Otakon 2013: Shinichiro Watanabe

(photo courtesy of Gerald from AWO)

hisui_icon_4040 It was quite telling that so many people started their questions to Shinichiro Watanabe at his public Q&A with the simple statement that Cowboy Bebop is what made them anime fans. The sheer electric feeling you got from people when FUNimation announced that licensed rescued Cowboy Bebop and had the Blu-Ray rights was physically palpable when I heard people talk about the news. Hayao Miyazaki winning the Oscar might have shown that anime could be art but Bebop showed English-speaking fans that anime could be cool (at least in a way that no one had done since Akira.) So the impact of the series on Western fandom cannot be underestimated. His work on Samurai Champloo and Kids on the Slope had noticeable impacts on the fandom but Bebop changed things forever. So being able to pick the brain and get a little insight into this underused luminary director was an invaluable experience.

I saw Shinichiro Watanabe twice during Otakon. First during the public Q&A and once during press Q&A.  The questions at both interviews led to an interesting insight into where he has come from as a director and where he is going from here on in.

Just in case you were ever wondering we got a lot of the standard question asking about his influences. I might as well get through all of those in one go. He was introduced to Jazz with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and has been hooked on jazz ever since. The anime that influenced him most was the original Lupin TV series (he made special note not to include the other TV series in that statement). The cities of Rio de Janeiro and several towns in Morocco have has a big impact on his work (and he hopes someone will fly him out to the World Cup in 2014 as it is in Rio). He is a fan of American movies from the 70s but not Hollywood movies as a whole as he corrected someone. He recommended the first Dirty Harry movie, The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and the The Ballad of Cable Hogue for anyone interested in that time period.  Above all else he gave an extra nod to the works of Don Siegel in particular including the Killers and Madigan. But he mentioned that he liked Disney’s John Carter recently to show that he still watched newer movies.

When Shinichiro Watanabe was talking about his early days directing he seemed to tell lots of tales of butting heads with people. Everything from having to compromise a lot to work with Shoji Kawamori on Macross Plus to having his sponsorship from Bandai’s toy division pulled after they decided that Cowboy Bebop would never sell space ship toys. He also mentioned a clash with Hollywood with his work on the Animatrix. It reminded me of Masao Maruyama MAPPA Q&A from last year’s Otakon. Apparently when Maruyama brought on Watanabe to direct Kids on the Slope he did that after finding that Watanabe had been pitching show ideas for years only to find funding ripped out from under his feet before they could get underway. It does make it seem like he is a director with a strong but uncompromising vision. Something that lets him make very personal and powerful pieces but it does not let him work easily with money people.

On the other hand he seemed to have a very hands off approach when working as a music producer under Sayo Yamamoto on Michiko and Hatchin. He seemed very content to not say anything about the material but just create music that would enhance the existing plot and characters. So he can be a solider as well as general when he wants to.

It was interesting to see how Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno’s working relationship has grown over the year. At first he assumed from her appearance and demeanor that she would not be very capable and even assumed she was the face for someone who ghostwrote songs for her. But he soon came to understand she was a uniquely talented individual. Although he also began to learn that when she was given an assignment she would often come back with something brilliant that was not really what she was originally asked to do. This often led to Watanabe and Kanno having to tweak their work like a ping-pong game to get a product somewhere in the middle of their visions as often what they did to respond to the other one would lead to new ideas neither of them could have come up with on their own.

One of the biggest points that Shinichiro Watanabe reiterated in any panel he was a part of was the fact that anime had to grow beyond the “frog in a well” it has become. He felt that too many people working in anime today only know anime as their sources of inspiration. Watanabe felt the lexicon of experiences most people working in anime today solely consists of language made up of other anime and manga. That means that too many shows feel like Xeroxed copies of what has come before them. It is the creative equivalent of incest.

To break out of the rut the industry is in the need to start taking in cartoons, comics, movies, books, music, and art from all over the world as well as Japan. The more varied the sources of experiences creators can take in the more varied their works can be. Each new medium and genre adds a new color of paint to a creator’s palette. Many interesting things can be created with just red and blue but they pale in comparison to the range you have when you work with all the colors of the rainbow.

As we said in the previous Otakon post about the most interesting announcements the one that stood out beyond all the others was the fact that Shinichiro Watanabe was working on a new series called Space Dandy. In many ways it is a return to exactly what people want. Shinichiro Watanabe directing a space adventure with a stellar stable of writers. After they played the preview and ended the panel a bunch of us anibloggers all met in the middle of the room and shared our mutual excitement for the title. It was like a bunch of children gathered around the Christmas tree faces aglow with sheer joy.

But it is not Bebop. Watanabe was clear to state that while Bebop was this noir infused space drama with some distinctly humorous bits this was going to be a pure comedy series with strong narrative and a dash of drama to tie it all together as a cohesive project. And the preview video made that clear. The main character, Dandy, looks like if Sweet JP was thrown in a pulp sci-fi comedy adventure like the Stainless Steel Rat (not that Redline is too far off from that to begin with).

The plot revolves around Dandy looking for new and undiscovered aliens species. He is a free spirit unfettered by the normal worries that tie down so many anime protagonists. There also seems to be fan service from a space restaurant called Boobies, big fleet sized space battles, and aliens of all stripes and sizes. This is a world of old school styled ray guns, Dune sized space worms, and a star in between Space and Dandy in the title. The key themes seem to be fun and exploration.

Shinichiro Watanabe promised that each episode would have a different feel as different directors and designers would be brought in to give each world they visit its own style and vibe. For a big space adventure like this the more variety the better. Your aliens should feel alien and each world and it’s inhabitants should feel distinctly different. Watanabe teased that while they had some great names lined up he could not give anything more than the most basic names involved with the project now. But he teased a lot of information like that. It was clear he wanted to give just enough information to whet the audience’s appetite but keep enough hidden so there could be a good deal of speculation until the show is on the air.

By the way while anime like Cobra had a small influence on the series it is far more inspired by movies like Forbidden Planet, the original Tron, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Dark Star. (Also all the staff who never saw those movies had to watch them before starting on the show). This of course led to some Space Dandy fights for the users jokes later on.

It was great to see Shinichiro Watanabe again at Otakon 2013. It has been over a decade since I saw him last at the Big Apple Anime Fest 2002. I have grown quite a bit as a fan since then so I was able to appreciate his talks on a completely different level now. That alone made the experiences invaluable. In many way it is an excellent sign of how I have progressed in my fandom.

And at the same time it was nice to see Space Dandy light a fire in the hearts of some of the more jaded members of the fan community. People are still going to complain that Light Novel titles are dumb, there is too much moe, and fujoshi are ruining everything. If fans don’t have something to complain about they tend to make up stuff to gripe over. And when they do have legitimate complaints they love to share them. Ad nauseum. The best present Shinichiro Watanabe could give American fans is the dream that things might also get better. That maybe just maybe Space Dandy could make anime cool again.

– Alain

More Otakon 2013 posts:

Otakon 2013: Tweets
Otakon 2013: Our 6 Favorite Announcements
Otakon 2013: General Impressions
Otakon 2013: Artist Alley
All Points Bulletin: Leaving Baltimore, Heading To Las Vegas
Otakon 2013: 10-minutes with Yuzuru Tachikawa and Michihiko Suwa
Otakon 2013: Concerts
Otakon 2013: Guests
Otakon 2013: Shingo Adachi and Tetsuya Kawakami
Otakon 2013: Fan Panels
All Points Bulletin: The Gamification of Otakon
The Speakeasy #044: Baltimore Zoo, Otakon 2013

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