What makes an anime series a hit? That's hard to say, but after years of hitting up L.A.'s thriving convention scene, one thing is certain. Amongst the slew of new shows that come out of Japan every few months, the ones that grab the most attention here are those that do something different. They play with genre conventions, tell stories in unusual ways and present characters that are not only visually interesting, but tug at your heartstrings.
That was the case for two of the standout programs at Anime Expo 2012. Tiger & Bunny and Puella Magi Madoka Magica are two very different series, but they have one thing in common. They drew large crowds at this year's convention panels.
Tiger & Bunny is already a hit with anime fans. Last year, Viz Media picked up the show for the United States and began broadcasting subtitled episodes as the series was airing in Japan. Right now, Viz is working on a U.S. dub version of the show-- they're more than halfway through the 25-episode series -- which will air on their forthcoming 24-hour, subscription-based network, Neon Alley.
As far as recent anime series go, Tiger & Bunny is the one with major crossover appeal. It's the show that I would recommend to friends who aren't into anime at all, like a Cowboy Bebop for this decade. That's by design. Masayuki Ozaki, known as Ozaki-san in the anime community, is the executive producer of the show. I spoke with him at AX on Saturday and, through an interpreter, he noted that his intent was to make an original series that would appeal to people in their 20s an 30s, whether or not they were already anime fans. In Japan, that's happened. He has heard from people who said that they haven't watched anime in decades, or never watched it, before Tiger & Bunny was released.
Sunrise, the company behind Tiger & Bunny, is well-known for its original anime, i.e. shows that aren't based on manga or other media. Some of their biggest hits include original work like Gundam, Cowboy Bebop and Code Geass. Ozaki-san said that they wanted to keep up that spirit with Tiger & Bunny. Director Keiichi Satou came in with an idea to do a show about heroes. Ozaki-san was keen on making something that would relate to the audience. So the heroes work for companies as the stars of a contest-style reality show called "Hero TV." They're also sponsored by real world corporations, like Bandai, Amazon and Pepsi.
Tiger & Bunny was also made with the international market in mind. In addition to producing the show, Ozaki-san is the general manager for Sunrise's international sales department. He knew the show would be airing in the U.S., as well as the U.K., Australia and France, as it was airing in Japan. While developing the show, he kept the television standards for different countries in mind. That's why there's no gratuitous sex and violence in Tiger & Bunny.
Yuri Lowenthal and Tara Platt are two L.A.-based voice actors who star in the dubbed version of Tiger & Bunny. Lowenthal plays Barnaby Brooks Jr., aka Bunny, one of the two titular characters in the series. Platt plays Agnes Joubert, the producer of "Hero TV." Neither one was familiar with the show and it's growing popularity before they auditioned for their roles. They were pleasantly surprised with the turnout for Saturday's panel. "I think that might be the biggest room we've ever done a panel in," says Platt, "and to see it fill up is mind-boggling." Lowenthal added that the response from the crowd reminded him of another anime that featured the two actors, the mega-hit Naruto.
But Tiger & Bunny is different from Naruto in that its fiction is very much rooted in our modern world. Platt was intrigued by the use of sponsorships in the show as it relates to our ad-saturated culture. Similarly, its references stem from decades of both Japanese and U.S. pop culture. During the panel, Lowenthal asked Ozaki-san if American superheroes were an influence. The producer answered in the affirmative, adding that U.S. buddy comedies also inspired Tiger & Bunny. At the same time, elements of Japanese pop culture -- Super Sentai-styled heroes and giant robots -- also manifest in the series. Lowenthal describes the show as a "synthesis" of the two countries' takes on modern heroes. That's just part of what makes it so interesting.
Up next: Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Where Tiger & Bunny is one of those shows that will certainly enlist a new wave of anime fans, Puella Magi Madoka Magica seems geared more towards people who already know a thing or two about anime. Known amongst fans simply as Madoka Magica (that's Magica with a hard "G" sound, as in Maggie), this 12-episode series has captured the attention of U.S. fans, at least 1000 of whom attended the show's Saturday afternoon panel at Anime Expo.
Madoka Magica is similar to other relatively recent anime hits like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Gurren Lagann and FLCL in that it takes anime tropes and twists them into an unusual and compelling story. It is, however, dramatically different from any of those shows. With Madoka Magica, the point of reference is magical girls, a genre revolving around teenagers with special powers. Think Sailor Moon. This, however, is not your average show about heroic young ladies. Right before the panel, a friend of mine remarked that the show makes you wonder if you really want to be a magical girl. That's true. Madoka Magica shows that with a lot of power comes a lot of grief.
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EJ Rivera, marking specialist for Aniplex, who brought the show to the U.S., says that the buzz amongst anime watchers began in early 2011, while the show was still only airing in Japan. When Aniplex announced that Madoka Magica would be licensed for a U.S. release at Anime Expo last year, the buzz increased. At the beginning of 2012, they aired subtitled streams for free on Crunchyroll and began releasing dubbed volumes on DVD and Blu-ray. For the convention season, the show's U.S. voice actors have been turning up on panels, but Anime Expo was special in that it's the only one that featured the full cast of magical girls.
Aniplex passed out 1000 masks based on Kyubey, the strange creature who looks like a cross between a cat and a bunny that recruits new magical girls. But Kyubey is nothing like Sailor Moon's familiar. "Fans love him," says Rivera. "Fans love to hate him."
Rivera credits the series' constant plot twists for its popularity. "It's very deceiving," he says. It's also addictive.