mainstream notice.
DeMarco: USA Network had it [Sailor Moon], and the rights expired and whoever was programming at the time said “You guys want Sailor Moon because it’s available,” and we were like “Yeah!” Dragon Ball Z was something that Sean and I both knew we wanted. But it was Sean that pushed really hard for Dragon Ball Z. By that time Toonami was becoming a thing, so Bandai took notice and came to us and said “We’re looking to launch Gundam in the United States. We have this new Gundam show, we think it would be perfect to be the launchpad. Are you guys interested?” and we said “Hell yeah.” That’s the way it is now—it’s still a mix of opportunities that come along, or us pushing for something because we like it or fans want it.
Akins: When I was a kid we were still getting up at like six in the morning on our local Ultra High Frequency (UHF) channel to watch Dragon Ball Z. And I thought “I know there are other kids like me doing this. I know people are sending around bootleg VHS tapes.” And I’m like “I bet if we can get this thing and put it on at five in the afternoon, we might have a hit on our hands,” and we really did.
DeMarco: We were working in a bubble until people started writing about the success of Dragon Ball Z, because that was right around when Pokemon blew up. So there was this wave of mainstream publications just being like “Wow, kids are really watching this stuff. What’s the deal with this Japanese animation?” It was really weird to suddenly have the Wall Street Journal writing about Dragon Ball Z. And 90 percent of the people who wrote about it got it completely wrong, whether it was positive or negative. That was what clued us in that we were having a larger impact.
And the ratings exploded so we knew that a lot of people were watching, but we didn’t understand that it was making cultural impact until we would occasionally speak at a high school and half of the kids in the room were like, “Oh man, I love Toonami.”
Richie Branson: A lot of my initial anime fan experiences were introduced through Toonami. The first anime series that I really got hooked into was Mobile Suit Gundam and Dragon Ball Z. The thing I liked about anime at the time compared to western cartoons, was the fact that there was this sort of continuity that would happen in between episodes. You’d be watching an anime about giant robots, but there would be these huge geopolitical themes that were playing out.
Dawn Richards: I fell in love with Sailor Moon and that was the beginning of my fascination with anime. As a kid I loved the idea that these girls with pigtails could kick ass.
Terri Hawkes: I don’t think any of us knew the effect Sailor Moon would have until it was out there, and then all of a sudden there were little girls coming to my mother’s door on Halloween in Alberta, Canada, dressed as Sailor Scouts and my mother was going “Oh, I’m the mother of Sailor Moon!”
DeMarco: Fast forward a couple of years later, we had a different battle. Toonami is now a thing and toy companies and people who make cartoons want to put their shows in there. We had always maintained an aesthetic of things that we liked, but we didn’t own the block—the block was owned by a television network. So there were definitely conflicts about shows that we didn’t care for that we were told “Tough, you’ve got to show them.” And then shows that we really wanted that we were told “We’re not going to spend the money.” Although we have had our battles they weren’t greater than anybody else’s and in fact, because of the nature of Cartoon Network they gave us way more freedom. I don’t think Toonami would’ve survived at Disney Channel for a year, let alone 20 years.
Regardless of the challenges, Akins and DeMarco powered through, experimenting with Toonami in more ways than one. From the introduction of Midnight Run in 1999, which showed uncensored versions of the anime they showed during the day, to premiering animated music videos from the likes of Daft Punk and Gorillaz, Toonami was slowly becoming a cultural curator of cool.
DeMarco: When Daft Punk did Interstella 5555 they had released the first two videos, and they came to us and said “Do you want to premiere those [the next two videos] on Toonami and we’ll make a little promotional thing?” It’s crazy because they’re huge now but they weren’t then. And then the same thing happened with Gorillaz. So we said “Why don’t we have an hour where we just show music videos? We’ll do it at midnight so we’re not risking any ratings stuff and get whatever other music videos we could get that were animated.” So we got Kenna’s “Hell Bent”; The White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl”—there was a Beck video too. I’ve heard many, many times over the years from Toonami fans, that that’s the first time they saw Daft Punk or Gorillaz.
The biggest thing I brought to Toonami over the years is the music. It was always my focus to expose people to artists and to hopefully help those musicians achieve a bigger audience. Like, if you’re going to tell me that Leiji Matsumoto and Daft Punk did a thing together and we got to premiere that—to me that is already like “Ok, good. I’ve done it.” For me that’s the top of the mountain—Daft Punk and one of the greatest anime creators of all time.
Through its growth Toonami continued to redefine its brand, handing hosting responsibilities from Moltar to a robotic being named TOM (voiced by Sonny Strait), and putting him in charge of the Ghost Planet Spaceship Absolution, as he traveled through space playing the best anime and beats (and even reviewing some video games) alongside SARA (voiced by Sally Timms). Here, Toonami yet again proved how ahead of its time it was, when it created a Total Immersion Event (TIE) that took place both on-air during Toonami and on the Cartoon Network website, where viewers of the show were encouraged to help TOM out as he attempted to fight off an alien blob called the Intruder. Unfortunately, TOM was killed off.
DeMarco: Intruder came about because our sales department said “If we gave you guys some money to tell a story using the host of Toonami, could you come up with a story and then we can package it as an event and sell it to advertisers?” And we said “Hell yeah. If you’re going to give us money we’ll come up with something.”
Akins: I didn’t know how powerful that was gonna be. We really were like “This guy’s not cool looking, we need a new looking guy. What happened to this guy? He gets eaten by something?” Maybe it was a bit too traumatic, but I certainly thought it was awesome. Getting the ability to do that—people don’t even remember but it was an event on television, and a multi-level game on CartoonNetwork.com. All this way before we should’ve been doing any of that. But that goes back to the spirit of Toonami. A lot of times for the network—just the word Toonami was an excuse to try something.
However, TOM didn’t die in vain. The Intruder special was a success, fans loved the combination of the eight episode mini-series and the online flash game. So much so, that Akins and DeMarco made a second special called Lockdown, which found a resurrected TOM (voiced by Steve Blum) trying to save the Absolution from a giant trash compactor. But being the innovators they are, Akins and DeMarco didn’t stop there—they complemented the mini-series with a massive multiplayer online role-playing game—the first of its kind for the Cartoon Network website.
And it was a hit.
Steve Blum: I believe it was Sean and Jason who first contacted me. As I recall, they said they were fans of Cowboy Bebop and were thinking of me to host their show based on the voice of Spike. I’d never done anything like that before, nor had been approached to even audition for anything like that, so I was excited to meet them. They also offered me free beer, so...but I didn’t know what Toonami was at first. Once I realized what Toonami was I may have peed myself a little at the prospect of working on a show that actually respected dubbed anime.
I can’t take credit for anything regarding TOM except for my love for the character. Jason, Sean, Gill [Austin] and Dennis [Moloney] always reminded me that there has to be an underlying sense of snark with TOM. He’s just a regular dude (in a robot body) who loves what he loves and isn’t afraid to express it.
DeMarco: The reason there was the multimedia aspect was because they said “Hey, if you guys had an online aspect then that works better for us to get it in front of an advertiser.” And we said “What if we had a game where viewers could be a part of it?” So we had that game designed and it all worked out really well, because we had enough money to do really cool animation and a cool story, whether you played the game or not. But if you wanted to play the game and get involved you could feel like you were helping TOM. Lockdown was just another attempt to have fans be a part of the narrative in a way that felt organic and not just “Vote for what color you want TOM to be.”
Toonami continued to be a curator of great anime, expanding its catalog with specials that showed mecha-based series (Giant Robot Week), and other popular shows such as Naruto and One Piece. But in 2004 the programming block went from weekday afternoons to a Saturday evening slot, partly because some of the shows on the weekday lineup were considered too violent for a weekly broadcast. So, in its place came Miguzi, a lighter-toned action block. But the change also foreshadowed what was soon to come—Toonami’s cancellation.
On January 27, 2007, Toonami dropped a teaser commercial in anticipation of its 10 year anniversary. On March 17 the programming block celebrated its long journey with numerous montages; new shows; and a revamped TOM accompanied by two new robots—Flash (voiced by Dave Wittenberg) and D (voiced by Tom Kenny). They also showed a collection of animated movies, rounding out the end of March with Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus Spirited Away. At this point it looked like Toonami would continue to be around for many, many years to come.
But a year later came the announcement—Toonami was canceled.
Akins: I had been doing other projects for the network; I produced other shows there; and it was just a natural time for me to go.
DeMarco: Looking back it was probably when we went from being on five days a week to just being on Saturday. There was this five year explosion of home video and Dragon Ball and Pokemon and Spirited Away winning the Oscar. There was a wave. And then it receded because the bottom fell out of the home video market; a bunch of fake Toonamis popped up and died; and I think it was a cross between the wider cultural consciousness moving away from anime and our network having different priorities. So when they moved us to Saturday and they started promoting Toonami less—the writing was on the wall for a good two years. Our bosses were pretty transparent, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when they told us we were going to be canceled.
Blum: Saying “Bang” in that last broadcast on September 20, 2008, broke my heart.
Nearly four years later, as a part of their annual April Fools’ Day prank, Adult Swim decides to air the Toonami block. Dragon Ball Z, Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo!, YuYu Hakusho—the classics. Unbeknownst to the fans the brief resurrection is more experiment than terrible joke, with Adult Swim using the power of social media to see if people really wanted Toonami back.
“Want it back? Let us know. #BringBackToonami,” the Adult Swim Twitter posted the following day. The fans let them know—one even wrote the rap battle cry for its revival—and on May 26, 2012, Toonami made its highly-anticipated return.
DeMarco: It came about because of Lazzo and our head of programming Kim Manning. They were a part of a brainstorm session that I wasn’t even in, that addressed what we were going to do for April Fools in 2012. And Tim suggested “Why don’t we just run Toonami? We get rights to old Toonami shows for one night, we run a bunch of old Toonami packaging and we literally make it like it’s 1999.” And Lazzo said “I love that idea. You’ve got to talk to the Toonami guys and see if they can do that.” So when they came to us we did immediately think “Oh, this is a chance to maybe bring it back.” But we also kept it realistic. So we put a lot of energy into digging up old stuff—we had to make a bunch of new graphics with old graphics packages and stuff that hadn’t been used in years, and we only had a month, so it was a really hard thing to do.
When it went live myself, Lazzo and everybody else involved with Toonami, that whole night we barely got any sleep because we were watching Facebook and Twitter, and texting each other and going “Oh my God people are freaking out.”
Branson: I was doing this weekly anime-inspired rap series that I called “Otaku Tuesdays.” And it was essentially like Kanye West’s “Good Friday” series, but the nerdy version. So every Tuesday I would drop a song that was paying homage to a particular anime series. I remember it was April Fools Day, and they had just aired a full blown Toonami broadcast, and everybody was freaking out. And then they announced that it was an April Fools joke, it was like “Yo, we’ve got to do something.” So there was a hashtag that was going around that a lot of Adult Swim and Toonami fans were pushing and it was this Bring Back Toonami hashtag.
So I was like “What if I dropped a ‘Bring Back Toonami’ song to give this this movement an anthem?” When I put it out, a couple of blogs wrote little blurbs about it like “Rapper pens song to bring Toonami back.” My manager at the time he called me like “Yo, Adult Swim is on the phone. They want to use your song.” I couldn’t believe it—someone wants to use my music? It just completely freaked me out. So we talked it out and they ended up using it in a couple of commercials.
DeMarco: Based on that tidal wave of response that allowed us to come back that very next week. We pitched Lazzo and said “Give us two months—we can get a cheap version of Toonami up and running and see if we can keep this running.” And he said “Go for it.” So it really was fan feedback that led to us coming back and Lazzo being someone that is open to ignoring rules.
Branson: The song came, they put it on TV, and then a week later they announced that they were bringing Toonami back. And as soon as they announced that I immediately hit the booth and that’s when I recorded the “Toonami’s Back Bitches” song. I immediately sent it to them, and they were like “We wanna use this too.”
The night they bring back Toonami I’m at this show in Houston, my first paid show, and I run to my hotel room to catch Toonami— it was like high school all over again. I turn my TV on and the intro song is the song that I made —“Toonami’s Back Bitches.” I’ve never fainted in my life but I almost fell out. They used my song on national TV to be the theme song for Toonami. That was mind blowing.
Akins: It just proves that there’s still a premiere destination to put that next big anime show that might not be able to go anywhere else. Toonami is a perfect spot for that. Having that frame there that these new shows can fill is great for the fans.
Since its comeback Toonami has added countless shows: Casshern Sins, Deadman Wonderland, Soul Eater, Sword Art Online, Attack On Titan, Gurren Lagann, Kill La Kill, Akame Ga Kill, One-Punch Man, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Dragon Ball Super. The programming block has reclaimed its rightful spot as a platform for anime in the social media age, with TOM and SARA (now voiced by Dana Swanson) leading their devout fans further into the Toonami galaxy. Of course, in such an age where feedback is immediate, and other anime services such as Crunchyroll are offered, this presents another set of challenges for the Toonami team. But so far so good—they’re even brought back Samurai Jack for one final season.
Dana Swanson: In April 2013, I received an email from Toonami co-master Gill Austin asking me to read the line “Hello TOM, it’s good to see you again.” I read it, thought it was scratch, sent it off and was asked to re-read it in a more casual manner. After dialing in what Jason and Gill were looking for, I remember them telling me I was getting passed this legendary Toonami torch. However, I still tried to bottle any sort of excitement until I watched SARA’s return to the Absolution, and subsequently saw Toonami fans (aka The Toonami Faithful) flipping out on Twitter and YouTube. That night was an unforgettable rush.
Genndy Tartakovsky: For eight or nine years of everywhere where I spoke, the first question was always “Are you going to finish the Samurai Jack story?” So finally I finished Hotel Transylvania 2 and I was like maybe this is the time to do it. I talked to Mike Lazzo and he was like “How many? How much?” And I told him my estimate and he was like “Let’s do it,” and within two weeks we were off and rolling. And it was really the demand to finish the show — personally and from the fanbase we developed when we first aired.
DeMarco: Because of the nature of anime fandom and because we need to appeal to as many people as possible, we are showing more shows that have nostalgic appeal, but continued to introduce new programming and more adult shows. Television can do something that the internet can’t. The internet is the best thing in the world for diving deep into something you want to find. And TV is really good at presenting you with things you’ve never seen. Toonami has always existed to present people with cool stuff, and we’re still able to do that.
Now it’s even weirder because now we’re talking to three different audiences: people that grew up on Toonami, people that have never heard of Toonami and hardcore anime fans who have Crunchy Roll and who are watching the dub on Toonami judging it. It’s very complicated now. Before when we showed Gundam Wing we knew no one had seen Gundam Wing in the US period. Now, no matter what we show, someone’s already seen it and someone’s already formed an opinion. The great part of that is the feedback is so immediate and so passionate that we get way more guidance. We know when we’re screwing up because they tell us right away. 15 years ago we were just in the dark—the only guiding star was “We think this is cool. Do you think it’s cool?” Now we have the benefit of going “This show already has a huge following among the hardcore fans, we think it has the ability to go farther than that. Let’s find the dub and get it on Toonami.”
No matter what happens to Toonami in the future, there’s no denying its importance on popular culture, providing not only an entrance into the world of anime, but music and much, much more. The programming block worked because of how devoted everyone was: the creators; the voice actors; and the fans. Without the other Toonami wouldn’t exist, and each has been impacted in different ways from its existence.
Hawkes: Since then I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many young people that grew up on Sailor Moon, and I’ve heard so many heartwarming stories about how these characters and their adventures have affected many young lives. And I don’t take any credit for that—I was just the vessel. But it’s gratifying to be a part of something that really touched a chord, and helped people through difficult transitions in their lives.
Branson: I owe Adult Swim an incredible debt of gratitude for what they did for me. If you’re a fan of anything don’t be afraid to represent, because it could pay off.
Loch: Toonami has been really good at keeping to their philosophy. They’ve stayed true to themselves and not been pushed around, and I think that’s allowed them to be around for as long as they have.
DeMarco: People tell us all kinds of crazy stories like “Hey I used to watch Toonami with my older brother and then he went away to war, and now he’s back and we watch it together with our families.” One thing Toonami fans have given us is that we know the things we were trying to say have in some small way helped people, and impacted their lives in a positive way. Even something so silly as an action cartoon block, if you believe in it enough and you stand behind it, then you will connect with people somewhere on a deeper level. You helped them in that moment, they treasure it and they tell you what you did. And it’s the greatest feeling in the world.