In the beginning of February there was an event held in Detroit that was highly anticipated for months. Those who had tickets were excited, those who could not attend cursed their luck. For two hours the international audience for the event was thrilled and entertained. What? Super Bowl? Oh no no no. I’m talking about Shinichiro Watanabe’s visit to Detroit. The creator of such Anime classics as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo was in my town, and I got to see him in person.
Shinichiro Watanabe appeared in Detroit on February 8th as part of his very limited U.S. tour (Michigan and Texas). Watanabe-san and his people requested that there be no audio recordings or photography at the event. I respected their wishes, so you’ll just have to rely on my colorful writing to paint a mental picture for you.
The evening opened with Ian Condry, Professor of Japanese Cultural studies at MIT. He served as the moderator for the panel, in addition to providing some interesting insights. I will hereafter refer to him as the Anime Professor. It’s a grandiose title, but Mr. Condry is both cool enough and knowledgeable enough to deserve it. The Anime Professor provided some interesting trivia about the Samurai Champloo intro in his opening blurb. Apparently the art that scrolls in the background of the intro is from a famous Japanese artist that lived in the 1600s. After that little revelation, the audience was treated to a viewing of the intro animations for both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo on a theater-sized screen.
After the intros, Shinichiro Watanabe himself came out and provided a brief introduction of the Samurai Champloo series. Watanabe-san is a bushy-haired man that looks like he’d be more likely to be a Librarian than an Anime director. As soon as he starts chatting about his craft though, you know he’s the real thing. After the brief introduction, they showed the entire first episode of Samurai Champloo in the original Japanese with subtitles. I was a bit surprised by this considering the probable number of otaku in the audience, but apparently a decent number of people in the crowd had never seen it. It’s always fun to watch a good Anime in a large group anyway. I’ve seen the episode many times but seeing it with hundreds of others was a new experience for me.
When the episode concluded, the Anime Professor came back out and introduced the other panelists. The Detroit News’ Anime reviewer Eric Henrickson was there, providing some local flavor (I didn’t know the DetNews even HAD Anime reviews). For me, the surprise guest of the night was Jonathan Nawrocki. Jonathan is one of the organizers of the Dallas AnimeFest event. He’s acted as a translator for Japanese Anime and Manga creators in the past, but I was still pleasantly surprised to see someone from the Anime Convention crowd in such esteemed company. Jonathan acted as interpreter for Watanabe-san and he did a stellar job of it. If I’ve made any errors in quoting/paraphrasing Watanabe-san below, it’s not Jonathan’s fault. Since I couldn’t use my handy dandy micro-recorder I had to draw all this from memory and notes.
Watanabe and Detroit:
Watanabe-san opened the panel session with a brief tale about his connection with Detroit. As an elementary-school kid, young Shinichiro was exposed to the music of a little band known as KISS. The first song he heard was Detroit Rock City. On the cover of the band’s album was a desolate wasteland of a city in flames that he assumed to be Detroit. “That’s Detroit?”, the young Shinichiro thought. “I’m never going there!” But of course he grew older and did indeed visit Detroit. “I’m very glad it’s not like what I saw on that cover” he laughed.
Music was the primary topic of this event. Shinichiro Watanabe’s works are well-known for their excellent use of music. Watanabe himself claims to have more music than he can fit onto his iPod, all from his own gigantic collection of CDs that he burned MP3s from.
In regards to Samurai Champloo and Hip Hop music, Watanabe-san made an interesting comment. Something along the lines of “In the same way a samurai wields a lone sword, a rapper wields a lone microphone.” I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, but it sounded good at the time.
Watanabe-san also spoke highly of legendary composer Yoko Kanno. “Her music is so engaging and beautiful that it often outdid the visuals.” he said. “I had to work in different ways to incorporate her music.” When an audience member inquired about the choice of The Rain for the church scene in Cowboy Bebop: Ballad of Fallen Angels, Watanabe responded “I heard The Rain and started thinking about scenes to go with it. Eventually I came up with that one, in a way you can say that the scene was built for that song.”
During the question and answer session there were a lot of good, intelligent topics brought up by the Anime fans. Several questions focused on the career and art influences that led Watanabe-san on his path.
“When I was getting started in animation, another director told me I should try to become a Director because it’s easy to become an Anime director. It turns out he was right!” Watanabe-san said with a laugh. This was just one of many responses that came with a heavy dose of humor, the same humor that he injects into his Anime.
When asked whether or not his main characters reflect parts of himself he answered: “When I was an assistant animator, I used to be very blunt when critizicing the work of my superiors. I would often criticize their work right in their face. If I didn’t like it I would just come out and say it. This is usually considered to be pretty bad, obviously! I guess my own unconventional attitude has a lot to do with how Spike and Mugen act.”
“Enter the Dragon and Dirty Harry were two films that influenced Cowboy Bebop” Watanabe later revealed. He also gave some insight into Spike’s missing eye. “In the Cowboy Western films, there was always a tough guy with an eyepatch and a missing eye. I wanted to do something like that to help give Cowboy Bebop a Western feel.”
Another audience member asked for Watanabe-san’s thoughts on LucasFilm using the “Anime style” for the Clone Wars cartoon series. “When we were starting out in Anime, we were influenced by Disney.” Watanabe replied. “But we didn’t have the budget for hundreds of animators, so we cut our animation costs however we could by using pans and things. We still couldn’t create that high level of animation though, so we focused on the story instead. Now we have LucasFilm, a very rich company, emulating a style that was created to reduce costs.” He said with a chuckle. “Very strange!!”
Watanabe on Violence:
One of the panelists asked about the level of violence in Watanabe’s works, in particular the end of Cowboy Bebop. Watanabe replied that the stories “aren’t about violence. They’re really about life and death. The characters, after all, are just animated ink. To really get the story across I have to make the audience care about them. They have to live, and die.”
“I’m surprised you think the ending of Cowboy Bebop is dark.” Watanabe added with a smirk. “I mean, Spike might just be sleeping.”
Oh Watanabe-san, you tease.
On Anime Downloads:
This was the inevitable topic. Fansub downloads are a controversial topic among the anime fans, but Watanabe-san didn’t seem to be primarily concerned with the piracy aspect. Instead he was more concerned with the artistic and technical quality of his work being maintained. “I spend a lot of time on the colors and sounds in my work.” he said. “If you’re viewing the shows in low quality on a small screen like a computer, then it’s not really my work.”
At this point the Anime Professor asked a pretty funny, but still relevant question. “Okay, so what if I downloaded a really good quality version, then decided to buy it?”
“Well, I can’t tell you what to do.” Watanabe-san replied. “But obviously if you don’t buy the work, the companies that support me don’t get paid, then I don’t get money, then I can’t make more Anime.”
One of the audience members later asked if Watanabe-san would support technology that would make micropayments and pay-to-download services possible for Anime.
“If there were a mechanism that ensured that everyone involved got compensated, I would be okay with that.” Watanabe mused. “But as I mentioned earlier, I’d rather have people watch the work on a big screen with a good sound system.”
The new stuff:
While answering several different questions about his current and future work, Watanabe-san revealed that he’s currently working on a compilation movie called Genius Party. Watanabe himself admits that he dislikes the title, but he can’t get anyone to change it.
Genius Party is similar in structure to the Animatrix (which Watanabe contributed to). It’s apparently a group of different Anime shorts combined into one film. Watanabe-san’s story will be a “boy meets girl” tale. He admits that this might seem odd coming from him, but he insists that it’s really just a boy-meets-girl story and nothing more. Watanabe-san also casually mentioned that he had received an “offer” to do a Live Action Film, so that could be in his future as well.
Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow:
After a long and joyful night, our time with Shinichiro Watanabe was coming to an end. The Anime Professor reserved the last question of the evening for himself (rightfully so). He asked something along the lines of: “If you had all the money you could ever want, what kind of Anime would you create?”
Watanabe’s reply? “Ha! If I had that kind of money I wouldn’t make Anime, I’d run off to some island somewhere!”
Spike Spiegel himself couldn’t have said it better.
When the question and answer session ended Watanabe-san kept the party going by signing autographs. I would’ve stuck around, but the huge crowd showed no signs of diminishing. I got the impression that he was quite happy to get a first hand view of how American fans have embraced him and his work. I also got the impression that my fellow Anime fans were genuinely appreciative of his work and his visit to our fair city. Watanabe-san has a stop planned at Michigan State University on February 9th then he’s off to Houston for an appearance on February 11th and possibly another on the 12th. If you live in these areas, make sure you go see him!!
Popularity: 12% [?]