When it comes to industry veterans, there are few people who could be considered as close to Shinichiro Watanabe as Dai Sato. From his inclusion in many of Watanabe’s works such as “Cowboy Bebop”, “Samurai Champloo”, and “Space☆Dandy” as a scriptwriter, Dai Sato’s work is tightly woven into Shinichiro Watanabe’s legacy as a creator. With our focus for the month being Shinichiro Watanabe, we sat down for a discussion with Dai Sato to find out even more about the elusive presence of Watanabe as a creator.
OTAQUEST: The relationship between yourself and Shinichiro Watanabe is very long-reaching. Could you tell us a little bit about where the two of you met for the first time?
Dai Sato: I originally was working on “Macross Plus” (1994), which was Watanabe Shinichiro’s first directed production; at the time I was writing the lyrics for the music featured in it. In terms of working together, that was the first time, but I had actually met him once before when he was handling anime direction on “Mobile Suit Gundam0083 Stardust Memory” in 1991 while working as a magazine writer. I run a techno label and DJ, and Watanabe knew about my written work and the label, so we started to get along. When we started working on “Cowboy Bebop”, he asked me to think about the setting and culture of the universe, for example, how drugs would work and the network of the future.
OTAQUEST: So it was through your shared love of music that you really met?
Dai Sato: Yes. In “Macross Plus” there’s a subtle Aphex Twin logo in one of the scenes, and I couldn’t help but wonder who put it in there. I was friends with the designer of the logo, Nicholson, so I reached out to him and found out it was Watanabe who put it in, though he did it without getting permission. He’s really into techno, he used to go digging at a record store called CISCO in the Shibuya area at the time. Music is the reason we become friends, honestly.
I started seriously getting involved in anime production with “Cowboy Bebop”. Watanabe and Keiko Nobumoto, who was the series organizer for “Cowboy Bebop”, were the first people to reach out to me and say “Would you like to write a script for an anime?”. Before that, we were just music friends, though he was the one who led me into the anime industry.
OTAQUEST: When creating a production like “Cowboy Bebop” and “Samurai Champloo”, what is the creative process between yourself and Shinichiro Watanabe like?
Dai Sato: Basically, we chat a whole lot. We’ll kick things off with a casual conversation about the music we’ve been listening to recently, and then from that the image of the production and story starts to flow.
OTAQUEST: Was this the same for “Cowboy Bebop”?
Dai Sato: Yes. It has the music essence of The Rolling Stones and Queen, while the first episode has the stylings of a Sam Peckinpah film. The world within the series was created through our discussions of American film, music, and the Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra.
OTAQUEST: I wouldn’t have thought such a project could come to life through such conversations.
Dai Sato: I’m sure the staff around us were probably thinking “What are they talking about; this has nothing to do with work?”. We don’t really discuss how the story should be or what we should do; when we were working on “Cowboy Bebop”, we’d have meetings just to listen to our new records.
OTAQUEST: Almost like conversations between two highschool students.
Dai Sato: Watanabe would bring his analog records to my office, and I’d bring my records from home, and when we would sit down and listen to one another’s records we’d just say “This sounds good”.
OTAQUEST: So how would you say this ties into the creation of a series?
Dai Sato: Perhaps something in the director’s head gets inspired by such idle discussions. Through talking about our favorite things, the gears start turning for settings and the story. Of course, there were moments where I’d turn in writings and we’d talk specifics about the series, but I don’t really remember doing that. We’ve done that from the beginning all the way through to “Space☆Dandy”.
OTAQUEST: Throughout all your years working together, were there ever any moments of creative conflict?
Dai Sato: When I’m brought on for a project, I don’t have anything in particular that I want to do. It’s about getting ideas from Watanabe during our discussions, and building upon them. Because of this, there’s not really much room for conflict. For “Samurai Champloo” I had seen scripts from different writers, so I suggested that if we’re going to be utilizing Hip-Hop culture, I wanted to include tagging and graffiti, as well as things like Basquiat and Warhol. Sometimes I’ll get asked to contribute my own ideas.
It’s like submitting a demo record. If Watanabe likes it, it’ll be chosen. If it doesn’t catch his interest, I just accept that it’s not right, so we don’t really have any conflict.
Since I started working as a scriptwriter, I’ve worked with a wide array of directors, but Watanabe’s got something special that I’ve never experienced with anyone else, especially when talking about demo records. We continue talking as if to expand on a good track. Things like “this verse is good” or “this mellow sound fits right”, but all the while Watanabe has an overall idea in his mind. I see him as a conductor, so other people might have different experiences.
OTAQUEST: If given the chance to work with Shinichiro Watanabe again, what type of script would you want to write?
Dai Sato: It won’t happen unless Watanabe approaches me with another offer, but when I do work with him, I always think carefully about what type of music he wants. When we were working on “Space☆Dandy”, he described the series as a music festival. He expanded by saying that we’d be working with different scriptwriters, artists, and directors on each episode, kind of like the lineup for a good music festival. Then he gave me a CD with some of his favorite songs that he had put together with his layout in mind. When listening to the CD, I understood immediately just what kind of world he wanted to create. If another offer was to come, we’d definitely start from the music and work our way out.
OTAQUEST: Well, now we’ve just got to wait for that next CD.
Dai Sato: From that CD I’ll imagine just what he wants, and when I present it to him, we see if it’s the same vision he had. Watanabe is a conductor, and I’m like a player of a musical instrument — maybe a synthesizer. When he asks me to make a certain sound, I play the keys he wants to hear.
OTAQUEST: As I’m sure you’re aware, for the month of November OTAQUEST is focusing on Shinichiro Watanabe as a director. We’re setting out to showcase the true Shinichiro Watanabe as a person, breaking through his elusive personality.
Dai Sato: It’s my own personal opinion, but regardless of how much you know about Watanabe, there’s always going to be a level to his productions that you won’t understand.
OTAQUEST: Can you elaborate on this a bit?
Dai Sato: Watanabe rarely appears in front of the media, and it’s even rarer for him to accept interviews. Even if we ask him questions about his production, he’ll just say the answer lies within the finished product. It’s about what we feel while watching his works, and there can be multiple answers to any question. It doesn’t matter who made it, it’s about how people feel throughout their viewings — that’s how I believe he thinks.
OTAQUEST: Do you think he wants people to understand the theme of his productions?
Dai Sato: I think so, but if you were to ask him about it he’d probably say something like “Don’t ask me to explain it”. If people don’t understand what is trying to be expressed when watching a series, that means the product is a failure in terms of expression. It’s the same music and film where it’s not something you can necessarily put to words as to how you want someone to feel. It’s like the Bruce Lee quote, “Don’t think. Feel.”. There are messages, attitudes, and spirit being delivered, but if the director themself explains it, you’re going to have a biased answer. What I’m looking at might be biased too, however.
OTAQUEST: Has Shinichiro Watanabe ever been disappointed by his viewers? Say, if he had an expectation for a project that people would enjoy it but it gets turned over?
Dai Sato: I don’t want to cause any problems by answering this incorrectly, but I can give an example. When I was in elementary school, I spent a lot of time listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra. They were truly a group that never explained anything. It was hard enough to understand the titles of their songs, but all of the sampling sources and logo design were all constructivism. It was too hard for kids to understand, but I thought it was cool, and I liked it. It would be good to look back at it in 10 to 20 years and think “Oh, that’s what that meant”. There are things like this in “Cowboy Bebop”, “Samurai Champloo”, and even “Carole & Tuesday”. There’s time to enjoy it now, and time to understand it years later. I think Watanabe believes his viewers will understand his productions at some point in time.
OTAQUEST: Jumping back, so it’s the director’s role to never answer with a “Yes” or “No”.
Dai Sato: This is why there are moments where it doesn’t sit right talking about works with him, there’s still so much about his productions people don’t yet understand. But I really do think Watanabe is an extremely cool person. He’s got such a personality whenever we go to anime festivals together. He’ll finish up an autograph session then look over at me and say “Let’s go to a record store” or “Let’s go to the clubs”. It’s been 20 years and he still hasn’t changed.
OTAQUEST: I still fondly remember before he went to Australia a couple of years ago for a convention, he shot me an email asking about what clubs I recommend, and what the best record shops in the area were so he could check them out.
Dai Sato: It was like that when he went to Chile. He contacted me and said, “Clubs in Chile are insane!”. When he went to Denver the other day, he said he was going to go out of his way to go to Chicago, and when I asked why, he said it was to dig some records. He’s still extremely charming like that. If there wasn’t music as a middle ground for us, I don’t think we would have been able to be so close for so long. If he invites me to work with him once more, I’ll definitely join.
Following his career as a TV writer and music writer, Dai Sato debuted as a scriptwriter with “Eternal Family” in 1997. It wasn’t until a year later, however, that things really kicked into overdrive for Dai Sato following his involvement in “Cowboy Bebop” in 1998 where he handled stage setting and scriptwriting. Among his many works, his masterpieces include “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” (2002), “Samurai Champloo” (2004), “Psalms of Planets Eureka Seven” (2005), “Freedom” (2006), “Eden of the East” (2009), and “Space☆Dandy” (2014). Dai Sato was also involved in the initial launch of OTAQUEST as a platform.