Within the world of Japanese animation, there are few individuals more prolific than Watanabe Shinichiro. This fact has become so prevalent in fact, that the term ‘anime’ has almost become synonymous with a majority of his series — many citing shows such as “Cowboy Bebop,” “Samurai Champloo,” and even his more recent “Space Dandy” as their introduction to the world of Japanese animation. As such, the opportunity for us to spend the evening with such an influential creator wasn’t something to be taken lightly, and over a series of both text and video interviews, we’ll be dwelling deep into the mind of Watanabe Shinichiro.
Sitting down with Watanabe, we spoke about his upbringings in the anime industry, as well as looked back at his long-history of creations and ideas. You can find our full text interview below:
OTAQUEST: Watanabe Shinichiro, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Kicking things off, you originally found your footing in the industry as an anime producer at ‘Nippon Sunrise.’ Of all the other active studios existent during that time, why was it you chose to work there?
Watanabe: I felt like Sunrise was a studio that actively sought to animate original works, rather than adaptations of pre-existing manga series. If I was going to get into the animation industry, I wanted to create my own works rather than adopting someone else’s series.
OTAQUEST: Up until you joined Sunrise, were you studying anime production?
Watanabe: I self-studied pretty much everything I know about movie production and direction on my own accord. I read plenty of books on both film techniques and technology, where I then learned basics such as the 180-degree rule of camera positioning, frame-right, and frame-left.
As for storyboarding, I learned a lot of that after entering the industry by looking at and mimicking the works of others. There was no proper education system to instruct directors in the anime industry at the time.
OTAQUEST: During that early period of time, were their any creatives who really caught your attention?
Watanabe: Kazuki Akane was kind of a friendly rival of mine — he originally debuted as a director with “The Vision of Escaflowne” at Sunrise in 1996. Even now we occasionally help each other out with projects.
OTAQUEST: Were there any anime directors that you derived a lot of inspiration from, or even those from whom you took reference from?
Watanabe: The director whom I have taken the most personal inspiration from would have to be Masaaki Osumi, who worked on the original “Lupin the Third” TV series. When the series debuted, it had a very adult tone and feel, which wasn’t bringing in the desired ratings, so he was removed from the project. He also assisted in directing the TV series “Moomin,” and it wasn’t until I myself became an adult that I realized he worked on both.
Since entering the anime industry, I also found myself influenced by Ryousuke Takahashi, who was a part of Sunrise’s third studio and best known for his work on “Armored Trooper VOTOMS.” I learned from him that I shouldn’t rely solely on my own ability to create — I needed to learn to rely more on my staff and their abilities, all while fostering their skills at the same time. For a job done as a team, especially something like the creation of anime, that is of great importance.
OTAQUEST: It was finally time in 1994 for you to take to the stage with your directorial debut on “Macross Plus.” Can you tell us a little bit about why you were selected to helm such a popular series?
Watanabe: At that time director Kawamori Shoji was producing a film called “Mime” at Sunrise, and it was because of our shared workspace that we originally became acquainted. Unfortunately, however, that film was shelved, but soon after planning for “Macross Plus” began. He approached me and asked if I’d be up for the task.
OTAQUEST: After Kawamori stopped working on “Mime,” his break from the anime industry was an extremely hot topic amongst fans, wasn’t it?
Watanabe: It was pretty major news. One of the main reasons I accepted the “Macross Plus” offer was to help him make a comeback. Another reason, though, was that I was an episode director at the time, and I felt that I still wasn’t given the freedom I needed to create something of my own. I wanted to be involved with the creative process of something all the way from the beginning.
OTAQUEST: Having done just that, you moved on to work on your very first project you could truly call your own — “Cowboy Bebop.” Can you tell us a little bit about the circumstances that lead to this moment?
Watanabe: Masahiko Minami, who is now the president of Studio Bones, was someone I had known for quite some time. He approached me to ask if I had any good ideas for a new project, and after about 2-3 days of deliberating, something I had thrown together over the course of an hour known only as “Bebop” surfaced. Usually, the things that are quickly slapped together become the big hits, rather than the ones you would painstakingly deliberate on.
Around the same time, there was a very real buzz on the streets in regards to a “Star Wars” revival which had everyone excited. This piqued the interest of Bandai’s toy division in producing something with spaceships as a central element — they thought both the series and affiliated merchandise would sell well. That’s why the offering of my “Bebop” project was taken.
OTAQUEST: At that time it almost felt like robots were a given within the sci-fi genre, but there were few works in the world of anime that delved into the realm of spacecrafts. Because of that, daring to switch was quite a large risk for them, wasn’t it?
Watanabe: It definitely was, and they weren’t very happy with the way we ended up portraying the world of “Cowboy Bebop” either. Around the time we were producing the fourth episode, they actually pulled their sponsorship because they didn’t think such a dark and subdued portrayal of spacecrafts would do any favors to their toy sales. We even considered canceling production after that whole drama, but Bandai’s main film production company Bandai Visual swooped-in to save the project.
OTAQUEST: Looking back on it, it’s absolutely crazy to think that during the first airing of “Cowboy Bebop” in Japan, only the first 12 of 26 episodes were actually broadcasted.
Watanabe: Before the broadcast even began — during the production of the first few episodes, there were a lot of internal stakeholders saying things like “This show is too adult, there’s no way this will work” and “It’s just too pretentious,” as well as other cold things. These very same people began to change their attitudes when the show did manage to grow a following, where they then started saying things like “Oh, I always knew it would sell!” (Laughs) In a sense, it was accepted that things may have changed since the airing of the original “Lupin the Third” series.
OTAQUEST: When do you think the way people viewed “Cowboy Bebop” started to change?
Watanabe: Hmm, when was it that people’s views started to change? To this day, I really couldn’t tell you why “Cowboy Bebop” gained popularity and began selling; even now I still think it went way over budget. If “Cowboy Bebop” had failed, I guarantee I’d be working at a ramen shop by now. I’d be the type of ramen shop owner to get overly fussy regarding minor details and things like ingredients. (Laughs)
Anyway, we’ve spoken a bit about all these moments of misery, so why don’t we talk about something a little more fun?
OTAQUEST: Well, usually when the name “Cowboy Bebop” is mentioned, there’s another name that’s brought up alongside it — Yoko Kanno. Can you tell us a little bit about her, and why you appointed her as the series’ composer?
Watanabe: I first met Yoko during the days of “Macross Plus,” and at that time it was almost as if she was a total newcomer. That being said, however, I too was still a complete newcomer to the project I was about to face. Taking on the role of director — it felt like we had the whole world in front of us. We were also pretty much the same age, and it was almost like we could be comrades-in-arms, so to speak.
I reached out to Yoko for the project, but when I told her the details she actually indicated that she was likely going turn the offer down because she wasn’t a big fan of jazz. If things really did go that way, and she wasn’t involved, then “Tank!” would have never seen the light of day, and “Cowboy Bebop” may never have realized its full potential. (Laughs)
OTAQUEST: So you’re saying that even though she wasn’t a passionate fan of the jazz genre, she was able to produce such an amazing soundtrack?
Watanabe: As a result of this, however, I feel as though a genuine synergy between both music and video was created. She inspired me to create songs that I didn’t ask for, and I was inspired by her music to make scenes that I originally didn’t even plan.
OTAQUEST: Can you elaborate on that last part a little bit?
Watanabe: For example, the scene at the end of episode five where Spike falls from the window was inspired by the song “Green Bird,” and was made without having originally been ordered. It’s fair to say “Cowboy Bebop” is full of such occurrences, and that the project’s music budget may have gone well overboard. (Laughs)
OTAQUEST: Was that even allowed?
Watanabe: Normally that would have raised a lot of red flags, but “Cowboy Bebop” definitely wasn’t an ordinary project.
OTAQUEST: I guess “Cowboy Bebop” just had that sort of power, right?
Watanabe: It honestly wasn’t just the content of “Cowboy Bebop” that was out of the ordinary — the whole production and the circumstances surrounding it were all pretty non-standard.
OTAQUEST: I’d dare suggest that non-standard feeling has almost become a recurring theme in all of your works, with one of the better examples being the more recent “SpaceDandy.”
Watanabe: I feel like “Cowboy Bebop” was a project full of content that I wanted to create — it felt as though it was a series full of my own personal color. On the flipside, however, “SpaceDandy” was the bi-product of a more diverse pool of talent and thought. Everyone involved was having a good time piecing together the show in their own little way.
For the longest time, I felt as though “SpaceDandy” had a totally different color to mine. Looking back on it now though, I do realize there is a fair amount of my own color too.
OTAQUEST: On the topic of that pool of talent; how did you go about choosing such a diverse team of staff for the project?
Watanabe: When the time to assemble the staff of “SpaceDandy” arrived, I reached out to absolutely everyone I had ever wanted to work with, regardless of whether we were acquainted or not. The world of anime is quite wide, and it was through this project I met a long list of individuals; both industry veterans and newcomers alike.OTAQUEST: Your most recent animated work, “Blade Runner Black Out 2022,” released just a short while ago. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Watanabe: It was right after the offer came in to work on a “Blade Runner” spinoff that I decided the rewatch the original film. It was through this viewing that I came to remember just how influential it was in my entire career as a creator. During the entire production process, I felt an immense pressure given the enormous expectations that come with the “Blade Runner” title. The schedule was extremely tight too, so that didn’t help.
I knew that if I hadn’t taken the job, however, that some other director would come around and mess it up. (Laughs) To put that another way, if it did end up failing, it would be my own personal failure — I didn’t want that pinned on someone else. (Laughs)
Even though I mentioned that pressure, however, I was able to convince myself it didn’t really matter in the end. Compared to the original film and Denis Villeneuve’s continuation, my work wasn’t as big a deal. It was after I realized this that I was able to work without hesitation and tell the story I wanted to tell.
Though the blackout incident is mentioned in “Blade Runner 2049,” it’s only in conversation, which is where my work was meant to complement the film. Taking that into consideration, I began developing my script while consolidating with members of the “Blade Runner 2049” staff and even ended up going to the set of the film for a meeting. It was there that I was able to examine not just the scenery and set, but also show my work to Denis Villeneuve and the director of photography, Roger Deakins. That was an incredible moment.
OTAQUEST: Wrapping things up, as a veteran anime director, are there any issues that you have with the modern anime industry? What do you think will become of the industry going forward?
Watanabe: As of late we’re finally seeing the upper-limits of a business model that relies too heavily on consumer video disc sales. I also firmly believe we’re seeing too much similar work within the same genres. Now, however, with the advent of services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, we’re seeing a tremendous change in the way content is delivered. Similarly so, the Japanese animation industry is having to undergo some equally massive changes as well.
I feel as though it’s become easier to take greater risks with our projects, and that’s something I think is a great direction for the industry to be heading. On top of that, I’ve also been thinking — hand-drawn animation has a charm that you can’t simply replace. It’s become a global dependency to utilize the power of CG animation, but it’s no longer being done in moderation. I just hope more young people — both in Japan and internationally — can learn to adore the world of hand-drawn animation even more so.
If you’re interested in checking out even more about the life of Shinichiro Watanabe, as well as all of the incredible achievements he has earned, be sure to stay tuned for even more content in the coming weeks. For now, be sure to check out some of our past interviews with creatives such as “Yuri!!! on ICE” creator Sayo Yamamoto, “One-Punch Man” director Natsume Shingo and plenty more, here.