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Andrew Osmond suits up for Tiger & Bunny

Tiger & Bunny is a true crossover, designed for Japanese and Western viewers, including those who don’t normally watch anime or superheroes. The show rests on its two title characters. Tiger is the grumpy, middle-aged, old-school superhero. Bunny is the arrogant, male-idol glamorous new kid on the block. Both are voiced by top-drawer Japanese actors. Masakazu Morita (Bunny) is effectively Mr Bleach; he voiced Bleach’s hero Ichigo though seven years and 366 episodes of soul reaping. It’s his co-star, though, who has the tiger’s share of the comedy. Tiger is voiced by Hiroaki Hirata, who was Benny in Black Lagoon and Mutta in the ongoing Space Brothers. He’s better known, though, as Sanji, Luffy’s kick-fighting cook in One Piece.

For many fans, Tiger is the star, but the programme’s makers weren’t sure he’d click. As this blog has complained, anime shows are often dominated by school-age leads, with bishonen like Bunny at the top of the age-range. Tiger, then, is chronically out of place. He’s a middle-aged hero; he’s also a widower and a single dad. Worst of all, he has a hairy face. At the American “Otakon” convention in 2011, producer Masayuki Ozaki explained, “Apparently, Japanese women do not feel attracted to men with facial hair.”

But as it turned out, Tiger was embraced by fans. That’s probably because they could relate to his frailties, his mistakes, his insecurities as both a hero and a dad. He drew more female viewers than the studio expected – for example, housewives who never normally watched anime. And surely even school kids empathised with the accident-prone Tiger. Tiger & Bunny was targeted both at adults and future adults – the reverse of something like Spirited Away, which was aimed at children and grown-ups missing childhood.

Ozaki noted he was encouraged by certain Hollywood franchises where the leading men age along with their characters. (Just think about some action-movie parts fours and fives that you’ve seen!) The show targeted two kinds of older viewer, outside the otaku market. One was the lapsed anime viewer, those who’d drifted away from anime over the years. The other, intriguingly, was the fan of live-action American TV imports. In Tiger & Bunny, the superhero action is framed as a live reality entertainment show. Ozaki was specifically inspired by American TV, including Formula 1 racing shows.

As Ozaki explained to Anime News Network, he was struck by an argument involving swimmers at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was claimed that one type of swimsuit would enable athletes to set record speeds. However, some of the contestants had contracts with Japanese companies, which forbade them from wearing the suit in question.

“That’s where we started, with the idea that superheroes are all corporate sponsored,” Ozaki said. Like the fallibility of Tiger, the sponsor device is a witty resonance of the real world – of course superheroes would be branded! It’s also a handy way of funding the series, via product placement that’s part of the story. And that’s not the show’s only crafty bit of marketing.

In the announcements that end each show, you can hear Tiger struggle with the English-language title of the next episode. Despite this bumbling, Tiger & Bunny is very serious about selling itself to foreigners. The show is set in a version of New York, and includes characters who plainly aren’t Japanese, including the Chinese Dragon Kid and the flamboyant Fire Emblem. Nearly all the on-screen writing is in English. Ozaki said even the show’s extensive use of CGI, showing power-suits and other mecha, was done with an eye to the wider world. “Because of Pixar and Disney, CG animation is the visual style people around the world are most used to seeing.”

It’s always tricky when a product is aimed at foreign markets. That goes doubly so for anime. After all, many Westerners like anime when it’s being “Japanese” and not made with an eye to the foreign market. With Tiger & Bunny, though, the Sunrise studio which made the show may have hit the right balance. It’s a show that takes the Western superhero genre and reworks it in a thoroughly Japanese way; then sells it back to us.

Tiger & Bunny is out in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray from Kaze Animation.

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