Superheroes have been in mainstream news a lot recently. Between Marvel’s new Ultimate Spider-Man, who debuted this month, and DC’s reboot of 52 comics including all of their most classic characters, which also started this month, everyone has been hearing hero talk lately. Both cases have brought up conversations about the dwindling readers of superhero comics and what can be done to interest new and fallen fans. Tiger and Bunny might have some suggestions.
Japan is not known for liking superhero comics. If Robert Downey Jr. is playing Iron Man on the big screen then, like most of the world, they will go see it in theaters. But they will not rush home to order some Iron Man comics. They all see these movies as American summer blockbusters but with no greater interest in the source material. Really the only people who read superhero comics in Japan as a small subsection of Otaku. Otaku are already a fringe group in Japan so superhero fans are a minority within a minority. Even attempts like the Marvel and Madhouse co-productions have done little to change this sentiment. Then along comes Tiger and Bunny.
Paramount in Tiger and Bunny, and one of the reasons I loved it and believe it succeeds, is the interplay and balance of fun to melodrama. With a lead character like Kotetsu, you’re sure to get a few laughs every episode, but it doesn’t take away from the moments when the chips are down. I would actually argue it heightens them because if things are bad enough for Kotetsu to be focused, you know it is serious. Those dark moments are also pretty melodramatic leaving a lot of grittiness at the door. Throughout all this a focus on interpersonal relationships helps. We start with a team of heroes who are already established with the exception of Bunny. So both friendships, partnerships, and bringing a new person into the fold are major pieces of the story. It is impressive how much stuff happens outside of running around as a superhero in Tiger and Bunny. Finally, rounding it all out is the ability to edit and not over-explain things, like the origin of characters or their relationships to one another. This isn’t lazy storytelling, it is thoughtful about how much to throw at you.
You cannot underestimate the power of the characters. Kotetsu is remarkable because he strongly appeals to both genders. He is a doting single father who is mostly goofy but reliable when the chips are down. His carefree and somewhat goofy manner makes him easy to like but his thirst for justice and the ability to reliably pull through in a clinch make him heroically charming. He has an affable mixture of cocky but humble. He is also just outgoing, energetic, and adamant. If any of these traits were to go a bit towards any extreme he would likely lose her cross-gender appeal but his balanced traits win him a surprising number of fans. Men and women like him for many of the same reasons as well as their own gender specific reasons. But those gender specific reasons don’t scare off the other sex. He is also an older hero that helps draw in fans that are tired of teenaged protagonists. Plus anyone who is a parent will sympathize with his biggest wish of just getting his daughter to think he is cool even if is just once. Kotetsu may not be everyone’s favorite character but he does a lot to draw in an audience. The rest of the cast has their own unique appeal. Blue Rose has some swerve in her curve for the male viewers and a costume that shows it off but is never so exposed or exploited in a way to scare away female fans. Sky High, Rock Bison, and the Origami Cyclone each have their own appeal to female audience without doing anything do drive away the males in the audience. Barnaby definitely appeals to a fujoshi audience without ever doing anything that actively pushes for that demographic.
Reality TV and corporate sponsorship feature prominently in Tiger and Bunny. This has played out in superhero comics, too. In Marvel’s Civil War, a TV reality show gone wrong is one of the igniting events to the story. And who can forget Longshot and Mojo with the Mojoverse where people are essentially addicted to televised death matches. And DC’s futuristic character Booster Gold (who I’ve recently been learning about) is known for hamming it up for the sponsors. All of this stuff factors in to Tiger and Bunny’s storyline. For the most part, it doesn’t really show the TV aspect as a negative. In fact, it is one of the things that helps NEXTs be accepted in society. It certainly has its sinister parts, but it didn’t come off as condemning the rise of television culture. As a side note, since they use real corporate sponsors in the show it is a brilliant market ploy as well as a way for the show to make commercial money.
If anyone usually complains about Tiger and Bunny their biggest complaint is that it relies too much on superheros tropes to the point where the plot is often predictable. The thing is to the Japanese audience most of the more well-worn parts of the series might be old hat for a Western audience but are still fairly inventive for an audience that has not grown up with them constantly in their entertainment. These are original characters that don’t requite any back-story to understand while adding in just enough of a tokusatsu twist to feel familiar and exotic at the same time. The man who hates mutants and hunts them down with robots is cliché to X-Men fans but is not as much of an old chestnut to a Japanese audience. At the same time an English-speaking audience might know many of the plays used in the Tiger and Bunny playbook it does not change the fact that those moves are there for a reason. We have often said that you don’t have to tell a new and revolutionary story every time to be entertaining as long as you use the old material well. Tiger and Bunny brilliantly executes many pieces of the genre in entertaining fashion that breathes life into the established framework of superheroes.
While none of the concepts we mentioned are new ideas for superhero comics, it is Tiger and Bunny’s popularity that speaks volumes. This show has reached thousands of anime and manga and beyond fans. They may not know much about superhero comics and certainly don’t know the many storylines in its history, but Tiger and Bunny has sparked an interest in a genre. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t other obstacles to bringing more readers to superhero comics, but there are some lessons in Tiger and Bunny.
Something about its original characters and approach to the superhero genre has won it a surprising number of fans internationally. It is a superhero series that a Japanese audience cares about in a series format. It has the power to win over an English-speaking audience that is somewhat jaded with superhero tropes and a Japanese audience that has never embraced them.