There’s one big problem with Netflix’s push to secure itself as a home for anime, be it exclusive shows like Ultraman or big-name acquisitions like Neon Genesis Evangelion: Netflix pioneered the ability to skip intro sequences as you binge-watch a series. It’s an idea almost antithetical to the soul of anime itself, a medium known for openings that are bops.
It’s a sad age, one brought about in part by the rise of streaming services like Netflix changing the way we consume television. Why waste a minute and a half or more on a song and some fancy visuals when you’re trying to binge-watch 10 to 12 hours of a show? In a world where content must be consumed and discourse must begin immediately, those minutes of title credits waste valuable time, so the option them to skip them while you binge isn’t just sensible, but welcomed.
But it doesn’t make sense for anime, a field that has perhaps almost single-handedly kept the art of the opening — and almost as crucially, ending — theme alive. Opening and ending sequences, and the music that goes with them, aren’t just important in anime, they’re events in their own right, and vehicles for sales as fans flock to buy singles of their favourite series’ title themes.
Having your song be picked up for a hot show can be a massive boon for an artist in Japan, with anime openings frequently dominating top spots on Oricon’s weekly charts. Third best selling album this week? Hiroko Moriguchi’s Gundam Song Covers, a compilation of opening and ending theme covers released to mark the mecha franchise’s 40th anniversary.
So what’s all this got to do with Cannon Busters, Netflix’s latest foray into anime released last week? Created by LeSean Thomas, the series has had a perplexing road to streaming screens. The series — following a mysterious bounty hunter in a sci-fantasy-western world called Philly the Kid who has the ability to resurrect himself after dying, as he finds himself roped into a quest to reunite a similarly mysterious android with the prince of her homeland — first began as a comic book in 2005, but only lasted three issues.
Thomas intended to continue it as a graphic novel several years later, but plans were put on hold and eventually, the series’ concept re-emerged as an animated series pitched on Kickstarter in 2014. After a successful funding campaign, a pilot was released to backers in 2016, but then the series disappeared back into the ether — before Netflix had announced it had picked up the series two years ago, set to be animated by Satelight and Yumeta Company as an original anime for the streaming giant.
Was it worth the wait to finally see Cannon Busters come to life, 14 years after it began? ...Eh. The world of Gearbolt, the fantastical, cowboy-steampunk realm of mystical creatures, humans, and sentient robots Cannon Busters calls home, is an intriguing mishmash of genres and styles, and it includes a welcome variety of skin tones in its character design that goes beyond anime’s usual lack of variety (unless some characters happen to be lime green or electric blue, that is).
The main characters themselves — Philly, the protocol android S.A.M., and S.A.M.’s robotic mechanic friend Casey — are likewise a mishmash of tropes that, outside of some intriguing beats in the back half, never really grow over the course of its 12 episodes.
The show wears its obvious influences, from Cowboy Bebop (itself currently being turned into a live-action show by Netflix) and Trigun to Wild ARMs on its sleeves openly and proudly, but never really has anything to say beyond them. Save for some very slick and fun action sequences revolving around Philly’s transforming hotrod of a car, Bessie — which can turn into a rampaging Mecha-Bull when fed enough quarters — Cannon Busters is just a mostly fine anime.
Like I said, it’s not bad, it’s fine, a nicely-put-together take on tropes and ideas you’ve seen in plenty of other shows before. But here’s the thing: despite not being particularly enthralled by Cannon Busters as I watched it over the past weekend, I still watched the whole season. Because pretty much the one thing that kept me ticking over to the next episode wasn’t the action, or the story, or the characters: it was the opening theme.
The titles themselves are nicely animated, but “Showdown” — written by Bradley Denniston and Kevin Beggs, and performed by Marty Grimes and BJRNCK — elevates them to a whole other level of fun. It’s not the atypical j-rock and occasionally garbled nonsensical English you might expect out of most of your average shonen anime openings, but a chill, R&B/ska number that transitions into an energetic, soulful and literally-chorus-backed chorus.
Like the show itself, there are shades of Bebop’s classic opening “Tank!” in there, albeit a much more lo-fi, measured take on a similar vibe. It’s awesome. It is, as the kids may say (do they still say? I don’t know, I’m the internet equivalent of a shriveled, decaying pile of husk and bone at this point), straight fire. A jam. A veritable banger, if you will.
In fact, I wrote this entire blog with it on loop in the background. But that’s the power of a good opening theme, and of a good title sequence — it can sell you on a show way harder than even the best elevator pitch. It can keep you chugging on through a series, even if your attention is slowly being drawn elsewhere. It’s a reminder in a time where a lot of shows just think splashing a logo card and a small sting for a few seconds counts as a title sequence, of how effective a well-executed marriage of title and theme can be. One we’re slowly but sadly forgetting outside of select holdouts.
All that said, I can’t tell you if the ending theme is anywhere near as good because Netflix auto-skips it after just five seconds, which is tough to catch! So if you’re willing to put up with an OK show just for some great music, you can check Cannon Busters yourself, which is streaming right now. Just don’t skip the titles.