You can judge any anime by the weight of its theme music. The best themes feel like an entire movie’s worth of activity condensed into one minute, a concerto of guitars and thumping drums and lyrics that you won’t remember but sound amazing in the moment. Cannon Busters, which recently debuted on Netflix, has a theme song for the ages. The rousing “Showdown” is performed by Marty Grimes and BJRNCK and features slick guitar licks, bubbly synths and a literal backing chorus. It’s imbued with the amount of soul befitting an anime with a mostly Black cast.
Creator LeSean Thomas knew what he was doing when he first published Cannon Busters in 2005. Anime is watched the world over, but its presence in the Black community is special. Shows like DragonBall Z, Naruto, and Afro Samurai have served as great uniters within every facet of Black culture; type “Goku” into Genius’ search engine and you’ll see how many rappers have name dropped the infamous saiyan. Thomas, whose credits include work on The Boondocks and The Legend of Korra, took this relationship one step further by creating a world that he wanted to see. This is the world of Cannon Busters.
The series started out as a three-issue comic that was eventually shelved in order to focus on a proper anime adaptation. A 2014 Kickstarter campaign led to a pilot, but the series continued to sit on the back burner until 2018, when Netflix picked it up for distribution. Five years later, Thomas’ vision has crossed the finish line. Cannon Busters stands as an anime for us, by us.
Somewhere out in space, an immortal outlaw named Philly The Kid is on the run from bounty hunters. In his travels, he eventually meets two robots: S.A.M., a highly sophisticated and very friendly companion bot from the city of Botica, and her junk mechanic best friend, Casey. S.A.M. is on a journey to reunite with Prince Kelby, the heir to Botica’s kingdom and her best friend in a walled-off city called Gara’s Keep. The three travel across the world in a coin-operated hot rod named Bessie that can turn into a mecha-bull.
The plot is fairly straightforward by anime standards, which helps the influences stick out even more than usual. Much of the early episodes’s rustic desert backdrops call back to Trigun and Cowboy Bebop. Philly himself is a composite of Bebop’s Spike Spiegel and the same generic aloof teenage boy that most anime centers itself around. The robot designs are reminiscent of mecha anime like Gurren Lagan, particularly Bessie’s bull form and S.A.M.’s transformation into the titular magical robot cannon. The references are blatant enough to sometimes seem like the point in and of themselves, as if Thomas and his team are playing with pastiche for the fun of it.
At its worst, this approach can detract from the show’s overall momentum. Cannon Busters certainly has an identity of its own, but with just 12 22-minute episodes, it doesn’t give its characters much room to breathe and develop. An entire cadre or recurring villains are built up over the course of the series (they’re even featured in the opening credits!) only to barely be used in some anticlimactic fights. I understand that this is just the first season and the show wants to build interest for the future, but we don’t learn enough about the characters outside of surface level connections. The sweeping scale of the narrative ensures that things will feel weightier later, but that leaves the now feeling more toothless than it should.
Much of the show’s pleasures come from its visual style, score and voice acting. Satelight and Yumeta Company provide solid animation that’s fluid and inviting. The character designs are colorful and distinctive enough to generate enough grist for the cosplay mill for years to come. The voice acting — particularly Kenny Blank as Philly and Kamali Minter as S.A.M. — is lively enough to outshine the generic script they’re asked to recite. Balancing the lived-in with the familiar isn’t something that Cannon Busters ever truly masters in these first 12 episodes, especially considering the fact that it still has a handful of filler episodes. There’s a story here, but it’s crammed into a corner.
Even though there’s nothing special about Cannon Buster’s story at this point, the diversity of its cast makes it that much more endearing. Few series this side of Afro Samurai feature this many Black and Brown characters in this many roles. Seeing them with agency as heroes, villains and characters simply existing continues to be refreshing even when the story becomes rote. But Cannon Busters represents more than just, well, representation. It's charming and interesting enough to excuse the stumbles it takes throughout this first season. No show with a theme song this good can be all that bad.
Photo Credit: Netflix