Spotlight On… Anime – “Cannon Busters”

Originally conceived as a US comic book series from LeSean Thomas, Cannon Busters transitioned to anime after a successful Kickstarter campaign resulted in a pilot episode, which itself led towards a full twelve episode Netflix-exclusive series. Set in a Steampunk Western world where magic has been outlawed in favour of machines, the series follows the plight of two exceptionally polite robots called Sam & Casey as they enlist the help of the immortal bounty hunter, Philly the Kid, in an attempt to locate Sam’s best friend, Prince Kelby. The contradiction of the innocence of the two robots and the sleazy greediness of Philly drives a lot of the action as the unlikely trio travel across the world to find the heir to the throne, encountering plenty of conflicts and distractions along the way.

While the series is rich with humour and slapstick comedy, it is also unafraid to show violence and gore – particularly in the case of the immortal Philly, who frequently meets his end in a variety of gruesome ways. The series juxtaposes these opposing tones really well, balancing the light-hearted moments against the more serious drama to great effect. The characters are extremely likeable and feel fully-formed from the moment they burst onto the screen, and while some of the villains do feel disposable and two-dimensional at times, the character design is simply incredible and rivals the Star Wars franchise for its imaginative yet instantly appealing cast of creatures. Whilst Cannon Busters is clearly influenced by other anime, TV shows and movies – elements of Power Rangers, Transformers, Star Wars and Cowboy Bebop clearly shine through – it still manages to conjure up is own distinctive voice and offers a fresh take on the genre.

Philly the Kid (awful pun name aside) is the lead protagonist for the series and the butt of all the jokes. Cursed with immortality, Philly can regenerate from any fatal injury with only a numbered tattoo as a reminder of his previous lives. This fun concept is used to great effect throughout the series as Philly experiences a number of undignified deaths during the quest. Initially seen as a comedic buffoon, the series actually provides some depth to the character and explores his traumatic childhood and how that influenced his adult choices.

At the heart of the story is Sam & Prince Kelby – a couple of childhood friends who are separated during an attack on the kingdom of Botica. The whole series revolves around Sam’s attempts to find Kelby, whilst unaware she is a Cannon Buster robot with almost limitless destructive power. Sam’s innocence and her immense destructive power are a brilliant combination and the fact that she can suddenly transform into a weapon of mass-destruction and obliterate her enemies creates some excellent set-pieces. She is joined by Casey Turnbuckle – a maintenance droid with a love for repairs and an equally naïve outlook on life. Both robots, while well-meaning, seem to exist to purely agitate and infuriate Philly.

There are a number of supporting characters that recur throughout the series – both as friends or foes – and I was surprised at how quickly some of them were dispatched. Other anime series’ would have made them into recurring antagonists and milked them for all their worth, but Cannon Busters is bursting with such imagination that it can take these wonderful character designs and discard them within the space of an episode or two. One supporting character who does continually recur is 9ine, a drunken Ronin samurai with a tragic backstory – this character has tremendous potential, and could easily be spun off into his own series. While he is largely a guest role in this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he adopted a larger role in future seasons.

The animation for this series is extremely high quality, and it looks like Netflix has spent a lot on the series to get it to look and sound just right. The English dub is spot-on and each voice actor puts their stamp on the character, contributing to making them all so likeable – even Sam & Casey, who could have ended up as irritating and whiny in the wrong hands. Alongside the awesome dub, Cannon Busters also has a pair of ‘instant earworm’ soundtracks for the opening and end credits that will get you humming for days afterwards. My particular favourite, “Showdown” from Marty Grimes and BJRNCK captures the frenetic pace of the series and the eclectic group of characters – the way the music is paired with the opening sequence is simply sublime and I found it impossible to skip. Likewise, the chilled-out pace of “Regardless” by Mansa Imani is hypnotic, coupled with brief flashback scenes that reveal the secret histories of the lead characters.

The series boasts a truly multi-cultural cast of characters and it is impressive to see an anime that is flourishing with black protagonists. This inclusive approach is done subtly, and never feels ham-fisted or forced – in fact, I didn’t even notice that the majority of characters were black until I had read an article on the subject. It isn’t the focus of the narrative and doesn’t distract from the story with a socio-political statement.

In terms of structure, the series is broadly episodic in nature as the characters travel from town to town as part of their quest to reach Gara’s Keep and Prince Kelby. For the most part, these “mini-quests” are enjoyable diversions from the main storyline, although the ninth episode “Lullaby of the Stars” did test my patience somewhat with its outlandish subplot involving a secret race of creatures living underneath the Earth waiting for the prophesied heroes to save them. It broke the flow of the narrative and felt inconsistent in tone compared to previous chapters. Aside from that, the twelve episodes flow together quite nicely and build up to a satisfying conclusion – even if it is largely set up for the inevitable Season Two.

A refreshing take on the Space-Western genre, Cannon Busters is a joy to watch and a gem in Netflix’s growing anime catalogue. At only twelve half-hour episodes, it is definitely worth binge-watching in a weekend and it’ll have you humming the theme song for weeks afterwards.

Cannon Busters is available now to stream on Netflix. A free-month trial is available for new users, if you sign-up here.

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