Toons of the 2000s: Top 5 Toonami Programs
Toonami. From 1997 until its end in 2008, Cartoon Network’s popular and
long-lived programming block was the perfect home for action cartoons.
It gathered old cartoons from the 80’s and 90’s, Japanese animation,
and Cartoon Network originals to create an appealing smorgasbord of
programming that no animation fan could resist. With such a marvelous
history and library to its credit, crafting a list of excellent
programming from Toonami’s reign was not too difficult. Toonami’s goal
was to offer the best in action animation, to build us a better cartoon
show. Those slogans aside, it was unapologetic about a pretty basic
idea: cartoons are, can be, and ought to be cool. For 11 years, a
generation of fans was raised on this concept, and for that it continues
to deserve our gratitude. For this list, we have chosen five Toonami
programs which embody Toonami’s intentions and spirit.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan, a casual viewer, or a even a skeptic of this ninja action series, the popularity of Naruto is undeniable to all. Animated adaptations of shonen manga (Japanese
comics for boys) have been no stranger to Toonami or U.S. television at
large, and shows like Yu Yu Hakusho, One Piece, and Rurouni Kenshin were fine cartoons that left their mark over the years. But since its Toonami premiere in 2005, Naruto is the series that has enjoyed enduring popularity as one of the most
visible anime to hit U.S. airwaves since the behemoth that is Dragon Ball Z came to Toonami in 1998. Like its mighty predecessor, Naruto found a
devoted and substantial audience in anime fans and kids alike.
no mistake, Naruto hasn’t made it onto this list because of
popularity in and of itself. While it may not be the greatest thing out
there as some of its most passionate fans might claim, the show does
mix in its obligatory fighting with some respectable drama and an
ensemble cast of ninja characters that tempts the viewer to pick a
personal favorite. The action isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it
is certainly distinct. Since this is a ninja show, deception, stealth,
and hidden surprises are common in most fighting sequences, so while
the series is not free of shonen tropes, it also doesn’t reduce things
to a contest of power levels and brute force.
Most of all though, Naruto has one big advantage going for it:
genuine heart. When you get right down to it, this is the tale of a kid
who literally starts off with nothing except big dreams and an even
bigger mouth. With no family or real friends of his own, his desire to
become Hokage (the leader of his ninja village) is basically a dream
of gaining acceptance and respect from others. After he barely
graduates ninja academy in the first episode, he ends up on a team with
his distant boyhood crush Sakura and brooding rival Sasuke, an elite
student so talented that Naruto is seemingly stuck in his shadow for
good. Nonetheless, Naruto finds ways to succeed and improve himself time
and again, offering inspiration to his fellows and even to some of his
enemies. Some other series offer a super powerful protagonist that
becomes even greater to defeat stronger opponents, and that’s fine. But
here Naruto is just a boy who wants the things that any boy wants and an outcast who wins a better life by working for it rather than giving
in to what other people think. There is something very relatable and
inspirational about this that transcends age.
Even after Toonami’s end, the story continues on via Naruto Shippuden on Disney XD, and new volumes of the Naruto manga continue to top graphic novel sales in America. It’s a safe bet
that this part of Toonami’s legacy will be with us for a long time to come.
4. Gundam Wing
Fans of the now 30-year-old Gundam franchise have varied opinions about this 1995 series, but the arrival of Gundam Wing to Toonami on March 6, 2000 was certainly a landmark moment in the
block’s history. At a time when most Toonami programming consisted of
cartoons that had aired in years past on other networks, it was one of
the very first exclusive Toonami premieres along with Tenchi Muyo! and Blue Submarine No. 6. True to Toonami’s stated commitment of “building a better cartoon
show,” Gundam Wing offered something fresh, unique and interesting
unlike anything that had aired on Cartoon Network before.
Gundam Wing starts off
as a seemingly standard story of good vs. evil: five unique and highly
skilled pilots from space colonies are sent to Earth with exceptional
giant robots known as Gundams, their mission being to fight back
against the oppression of the United Earth Sphere Alliance and the
secret organization OZ. However, things do not stay that simple for
long. Soon the Gundam boys and ensemble cast are caught in the
midst of warring factions on Earth, unexpected changes back in
space, and a chaotic era of conflict that the pilots can do little to
stop in spite of their Gundams’ overwhelming power. Allegiances change and new movements
arise as our heroes
switch between retaliating, running for their lives, and even
infiltrating their hated enemy; the actions of the Gundam pilots ultimately serve as a catalyst to alter the course of history in
ways that no one could have predicted. With no shortage of engaging
action, memorable characters, and a vibrant and thoughtful script,
Gundam Wing raised the bar for action animation on Toonami, and its
success paved the way for fellow iterations Mobile Suit Gundam and G Gundam.
3. Month of Miyazaki
Hitting the airwaves in 2006, the Month of Miyazaki was arguably
Toonami’s last truly great highlight. Fans of animated films hardly
need to be introduced to Hayao Miyazaki; he and studio Ghibli have been
among the most acclaimed creators of animated films on either side of
the Pacific. Ghibli films have been renowned for absolutely fantastic
animation and art, strong female heroes, ecological messages, a
contagious penchant for flight, and innovative narratives. The presence
of even one Studio Ghibli film on the block would have been a notable
event. The delivery of four had everyone excited, and for good reason.
Spirited Away was
the 2002 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, and it earned it well
with its tale of a spoiled girl who has to take responsibility and grow
up in a hurry to help her parents by working in a mystical bathhouse
visited by spirits and beings from Japanese folklore. Princess Mononoke was arguably one of the most violent cartoons to ever air on Toonami,
telling the compelling tale of a country warrior trying to make peace
between forest spirits and the industrialized Iron Town. Castle in the Sky features plenty of steam-powered flight and follows the quest of two
children to find a ruined sky kingdom known as Laputa while combating
the evil Muska, who wants the ancient civilization’s secrets for his
own greed and power.
Finally, we have Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,
Studio Ghibli’s very first animated film, and in my view, it is still one of
Miyazaki’s best. A clear forerunner to Ghibli’s later works, this story
chronicles the title heroine’s efforts to preserve a polluted forest
and stop the petty wars that threaten to destroy both it and humanity’s chances for survival. Opinions will
certainly vary on the highlight of this event, but every one of these
movies is undoubtedly brilliantly realized and executed. Nothing like
it had happened to Toonami before, and nothing like it came again after
it was done. But while it was there, it rocked.
2. Outlaw Star
Simply put, Outlaw Star was cool. It was a fun-loving, action-packed
space western about lone gunman and his ragtag crew pursuing riches.
Its sci-fi setting was memorable, though it certainly served the action
first and foremost. If Gene and the others aren’t involved in a fight
on land, no problem, that didn’t mean the show slowed down. Here
bounty hunters and pirates fly around in “grappler ships”, space-faring
vessels with huge mechanical arms used for pummeling foes into
At first, Gene Starwind and his eternal companion Jim
Hawking are just two guys making their own way by doing odd jobs and
taking down the local riffraff, but all of that changes when another
bounty hunter hires them and gets them involved in a galaxy-wide
struggle to find the location of the Galactic Leyline, a legendary
place that can supposedly grant one’s greatest desires. The key to
finding it is Melfina, a girl apparently created to interface perfectly
with a state-of-the-art spaceship that Gene comes to call the Outlaw
What follows is a romping adventure where there’s never a dull
moment. Gene, Jim, and Melfina are eventually joined by a female
Samurai assassin named Suzuka and by Aisha, a shape-shifting catgirl alien.
They find themselves opposed by enemy bounty hunters, a group of lethal space pirates
known as the Anton Seven, and frequently just their own bad luck: every time Gene makes
a fortune, circumstances conspire to deprive him of most of it.
Naturally, on the course of the journey trust develops among the group,
and Gene comes to value more than wealth. It may not be a masterpiece
or particularly deep, but Outlaw Star was a lot of fun. You can just
sit back, enjoy it, and walk away satisfied afterward. It was an excellent action adventure show.
1. Justice League
Created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, for many people Justice League is the standard by which all following DC animation ought to be measured. It’s that big, it’s that good, it’s that significant a part of the greater DC Animated Universe. Before this show, the DCAU had broken plenty of ground. Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series were hallmarks of the 1990’s that explored new territory for two of the most iconic superheroes in American comics. After that, 1999’s Batman Beyond dared to reimagine Batman decades in the future as teenager Terry McGinnis, a fellow with his own completely different set of circumstances. Then came 2001’s Justice League, which greatly expanded to eventually include most DC heroes and villains worth remembering.
The series certainly started off with a bang, using a massive alien invasion as an excuse to unite Superman and Batman with Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawk Girl, and Martian Manhunter. As they say, the rest is history, and there was no shortage of highlights. There is The Savage Time, where the League goes back to the 1940’s to stop Vandal Savage from helping the Nazis win World War II. There is Twilight, where the double threat of Brainiac and Darkseid must be faced. There is Hereafter, where Superman is seemingly lost to the world for good. There is A Better World, where the League has to deal with dimensional alternates that have different ideas about what superheroes need to do. Naturally, no one can forget Starcrossed, which made the threat in series premiere look like a walk in the park. These are just the big, “epic” highlights; other episodes are mostly worthy and no doubt particularly entertaining to fans of specific heroes.
After its end in 2004 the series thankfully managed to continue as the renamed Justice League Unlimited, which ran until 2006 and expanded the League to include dozens upon dozens of superheroes. In this form the show expanded and became even more of a fan-pleaser; one multi-part episode even found a way to include Terry McGinnis and Static Shock! Batman Beyond fans were in for a particularly pleasant surprise with Epilogue, an episode that served as an effective bookend for both that series, Justice League, and the DCAU itself. Beyond that, JLU’s highlight was undoubtedly the well-received, season-spanning story arc regarding the Cadmus conspiracy and the U.S. Government’s growing distrust toward the League for reasons that harken back to the first Justice League series. Even the character of Superman, DC’s #1 boy scout, is challenged and tested. Inside and outside that story arc, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Supergirl, Captain Atom, Aquaman, Captain Marvel, Huntress, The Question, and Booster Gold are a few of the secondary heroes who got good attention, even if only for an episode in some cases.
What more can one say about this marvelous series? If we count both iterations, Justice League brought us five years and 91 episodes of superheroes and everything we like about them: memorable characterization, well-told stories great and small, and of course plenty of bone-crunching action. The DCAU may be over, but the interpretation of DC heroes that it offered us will be the stuff of fond memories for a very long time. Justice League was one of Toonami’s longest, funnest, most memorable shows, one that will be fondly remembered well into the next decade.