There aren’t many shows on tv like Christy Karacas’ Ballmastrz: 9009, which has a new 22-minute special that will air tonight at midnight on Adult Swim and be available to stream tomorrow on HBO Max
Titled Ballmastrz: Rubicon, the special continues the story of 9009, but with a totally new look and feel. The original series was animated by Titmouse in the U.S. and got plenty of praise, including a competition screening at Annecy in 2019. But for his new special, Karacas wanted to do something different, so he recruited legendary Japanese animation house Studio 4°C to handle animation and anime royalty Takashi Nakamura (artist on Akira and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) as animation director.
4°C’s involvement gives Rubicon a retro look and feel that fans of 1970s and 1980s anime should fall in love with. The show’s humor is still there, the voice actors are the same, but Rubicon feels like an old VHS tape passed around between friends before the internet even existed, and therein lies a great deal of its charm.
Ahead of the special’s release, we caught up with Karacas to discuss the show’s origins, his trans-pacific partnership, and the possible future of the franchise.
Can you talk a bit about the origins of Ballmasterz? Where did the idea come from, and when did you start working on it?
I was working on Superjail and Adult Swim asked me to pitch them a new show. Superjail! wasn’t canceled or anything, but they were starting to think about the next show. One thing I knew for sure at the time is that I didn’t want the next one to be anything like Superjail. As much fun as that show was, it was so much hard work.
I was interested in trying out something different, and it seemed to me that Anime had always been good at incorporating different styles and approaches. It’s also often based on manga, which usually has a single creator. I think that’s one reason it’s so good, is that when adapting the books they are often faithful to the original creator’s work, rather than trying to make something in a studio style.
What were some of the shows or films that influenced the development of Ballmastrz?
At that time, I was getting back into anime. I loved anime when I was younger but hadn’t kept up. Around that time, Kill la Kill had just come out and also Ping Pong. I watched them and was like, “I haven’t seen crazy like this in a while.” I was so excited, and it reminded me how much I loved anime.
Ping Pong got me thinking about sports anime and sports manga, and in the west, we have lots of sports movies, but not really any cartoons that I could think of. I’d always been a big wrestling fan and I loved sci-fi movies from the 1970s like Rollerball, so I started to think up some fake, weird, made-up sport where all the teams are different gangs. It all came together, I wouldn’t say easily, but it came together very fast. I still didn’t know entirely what it was yet, but I did some drawing and pitched it.
One key to my pitch was that the balls were alive in the sport. Remember the movie Major League? When I was a kid, I saw the Major League poster and the baseball had a face on it. So as a kid, I thought I was going to see an animated baseball character for some reason, and when I finally saw the movie, I was like… “Where’s the ball!?” With Ballmasterz I was like, I’m gonna make the balls be alive and have their own personalities. Like, what would happen if you didn’t get along with your ball? So that’s kinda where the idea for Ballmastrz came up.
You talked about a tendency of anime studios to respect a creator’s style and vision. How would you describe your style?
I think of my shows as an experience; you’re on this kind of wild ride. The visuals, the sound, and the music are all very important to me and I want people to feel immersed and forget about their day-to-day life when they’re sucked into this world. I love world-building. When I watch adult animation today, a lot of it is so script-driven. It’s presented like a sitcom.
The live-action shows that are praised today are often the ones doing something totally different. Something like Fleabag where the character breaks the fourth wall, it felt so fresh when you first saw it. Not enough animated shows break out and do something different. It feels like every decade, a show will come along and make a big change, but then everything becomes very similar again for a long time.
You got to work with the legendary Japanese Studio 4°C for this special. How did that relationship come about?
I’ve had a great relationship with Titmouse and Chris [Prynoski] for years and they were great on Ballmastrz, but for this special, I just always had it in my mind that I wanted to do it at a real anime studio. I had a colleague who worked in Japan, and we started talking and I asked him to start looking on my behalf. I couldn’t believe it when he told me that Studio 4°C might be possible. This is the studio that did Mind Game! This is one of my favorite studios in the world. I was also worried because a lot of these anime studios are backed up for years. But we got lucky and they had a slot and they told me that I’d be working with Takeshi Nakamura… This guy worked on titles like Akira and Nausicaä! It was crazy. The one major drawback was that all of this went down during Covid, so I didn’t get to go visit the studio.
What was production like?
I would deliver boards and roughs and then they’d deliver stuff back really quickly. Despite the time zones and Covid, there really wasn’t a disconnect and everything went smoothly, but I was so nervous to work with them. I was just supposed to thumb the boards, but I was thinking that these need to be the craziest boards I’ve ever made. I did all the rough designs and everything, but then they redesigned everything anyway. The special takes place in space, and I’d always thought about doing it like a Macross or Gundam missile-porn thing, but Nakamura suggested that we might want to go kind of retro and cute. At first, I thought that was crazy, but then I saw some early art and I thought it looked awesome. So, my boards were insane, but we pulled back a bit and I love the way it came out.
Ballmastrz is episodic, so what inspired you to do this one-off special?
The original show was 11-minute episodes, but we always wanted to do 22 minutes for the special. We wanted this to feel more like an anime or an OVA. The series was always done with the idea to set up a third season or additional films. So, with the special, I wanted it to be self-contained, where you could watch it and not feel like it was just building up to something else. I hate when you get films from big franchises that feel like their only purpose was to set up something else and you finish the movie and you’re like, “Now I wanna watch the real one!” Of course, I want people who watch this to want to see more and we have a lot of other stories planned out that we haven’t been able to put in yet. We’re hoping that if there’s more, we can continue telling those stories.