Netflix's 'Cannon Busters' Is a Super-Fun '90s Anime Throwback
What do a trio of motley adventurers, a screaming pink hot rod with the ability to transform into a bull-like mech, and a displaced prince on the run have in common? They're all a part of Netflix's newest original anime series Cannon Busters, and if you know what's good for you, you'll be meeting them soon.
Adapted from a comic book series written and created by LeSean Thomas (The Boondocks, The Legend of Korra), Cannon Busters is equal parts Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Samurai Champloo, and Gurren Lagann, all expertly blended into one great-looking homage to classic '90s anime and Gainax's unique touches. Thomas initially sought to adapt the work into an anime series by way of Satelight (Fairy Tail) and Yumeta Company (Wolf Girl and Black Prince), eventually securing production funds in November 2014. Following the show's extremely limited run in 2016, released for a small number of Kickstarter backers who helped crowdfund the pilot, Cannon Busters made its Netflix debut this month. Now that it's here, we can't get enough of it, and suspect you won't be able, either.
Cannon Busters is a refreshing oasis of action-packed trope-tastic science fiction and Western fantasy featuring a diverse cast, genuinely likable characters, and heaping helpings of nostalgia. In its first season, it manages to craft an expansive world teeming with lore, weaving through a fantasy world that wouldn't feel out of place in an anime classic from yesteryear while still retaining modern elements that give it a fresh, modern feel. Some series take hundreds of episodes to serve this kind of world-building (looking at you, One Piece), and yet Cannon Busters does it in all of 12 episodes.
The series follows SAM (Kamali Minter), a robot hailing from the kingdom of Botica. SAM stands for "Special Associate Model," as she reminds us (and every one of her new friends) as she meets them throughout the show. She's on the hunt for her "very best friend in the world," Kelby, the Prince of Botica who barely escaped the kingdom following its harrowing invasion by a malevolent, larger-than-life magic and mech user, forcing the pair apart. After meeting up with a robotic junk mechanic named Casey Turnbuckle (Stephanie Sheh), SAM enlists the help of outlaw Philly the Kid (Kenny Blank) to take them to Gara's Keep. It's the only lead to where Kelby can be found, and when Philly reluctantly agrees, the trio sets off on a raucous adventure.
The way to Gara's Keep is paved with dangerous roadblocks, like a cannibal "mother and daughter" pair clad in leather made from, well, you don't really want to know. Then there's an entire outlaw gang with cybernetic body parts that resemble scorpions and insects, right down to a man with a beard resembling the arachnid. These colorful enemies aren't just "bad guys of the day," but living, breathing beings imbued with back stories and personalities you're dying to know more about, even when they're absolutely awful.
The trio's journey is facilitated by "Bessie," Philly's trustworthy ride that's seemingly operated by the arcade machine in its console. Deposit four quarters, and it can transform into a menacing raging bull mech that you don't want to mess with. It gets our heroes out of harm's way more than a few times, but car mode has a few tricks up its sleeve too, like a mounted machine gun on the hood. What's more, it's absolutely huge -- not only long, but tall, too, and appears to change sizes depending on the episode, which seems unintentional. That just makes Bessie all the more imposing.
The main cast steals the show, though. Philly the Kid is your archetypal "cool guy" outlaw. Shades of Trigun's Vash the Stampede and Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel (as well as a bit of Mugen to boot) make up his gritty exterior, which belies Philly's slacker vibe. But there's one particularly interesting tidbit about him that you'll notice immediately: the line of numbers dotting the left side of his body. It appears that Philly is cursed, as you learn in the first episode, never to die. The numbers appear gradually on his body, counting the number of times he's been killed, as he comes right back to life afterward. What could this be about, and why is Philly now immortal? It's a secret you’ll have to keep watching to unravel.
Much of Philly’s personality and past are kept under wraps at first. Though wanted posters litter the Western-inspired land, rife with anthropomorphic inhabitants, the show isn't quite as forthcoming about his origins, leaving us to wonder what he did to earn such a massive bounty on his head, as well as some of the most terrifying urban legends that follow him everywhere he goes. He's a complete opposite to SAM, and a foil for her sweetness and willingness to believe, which makes him an intriguing character to follow, especially in his arc near the end of the season. If you don't like him at first, just wait. The payoff is coming.
SAM will give you flashbacks to Teen Titans' Starfire, her naiveté showing through at every turn. She's absolutely adorable, introducing herself to everyone she meets along the way, as she's set to befriend just about anyone on her journey even when it's inappropriate. In response to a positive declaration of friendship, she adds individuals to her "friendship registry" in her memory banks. Her sweetness and difficulty with social cues (given that she's a robot) make way for a compelling secret, however. She's actually one of the show's titular Cannon Busters, which we won't spoil the meaning of here, but know that a devastating power lies latent within her that you get to see on display quite a few times. It's terrifying, but she doesn't ever seem to remember those moments. Maybe that's how she stays so sunny all the time.
Finally, Casey Turnbuckle is a hilarious little mech who's always repairing things, or getting into trouble. She's obsessed with retro tech, mechanical items, and often ends up helping to save the day, though shades of what appears to be jealousy of SAM's best friend Kelby seem to manifest early on. There's also the ronin samurai 9ine (Greg Chun), who became a wanderer and assassin for hire after leaving his clan. Though he's initially found in an alley reeking of garbage, he more than proves his worth despite his appearance (and love for drinking) and becomes a valued member of the team. He may seem like a buffoon early on, but after his legacy is made clear, he's humanized in a way that may very well turn him into one of your favorite characters.
One thing you'll note when diving into the series is its startling lack of the "usual" anime dub cast in favor for a more diverse set of actors, eschewing the typical male leads for lesser-known voices. (Admittedly, it was great just not to have to hear the same people again -- Todd Haberkorn is all over the place lately (see: Aggretsuko, Fire Emblem: Three Houses), but his chirpy, insistent voice can wear thin on the nerves.) Cool practically rolls off of Kenny Blank as Philly, and Kamali Minter shines as the naïve and innocent SAM, with a sparkliness to her voice that's absolutely infectious. Though we know and love Stephanie Sheh as Sailor Moon herself (and FLCL's Samejima Mamimi), she delivers fun and comedy as Casey Turnbuckle.
With a fantastic premise and even more intriguing cast of characters, Cannon Busters shines. Its animation is on point; these are intriguing designs that you won't see much of in other series, with a diverse set of races, body sizes, and mech creations that are far beyond the scope of your typical black-haired, loser protagonist and his gorgeous companion. It takes great lengths to showcase different types of looks for its cast, and when it does rely on CG for some of the mech battles, it's seamless and fluid -- none of that new Berserk series mess, thankfully.
While nearly every part of Cannon Busters totally nails the retro-chic aesthetic and tone of '90s anime, there's one unfortunate shortcoming. The opening theme "Showdown," performed by Marty Grimes and BJRNCK, is an upbeat hip-hop treat that's decadently smooth. But it feels to chill to keep up with the on-screen action that a high-octane show like this one exudes. It could have done with a more rambunctious song with higher BPM and moments that punctuate what's happening on-screen. It's a minor issue, but given the show's attention to detail in nearly every single other department, this feels like an oversight.
If you're exhausted at the prospect of more cutesy idol anime or yet another isekai series, Cannon Busters should settle nicely into your late summer viewing rotation. It's short enough to devour over a weekend, but you'll be anxiously awaiting the next drop of episodes (which are hopefully in the works) for months to come. Looks like it's time to add another Western-tinged outlaw adventure to the "classics" pile.