It is no secret that current American culture has a heavy Asian influence, and a large part of that influence can be tracked back to Japan. We have a strong hunger for their media, and as such it isn’t uncommon for Americans to have their favorite Japanese directors in film and TV. Ask around and your bound to here Akira Kurosawa’s name dropped, kaiju fans might say Ishiro Honda, somebody might try and throw you a curve-ball and say Takashi Miike, and you are for sure going to hear Hayao Miyazaki’s name a dozen times.
While these are all fine and valid answers, if somebody asks me who I think is the best, the only name you are going to hear is Shinichiro Watanabe.
Watanabe, for those who don’t know is the man that brought us Macross Plus (co-director), Cowboy BeBop, Samurai Champloo, the anime adaptation of Kids on the Slope, Space Dandy, and Terror in Resonance. His works blend eastern and western culture to create an audio and visual fusion dish that tastes great no matter where you are from. Cowboy BeBop, his most well known and well received work to this day, blends the sci-fi, western, film noir, exploitation, and Kung-Fu genres together just to name a few.
Unless you were there when BeBop first hit America on Adult Swim, you may have no clue how big of a deal this was. Many young people (myself included) thought they knew anime and what it was only to have our minds blown the second we heard Yoko Kanno’s brilliant opening theme, Tank, start blasting in our ears. Here was this thing that was totally alien and yet immediately identifiable to western audiences. Total culture shock. To this day, Cowboy BeBop is seen as one of the great gateways into anime as it has a little something for everybody.
Watanabe doesn’t see borders where it comes to influences. the information age has made media from many cultures more and more available every day and Watanabe has made his bones by delivering some of the most well executed stuff from this new world of ingredients. His stuff never loses its sense of self and his own cultural identity, but he never feels he has to limit himself to them. Many folks compare Watanabe with Quentin Tarantino given their natures not to play by anybody’s rules and blend genres as they please.
While Cowboy BeBop, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy seem to be shooting for a more international audience, Kids on the Slope and Terror of Resonance are more tuned to a Japanese only audience while still pulling from western culture (jazz and the rock n’ roll of the 60’s for KOTS and large sections purposely spoken in English for TOR).
In a career that has hip-hop samurai in the Edo period and a coming of age story in a thriller about a terrorist group what, if anything can be seen as a constant about Watanabe’s themes or methods?
One major thing is that he uses music as much of a storytelling device as any other tool in his arsenal. This goes throughout his works, but especially when it comes to his action scenes. They play out almost as music videos, letting the music and animation drive the story with little to no dialogue or even in some cases foley. This is why he has often paired with Kanno, who is regarded as one of the best, if not the best in her field. Watanabe and Kanno are true collaborators of the highest order.
Another thing that seems to to run throughout his work despite all the lightheartedness and humor is a sense of bleakness. Fatalism is not an uncommon trait for his characters. Their pasts haunt and often hound them. Very few characters in Watanabe’s works get what they want and those that do often find their reward hollow and without meaning. That said, no matter what emotional hell he’s just put his characters and the audience through, there is always a sense that a new a better future is just over the horizon. Humanity goes on and keeps moving forward. His works leave you wistful and yet hopeful for the future at the same time. Not many directors can do that once, let alone across their careers.
At the heart of my love for Watanabe is his ability to create art that speaks to and pulls from all the cultures of the world without watering them down. Each piece is unique and has an identity all its own and everything is a complete experience in itself.
Perhaps if I get the chance I’ll come back and go over each series in greater detail, but for now and the sake of this thing ever seeing print (or post I guess, this being the internet and all) I’d better start to wrap things up. If all you’ve ever seen from the man is Cowboy BeBop, you owe it to yourself to check out the rest of his stuff, even you haven’t even experienced BeBop, well I suggest getting out from under that rock and fixing that toot sweet.
So Watanabe is my favorite, but who is yours? Let us know in the comments below what creators and creations from the land of the rising sun are near and dear to your heart and why.
See You Space Cowboy.