Before it became the mature, anime-centric block on Adult Swim, Toonami was the center of childhood television programming. Launched on March 17, 1997, Toonami was a special block that aired daily in the afternoon and on Saturday night primetime slots. It brought with it a variety of action-oriented programs that gained wide-reaching appeal and popularity for American audiences. With the ever-present host TOM at the helm, Toonami brought some epic intros to classic shows that were the gateway into the various genres hardcore fans love today.
To celebrate what Toonami has accomplished over the years, CBR is taking a look at which shows managed to stand above the rest. With a massive library to choose from — not all of which we’ll be able to mention, but are great in their own ways — these programs were iconic and still resonate strongly with audiences to this day. While not exhaustive in the slightest, here are some of our very favorite shows ever to be aired on Toonami.
The idea of ninjas are cool on a variety of levels, and “Naruto” is able to take that several steps further than most ninja-related animated shows have. The central concept of supernatural ninjas is enough of a draw in itself, of course, but “Naruto’s” compelling storyline is able to tie everything together to make this series one of the most popular anime series in the world. Premiering on Toonami in 2005, “Naruto” took the sub-channel by storm, giving viewers an action anime that would withstand the test of time.
The thing that made makes Naruto work is the dynamic between its characters and its unique and diverse combat structure. It also has its comedic moments as well as its serious ones, and has one of the most passionate and hardcore fan bases of any anime series, rivalling even the furious fandom of “Dragon Ball Z.” When it came to Saturday night Toonami, viewers were eager to return each and every week to the Village Hidden in the Leaves.
14. The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest
Being a sequel to the original Hanna-Barbera show of the 1960s, “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest” had all of the traditional action and adventure you could want with a new stylistic twist. It became a nostalgic hit as an extension of the original series, following a Quest team that featured a 14-year old Jonny. Premiering in 1997, the show, while being mostly episodic, prided itself on following a very adventure-exploration verve, with complex writing and new animation technologies — specifically digital painting — that merged the traditional with what was, at the time, the bleeding edge. The reception to all of this was… varied, to say the least; but, you have to respect “The Real Adventures” for trying to merge the old with the new.
Another thing “Jonny Quest” tried, and what also made it unique, was incorporating a strong female character like Jesse, while also taking into consideration Hadji’s representation as a minority character. It also instilled younger viewers with curiosity and restless enthusiasm to accomplish their goals. This was a concept that allowed the series to stay true to its roots while infusing a fresh set of ideas for future generations; a perfect statement for what Toonami had been designed to accomplish.
13. He Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002)
Another fresh twist on an old favorite, this re-made and remastered version introduced younger viewers to the planet of Eternia while paying homage to its 1980s roots. Premiering on Toonami in 2002, “He-Man” follows much the same premise as the original series, with the added bonus of expanding more upon the world of Eternia itself and giving the animation (and its characters) a much-needed upgrade and some fresh new looks. The adaptation also gives us some of what fans of the series loved most: He-Man’s epic battles, a scheming Skeletor, and all the action in-between.
Part of what made such a series great was that its adaptation not only stayed true to its source material, but also built upon it in a way that allowed the world to better flourish than its predecessor. Being set within an intriguing future-fantasy setting allowed it to build a lore with younger viewers unfamiliar with the 1980s series, while making it enjoyable for old fans, as well. Thanks to its wide-reaching appeal, “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” was one of the more underrated shows Toonami has had in its arsenal.
12. Yu Yu Hakusho
Imagine dying, getting a second chance at life and then coming back with supernatural powers, only to realize that demons and spirits are real. It’s all in a day’s work for the series “Yu Yu Hakusho.”
Premiering on Toonami in 2003, the series follows 14-year old Spirit Detective named Yusuke Urameshi, a former delinquent whose job is to hunt down and dispose of various evil threats. Armed with supernatural powers, a bad temper and an equally foul mouth, Yusuke undertakes various missions that see him confront powerful enemies of both the human and non-human variety. Even with a powerful team behind him, it took huge amounts of patience and hard work for Yusuke to succeed, which for him was easier said than done.
One of the most popular action anime series out there, “Yu Yu Hakusho” is a show just as well known for its headstrong and foul-mouthed characters as its action sequences and compelling storyline. With some outstanding comedy, character development and some of the best raw action you’ll see anywhere in anime, it’s hard to not call “Yu Yu Hakusho” an instant Toonami classic.
11. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Long before films like “Pacific Rim” used the idea of piloting giant robot mechs, the “Gundam” franchise was not only crushing, but defining the sub-genre on Saturday morning cartoons and beyond. Taking place in a futuristic world where humans have managed to colonize and inhabit space, the series focuses on five skilled pilots who operate the large mech suit known as Gundams. This particular Gundam series focuses on their exploits as they attempt to free human colonies under the oppressive rule of a powerful group known as the Organization of the Zodiac (better known as OZ).
With the massive amount of Gundam series out there, “Mobile Suit Gundam” was instrumental in igniting the popularity of the franchise for Western audiences. Premiering on Toonami in 2000, “Mobile Suit Gundam” contained both a compelling storyline with plenty of action and a bit of political intrigue. Coupled with the unique nature of these Gundam pilots, the series became one of several signature “Gundam” properties to be featured prominently as part of Toonami’s lineup.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, computer animated series were still very much a work in progress. “ReBoot” was among the first of its kind, as it made its mark as the first to be completely computer generated. Set within the world of a computer system called Mainframe, the series focuses on a character named Bob, who acts as the city’s protector combating various viral threats, including the maniacal Hexadecimal and arguably the show’s main villain, Megabyte. Known as Guardian 452, Bob is equipped with an all-purpose tool called Glitch, which gives him an incredible assortment of abilities, allowing him to manipulate the virtual reality of Mainframe (and beyond). But perhaps his greatest tool is the friendship he was with Mainframe’s peaceable inhabitants, like Dot and Enzo Matrix, Phong and Frisket, the dog.
Premiering on Toonami in 1999, “ReBoot” was made during a time when CGI was nowhere near where it was today. But that did not take away from what the series represented, as it not only paved the way for CGI animation but also acts as a timestamp of technology at the time; a reportedly intentional move by the series’ creators. With a fun blend of comedy and action, young audiences enjoyed “ReBoot” as a series that helped usher in an era of CGI entertainment. Interestingly, the third and fourth seasons — the show’s final two — were exclusive to Toonami in the US.
9. Transformers: Armada
Nothing quite beats a classic “Transformers” series, and “Armada” is as classic as they come. In this particular series, the factions of Autobots (led by Optimus Prime) and Decepticons (led by Megatron) are racing across Earth to acquire what are known as Mini-Cons, which are smaller Transformers that, when obtained, provide a significant boost in power to whomever acquires them. These Mini-Cons combine with their partners in a variety of ways and remain loyal to those that claim them first, whether they be Autobots or Decepticons. With the fate of the world on the line, Optimus Prime and his faction of Autobots are ready to roll out and prevent the Decepticons from attaining their nefarious goals.
Making its Toonami premiere in 2002, “Armada” was a series that kept the core essence of Transformers lore in the dynamic between Autobots and Decepticons, but adding (hugely marketable) upgrades/ McGuffins / additions to the Transformers mythos in the form of the Mini-Cons. A Toonami series that often gets swept under the rug thanks to some questionable production values (the result of a rush-job to get the series to America and onto Toonami), “Armada” still became a gateway into the “Transformers” franchise with a fun premise and impressive following.
8. Powerpuff Girls
Sugar, spice and everything nice were needed to create three perfect little ladies called “The Powerpuff Girls.”
In the fictional city of Townsville, a scientist known as Professor Utonium seeks to artificially create three little girls in his home laboratory (for reasons that forever remain a mystery). But, while in the process of his creation, the Professor accidentally adds an ingredient known as Chemical X, into the mix, with the result being the birth of the titular three superheroes. Armed with an array of abilities like flight, super strength and laser vision, Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup fight crime and combat various threats within Townsville, like the insidious simian, Mojo Jojo.
Making its Toonami debut in 1999, “The Powerpuff Girls” was one of Cartoon Network’s most iconic television series. With the intertwining personalities of the three sisters, coupled with plenty of cartoon humor and its share of action, the series enjoyed a prosperous run on Cartoon Network that even culminated in its own feature-film, released in theaters in 2002. When it came to its place on Toonami, “The Powerpuff Girls” were right at home.
7. Batman Beyond
No matter how many villains Batman beats into submission, even he cannot subdue father time. That’s exactly what “Batman Beyond” sought to address. Set in the distant future where Bruce Wayne is an old man, the series focuses on 16-year-old Terry McGinnis, who is chosen to be the next Batman and protector of Gotham. A well-known troublemaker in high school with a similar backstory to his predecessor, McGinnis has to deal with the various pressures of being Batman while dealing with threats both old and new to Gotham.
Making its Toonami debut in 2001, “Batman Beyond” was noted for its darker themes and acted as more of a character-driven show than most other superhero shows during its time. It explored various psychological aspects of characters, while touching upon the various effects of society in a possible distant future. It has also been the feature that portrays a young, teenage Batman, often being referred to as “Batman-meets-Spider-Man.” The hallmark of the show was McGinnis’ evolution into not just becoming the Batman, but his own Batman. It’s thanks to Toonami that Batman Beyond got a second life, and arguably why the character remains a lasting presence in comics to this day.
6. Teen Titans
Upon its official debut in 2003, there was going to be an inherent risk in introducing a team of young DC superheroes who may not have been as well known as those who populate the Justice League. Instead, what Cartoon Network got was one of its best superhero team series, and a great compendium to series like “Young Justice” and “Justice League.”
Based on the comics of the same name, “Teen Titans” follows a group of younger DC heroes as they fight crime. This particular iteration of Titans consists of Robin (the leader), Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Cyborg. Situated in their headquarters within Titans Tower, they combat a variety of threats to Jump City as they continue coming into their own as heroes.
Premiering on Toonami in 2004, “Teen Titans” was special in its ability to bring lesser-known DC heroes into the mix as a group. The series progressively delved into deeper themes beyond its younger audience and was one of the best superhero shows in the last decade at character development. Each Titan gets his or her own time to shine in more than combat, and showcase the kind of unity that make “Teen Titans” distinct from other superhero groups.
Just as “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” did before it, “Thundercats” made raising magically enchanted swords and epic war cries the norm. Originally airing from 1985-1989, “Thundercats” told the story of a planet known as Third Earth, upon which crash-landed the titular Thundercats and the mutant horde from Plun-Darr. Both anthropomorphic animal groups were unwittingly brought there thanks to the evil machinations of Mumm-Ra, the so-called “ever-living,” with the Thundercats fighting the mummified sorcerer and the mutants soon serving him.
The series very quickly became the paragon of cartoon perfection for children growing up in the 1980s and as such, became a merchandising cash cow when those same viewers developed a disposable income. Making its Toonami premiere in 1997, “Thundercats” is, officially, the first show ever to air on Toonami, and as such is the flagship of the franchise. The show capitalized on the nostalgia for the classic cartoon, which was rampant at the time, causing not only interest from audiences old and new, but even leading to a sequel series in 2011, which also aired on Toonami.
If there’s one thing that can never get too old too fast, it’s fighting in giant mechs. A series like “Voltron” managed to put a different spin on mech-based combat that revolutionized the genre. The series itself spawned several seasons, but each premise was essentially the same, following a group of kids who each piloted five different robots to combat various threats. During battle, these pilots could combine their robots to form an immensely more powerful robot known as Voltron, the ultimate weapon against the nefarious King Zarkon and his crew of ne’er-do-wells in his neverending bid to rule and/or destroy the planet Arus.
Making its Toonami debut in 1997, “Voltron” was originally aired in the mid-1980s, and thus capitalized on a similar nostalgia to that enjoyed by “Thundercats” and even “Jonny Quest.” In fact, it could be said that it was thanks to Toonami’s re-airing of the popular ‘8s series that Netflix recently revived the “Voltron” franchise in its new show, which has been met with a largely positive reception. Among the mech-fighting genre, “Voltron” has carved out a solid niche for itself as one of the original forebears of the genre, just as it was a show that helped launch Toonami as its own cultural cartoon icon.
3. Samurai Jack
If you ever wondered how a samurai of feudal-era Japan would last against the likes of robots and supernatural beings, then look no further than “Samurai Jack.” Set in a dystopian, futuristic setting, the story follows a samurai solely known as Jack, whose homeland is beset by an evil demon known as Aku. Spending years of training both his mind and body, the samurai stepped forth to challenge the demon. On the verge of defeating him, Aku opens a portal that sends him to the far future. As a result, Aku reigns over the Earth and Jack must find a portal to return himself to the past so he can undo the future he finds himself trapped in.
Making its Toonami debut in 2002, “Samurai Jack” was lauded for its detailed animation style and its intense combat scenes. The show prided itself on having a distilled sense of dialogue in each episode, yet still being able to tell a cohesive story through the actions of its characters and the flow of its visual narrative. The tone could often be lighter or darker depending on the context of the episode, which made for a pleasant dynamic each week. While it had a limited run on Toonami proper, it has the distinction of being the last show to air on the sub-channel in 2008, before its relaunch in 2012.
2. Sailor Moon
Spectacular poses, dazzling costumes, high school girls and magic make for a surprisingly successful formula that has spawned a number of successful anime series. “Sailor Moon” was among the first to have success in this venture, acting as the unrivalled standard for the magical girl genre.
Based on the popular manga series by Naoko Takeuchi, “Sailor Moon” chronicles the adventures of Usagi Tsukino, a middle school student who possesses a magic pin that enables her to transform into Sailor Moon, a stylish guardian gifted with magical powers. Together with her talking Black Cat Luna and their team of Sailor Soldiers, Sailor Moon is tasked with combating various magical villains while seeking and protecting an artifact known as the Silver Crystal.
Making its Toonami debut in 1998, “Sailor Moon” was another of Toonami’s flagship properties, and a series often credited with making anime more mainstream in popular media, especially in Western countries like the United States. Lauded for its portrayal of strong female characters in active hero roles, the show is also credited for paving the way for the magical girl genre, and is one of the most successful anime series to date.
1. Dragon Ball Z
The pinnacle of all action anime series, “Dragon Ball Z” remains unmatched as Toonami’s most iconic program. A continuation of the original “Dragon Ball” series, “Dragon Ball Z” chronicles the adventures of an adult Goku as he defends Earth from a variety of threats while striving to be the planet’s strongest fighter. Together with the aid of his companions, Goku trains day in and day out as he battles powerful enemies, each stronger than the last.
Making its Toonami debut in 1998, “Dragon Ball Z” took the channel by storm with its intense high flying action, humor and drama that kept fans on the edge of their seats each and every week. With the exception of “Pokemon,” this was many viewers’ first experience with anime of any kind, which, given its standing as a cultural benchmark today, is a credit to Toonami. An iconic franchise that defined a generation, “Dragon Ball Z” forever remains the undisputed champion of Toonami programming.
What was your favorite show on Toonami? Let us know in the comments!
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