In Celebration of a Life, Short-lived: Sym-Bionic Titan

This past weekend was the final episode of Sym-Bionic Titan. I wish I didn’t have to say that.

When I first started watching anime, one of the most enticing aspects of it over many of the American cartoons I watched at the time was that, not only did they have on-going stories, but that those stories actually finished. They had conclusions. They weren’t always good conclusions (or good shows), and many times they were so open-ended you weren’t sure what exactly had happened, but you knew that if you started something, chances are you’d get something final out of it by the end.

American cartoons had managed to get some decisive finishes through, such as in Gargoyles or Conan the Adventurer, and I’ll even count the end of the Saturday morning version of Sonic the Hedgehog as a decisive finish despite it setting the stage for another season that never came to be. But for every one of those, you got a Pirates of Darkwater, where the show was set up from the start to reach a certain conclusion, but the show just stops in the middle and all you’re left with is your own imaginative speculation and/or fanfiction. I thought we were past this era, but I was wrong.

Sym-Bionic Titan was the brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky, the man behind Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and it was his most ambitious and best-looking work to date. Following a trio of aliens (Lance the soldier, Ilana the Princess, Octus the robot) who escaped to Earth as the last hope to save their world of Galaluna from a traitorous general, the show took cues from Japanese super robot cartoons, American action cartoons, teen films, and various other areas and channeled them through some of the most deft usage of flash animation I’d ever seen. Much like Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (and I have drawn comparisons between them before), it poked fun at genre conventions from multiple genres, and did so with style and grace-disguised-as-clumsiness.  It was a sign that Genndy had learned a lot since working on Samurai Jack, where the animation was often nice but felt very flat, and he married it with excellent characters and an intriguing plot. There were many mysteries in the show. What was Modula’s true motive? What really happened to Lance’s dad? Who was the mysterious person behind the Galactic Guardian Group? While the show could have easily gone on forever, it was not in its best interest to do so, as there was a real sense of urgency throughout the show, especially when you learned more and more about the characters and where they came from and why, on a personal level, they fight.

But Sym-Bionic Titan ran its initial 20 episodes, and was not renewed for more. Genndy Tartakovsky has moved on from Cartoon Network, possibly frustrated that they never let him finish his works. Samurai Jack never fought his decisive battle with Aku, and it’s unlikely that Lance, Ilana, and Octus will ever be able to return to Galaluna for a showdown with Modula. Was the show not doing well? Was it just not getting the money behind it to continue on?

It turns out that the reason given is that the show was actually doing quite well, but it did not have enough toys connected to it. I can see this being a problem, but I have to point out the fact that the show is ABOUT PEOPLE WHO TRANSFORM INTO ROBOT SUITS WHO COMBINE INTO A GIANT ROBOT THAT FIGHTS GIANT MONSTERS. That they couldn’t figure out how to convert this concept into toys is nothing short of ridiculous, and so the reasoning behind the show’s cancellation feels flimsy at best, an act of malice at worst.

Now there’s a possibility that Genndy pulled a Bill Watterson and specifically forbade merchandise from being made, but I highly doubt that. For one thing, he had hoped for a continuation of the series. This much is obvious based merely on the way the show is set up and how its final episode leaves room for so much more, let alone him actually saying as such. For another, the show’s explicit homage to Japanese giant robot cartoons makes it very likely that Genndy was not ignorant of the genre’s toy-centric origins or the fact that giant robot anime practically grew that merchandise industry in Japan to enormous proportions.

So even with the lack of an ending, is Sym-Bionic Titan worth watching? Yes, very much so. Do it.

The Cross-Cultural Exchange of a Couple of G’s

In 1996, Russian-American animator Genndy Tartakovsky premiered Dexter’s Laboratory and pioneered the thick-lined,”flatter” animation style. This style can also be seen in Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, as well as in Powerpuff Girls, where Genndy was director.

Flash back a few month to 1995 and we get one of most the influential anime ever, Studio Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. Gainax, known for a variety of works from various genres, are especially fondly remembered for their giant robot fare, most notably Evangelion but also Aim for the Top! and Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann.

Now, in late 2010: Gainax’s latest anime is a tongue-in-cheek cartoon about a pair of misfits and heavily utilizes thick outlines and very flat character designs, while Genndy Tartakovsky’s newest show is an honest, non-parody attempt at a super robot-themed series. Both series’ debuts occurred less than three weeks apart from each other.

While the relationship between Japan and America’s cartoons and comics have been put in the spotlight recently with collaborations such as the joint Iron Man and Wolverine projects involving Marvel and Studio Madhouse, the fact that Genndy Tartakovsky’s Sym-Bionic Titan and Gainax’s Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt have come into existence so close to one another puts an even greater focus on the two nations’ cartoons. Here in one cross-section of time, we can see the active/passive exchange of ideas as these cultures’ animation styles appear to intertwine so tightly that they sling each other across the Pacific Ocean.

Neither show is so like the animated series of the others’ country that they come off as weak imitations. Sym-Bionic Titan takes fusing robots, a fight against a powerful invading force, and various other giant robot tropes, mixes them in with Genndy’s own character aesthetics, and places the story firmly within America and its own cultural norms. Meanwhile, Panty & Stocking utilizes the visual elements and humor of early “Cartoon Cartoons” (as Cartoon Network referred to them) while also injecting very anime-esque expressions and reactions from its characters, most notably in their faces, and also ramping up the humor to more “adult” levels. The two series and their hybrid styles reinforce both the idea that creativity is not limited by national borders and that individual cultures can still maintain some of their distinctiveness when it comes to artistic output.

This is not a bad thing.

As a final aside, the personal robot used by the character Lance in Sym-Bionic Titan reminds me of the titular robot from Galaxy Gale Baxinger.

I can’t be the only one, right?