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Otakon 2013: Press Conference and Public Q&A With Director Shinichiro Watanabe


Shinichiro WatanabeFew figures in the anime industry today can boast of a career as rich as that of Shinichiro Watanabe. A successful screenwriter, music producer and director, Watanabe got his first big directing break co-directing the admired OVA series Macross Plus with Shoji Kawamori before going on to direct the eclectic landmark titles Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. As a director he also worked on the 2012 series Kids on the Slope, as well as select animated shorts for The Animatrix (“Kid’s Story and “A Detective Story”) and Genius Party (“Baby Blue”). As a music producer he was involved in Masaaki Yuasa’s 2004 film Mind Game, Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.

For his next directing role Mr. Watanabe is currently working on Space Dandy from the Japanese animation studio BONES,  a newly announced comedy sci-fi series about an adventurer and his two sidekicks as they travel outer space seeking out undiscovered alien worlds. Click here for Mr. Watanabe’s public introduction of this new series at Otakon. Space Dandy is expected to premiere in January 2014 on Japanese television and as an online broadcast for other viewers.

Sunday morning on August 11th, a press conference was held at Otakon with Mr. Watanabe and studio BONES President Masahiko Minami present. Mr. Watanabe spent an hour taking our questions on Space Dandy, the variety of creative influences on his work, his great passion for music, the experiences of his directing career and more. An edited transcript of the complete press conference Q&A session follows below. Watanabe spoke through a translator.

Q: Space Dandy has similarities to 70s sci-fi anime. Can you tell us if or how much influence Space Adventure Cobra was on production?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: Cobra is an anime that I like very much and I watched it when I was younger. But in terms of influence, I would say Space Dandy is more heavily influenced by even older sci-fi anime. In fact, it’s influenced by numerous old sci-fi movies, so there is no one in particular that influenced [it]. So to be a little more specific, it’s influenced by sci-fi movies in between Forbidden Planet and TRON.

Q: You recently worked with director Sayo Yamamoto as a musical producer on Michiko to Hatchin and with [composer] Naruyoshi Kikuchi on Lupin the 3rd: The Woman michikoandhatchinCalled Fujiko Mine. I wonder if you could tell us what you do as a musical producer?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I like music a great deal, so with my anime director roles I generally also play a music director as well. There were some times when I would be looking at somebody else’s work and thinking “oh, this could be so much better if they just did this and that with the music.” So I started playing the role of the music producer for other people’s anime. When I take on the role of the music producer I make sure not to comment on the story or content of the animation, but instead I accept the director’s content of the animation and think about how I can tune the music to make this even better.

Q: Was it difficult to switch from action series like Bebop and Champloo to the more subdued story of Kids on the Slope, and was there anything that was particularly easier or more difficult to do than in your previous work?

KidsontheSlopeGroupSHINICHIRO WATANABE: It wasn’t hard. *room laughter* I always wanted to direct a coming-of-age anime. But because Cowboy Bebop was such a success and because Cowboy Bebop was an action anime, all of the offers that came to me were action-based. So I didn’t get an opportunity to work on a coming-of-age anime until now. I always want to challenge myself by taking on directing roles for anime of a genre I’ve never done before. Space Dandy is going to be my attempt at taking on the comedy genre, which is something I’ve never done before.

Q: This is your first time since Cowboy Bebop: The Movie that you’ve come back to BONES as a director. What was it like going back to the studio after so many years?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: You know, the President of BONES is sitting right next to me. *room laughter* BONES is wonderful! *more laughter* Please also ask the President of BONES, Mr. Minami, how it is to work with me again.

MASAHIKO MINAMI: He’s a wonderful director! *room laughter*

TOONZONE NEWS: Space Dandy is getting so much creative talent back together that worked on Cowboy Bebop, and that show had its fair share of humor in addition to everything else. Since Space Dandy is more of a comedy, can you talk about the kind of approach to humor viewers can expect compared to Bebop?CowboyBeBopMoviePoster

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: With Cowboy Bebop, it was 80% serious story and 20% humorous touch. Space Dandy is the opposite. With Space Dandy 80% is as far from serious as you could possibly get, and the other 20% is story of a more serious nature.

Q: One of the most interesting directors in anime is Keiko Nobumoto, who tends to work with you a lot. I’m interested in why she doesn’t seem to work much beyond your work and maybe one or two other things in anime.

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: Out of all the scriptwriters I’ve worked with so far, Keiko is probably the one where we have the best synergy and the best group dynamics. If it were up to me I would have her write a lot more scripts, but she’s a really slow worker. She can only do so much.

Q: I’m interested in the decision to work with Thomas Romain in ship design for Space Dandy. How did you come to the decision to work with him?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I’ve been familiar with his works for some time, and I’ve been very interested in his work and I thought he had a lot of [great] designs.  Unfortunately he’s part of another company, Satellite, so usually we can’t ask him for help with our works. But with Space Dandy, we pulled some strings and got special permission for him to help us out. And the reason we got special permission is apparently because he’s a fan of Cowboy Bebop! Boy, was I thankful I directed Cowboy Bebop. *room laughter*

Q: At yesterday’s Q&A you mentioned that a number of locations inspired you. Can you name a few?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: There’s two in particular that have given me a lot of inspiration. One is Rio de Janeiro, and the other is all the towns I visited in Morocco. So you can see a lot of scenes reminiscent of Morocco in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, and you’ll probably be seeing Rio sometime in the future. I am secretly hoping that they will invite me to the world cup, so please put this in your articles. *laughter*

Q: I know that there’s a big following for Jazz in Japan, and I’m wondering what your first interactions with Jazz were. How did you get into it, and did you do any kind of research into Jazz to decide what to put into Kids on the Slope and Cowboy Bebop?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I don’t remember exactly how I met Jazz, but I remember it was something like – I walked into a record shop and I heard Miles Davis. It really inspired me, it really hit me, I fell in love with it right then and I left the store with a record. So with Kids on the Slope, I didn’t really have a need to study Jazz for the show. If you’ve read the original manga there a number of famous Jazz songs that appear in it, but they were all songs I was already familiar with so I didn’t need to put in any extra research.

Space_DandyKeyVisualQ: Last time when you introduced Space Dandy, you had a lot of characters that you couldn’t get all the way through, and you kinda had to rush through it. Now that you have a little more time to speak, could you talk about a few of the characters in the show that you didn’t have time to flesh out?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I got permission from my boss just now. *room laughter* He’s going to kill me if I say too much, I have to get permission first. So let’s see: with the main character of Space Dandy, what we were aiming for is somebody with no worries. The main character for most anime, they worry about a lot of things and the story revolves around them worrying about stuff. So I was thinking “what if I had a main character who had no worries, what would the story be like?” In everyday life we always have friction with other people and we find ourselves worrying way too much about the smallest things. Dandy is: what if you had somebody who didn’t worry about any of those stupid things at all? It’s kind of an ideal in itself that we’re trying to pursue with Dandy. He is someone who operates on the scale of the universe, so he doesn’t worry about small things.

Q: You’ve probably heard – a few years ago Keanu Reeves was trying to bring a live action Cowboy Bebop to the screen. That project has been put on hold as far as I know. Do you think he would have made a good Spike, and do you think in general anime translates well into a live action movie?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I’d have to go on a diet! So in regards to live action Cowboy Bebop, if I say too much Sunrise is going to get mad at me, so I’ll leave it at that. The one thing I can say is that the project isn’t at a halt. But at the same time, it’s also not moving. *room laughter* Your question regarding live action versions of anime, I think it really depends on the anime. So I think there are works of anime that are easily adaptable to live action, but at the same time there’s certain anime that are best not adapted to live action. To raise one example, there’s a certain dragon something!

Q: Your work and your directing style is unlike anything that’s currently being made in anime. I’m interested, if you ever watch anime recreationally, what do you look for lupin-iiiand what do you like besides everything from films?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: This is a hard question to answer. An anime series that has most inspired me was the first TV series for Lupin the 3rd. But there are many seasons and many TV series for Lupin the 3rd, so please be specific – Lupin the 3rd, the first TV series.

TOONZONE NEWS: Music is such an important part of your work in the past. For Space Dandy, can you talk about the kind of musical approach you’ll be taking this time and what role it will play in the show?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: With Dandy, we’ve asked numerous artists to contribute music to the show, instead of just one. I imagine you’ll have about 20 different artists working on the show. We’ve taken on the style of asking for 3 to 4 from each artist, and getting many artists to work on the show. All of the artists we have working on the show, of course, are my favorite artists. So I think we’ll have a great variety of music on the show. But there is one thing I ask of every artist who is making music for the show, and that one request is to not use any instruments invented after 1984! I think the music on the show is going to be a little old school and retro.

Q: With so many artists working on the show, how do you keep everybody on track and unified so it sounds like one cohesive thing? Or do you want it zany and off-the-wall?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE:  When we ask them to help us out on the show, we specifically request that they use a specific style. All of the artists we’re asking to help us on the show are musicians I personally like, so there won’t be any music that I dislike. Now the musicians who are helping us, my boss is telling me I can’t tell you their names, so it’s still a secret for now.

SamuraiChamplooGroupQ: A previous artist that you worked with on Samurai Champloo who recently passed away was Jun “Nujabes” Seba. Can you tell us what it was like working with him on that project, now that he’s no longer with us?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: The composer Nujabes was the first name that came to mind when I thought of creating music for Samurai Champloo, so I think we were able to perform a great, spectacular collaboration together. I had a dialogue with him after we finished working on the show. Until then, he had been working almost exclusively in Japan, but after Samurai Champloo he got a lot of great positive feedback from many people outside of Japan, so he was very happy with that. We had been talking about collaborating on work again in the future, but that’s impossible now that he’s passed away. I’m very sad that we won’t be able to work together in the future.

Q: You were heavily influenced by Hollywood films and your projects often use techniques associated with storytelling in live-action film. So my question is, what attracts you to animation as opposed to creating live-action films?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: First I’d like to make a correction. I believe you said “Hollywood movie” – that is not accurate. Please allow me to correct you: American movies from the 70s! *room laughter*.  As I said yesterday, when you’re making anime, if you get all of your inspiration from anime then your work – you can’t help but for it to be reminiscent of old anime, and it’s going to lack originality and creativity. So I try to get my inspiration from different genres to help my anime be more creative and original.  But if I were ever to get an opportunity to direct a live action movie, that is something I would be very much interested in doing.

Q: How much of Dandy is inspired by Cowboy Andy? 

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: Are you asking this question because their names sound alike? One comment I’ve gotten from a lot of Cowboy Bebop fans is they wanted to see more Cowboy Andy. So with Space Dandy, we can’t show Cowboy Andy on the show due to intellectual property rights. But I think there will be some episodes in Space Dandy reminiscent of the type of episodes in Cowboy Bebop with Cowboy Andy.

Q: With Kids on the Slope, whose decision was it to draw concert scenes and why was that decision made?SentaroJamming

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: Yes, I was the one who insisted that we do that. All of the anime production staff around me were against it, but I paid no heed to their protests. *room laughter* I’m very particular about the music I use in my works. So there were a lot of performance scenes and I wanted it to look like they were actually performing in those scenes. But animating an actual performance scene is an incredible amount of work. With most anime dealing with music, they don’t actually show the movement of the characters who are performing with the instruments. Instead, they show a lot of stills to portray the image of the characters performing music. But I really dislike that style of animation when performing music, so I decided long ago that if I were ever to animate a musical performance, I would make it look like they were actually performing. Now that I’ve experienced animating a musical performance like that, I understand why nobody else does it. It’s an incredible amount of work.

Q: A lot of your anime feature an explicit blending of Western and Eastern motifs…..is that something that you’re consciously drawn to, or is that something that happens in the kind of stories you like to tell? 

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: I think a lot of it comes unintentionally. Many different cultures come into Japan. For example with movies, you can see many movies from around the world in Japan, so I grew up in an environment where I was exposed to cultures from many different countries. So I think it’s natural that my work reflects many different cultures.

Shinichiro Watanabe to a fan on John Carpenter’s 1974 film “Dark Star” during public Q&A later: “It’s a very dumb movie, so please check it out.”

Q: Besides the obvious choices like Dirty Harry or French Connection or The Samurai, could you recommend some of the 1970s films that you’re a fan of for people check out so they can understand where you’re coming from a little better?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: There are many Dirty Harry movies out there, but – the first one! The Wild Bunch. The Ballad of Cable Hogue. And I also like Don Siegel, the director of Dirty Harry, I like many of his movies. So I’m not sure if I have the U.S titles for these movies correct, but I really like the movie Killers. Another movie where the Japanese title is Caged Mannequin, or Detective Marrigan? And of course there are newer movies that I like also. I also like John Carpenter movies. Space Dandy is greatly influenced by John Carpenter. Do you guys know the movie Dark Star? It’s heavily influenced by that.

YokoKannoQ: I know Yoko Kanno is performing later today. I know you both helped make the music for Cowboy Bebop. How did you work together to make the music?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: First, let me be on the record as saying she does not compose music exactly the way I tell her to. *room laughter* She gets inspired on her own, follows up on her own imagery and comes to me saying “this is the song we need for Cowboy Bebop,” and composes something completely on her own. There were instances where I heard these songs she created for Cowboy Bebop, took inspiration from them and created new scenes for Cowboy Bebop. And then she would be inspired by these new scenes I’d created, they would give her new ideas for music and she’d come to me with even more music. For example, some songs in the second half of the series, we didn’t even ask her for those songs, she just made them and brought them to us. Normally this is unforgivable and unacceptable, but with Cowboy Bebop it was a big hit. So hakuna matata! So it was a game of catch between the two of us in developing the music and creating the TV series Cowboy Bebop.

Q: Increasingly we’re seeing that anime is becoming more and more insular, in that it’s oftentimes made by anime fans for anime fans while you’re making new works for everybody. Do you feel this is a problem for bringing in new people to work on anime?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: My generation of animators are starting to become older and become veterans in the industry, so we consider it important to bring in and nurture younger talent. With staff for Space Dandy, of course there are some younger staff members who have never seen old live action movies. For those people, we forced them to watch Dark Star and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We forcefully make them absorb ideas of a different genre.

Q: I know that BONES has a tendency to sneak a lot of hidden images into its works. Are there plans to continue that tradition in Space Dandy?

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: Let’s ask the President of BONES!

MASAHIKO MINAMI: Of course! But it wouldn’t be a secret if we told you what they are. So the TV series hasn’t started airing yet, but we’ll make sure that it’s something you can enjoy very much.

SHINICHIRO WATANABE: There is one thing I would like to mention about Space Dandy. In each episode they’ll be going to a new planet, so the style of each episode will be very different from episode to episode. With the staff for each episode, for every episode there is a great creator that I respect immensely or a fabulously talented designer. We’re making sure that each episode is unique and that you can enjoy each episode. These creators and designers, they’re generally very busy people and it’s hard to get their time for a project, but if you go up to them and say “Just one episode!” it’s a lot easier to get their time. So you’ll see a great collaboration between multiple creators and designers. Of course, I am just dying to share some of these names with you guys, but my boss to the right, he is saying no. You’ll just have to wait until we slowly announce the staff for each episode.

Following Sunday’s press conference, Mr. Watanabe held the second of two public panels to talk about Space Dandy and to hold a Q&A session with the audience. Here I will recap commentary from Mr. Watanabe that did not overlap with the above Q&A session.

One fan questioned Watanabe on the origin of the canoe-inspired design for Dandy’s spaceship in Space Dandy. Watanabe explained thatDandy really likes Hawaii and knows a lot about Hawaii, but he’s never been to Hawaii. I explained this to Thomas Romain, and Thomas Romain came up with the idea to design the spaceship like a canoe from Hawaii. So designing the spaceship this way was Thomas Romain’s idea. And regarding the Statue of Liberty [spaceship], I did not give him any instructions!”

In regard to the story of his involvement in Masaaki Yuasa’s 2004 film Mind Game, Watanabe had this to say: “Mr. Yuasa, who directed Mind Game, is a good friend of mine, and I was in the same studio as him when he was working on this animation. I was looking over his shoulder while he was coming up with this anime, and I thought it was very interesting. I asked him ‘what kind of music are you going to use for this show?’, and he told me he hadn’t really thought about it, so I generously offered to be the musical producer for his anime. He never really asked me to do the role! But the composer, Mr. Seiichi Yamamoto, he composed some fabulous songs for the anime, so I think the anime turned out really well. This anime, I don’t think it’s well known in the U.S., but it’s a great anime so please check it out. ”

Another fan asked Watanabe if he expected that Cowboy Bebop would be a success in North America, and how he felt about it being a “gateway anime” for so many fans. Watanabe’s answer: “This is something I’ve said many times in the past, but when I was working on Cowboy Bebop,Japanese animation was not very popular outside Japan. So, I never expected it would be so popular in the U.S. It’s been more than 10 years, close to 15 years since Cowboy Bebop aired, but there are still so many fans of the show, and that makes me very happy.”

Watanabe was also asked to talk about the time in his career when he was just starting out in the anime industry, and how he rose to where he is today. “So there are two methods, generally, to becoming an anime director. If you are good at art, you can start out as an artist for an anime and move your way up to becoming a director. A very famous person who took this route is Mr. Hayao Miyazaki. In my case, my art really sucks, so I took a different route. I entered an animation company, Sunrise, as a production manager. The work that I did as a production manager at Sunrise involved driving cars, delivering packages. When an animator was slow in their work, I would call them and threaten them and tell them to hurry up. So the other route is to start off as a production manager, learn about how an anime is created, and then work your way up to becoming a director. In either case,  the normal style is to enter the anime industry slowly, learn about the industry and learn the skills necessary to become a director over a number of years.”

Citing the influence movies of the Western genre had on Cowboy Bebop, another fan asked Watanabe what kind of Western films he enjoyed. “I like Westerns but I generally like the classic Westerns instead of the recent Western movies that have come out. My favorite Western movie is Rio Bravo. So you may recall there was a scene in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, where they go into a drive-in theater and watch a movie. The movie they’re watching was supposed to be Rio Bravo. We wanted to use Rio Bravo for that scene, but when we went to negotiate regarding the intellectual copyrights it took a very long time and we weren’t going to be able to meet the deadline. So instead, we made it an original Western film. And there’s actually another secret to Cowboy Bebop that comes from Western movies. You may know this, but Spike’s two eyes? One of them is a glass eye, and the other is a real eye. And I set it up this way because Western characters, they sometimes have an eyepatch.

In regard to anime that influenced him to get into the anime industry, Mr. Watanabe stated, “There is a movie that was instrumental in my decision to enter the anime industry, and that is Beautiful Dreamer, the second theatrical movie for Urusei Yatsura (from director Mamoru Oshii). I was astounded when I saw that movie. It was made very freely, but it was also a beautiful movie. It really opened by eyes to the limitless possibilities of Japanese animation and made me decide to enter the anime industry.”

Remarking on he presence of “hard sci-fi” in Cowboy Bebop, another fan asked Mr. Watanabe about the science fiction literature he had exposed himself to. “When I was in my teens, I read a lot of sci-fi literature. At the time, my favorite was Philip K. Dick. I also read a lot of sci-fi from Heinlein and Asimov, and James Tiptree Jr (the pseudonym of Alice Bradley Sheldon). These authors were influential in Space Dandy as well.”