As anime becomes more prevalent in the minds of current creative types, I am ever the more grateful for a cartoon like Ballmastrz: 9009 on Adult Swim to exist. It delivers in ways that only creator Christy Karacas could do with his anarchic animation style.
Premise-wise it’s a strange sell. Adult Swim was willing to throw money to the creator of Superjail and Robotomy to make a sports anime that you could swear only came from this network. Even more, they would have animation studio Titmouse, Inc. handle the production.
Looking at the trailers you could tell these things in an instant. High body counts and ultra-violence a la Karacas, hectic paced animation with kinetic movement from Titmouse, and a little side of juvenile humor to hit home the Adult Swim brand (count up the ball references in those trailers).
Experience has taught me well that when animators at U.S studios attempt anime references it can border on either plain cringey or genuinely sincere. So my initial stance was that this might not fly, let alone get off the landing pad of the network at it’s late night time slot. However, now that the series has wrapped up it’s first season, I can say wholeheartedly that Ballmastrz: 9009 is worth the time of any anime fan, especially lovers of animation.
The plot — which I am glad to say for an Adult Swim show is refreshingly present — is that in the future there is no more war in the world because it all got swept into a big arena where people chuck sentient robot balls around to kill each other and score points for the glory of the king, Crayzar.
One such team is on the killing end of those balls, The Leptons, a hodge-podge of misfits, aliens, creatures, and a limbless martial artist with a cage on his head. The team captain is a plucky, optimistic young sport named Ace Ambling who wishes he could play as well as his idol, Gaz Digzy, the best player of the game.
Gaz feels nothing playing the game she was made for, and after a night of hard parting and escapism into psychedelic animation sequences, she causes enough havoc to be kicked from her own team and from the subsequent celebrity rehab clinic.
Crayzar confronts Gaz and explains that he created this game to bring out humanity’s inner potential. He offers her a chance at redemption and growth — if Gaz can take The Leptons and get the worst team in the league to win one game, she can rejoin her old team.
The only things stopping that are Gaz’s abrasive and hedonistic personality, rival teams of anime character rejects and wind-up toy dogs, and the clashing personalities of The Leptons themselves.
Quite a bit of plot to take in for a series that is limited to 12-minute episode runs and a ten-episode season. But lo and behold my expectations were defeated after just three episodes.
In the first three episodes of Ballmastrz there is world building, plot setup, character development, passionate emotions, humor, and a Mazinger Z reference. What may have been mishandled or overpacked by another creator, Karacas and his team manage to pull off with flying colors.
Karacas was always able to balance plot, humor, and character in Superjail quite well when he and Titmouse were working together. But Ballmastrz is a proof of concept that he has a knack for writing overarching plots.
What Ballmastrz: 9009 gets rights is the clichés/writing tropes of anime and why they work. Much of the show’s ups and downs feel familiar; they are all things we would see in anime countless times. Characters go on long diatribes, cry and decry others, unleash special moves, and kick tons of ass in fluidly animated action moments.
The familiarity these bring feel like they come from a genuine place, and that is what made Titmouse Inc. so perfect for this project. Their stable of animators draw heavy influence from anime and get what they are working with, so the production design feels tight and well realized.
The best example I can think of to exemplify this love is the team The Leptons fight in the second episode, who all look like middle school sketchbook doodles that seem to augur future animators in their simple but fanboyish designs.
What brings the show home though are the characters and the way they play off each other. Ace’s idolization of Gaz pervades through and through, even as she drinks and cusses during their game practice. Gaz’s own arc of learning to somewhat sort-of respect her fellow teammates makes for simple but funny drama.
Other teammates also get laughs and development, such as the poetic lethargic, Leto, and bi-polar psycho anime girl, DeeDee, who pines for Leto even as he lazily pines for the heat-death of the universe.
The one that made me laugh no matter what was the limbless martial artist, Flypp Champion, who I swear was put in this series just to make fun of every training-arc bred juggernaut from every anime ever. Special mention must go to Dana Snyder’s role as the fame hungry ball the team tosses in every game, who gets in some great lines as the series goes on.
Though some may not find much meaning in seeing anime tropes repeated in a series like this, I can’t say this show is for them. But it must be said that any animated series that delivers on those tropes in such a unique and unbelievably fun way must be commended.
As creatives in the U.S find new ways to condense their love of anime while conforming to network standards, something can be learned from Ballmastrz: 9009, because it plays the game like a champ.