Toonami: How Anime Conquered the West

In a world of internet streaming , where piracy is both a blessing and  scourge,  it’s hard to imagine a time when anime was hard to come by. But there was a time when there was no Netflix, there was no Crunchyroll, and you were at the mercy of your TV guide and Video Rental store.  T’was dark times, indeed.

But,in that period, a shining savior came to enlighten us all: Toonami. 

Oh yes, I am laying the Nostalgia on thick today, so hold onto your brains.

Toonami was the weekday segment on Cartoon Network where they aired all their action shows back to back. What started as a showcase for both Western and Eastern animation quickly became an anime only buffet, offering everything from magical girls to giant robots to full-fledged anime movies. It became the one-stop shop for an Otaku’s daily dose of anime before its cancellation, and then again when it returned in 2012.

What Toonami did for anime is unparalleled, and set the stage for so much future programming. By funneling so many mainstay titles to western audiences, it created the massive fan base that exists there today. It wasn’t always pretty, as these were still the dark times of DIC and 4Kids dubs (shudder) but it still got the ball rolling.


Mmm, that’s some good Nostolgia.

Horse Of a Different Color

Back in the 80’s, anime wasn’t anywhere near the popularity it’s at today, nor was it as vast a market. Over in the US, most people only knew anime for the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Neon Genesis: Evangelion. As good as most of these were (I’m on the fence about Evangelion) they put anime into this sci-fi niche, producing “post-eva” giant robot anime that flooded the market. Alas, none of the shows really gained the forward momentum of Ghost or Evangelion, and western audiences were in need of new flavor.

Enter 1998. Toonami, after it’s success in 1997, picks up two anime beasts: Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z.


There are far more photoshops of these two together than any I’ve ever seen. I can only imagine the fanfiction.

These two were the golden tag team: The Magical Girl anime and the Shounen Hero anime. These genres were radically different from the giant robot-fest happening previously that American audiences ate them up like cheap chocolate. They practically took over Toonami, pushing out the older cartoons like Superfriends and Thundercats. Later seasons would still feature action-based cartoons from Western studios (like The animated DC universe and Samurai Jack) but the schedule would be overwhelmingly filled with Anime from that point on.

Something for Everybody

After DBZ’s success, Toonami continued the Shounen train with stuff like Rurouni Kenshin, Yu Yu Hakusho, and eventually even Naruto, but such a tactic could only get them so much. Shounen hero animes have become Toonami’s bread and butter, but it was hardly everything it had to offer. Ratings are cold, cruel little buggers after all, and everyone would eventually get tired of watching young men fight legions of bad guys with cool powers. So Toonami had to leave the safety of Shounen Island for a whole new world.


There exists a pintrest that combines Aladin and Anime. I love the internet

Here we have the experimental period, where some rather bold choices were made. Amidst a sea of Mecha animes (The Gundam and Zoid series respectively) Toonami went raunchy and aired all of the Tenchi animes. The Tenchi series was a very raw move, working with a very spineless man being fought over by five different women who all want a piece of his wimp-tastic disco-stick. It was a dangerous but successful move, netting them monster ratings yet again from curious kids and teenage boys alike.

They also stepped into children’s anime with the likes of Hamtaro and Cardcaptors, two light-hearted, serialized anime.They even stepped out of their comfort zone of action once or twice with the anime .Hack//SIGN a drama, dialogue heavy anime that went into very deep, dark, emotional places. Each step was a risk, with some more successful than others, but all towards a much greater benefit: redefining anime as a genre.

By allowing for a spectrum of anime in their lineup, Toonami allowed the medium to expand past the more traditional definitions and flesh itself out for western audiences. It stopped being those weird cartoons about karate and robots and became a flexible technique to fit several story types.

And it continued doing this well into its cancellation around 2008. As we watched the Spaceship Absolute go down for (we assumed) the final time, we left with a knowledge of a whole new world of cartoons. Anime was here, firmly established, and people were thankful.


Doing it All Again

Surprise! Guess who’s back from the dead?



As of 2012, Toonami returned as an add-on to the adult’s only segment called Adult Swim. The internet promptly exploded at the news that Toonami was returning, and continued to drool when it learned that it would be airing shows like Hellsing Ultimate, Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill, and Fullmetal Alchemist. Most of these titles are already saturated with internet views, but the very idea of Toonami returning to our TV screens was so cosmically awesome that it didn’t even matter.

In short, the stars aligned, hell froze over, Toonami has returned. The second coming is true, it’s a miracle.

But, this raises a question: Why? In an age where you can get the latest anime by scouring the internet, or signing up to a streaming service, why has everyone gotten so excited at the chance to watch anime again on TV?

Well, for one, the quality is better. The animation is no longer frankensteined together to appease some nasty sensors, allowing the anime to shine its risky business. It’s also dubbed a hell of a lot better than the old days were, with the likes of Funimation behind the wheel for most, if not all their programming. So, really, not only do we get something we like, we got it back refurbished and shiny.

But really, to put it in simple terms, it’s because it harkens back to a time people loved.  Toonami will always hold a special place for anime fans like myself because it was where this whole mess all began. Here most of us saw our first anime, saw our favorite anime, and learned just how awesome the medium was as a whole. It was fun and exciting then, so it’s fun and exciting to us now, and it doesn’t get much more complicated than that.


What was your favorite anime growing up? Feel free to leave a comment below, and don’t forget to like and follow.

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