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Otakon 2013
Shinichiro Watanabe focus panel

by Justin Sevakis,

Hosted by Loy Fruel, the Q&A Panel with director Shinichiro Watanabe panel started out with a brief slide show of his filmography. Watanabe himself came out on stage and was greeted with a standing ovation. It was his second time at Otakon, he mused, the first being in 1999 when he also traveled with musician Yoko Kanno. There were only 4 Japanese guests that year, he recalled, so he was really amazed at how much the show has grown.

He briefly went over his career history. He got his start in anime industry in the mid 80s, where he worked on more shows than he claimed to be able to name, first as a production manager (also known as an anime runner, the person who badgers the animators for more work and then runs errands picking them up). After that, he spent about 5-6 years as an episode director. His first opportunity to direct a show from scratch was in 1994 on Macross Plus, as co-director with Shoji Kawamori. "Two directors is tough, because they will never agree on absolutely everything, so there were a lot of disagreements and battles," he recalled, noting that the two remain good friends even today. But the point was that he simply couldn't do everything he wanted.

Then came his solo directorial debut, Cowboy Bebop. The project originated with Bandai's toy division as a sponsor, with the goal of selling spacecraft toys. "So long as there's a spaceship in it, you can do whatever you want," he remembers being the only instruction. But upon seeing early footage, it became clear that his idea of "whatever you want" and Bandai's version were not the same. "This will NEVER sell spaceships!" lamented Bandai Toys. They pulled out of the project, leaving it in limbo until sister company Bandai Visual stepped in to sponsor. "If they hadn't, you might be seeing me working the supermarket checkout counter right now," Watanabe joked.

Asked later about the longevity of his work, Watanabe said that during the making of Bebop, he would try to rally the animators by telling them that the show would be something memorable, 10, 20, and even 30 years from then. Some of them were doubtful of that at the time, but now that 15 years have passed, Watanabe is very happy to have been proven right.

Looking at a list of his filmography, Watanabe noted how making many of them was a battle: Bebop was a battle with a toy company, Animatrix was a battle with Hollywood. Samurai Champloo was different, though. "I had as many liberties with that show as I did with Bebop," he noted, adding that since there was no need to merchandise toys with the property, he had pretty much free reign.

When making a story, he begins by creating the characters. For Bebop, "the first image that occurred to me was one of Spike, and from there I tried to build a story around him, trying to make him cool." Similarly, Samurai Champloo started with the image of Mugen, and the story around him was built with the idea of making the guy come alive to the viewer. "They're very real to me, as if they're sitting right next to me."

For his short film entry in the anthology film Genius Party, Baby Blue, it was Watanabe's first-time making a coming-of-age teen story. He'd been wanting to make one for a while, but as his reputation had been built on shows like Bebop and Champloo, he wasn't exactly the first choice for producers wanting to make such projects. Indeed, when he spoke with another veteran anime director, Watanabe was shocked to learn that this director hadn't killed off a single character in his entire career -- ever. "My anime were all bloody massacres!" he laughed. And so Baby Blue was his first story where nobody dies.

Kids on the Slope came next, a few years later. "You'll notice there was a big break in between those projects. You might think I was just kicking back, but actually I was trying to come up with some original projects. Unfortunately none of them came to fruition," he explained. So when he got the offer to do Kids on the Slope, he wanted to try to direct something based on a previously existing manga -- something pretty common for anime, but a first for him. "The manga really touched me, largely because it was about boys playing jazz music. I love jazz, so I thought, I can't let just any director make this show, I need to step up to the plate and make it myself!" Asked later about his frame of mind with the show, he noted that it was very different than with creating an original work. "My goal was to bring out what I liked most about the manga. Had it not been such a great manga, I might have just ignored it and made whatever I wanted."

His least favorite part of being a director? What a tough job it is, and how hard he has to work. "I was even working on the entire flight here," he said. But that was counteracted by the best part of his job: fans telling him how much they love his work.

Many of Watanabe's anime is scored by Yoko Kanno. He met her for the first time when she was assigned to work on Macross Plus. "She's famous now, but at the time nobody had heard of her. My first impression was that she was extremely shy and embarassed to talk to me, sort of like you'd expect from a teenaged girl. I was worried -- can this girl really compose music? I thought maybe she had a ghost writer doing all the work behind the scenes or something. But then she showed us the first song she came up with, and boy, were we blown away. We were really shocked, and felt really guilty for doubting her. She sure showed us." He loves that her music is difficult to express in words. "When you compose for anime, you have to come up with a LOT of music -- 30-40 songs, minimum. What's amazing is that she takes no short-cuts at all. Her songs are just full of imagery." Asked if he'd be going to her concert, he laughed that he had been drafted into going as her camera boy. "That's my real reason for coming to Otakon," he joked.

A brief audience Q&A session followed. Asked if he has any creative rituals or places he goes to think, he noted that he likes traveling, and that much of his work is inspired by his travels.

When asked what advice he has for new animators, he replied, "if you want to create animation, it's important to watch a lot of things that aren't anime. If you don't, it'll all be the same as what became before and originality won't be easy. Originality is very important, and I get a lot of my inspiration from live action movies and music." Other advice: portray human nature. "If you're a guy, you understand how guys think, and if you're a girl you understand how girls think, but either way that's only half of humanity. So guys, pick up as many girls as you can, and girls, get picked up by as many guys as you can. "

The Q&A was cut short by the announcement of Watanabe's new work, which had previously not been announced: the TV series "Space Dandy," a sci-fi comedy which will debut in January 2014. Watanabe described it has his first purely comedy series, and told Bebop fans that it'd be something akin to getting an episode like Mushroom Samba every week. The show draws upon old-school Sci-fi look and feel, but aspires to be something original. The show will be produced at Bones, and have director Shingo Natsume working under Watanabe. Writers will include Dai Sato and Keiko Nobumoto, with character designs by Yoshiyuki Ito and spaceship designs by Thomas Romain.

The show's producers, Motoki Mukaichi of Bandai Visual and Masahiko Minami from Bones, came out on stage, as Fruel flicked through a Powerpoint of the show's designs. The described Space Dandy as being set in distant future, in a time where space is well explored, and people are on the hunt for new alien races. The main character is the pompadoured Dandy, alien hunter, and "the dandiest guy in the galaxy." Dandy's cohorts include his partner, a cat alien named Meow; and QT, a robot that Dandy bought at a scrap dealer thinking he'd be getting an R2D2, but is actually closer to a Roomba.

Other characters include a scantly clad waitress named Honey (who works at a Hooters-like restaurant called "Boobies"), and an ever-expanding cast of bad guys and alien races, which are being designed by a parade of artists that will be announced later. Watanabe noted that they had already designed over a hundred of them.

Producer Minami joked that when he first met with Watanabe for him to come up with an idea, he said that he wanted something in space. "Anything is fine as long as there are spaceships."

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