Mismatched duos have been a staple of comic strips and animation since Bud Fisher’s "Mutt and Jeff" debuted in 1907; they’re also a regular feature of live action films, TV and theater. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Cro-Magnons sat around the fire, telling stories about a tough, veteran mammoth hunter and the young, rash partner the local chief assigned to him. It’s a story device that seems infinitely recyclable, and the latest unlikely duo to prove it are crime-fighters Kotetsu "Wild Tiger" Kaburagi and Barnaby "Bunny" Brooks, Jr., in Tiger & Bunny (Viz, sets 1 and 2: $54.97 apiece, Blu-ray; $44.82, DVD).
In the not-too-distant future, individuals called "Nexts" use their supernatural abilities to become snazzily costumed Heroes, fighting crime and protecting the people of Stern Bild City. Their adventures appear a special TV channel, and crime-fighters compete for points, titles and endorsements. The Superhero costumes even bear the logos of corporate sponsors (including the Japanese toy and video company Bandai).
Kotetsu has been a Hero for 10 years. Although he’d like to think of himself as super cool (and would like his adolescent daughter Kaede to think so, too), he’s something of a klutz who may accidentally destroy his surroundings while capturing a criminal. The enormous insurance charges he racks up annoy Agnes, his rating-obsessed director.
In his two-tone oxfords, over-sized sport cap and offbeat goatee, Kotetsu often suggests the superhero as salaryman. He does his job, and does it reasonably well, although the pay and benefits aren’t all that great. But Kotetsu is also fierce idealist who maintains that a real hero will rescue anyone in danger, even a criminal.
In their never-ending quest to boost ratings, the network pairs Kotetsu with rookie Barnaby Brooks, Jr. Dashing, handsome and immediately popular, he’s even Kaede’s dream date. Like Batman, Barnaby is haunted by the murder of his parents. The scientists were killed by the mysterious crime syndicate Ourobouros.
Of course, the unlikely partners irritate the hell out of each other on every case they’re assigned. Barnaby complains Kotetsu’s overdue for retirement; Kotetsu irks Barnaby by giving him the nickname "Bunny". Voice actors Wally Wingert (Kotetsu) and Yuri Lowenthall (Barnaby) give winning performances that bring life to both the comedy and adventure while keeping the relationship between their characters warmly believable.
During the first half of the series, Kotetsu and Barnaby grudgingly develop a mutual respect—and affection--that pay off on screen. In a droll jab at fanboy culture, Episode #14 shows them signing autographs, appearing on talk shows, posing for a swimsuit calendar and even dubbing voices for other anime characters.
The tone of the series darkens in the second half, as each character confronts his inner demons. After ten years on the job, Kotetsu realizes his "Next" powers are weakening. His daughter has begun to manifest powers of her own, but Kotetsu is too busy to provide much support, which she bitterly resents. The questions surrounding the death of Barnaby’s parents’ multiply until they threaten to destroy him and the rest of the Heroes.
Director Keiichi Satou demonstrates a real flair for action sequences. When Kotetsu and Barnaby square off in a protracted series of fights and motorcycle chases, the excitement and suspense eclipse many big budget Hollywood features. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Kotetsu and Barnaby triumph in the end, but Satou keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat, wondering whether they’ll come through or not.
Tiger & Bunny only ran for one season, but the characters proved so popular, they returned in the theatrical feature The Beginning in 2012; a sequel, The Rising, is slated for this fall. With such dubious follow-ups as Smurfs II and Chipmunks IV in the pipeline in the US, it’s nice to have a sequel you can actually look forward to.