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Toonami - the after-school show that defined an anime generation

Jubenhimer

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In the late 90s, A relatively new cable channel was starting to gain traction with a crazy concept of airing 24-hours of Animation. Cartoon Network. The Turner-owned network served as the ultimate home for Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, Flinstones, Tom & Jerry, and all kinds of crazy old-school animation, and was starting to become a major threat to Viacom's Nickelodeon. Unlike Nickelodeon however, which sold itself as a channel by kids, for kids. Cartoon Network was marketed equally to Kids and Adults alike, with over 30% of its viewers and Advertisers, being for Adults. But up to this point, the channel had primarily relied on the Turner animation backlog to fill its programing, and so channel began looking for ways to become more relevant than just being a Nostalgia home for old cartoons.



In addition to developing its own original series, a small team at the network led by Sean Akins were fans of a subset of Animation from Japan called "Anime". Known for its flashy action, complex narratives, and scantily clad heroines, anime had largely been a niche at the time, mostly being enjoyed by young adults who wanted animation for more mature audiences. In 1996, Cartoon Network tasked Akins' team with developing an action-adventure block for the late-afternoon timeslot (4PM to 7PM), which gave Akins a perfect opportunity to try and give exposure to these weird Japanese cartoons. Akins and a TNT executive, Jason DeMarco, wanted to create something with a distinct style from anything else on television. Utilizing a mixture of Drum & Bass music, interviews with people from the underground skater and geek cultures, Video Game reviews, and deep philosophical speeches about life, the TV industry, and other topics. When they presented their pilot to the network, executives weren't sure what to make of it. It was so radically different from anything seen in Kids television before. Despite the skepticism, the project was ultimately approved by CN's head of programing, Mike Lazzo. Next came the task of finding programs to fill this 3 hour timeslot, Akins and DeMarco didn't have much to work with yet, so they mostly used programing CN was already airing such as ThunderCats, The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest, and some old Superhero cartoons the network had the rights to, though they managed to acquire Voltron. This bizarre after-school experiment now needed a name, which ended up being "Toonami" a Mash of Cartoon and Tsunami, which was fitting for the Kitchen-Sink nature of the show.


Toonami officially made its debut on Cartoon Network on March 17th, 1997. The show was hosted by a CGI version of Space Ghost's Moltar, and was produced by Ghost Planet Industries (now known as Williams Street), a small department within Cartoon Network who was also behind the channel's hit late-night series, Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast. Toonami debuted to small, but modest ratings, with its unique underground style catching the attention of Cartoon Network's viewers at the time. 1998 is when Toonami actually started to find its own voice, the block's distinctly edgy style and attitude helped Cartoon Network build an audience with an unconventional demographic that was more or less ignored by most networks at the time. Young people (particularly males) ages 9 to 14. A weird, roughly middle school-aged hybrid of the MTV and Nickelodeon demographics. While Disney Channel was already experimenting with this audience with its live-action Zoog programs that skewed towards middle school girls. Toonami found a niche as the home for middle school boys. And one of the first shows to help build this demographic, was Sailor Moon.


The Japanese franchise about an 8th grade girl becoming a magical superhero along with her friends failed to gain much traction outside of Japan initially thanks to it being stuck with a heavily altered DiC Entertainment adaptation and airing on Syndication. It eventually found a home on Cartoon Network with its flashy style and attractive leads drawing in the 9-14 year old male audience, as well as the young girls the show originally targeted. The second big show that debuted that year was Toonami's most successful hit, and one of Cartoon Network's most popular shows in general, Dragon Ball Z.


Another heavily-edited English anime adaptation of the sequel to the Dragon Ball Anime series that didn't do too well in syndication initially. But its fast-paced action, over-arching plots, masculine heroes, and outlandish style shined through the heavily censored English version for the Toonami audience, and helped introduce western audiences to the realm of Shonen (Boys) anime. With 2 massive hits now on their hands for Toonami, Cartoon Network renewed both Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z for additional seasons in 1999. Sailor Moon would be produced by a new distributor, Cloverway, Inc., while DBZ's US distributor, Funimation took production of the series in-house after co-producing the first two seasons with Saban Entertainment and The Ocean Group. Future seasons of both shows would also receive considerably less censorship, thanks to the older-skewing nature of Toonami, and CN's looser content standards compared to syndication. In 1999, Toonami was given a massive facelift, receiving a new digital set and animated host, the Toonami Operations Module (or TOM) a robot piloting a giant spaceship known as The Absolution. That same year, Toonami introduced its first spin-off show, The Midnight Run. A late-night variant of the block initially airing on Saturdays to court its main audience in a timeslot where they weren't being served on other networks.


2000 would see another big break for Toonami. Cartoon Network got its hands on Gundam Wing, the 6th installment of the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise that had never been seen outside of Japan until then, and while some censorship was required to get the show on in an afternoon timeslot, it popularized the Gundam franchise in North America for the first time. Wing was not only a hit among 9-14 year olds, but it even started attracting older teens and college kids thanks to its war-based plot and rather violent nature even with CN's edits. To appease the large audience, Cartoon Network expanded Toonami's Midnight Run broadcasts to weeknights, featuring an uncut version of Gundam Wing, which was rather groundbreaking at the time. Midnight Run airings in general tended to have a bit more violence and risque content vs. the flagship weekday show.


Toonami was now achieving what it set out to do from its inception. Introduce the world of anime to mainstream US audiences with slick, innovative packaging. Cartoon Network now began setting its sights on more niche shows that Akins and DeMarco were big fans of. The network picked up Tenchi Muyo!, which premiered in June. Now having a show about a hapless teenager being surrounded by an ensemble of female characters who ended up naked half the time obviously would be tricky to air at 5PM on a weekday. So the Toonami crew had to get creative with censorship. Thus, came the Digital Bikinis, a way get fanservice scenes past the watchdogs without cutting the scene entirely.



Like most Cartoon Network shows at the time, Toonami was known for almost always pushing the TV-Y7 rating to its absolute limits, which is one aspect that attracted older viewers to the block, while also drawing in younger children as well, the latter of which resulted in Toonami's second spin-off, The Rising Sun. A Saturday morning version of Toonami marketed as an alternative to the Saturday programing found on the Fox Kids Network or Kids' WB!

In Fall, Toonami received another make-over... Kind of. The first of its Total Immersion Events "The Intruder" began airing in September, and featured the adventures of TOM and his computer AI Sarah when they aren't hosting Toonami. In this case, a mysterious blob kills TOM's original body, and is now given a new, older looking shell which would be his official design for the next 3 years. In January, Toonami kicked off the new year with the premiere of Outlaw Star. Why or how an adult-oriented Seinen series ended up on an after-school block aimed at middle school kids I will never understand, but despite that, it was a glorious treat for the block's adult audience.


Toonami by this point, served as a launchpad for new or obscure anime titles from smaller licensors. The Big O was another Mecha series from Bandai that complimented Gundam, and like Outlaw Star, was a miracle that it even aired on Toonami at all. However 2001 would see a number of changes made to Toonami that slightly gimped it during the year. Kids' WB!, Cartoon Network's broadcast sibling airing on WB affiliate stations licensed the Toonami name for their version of the block, which began airing in June, as a result of The WB's merger with Turner Broadcasting. The Kids' WB! Toonami was significantly lighter in tone than the CN version as Williams Street had no involvement with the Kids' WB! version. To avoid competition, Cartoon Network cut Toonami down from 3 hours, to 2. Not only that, CN also began forcing shows onto Toonami, much to the dismay of its showrunners. Cardcaptors from Kids' WB! was briefly added, despite DeMarco being more interested in Magic Knight Rayearth, and The original Mobile Suit Gundam was added in September, despite Toonami staff considering it too old to air. Also in September, Cartoon Network launched a late-night experiment headed by Mike Lazzo named "Adult Swim". Beginning originally as a 3-hour bi-weekly programing block on Sundays and Thursdays, Adult Swim was worked on by much of the same staff as Toonami, and finally gave CN an outlet for shows aimed exclusively at Adults, one of which was an anime series from the same studio behind Gundam, Outlaw Star, and Big O, Cowboy Bebop.


Bebop, despite being only 26 episodes, remained one of Adult Swim's signature shows, and thanks to fewer restrictions on late-night, wasn't subjected to the same level of content censorship as Toonami titles were. Despite this, 2002 would see things getting back on track somewhat, however InuYasha, a popular shonen anime was originally considered for Toonami, but because of the title character getting impaled by a sacred arrow was apparently too much for CN executives... That didn't happen. So it aired on Adult Swim instead. Regardless, new shows such as Zoids, OG Dragon Ball, G Gundam, and Hamtaro (another result of CN's meddling) helped get Toonami back on track, especially after re-expanding to 3 hours once Kids' WB! dropped its Toonami block. This was short-lived however, as the show once again dropped to 2 hours come 2003. By this point, Adult Swim had expanded to a nightly format running Sunday-Thursday, replacing Toonami's Midnight Run. 2003 also saw yet another facelift, with new versions of The Absolution and TOM debuting, though without a TIE to explain the change. Even with the changes, Rurouni Kenshin and Yu Yu Hakusho (which previously aired on Adult Swim) were added to the lineup, though Kenshin would be moved to Saturday Nights as it was mostly being watched by older women and adults. 2003 also saw some changes to CN in general. The network doubled down on catering to 3 specific demographics in response to sluggish ratings, 6-11 year olds for main CN programing, 9-14 year olds for Toonami, and 18-34 for Adult Swim, as opposed to being the general audience animation channel it originally was. Toonami ratings where also suffering noticable declines during this time. Dragon Ball Z was finishing up its run, Kenshin had been moved to Saturdays, and Yu Yu Hakusho while doing well, wasn't the juggernaut Funimation hoped it'd be.

Not to mention CN continued to meddle with the programing, as SD Gundam was added in the Fall in an effort to attract more younger children. In 2004, Cartoon Network made some key changes to its action-adventure showcases. Toonami, which once dominated afternoons, would now be moved to Saturday Nights, with CN hoping the timeslot would be a better fit for the Toonami audience. In place of Toonami on Weekdays, was another Williams Street production called "Miguzi". Unlike the pre-teen/teen skewing Toonami, Miguzi was aimed strictly at 6-11 year olds. Despite being banished to a night where its audience would theoretically be anywhere but home, Toonami did rather well in its first year on Saturdays, though a far-cry from its original weekday format. Toonami experienced a brief resurgence in 2005 thanks to the premiere of Naruto. A wildly popular Shonen Jump franchise that was the closest in following up Dragon Ball Z's success.


With Naruto being an un-expected hit, Cartoon Network ran the series any chance they could with Marathons, movies, and airings regularly. But it came at the cost of Toonami's non-Naruto titles, which were slowly being dropped from the show in favor of more regular Cartoon Network programing. This culminated in 2007, feeling Toonami wasn't doing enough to attract younger children, Cartoon Network demanded the 10th season of Toonami have a new environment for TOM. Sean Akins also wanted to experiment with facial animation for a while, but couldn't due to budget constraints. Never the less, TOM was redesigned, with a full face and new companions that were made with younger audiences in mind.


This further plunged Toonami's ratings, especially among the young teen audience that had since moved on to Adult Swim. After being dropped to 2-hours in 2008, Toonami officially ended its 11th, and final season in October that year. Never to be seen on Television again... That is, until 2012, when Adult Swim, who by this point, evolved into a fully-autonomous entity in-and-of-itself, revived the Toonami brand as part of their yearly April fools day stunts. The network ran several popular Toonami programing from back in its heyday, all with the original Cartoon Network edits. After the surprise success, Adult Swim revived Toonami as a permeant fixture of its schedule later in May. The new Toonami features all new programing, and isn't bound by the daytime content standards of Cartoon Network. In an era of anime where people can stream what they want, when they want, the revived Toonami isn't quite the juggernaut it once was, but it continues to retain a cult following, mostly by people who grew up with the block in its prime.

Whether its on the air or not, it's hard to imagine the US anime fandom without Toonami. It was the first television show to bring the medium to a mainstream audience, and attract not just a slightly older demographic of kids, but also high schoolers, adults, and younger children as well. I don't think Anime would be nearly as popular in the US as it is without Toonami.
 
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Arkam

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Watching DBZ and Gundam Wing was a great time. For it me it was like "coming home" having watched Voltron and Macross in the 80's. It reignited my interest in Anime at a time when I could expand my horizons vis the internet. prior to that you were at the mercy of why they had at your local comic swap meet.
 
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SLoWMoTIoN

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I watched anime before Toonami was even a thing thanks to our latin american friends so I can't say it has it a special place in my heart or anything. However I assume it did introduce the medium to other people and for that I feel neutral about it.
 

Nymphae

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My first exposure to anime was Sailor Moon in elementary school, they aired it on YTV up here in Canada. My friends older brother made fun of us for watching gay "japanamation" featuring girly drawings and loser men, and was right for doing so.
 

Happosai

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I watched anime before Toonami was even a thing thanks to our latin american friends so I can't say it has it a special place in my heart or anything. However I assume it did introduce the medium to other people and for that I feel neutral about it.
I had seen some 70's kids anime prior to Toonami and starting getting into some of the movies. I was sold more on Urban Visions introduction into the video market of anime. Their weird movies pushed me to watch and I was one of those kids who didn't like watching anything but American cartoons in the 90's. Toonami helped make it seem like it wasn't just like a private nerd thing and that there was a larger audience than I was aware of. Prior to that, I just assumed I was that one weird kid at my school who liked anime.
 
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SLoWMoTIoN

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My first exposure to anime was Sailor Moon in elementary school, they aired it on YTV up here in Canada. My friends older brother made fun of us for watching gay "japanamation" featuring girly drawings and loser men, and was right for doing so.
I mean you were watching a show aimed at young girls. If you were watching Friends or Lucifer I'd say the same thing.
I had seen some 70's kids anime prior to Toonami and starting getting into some of the movies. I was sold more on Urban Visions introduction into the video market of anime. Their weird movies pushed me to watch and I was one of those kids who didn't like watching anything but American cartoons in the 90's. Toonami helped make it seem like it wasn't just like a private nerd thing and that there was a larger audience than I was aware of. Prior to that, I just assumed I was that one weird kid at my school who liked anime.
Anime and gaming share the same kind of history if you think about it. At one time you were shit talked for bringing a GB to school and now the industry is worth more than the movie industry and is seen as (somewhat normal).
 
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Happosai

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I mean you were watching a show aimed at young girls. If you were watching Friends or Lucifer I'd say the same thing.

Anime and gaming share the same kind of history if you think about it. At one time you were shit talked for bringing a GB to school and now the industry is worth more than the movie industry and is seen as (somewhat normal).
I'll never forget my middle school classmates mocking me for watching what they called "Anne-nime" (an idiot's pronounciation for animé.
 

Carna

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Anyone remember when DBZ was on tv before finding it's place on Toonami? Like, remember BKN?
 

StormCell

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Anyone remember when DBZ was on tv before finding it's place on Toonami? Like, remember BKN?

I distinctly recall there being a one hour block of anime extra early in the morning on Fox Kids. I swear they were showing Sailor Moon and DBZ back in the late 90's, possibly as a part of Saban Entertainment... On Sailor Moon, I'm sure I saw that on Fox. On DBZ, I could be way off...

Also, bump bumpety. This thread is full of awesome.
 
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Jubenhimer

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I distinctly recall there being a one hour block of anime extra early in the morning on Fox Kids. I swear they were showing Sailor Moon and DBZ back in the late 90's, possibly as a part of Saban Entertainment... On Sailor Moon, I'm sure I saw that on Fox. On DBZ, I could be way off...
DBZ was originally airing in syndication as part of a Saban block. It didn't last very long, as Saban shifted their focus to producing shows exclusively for Fox Kids and the newly acquired Fox Family, now that half the company was owned by News Corporation after they merged with Fox Kids Worldwide in '96.
 
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Yeah it was great but it was also trash. How many times did DBZ get close to a new saga already released elsewhere, and then restart the entire fucking series.
 

Northeastmonk

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Yeah it was great but it was also trash. How many times did DBZ get close to a new saga already released elsewhere, and then restart the entire fucking series.
Oh yeah. I can’t remember how many times I’d watch hoping for a new episode and they’d just casually restart the Namek Saga. I remember buying a bootleg VHS of movies 9-12 from a comic book store here in town. This was after Goku had first gone SSJ. I was thirsty for what I saw online.
 

kamkamkam

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Yeah it was great but it was also trash. How many times did DBZ get close to a new saga already released elsewhere, and then restart the entire fucking series.

Those were the worst days....

They showed you that next episode preview... we would get so stoked for the next day. Only to see a pod crash to earth the next episode. Naked kid Goku with a tail gives me PTSD to this day.
 

Porcile

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March 5th 2000. The exact day I became a massive weaboo as it was the first UK airing of Dragon Ball Z on Cartoon Network.
 
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Pejo

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Great OP, that was a fun read. This was my shit when I was a kid/teen, and largely shaped my interests even now. It's a shame that modern boys don't have a hyper-masculine show for them anymore with all the feminization of men that's been going on. I feel that a show like DBZ or Trigun was exactly what I needed, when I needed it.
 

Pejo

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Don't know what you're getting at, but it's perfectly fine for boys to want to be badasses and to look up to strong men as role models. It's one of the reasons why Toonami was such a big hit to begin with. Boys and teen boys like watching cool fights, spaceships, lasers, explosions, swords, etc.

I am not about to shit up this good thread with bickering about personal beliefs though, so I bid you adieux.
 
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Don't know what you're getting at, but it's perfectly fine for boys to want to be badasses and to look up to strong men as role models. It's one of the reasons why Toonami was such a big hit to begin with. Boys and teen boys like watching cool fights, spaceships, lasers, explosions, swords, etc.

I am not about to shit up this good thread with bickering about personal beliefs though, so I bid you adieux.

Well don't put some dumbass statement like that that has nothing to do with the topic. There's plenty of shows where there's still "strong men". Ya'll anti-SJWs are worse than SJWs and vegans.
 

TheMan

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On that note, MTV had a short anime block that would sometimes pop-up on Saturdays. However, Sci-Fi (SyFy) channel beat them to the punch with this...
Yes! Used to love catching this on Saturday mornings. First exposure to Akira and Iria
 
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jimmyd

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Anyone remember the ad they ran for DBZ set to Moby's Natural Blues song? I think it was around Saiyan saga
 

Porcile

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Am I wrong in saying this scene while was heavily edited from the English version? After watching the Japanese version from start to finish it stuck out to me the best scene in the entire series but I had no memory of it in English, especially with the genkidama music playing.

 

RavageX

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On that note, MTV had a short anime block that would sometimes pop-up on Saturdays. However, Sci-Fi (SyFy) channel beat them to the punch with this...
It was this that started me on my interest in anime. Will never forget those times.
 
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Happosai

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It was this that started me on my interest in anime. Will never forget those times.
Got a whole Community thread dedicated to Retro Anime. Not trying to derail anything here. Toonami was great to help promote some of the late-90's anime. But it was very limited and mostly for super mainstream titles (big in Japan and other countries). A previous poster mentioned catching Iria on Sci-Fi; Iria was not super big like what C.N. was pushing with Toonami. Both helped introduce Western audiences in the U.S. particularly to anime who had not caught onto it during the early days of fansubs and conventions. Toonami had a broader audience and also started the flow of merchandising and pushing for home video releases of material. C.N. censored most of their anime or sometimes cut down on episode time to fit that 23-minute mark. Tenchi Muyo for example, I recall finding the Pioneer C.N. promoted VHS being sold in a Walmart back in 2000. They were random episodes with censoring particularly on the first 4 OVA episodes. I guess that was to be expected. Someone correct me if I'm wrong on this but when I.F.C. was a relatively new channel - I recall them also having their own anime program in the mid-2000's. True or false on that?
 

Vier

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Anybody Watch Ronin Warriors? Fucking loved that show.
That was the first anime I ever watched. I remember even as a kid realizing that there was something different about that show that made it cooler than crap like Conan The Barbarian. The action was so fast and the characters were so cool. Being five years old and waking up at 6 in the morning to watch this show and have a bowl of cereal. I remember those days fondly.


Plus Kento rules.
 
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Carna

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Anybody Watch Ronin Warriors? Fucking loved that show.
The dub was one of the few that heavily altered the show for a western audience, but didn't sacrifice what made the show cool,

Also, Ocean Group is far and away the best dubber for anime (or used to? - kiznaiver/world trigger. were the best dubs I heard in a long time in between crap that reuses funimation interns, and the incestous los angles talent pool)
 
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Nikana

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The dub was one of the few that heavily altered the show for a western audience, but didn't sacrifice what made the show cool,

Also, Ocean Group is far and away the best dubber for anime (or used to? - kiznaiver/world trigger. were the best dubs I heard in a long time in between crap that reuses funimation interns, and the incestous los angles talent pool)
I'd the non dubbed version worth watching?
 

infinitys_7th

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Toonami introduced me to some shows that I love to this day - Outlaw Star, Tenchi Muyo and Tenchi Universe, and G Gundam. Don't know how I missed Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, and some of the other shows - I watched it almost religiously before high school. Of course, that was around 2000, so maybe that was early?

Probably responsible for a lot of my preferences in women, too:



 

Sub_Level

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Gundam Wing was such a cool show as a kid. The mech designs and music still hold up.

The story and most characters are pretty cringe nowadays tho. I much prefer G Gundam which didn't take itself that seriously but still had character drama and deaths.
 

Batiman

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Does anyone remember that anime where it was some guy controlling a giant mech suit? I know there’s millions of them but I can never find this show. It was popular on tv here in North America around 2000. The character actually had to make the sword swinging motions in the suit for it to echo his moves. It had like a medieval look to it. The mech was grey or silver?
 

Vier

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Does anyone remember that anime where it was some guy controlling a giant mech suit? I know there’s millions of them but I can never find this show. It was popular on tv here in North America around 2000. The character actually had to make the sword swinging motions in the suit for it to echo his moves. It had like a medieval look to it. The mech was grey or silver?
Fafner?