Masked heroes. Supernatural powers. Fighting crime on the TV Screen. The audience cheers. The heroes save the day.
Could this story still work, at this time and age?
Except it does, and does it very well.
From the synopsis alone, Tiger & Bunny is not really convincing. If this was your anime choice of the season, I expect your reason to be among the following: a) SUPERHEROES YAY, b) SUNRISE YAY, c) “I’m an optimist regarding a few selected anime this season”, d) “I’M WATCHING EVERYTHING SO I CAN BLOG ABOUT IT.” If you were genuinely excited from the get go, then color me honestly surprised.
The city of Sternbild is home to many people of different races, backgrounds, and those who are called Next. Next are people who possess special powers. They are the superheroes who protect peace within the city.
These heroes all have a corporate sponsor whose logo is displayed upon their backs. As they overcome disasters and save people, they improve the image of their sponsors. In addition, they earn Hero Points which determines their ranking on the popular Hero TV programme. The Hero with the most points gains the title of King of Heroes.
One of these Heroes is Wild Tiger (Kaburagi T. Kotetsu), a hotheaded veteran with a strong sense of justice. One day, he is suddenly partnered-off with newbie Barnaby Brooks Jr.
While the sponsoring half does make you raise an eyebrow in wonder, the rest is pretty standard for any superhero show. You may have not been interested in them as a kid/teenager, but unless you have willingly decided to live under a rock and managed to avoid the superhero flood Hollywood has been shoving down our throats for the past ten years (and if you haven’t watched The Dark Knight, you’re bordeline criminal), the context should sound more of the same. If you like the genre, you’re likely to dig it. If you don’t like it but were willing to try it out, then you must have at least trusted Sunrise to bring some depth to this story, some flavor, some… anything, because even the promotional poster picture felt odd (“Mechanic suits in my super-hero animu?”).
So, why actually watch Tiger & Bunny?
Because suddenly my twitter timeline was exploding with love for this anime. Wow, that was unexpected.
The first episode is a well-structured introduction to the world of Tiger & Bunnyand its rather charming heroes. We get shown exactly what the summary told us – superheroes sporting sponsor-themed outfits, fighting crime on TV, earning points from all their good deeds. We get to see the heroes, one by one, showing off their specialties as well as a bit of their personalities. We have fire-based Fire Emblem, who makes no apologies about his sexual orientation, and you’ll be damned if you don’t find him cool. We have unfortunate Rock Bison, all muscles and poor strategies; Dragon Kid, who puts her electric powers to good use; Origami Cyclone, who puts nothing to use; Sky High, the Good Guy©; Blue Rose, the superhero idol; and then we have… Wild Tiger.
If there’s something to catch your attention in the first episode alone, it is Wild Tiger. He’s the only one sporting the classic underwear + cape + mask combo, the only one with an apparent handicap in his powers, the only one to… actually fail pretty hard. And he’s supposed to be our main character? Oh yes. Along with the mysterious Barnaby Brooks Jr., who appears out of nowhere, in a well-built suit, as a hero from a completely different generation.
This contrast between the past primed heroes and the ones who could give the name NEXT a meaning is the first excitement of the show. From then on, Tiger & Bunny deals with character development and story development with a care that is not often seen in recent anime. The episodes are not entirely focused on the monster of the week, but instead uses the “monsters” to shows us little pieces of the characters, not completely slow but with no interest in rushing. As the show feels we are enough acquainted with the setting and characters, it begins to deepen the plot, which also happens to be further explorations of the main heroes.
And what good heroes we have been presented! Kotetsu is the reflected future of our typical shounen protagonists: optimistic, cheerful, apparently carefree. Only he has more palpable worries; a family to care for, a job to keep, and a crisis about his identity and potential. Tiger tries hard to fit in, but he’s impulsive, and he knows the damage he causes, he just chooses to overlook it for the sake of the job and help he provides others. But he is neither a child nor an idiot. The honesty radiates off him, and that makes him a hard actor to work with – an actor that doesn’t act at all in front of the cameras. Tiger is Kotetsu and Kotetsu is Tiger for life. No separation. A whole man.
Barnaby, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. He’s a real actor, in front of the cameras, in front of his fellow heroes. He pretends to show a bare face to the public, not undertaking a codename for himself, not hiding, but that is exactly what he does. All smiles for the audience, all intimidation and individualism for the heroes. Apparently an employed hero and nothing more, Barnaby is quickly humanized by Kotetsu with the nickname “Bunny”, which he loathes, and the episodes reveal us a new bits of new information about him in steady hops. As much as he wished otherwise, his dynamic and chemistry with Tiger is undeniable to the viewers who watch their progress as a team.
It is funny that the anime tells us Kotetsu and Barnaby are the first hero team, when they all act otherwise. Instead of acting like rivals, all heroes know each other’s secret identities, train together, hang out together. They are more than mere co-workers who casually chat on rare occasions, even if they don’t realize it. It gives the group a familiarity and proximity, a cozy feeling that these are not just superheroes, but real people who happen to have superpowers. They are not their codenames, they just wear them. The overlapping identities give Tiger & Bunny some of its best moments, be it in action or humor, when this group of friends manages to be both incredibly thick and truly heroic.
The direction gives the anime just the right touches, at the right times. There are no awkward funny scenes in tense contexts, or dramatic gags (hello, Angel Beats!). Everything is in the right dose, even, gasp!, the CGI, which Sunrise uses plenty. But this is no Blassreiter; the action scenes appear to be thoroughly improved with the CGI animation, although it can have its bad moments. All is valid when you’re dealing with an anime that promotes a lot of companies. It won’t make you want to claw your eyes out, at least.
The fanservice is also well-balanced. While it is aimed at boys, and Blue Rose’s outfit will surely please them, the females are certain to enjoy it as well, but it for Kotetsu or Barnaby or both. I can assure you pixiv agrees. A slight twist here and you have the perfect rivals dynamic girls love to exploit, a twist there, and you have the perfect rivals dynamic the boys love for the snark. It has everything for both genres, which certainly makes it a winner.
Tiger & Bunny certainly has the qualities I wish other shows like Hanasaku Iroha had. Having established what it’s here for, it doesn’t fail to deliver action, drama, entertainment. It doesn’t stall, spend countless episodes on the same thing, or resort to the good old tactics of fanservice. It is by no means a masterpiece of originality; it has its fair share of old tropes, but it makes good use of them. I would have not expected it to actually dwell in topics such as the conception of justice. To actually look at the masked vigilantes we have come to admire straight in the eye and tell them that they are wrong. To nudge the audience and its unrational desire for blood and vengeance. Tiger & Bunny attempts that with no pretension. And it works.
Hiding behind a simple idea, Tiger & Bunny has gathered all the old traits of the typical shounen show and made it equally exciting and smart.
And hell, just so much fun.
Who would have thought?