It’s thrilling to find an anime that operates outside of genre norms. The self-serious framing around comedic darling Kaguya-sama not only made each scene more amusing, but it also alleviated the show from treading many of the same tired school anime tropes. Cannon Busters shakes up the setting of modern adventure by presenting a genuinely compelling, fantastical world that fuses western and cyberpunk elements.
This makes it all the more frustrating that Cannon Busters consistently falls short of its potential. For as much love is put into its visual design, its narrative design suffers from mixed character writing, poor pacing, and a plot that can’t stay out of its own way.
On the Road Again
Philly the Kid is an outlaw cursed with immortality. Whenever he dies, he regenerates, and the number of that death appears as a tattoo somewhere on his body. It’s shounen character design at its finest, and gives Philly much more of a cool factor than he rightly deserves.
After running from the law and living out of his trusty half-car, half-mech Bessie for years, he encounters two unique bots: Casey Turnbuckle, a little engineer who absolutely loves fixing things, and Sam, a hyper-friendly royal bot determined to reunite with the prince of her far-off homeland. After a quick run-in with some bounty hunters, the group finds themselves temporarily joining forces and high-tailing it out of town together under the premise of escaping and finding Sam’s prince.
Cannon Busters essentially takes the form of a massive road trip that has the crew visiting a slew of towns inspired by the American frontier, technological dystopias, and otherworldly nooks where colorful characters spend their days. Handled by Satelight, the studio behind Log Horizon and partially responsible for Fairy Tail, the environmental detail of every location is one of Cannon Busters’ greatest strengths. Not only are many of the locales visually distinct, but they each come off as a natural part of the world as a whole.
A Lack of Character
The problem is that the best parts of Cannon Busters–the road trip feel and gradual friendship that grows amongst the crew–are bogged down by questionable character design and poor pacing. The first couple of episodes are terribly slow going and monotonous, things only exasperated by Philly’s dedication to being a detestable main character. He incessantly complains about traveling with the bots, treats his car like garbage, bemoans his life as a whole, and manages to get himself killed for stupid reasons that elicit reactions ranging from “He should’ve seen that coming” to “Is this supposed to be funny?”
Having a good-for-nothing protagonist can work if they have a certain redeeming quality or if there’s significant growth throughout the season, but neither of those are present. Even worse, however, is making the goal of a show to reunite with someone hardly worth caring about. The bratty, spoiled Prince Kelby is equally as frustrating as Philly, but for different reasons. He acts more like a child than a teen, making silly demands and being forced to behave by his retainer, Odin. It follows that a young prince might realistically be spoiled and ungrateful, but it completely diffuses any desire the viewer might have to see him escape unscathed.
Surprisingly enough, it’s actually the two bots that end up being far-and-away the best written, most enjoyable characters out of the entire cast. Sam has the emotional range that both her chauffeur and prince lack, to the point that it’s almost tragic that Sam yearns to be by Kelby’s side so strongly. Built as a mere companion bot for the prince during his youth, her innocent interpretations of less proper human customs and language are often a riot. More impressively, though, she gradually learns and applies lessons from her travels and being around Philly.
Casey is just as entertaining. She’s a lovable tech nerd who almost single-handedly turns Bessie into something of a fourth party member because of how much she loves to work on the car. Her “I-can-fix-anything” attitude and general optimism make her reliably sweet, and her dedicated side-story is the best of the entire season.
More Than a Few Loose Screws
An adequate action-focused anime doesn’t necessarily need a top-notch overarching plot, and that’s what makes this a decently fun ride for most of its runtime. The premise works well, and the crew’s travels have their moments, but the overall plot, character development, and scenario writing are far too haphazard. Mysterious characters are built up only to be revealed as lackluster threats. Philly’s tale of how he gained immortality is barely touched upon, and his ultimate character motivation is so weakly presented that he would’ve been better off without one at all. There are occasional standouts like the drunken samurai 9ine who shines early on with plenty of potential for bombastic fight scenes, but even his character is held back by head-scratching story decisions late in the season.
Cannon Busters is at its best when it’s honing in on short, one-episode stories. Sam and Casey steal the show to the point where, like with the DanMachi spinoff Sword Oratoria, a side season solely revolving around their escapades would be more than welcome. Unfortunately, the infuriating bratiness of Prince Kelby combined with one of the least likable protagonists in recent memory leaves this first outing struggling to get its hooks in viewers. A severely disappointing final act makes me cautious to recommend this to anyone beyond those looking for a uniquely-themed adventure anime or those simply itching for something new to binge on Netflix.
You can watch Cannon Busters on Netflix.