This week in Director Spotlight: Shinichiro Watanabe
The Dude of Anime
The first big name in our “Odd Duck” section of Directors. Shinishiro Watanabe’s particular oddness comes from his love of music. Other Directors will start with a solid, or explosive, first work and gradually hone into a style. They will leave hints at whats to come in new shots, themes, or a better focus on their skills. Watanabe? Nope, he only makes a series after a particularly good ‘Dude what if…’ moment, and drops the best things ever.
Starting out with Sunrise studio, Watanabe stepped in to be Episode Director on Kikou Ryohei Mellowlink doing 4 episodes. Following this up with stints of episode, script, and storyboard work on series like Obatalian, and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory. Building some solid credentials at managing passion and energy within a story. This led to his big break through.
Getting full control in Direction and Storyboard, meeting the in-comparable Yoko Kano, and being supervised by *freaking* Shoji Kawamori. The man who designed Optimus Prime! Now that is a good time.
We can already see exactly what makes Watanabe who he is. Yoko Kano, three main characters of similar design, action paced out through character inspection. This is the framework that he uses for most of his future series, and while it works for the most part, it leaves me longing for a more experimental director.
*”Lets mix up two of my favorite childhood things, New York’s suave film style and Spaghetti Western’s tortured hero, and lay it over some sweet jazz. Oh and set in Space so Shoji Kawamori can come design a bad ass Sci-fi world for us.”*
This is the conversation that happened in my head as I watched the iconic series. It establishes Watanabe’s Odd Duck ‘Dude what if…’ style of series. He is a man who will take an idea and mold it into something amazing, but the small details never quite fill in. This, in essence is Watanabe to me, The Cool Dude. The characters are cool, the idea is cool, the music is cool, the details are left to the imagination.
With his solid Storyboard and great musical companion, Watanabe makes a series that perfectly grabs the Western style and gives it that Anime touch. The lead character is our cowboy with a past, featuring a solid cast made to have some great synergy and charismatic interactions. The story is fun, action packed, and has just the right amount of character history to make it feel like more than a usual series. This was a Universe you wanted in on.
Even though is Watanabe’s first main solo work, his love of music and use of it to carry a story is already in full effect. Music has always been a central point to what Watanabe makes, and perhaps this speaks to his directing as well. Merging genre’s and styles of music seems to be key to his inspiration and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were music that came before the anime in most cases.
On top of Bebop’s amazing main series run, Watanabe extended an idea and made one of the best, single story, action films in anime.
Watanabe spent some time fooling around with making a Live action version of Cowboy Bebop, eventually going no where. In the mean time though, he joined with many other great artists in the anthology, The Animatrix, making 2 shorts for the series.
Detective Story video
They go so well together, one showing the blurry passion of a youth in panic, the other a crisp and wise story of a man with age. The Animatrix is a kind of “who’s who” of the best in the business at the time, and Watanabe comes in with two great pieces.
After the work oversea’s, Watanabe stepped in to handle the music for Masaaki Yuasa’s first big feature, *Mind Game*. I think the work inspired him quite a bit, and he brought back Yuasa to do an episode on the next big series.
*”Lets do our own version of Samurai Cinema from the 40, mix in the late 60’s comedic Samurai TV shows, and smash it all into a modern hip hop style.”*
Though often overlooked compared to Cowboy Bebop, this series finds that perfect mesh of culture that makes both great. Our cultural touchstone of Star Wars and the western hero’s journey makes Bebop very appealing. On the flip side, Japan’s cultural identity with samurai and their long film history in the genre, is shown beautifully in Champloo.
We’re treated to a nice cast of characters with solid histories, good characterization and great charisma together. The action is some of the best sword play and movement I’ve encountered, the other note-able example being Sword of the Stranger. The journey they take is of a relaxed structure, allowing for small adventures and at times separation. This all follows the structure of Japan’s Chanbera history of slow paced, introspective films, and the fights call back to the great Samurai Film era’s of the 40’s and 50’s.
Watanabe lands another amazing series, one perhaps surpassing Bebop for many Japanese fans, and solidifies his aesthetic of story. At this point though, I find that Watanabe’s inspiration hit a wall. His next series was his first un-original story, following that with somewhat rehashed idea’s. Maybe because Watanabe was never a really big mangaka, nor an animator, and his background comes from a love of music and the world around him.
From this point on, I actually tend to consider Sayo Yamamoto the spirit of Watanabe’s career. She worked on Champloo, and many other series, with Watanabe and carries on his style. Storyboard for Death Note, making the fantastic Michiko to Hatchin, and Lupin the Third: Fujiko. Yamamoto continue’s this path of a director that I thought Watanabe should follow, even making series that *feel* like he is at the helm. She’s moved on to mainly OP/ED work, animation direction, and storyboards, but hopefully she’ll return with a new series soon.
Watanabe on the other hand, worked for a bit trying to find his next big inspiration, doing some side work on Eureka Seven and Noein. As well as handling music for Michiko to Hatchin and Lupin the Third, perhaps wanting to have a more relaxed work load, perhaps just enjoying being able to work with Yamamoto and Yuasa again.
Eventually he did another anthology series, Genius Party, making the short *Baby Blue.* In it, you can see aspects of the work that will eventually become *Terror in Resonance*. I highly recommend the whole party as each short is amazing in it’s own right.
Kids on the Slope
*”Lets make Jazz the Animation!”*
Perhaps refreshed from the new anthology, or hyped on Jazz from Mitchiko to Hatchin, Watanabe returned after 8 years to make another series. This time he looks to a Manga series, which limited his ability to change the story, but the end suffers a bit due to him skipping over what he thought unimportant.
The direction is fun, but Watanabe has never had the best grasp of a complete character. In Kids on the Slope, we follow a semi-standard high school romance that is entertaining, but fails to meet the mark in many areas. In Watanabe’s other series, we never enter a story that expects us to understand the characters, usually leaving the details murky and focusing on just a portion of their journey. This is felt prominently here, with some characters feeling odd at times, and emotional moments not landing with that same overwhelming sense of his other works. A slight miss overall.
Do not think this means the series is a failure mind you, this series is great! Watanabe loves jazz, and the whole series jams with him. You can *feel* how much fun he is having. The music, the jam sessions.
The best Bromance ever, Watanabe is having a ball!
*”I got nothing”*
This might seem harsh, especially because both of these series are pretty good. Watanabe just seems to be lacking a truly inspiring idea. Terror re-visits the ideas and themes from Animatrix and Genius Party, while Space Dandy is set in the Cowboy Bebop universe. Instead of dedicating himself to a grand new series, he uses this time to work with other artists and make his own anthology series.
Terror in Tokyo features a lot of what makes Watanabe great. A solid mystery aspect, characters with solid chemistry and interesting histories, good story structure, and a solid moral question. Perhaps due to working on both this and developing Space Dandy at the same time, the series sees the return of weak character understanding, and the story ends up feeling muddled at times, especially near the end. Watanabe cares not for details though, he knows how to make characters with chemistry and knows how to make a scene.
Like his previous series, Kids, Watanabe’s series fall short of a truly great series.
Space Dandy on the other hand is Watanabe’s personal anthology, bringing in all his favorite artists and letting them go wild with the Bebop style. Each episode features a different Episode, Script, Storyboard, Music, and Animation Director, brought in to explore little stories and show off their skills.
Ultimately I think both series are entertaining, and can hold their own as a blockbuster for the season they air. Watanabe just can’t seem to reach that next level of genre mixture and story that started his career.
Watanabe is a man of vision, with a skilled touch at melding story, music, theme, and entertainment. Though I only consider 3 series to truly be his work, each one stands as an iconic work within their genre. Hopefully we can look forward to another series from him in the near future, with a bit more focus.