Monday, June 27, 2011

"hey bunny, watch me pull a tiger out of my hat." "again?"

After re-reading yesterday's post on Tiger & Bunny, I realized I provided more of a plot summary with some commentary than a honest-to-goodness review, you know, with criticism and stuff, of the first 14 episodes. With your indulgence, imma try to correct that now.

Part of what inspired this revisit was this review of the first episode entitled "Tiger and Bunny is an Anime for Old Men that Kids Should Definitely Watch." The basic thrust of the review is that Kotetsu, a veteran hero well above the average age of your typical anime hero, makes for a different kind of story, one with layers rarely explored directly in anime.

That's definitely something novel about the show as a whole. Almost all of the characters are adults except for Dragon Kid, who is very much a teenager. If the inspiring, talented newcomer Barnaby Brooks, Jr. is a nearly ancient and decrepit 24 years old typical anime standards. Sky High, Rock Bison, and Fire Emblem are all men in there mid to late twenties, if not in the 30s along with Kotetsu. Blue Rose lives at home with her parents and is too young to drink as pointed out in an episode but it's not clear exactly how close to 20 she is. Origami Cyclone is recently out of the Hero training academy and probably somewhere between 18 and 20.

There are a couple of other anime I can think of like this, populated mostly by adults rather than relying on teenagers to save the world. Cowboy Bebop, for instance. Jet's already had a career as a seasoned veteran of the ISSF before becoming a bounty hunter. Spike's grown up around the Red Dragon cartel. And Faye is a hundred and something, give or take a few decades, though she's clearly out of high school.

And then there's Ghost in the Shell. Not super talented teens among the ranks of Section 9. Just cyborg veterans Major Kusanagi, Batou, and the experienced but 100% Ishikawa and no super genius kids behind the plot.

Trigun also features a mostly adult cast. Vash grew up from adolescent on the ship to adult on the planet. Wolfwood is a mercenary in it to support an orphanage. And even if they look a little young, Meryl and Milly are both adults. No teens would be needed in the glamorous, planet-saving role of insurance agents.

And, perhaps not unsurprisingly, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, and Trigun are three of my favorite anime.[1] Maybe it's this shared focus on adults with adult problems that has caught my attention in Tiger & Bunny.[2] The adults here aren't just in the background, coaching the ingenue or savant on how to reach their full potential.[3] Kotetsu is actually the focus of the story. He's a man in his 30s, deceased wife, teenage daughter who lives with his mother whom he rarely sees because of his job being a hero.

He's one of the least popular of Hero TV's stars if not the least liked by the public. He's never been a big point getter because he's always more concerned about saving people than doing the things that will award him points to push ahead in the rankings. But he wouldn't mind a little recognition for what he contributes...

He's a contradiction. On the one hand, he's reckless and sloppy, always rushing in to try to save people without thinking things through. This often accounts for the significant damage to property he racks up and which his corporate sponsor has to pay for. Kotetsu doesn't care what it costs because all that matters to him is protecting the innocent. Stern Bild's first NEXT hero Legend inspired Kotetsu to take up the mantle of Wild Tiger to follow in the man's footsteps. Kotetsu's leap first policy often brings him into personal conflicts with the other heroes.

On the other hand, Kotetsu has incredibly keen instincts and reasoning skills. Based on a suspicious face, he figures out where a bomb has likely been placed in a towering skyscraper. That same memory and reasoning of that face brings them into contact with Lunatic, who is hunting down bad guys and killing them. It's Kotetsu's ability to put together disparate bits of information that allows him to figure out that Jake Martinez can read minds and it's his savvy and cunning that devises a plan to beat him by not telling Barnaby the truth.

Kotetsu is often the advisor and the conscience of the group. He counsels Blue Rose, Origami Cyclone, and Dragon Kid. And he's always working through his rocky relationship with Barnaby. Kotetsu is one who will lie about his motives for the sake of protecting others, a quality that the younger (and female) heroes often don't understand until either Rock Bison or Fire Emblem step up to explain the disconnect between Kotetsu's actions and intentions.

We don't know yet how Kotetsu's wife died or why he seems so reluctant to actually visit Kaede. He always makes promises to see her but those promises always seem to be broken and not always by things out of his control. He seems to genuinely love his daughter but can't accept the fact that she's growing up. He often talks to her like she's a much younger child than her physical appearance would indicate. But he fauns over getting her the right presents and hopes that they make her happy. But there's also a sense of sadness there and that he's running away from something.

The teenagers of Tiger & Bunny aren't the saviors of the world or even Bild Stern. Both Blue Rose and Dragon Kid are talented but they aren't on par with the skills of Sky High or Barnaby. And until just recently, Origami Kid has remained in the background, content to show up on screen to advertise his sponsors but definitely not in the heat of action earning points.

Super heroes isn't a genre usually tackled by anime. Tiger & Bunny doesn't do super heroes like Western comics with capes and tights. Besides Blue Rose, Dragon Kid (the women), and Fire Emblem (the gay), all the heroes are all ensconced in powered exosuits. The NEXT may have super powers like X-Men but the Japanese fetish for robots persists. The shells aren't strictly required for their super powers but they do offer superior protection against firearms and nifty gadgets like flight, a timer for Barnaby and Kotetsu's Hundred Power, and such.

As eye candy, Blue Rose is scantily clad, well, at least compared to the protective suits worn by the other heroes. Dragon Kid gets by on a crazy headdress and some vaguely chinoiserie kungfu getup and staff. You know, because she knows kungfu and stuff so she doesn't need a metal suit weighing her down. Fire Emblem wears the most Western super hero costume of all, red tights with a cowl and cape, but for some reason it evokes for me images of a luchadore more than a crimefighter.

It's often Blue Rose who doesn't understand Kotetsu's words or deeds, prompting one of the other male heroes (usually Rock Bison or Fire Emblem) to intercede. I'm not sure if this is meant to say something about women's intuition and stereotypically empathetic nature (it doesn't exist or can't penetrate the honor code of men or she's too young and not mature / sexually developed enough yet to possess such a motherly virtue) or if it's perhaps setting up romantic tension between her and Kotetsu. As I mentioned in the previous post, Dragon Kid is the tomboy who's learning to own her girlishness under the paternal eye of Kotetsu.

Which agains begs the question: why is Kotetsu so removed from his daughter Kaede's life? It's a puzzle, one I firmly believe Tiger & Bunny will unlock as the plot progresses.

Often in anime, it's the teenage characters who have to take on the responsibility of saving the world, a burden that's not theirs but that they accept because they have the power to make the difference. I think his narrative choice stems just as much from audience appeal (shounen and shoujou, after all, are aimed at teens) as it does from the aesthetic of mono no aware in Japanese culture. There is a beauty in things that blossom and then wither quickly. This does not necessarily mean death but often includes innocence, something the teen protagonists lose on their way to saving the world. Grizzled veterans can't lose their innocence again; often they serve as guides to protect the protagonist from as long as possible from the loss and then to help them navigate through it.[4]

Tiger & Bunny doesn't have this loss of innocence or young protector at the core of its plot. Rather, it's a veteran, Kotetsu, a seemingly unremarkable hero on the decline and well past his prime. But what he has to offer is a sometimes cunning mind and a faith in the responsibility and role of heroes that inspires those around him when they take the time to actually listen to the seeming washed-up loser. It's a different kind of anime, maybe a little more mature. Kotetsu is nuanced, complex, frank and sincere while remaining enigmatic and aloof. Rock Bison seems to know quite a bit about him. How? Fire Emblem also understands him. There are questions that future episodes promise to deliver answers to.

Unlike the typical teenage anime hero, Kotetsu is a man with a past, secrets, and regrets. He doesn't have his whole future rising before him. He is in the twilight of his super hero days. Wild Tiger is a man holding on for dear life to the present, to a world that seems simple with bad guys and good guys and saving people as the only important goal. But at the same time he seems to realize there is much more to life, to friends, to family. Confronting that adventure doesn't look to be the one he's comfortable embarking on. Things from past lurk darkly somewhere, trailing the Tiger. Splinters of something dark are hinted at. And it may just be Bunny, no teenage savior himself, who plucks those splinters from Tiger's paw and redeems the old man not only in his own eyes but also those of the people of Bild Stern who have largely overlooked this tireless champion.

Probably after he sacrifices himself to save the city.

Sorry I haven't said more about the quality of the animation, which is overall high.

[1] Another anime that focuses mostly on adults with adult problems is Eureka Seven, even though Eureka and Thurston, two of the main characters, are teens. I like it but it's definitely got that whole WTF this plot makes no damn sense / where did this bizarre shit come from angle / techno-spiritual babble that too often ruins the conclusion of an otherwise good series. But space surfers piloting giant mecha? It's like Point Break meets Evangelion in more ways than one.
[2] Note: just because the plot is all about teens doesn't mean I don't like it. Not quite in this vein, but Akira is amazing. I also enjoy Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach, and Naruto.
[3] Seriously, I'm not even going to list all the series I've seen with this as the theme. Most recently, Aquarion featured it.
[4] A topic worth exploring is the difference between the teenage heroes of anime and their counterparts in contemporary Western Young Adult Fiction such as Harry Potter, Twilight, or whatever godawful series birthed I Am Number Four.


  1. i absolutely loved reading this through

  2. Thanks. I definitely appreciate the positive feedback. I'm glad there's at least one other person out there loving Tiger and Bunny. I expected it to be kind of cheesy and was instead rewarded with a deeper exploration of character and human relationships. The same way Code Geass surprised me.