Shinichiro Watanabe: A Dandy Man at MCM London Comic Con

Shinichiro Watanabe panel (by Kay Ibrahim)1890

This year, MCM London Comic Con and Anime Limited welcomed the arrival of esteemed anime director Shinichiro Watanabe as a special guest. Best known for Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, Watanabe’s panel this year coincides with the release of two new series’ he’s been leading: Space Dandy, a wildly popular anime about an interstellar adventurer’s wacky travels across the galaxy, and Terror in Resonance, a more serious show about a group of teenagers who form a terrorist group within Japan with plans to destroy Tokyo.

The panel began with a quick introduction of Watanabe and his filmography to the audience; the latter was presented in a stylish trailer, presenting his whole catalogue of works from Macross Plus back in 1994 on which he was the co-director, all the way to 2014’s Space Dandy.

Watanabe then spoke about how Space Dandy and Terror in Resonance were in simultaneous production, and he was asked how he feels they’re different, as silly and serious anime, respectively.

“Compared to music,” Watanabe said, “Terror in Resonance is a solo album; it’s very personal. Space Dandy is a collaborative album, featuring a number of unique artists.”

He continued, mentioning how Space Dandy in its production and conception resembles a jam session, with each episode director putting their own creative style into the series. The directors on Space Dandy are both newcomers and veterans of the anime industry, from all different shows and films, each with their own personal flavour. Watanabe even gave a the unique example of how for at least one episode, the character designs were made by an artist who had only done manga, with no experience in working for animated projects. It’s this that gives the anime the old-school flair that Watanabe is famous for, reminiscent of old cartoon serials without a strict plotline to follow.

On the subject of individual episode directors, Watanabe also mentioned that he really enjoys the style of Space Dandy, in that each and every director and writer is able to use their creativity with near-complete freedom.

In addition, he mentioned working with some big names – some episodes were written by the author Toh EnJoe, who recently won the Philip K. Dick Award for science-fiction.

It’s this diversity in creative effort that Watanabe says was the driving ideal behind Space Dandy: he feels that anime recently has become too restrictive, focused on making shows that will sell, rather than ones that really let their writers and directors express their creative freedom. As a result, a show like Space Dandy, “without rules,” as he says, has a different style with each episode. This just goes to show the kind of potential that creators both young and old are capable of – and the potential that anime as a whole has, mostly yet untapped. For Space Dandy, Watanabe invited people from all different backgrounds to work on the project, with great success – it was an inspiration for him.

Afterwards, a trailer for the second season of Space Dandy was played, showing off the vastly differing art styles of separate episodes, as an example of what the show is like at its core.


One of the more personally touching elements of working on both seasons of the anime was the opportunity for Watanabe, himself a longstanding veteran of the industry, to meet the same people who made the anime he watched as a child, and to work together with them. One of those icons, Toshio Hirata, contributed the storyboards for Watanabe’s favourite episode: “Nobody Knows the Chameleon Alien, Baby.”

Though Toshio worked in a different era of film and television, to Watanabe, he had a fresh way of seeing things and working as a creator, as though he was still young and new to the industry. Sadly, Toshio passed away just a few months ago, not long after he worked on Space Dandy.

Then, asked about the musical elements that all his productions include – often with the help of the equally legendary Yoko Kanno, who did the music for Terror in Resonance – Watanabe contrasted Terror in Resonance and Space Dandy; for Space Dandy, he had no one musician of choice, instead letting them play whatever they liked, with the only rule being that the music they create had to be “pre-1984” in composition, reflecting the styles of music from before the era of CDs and MP3s, back when cassettes and vinyl records were still very much the norm.

While Space Dandy had essentially no planning whatsoever in terms of music or atmosphere beyond those basic, golden rules, Terror in Resonance had always been much more planned-out, with Yoko Kanno and Watanabe carefully making the music fit each scene, rather than an era’s specific style.

He even joked that, in his attempts to give Space Dandy a classic anime feel, he wanted it to be distributed on old 80s laser disc, instead of modern Blu-rays. This idea, unfortunately, was shot down early in production.

In comparison to that old-school feel, Watanabe strove to place Terror in Resonance directly in the future, feeling very grounded in real-life and the present day – but with almost a “mythical” tone to it, which he says that Yoko Kanno’s musical excellence helped to convey perfectly.

Of course, working on two shows at once was a tough job for the poor man, who says he’s more or less on a break now, enjoying his time in the UK while he can; he’s already visited the British Museum and other landmarks, enjoying the relative relaxation after he was almost overloaded by the weight of two major productions.

It wasn’t actually intended for both shows to air or even be worked on simultaneously; they’re very different, but Terror in Resonance is an idea he says he’s had for several years now, but up until recently he kept being told that it wasn’t something that could be made – until it was green-lit, coinciding with the newer Space Dandy project.

Things naturally had to be organised well; Watanabe says that even he was worried at times that he’d accidentally mix characters between shows, despite their vastly differing themes and styles.

Shinichiro Watanabe panel (by Kay Ibrahim)1888

One of his favourite elements of Space Dandy, though, and despite his heavy workload, was to see new directors showing their real creative potential. Asked if he helped teach newer anime directors and writers he said that he didn’t; while he wants them to learn and improve, he feels that, “directing anime can’t be taught; I have [the new directors] watch first, and learn and take inspiration from what they see.”

This way, they’re able to interpret their creative ideas in their own styles, and he’s very proud of both these new and old creators. He mentioned Saya Yamamoto, who worked with Watanabe on Samurai Champloo; she directed episode 20 of Space Dandy, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dandy, Baby.” He mentioned how he was proud seeing how she was able to truly express her own, personal creativity with her newer projects after Samurai Champloo.

When asked afterwards how he got his inspiration to write Terror in Resonance as a modern story about the sensitive topic of terrorism, Watanabe replied that it’s not actually about terrorism at all.

“[Terror in Resonance] started with character ideas – these characters in a situation where they have to fight against their own state, making them terrorists. This way, it’s about the characters and how they act, not really about terrorism.”

In contrast, he mentioned that Space Dandy was built around the idea of being a platform for creativity, and from that came the ideas for the protagonist Dandy and his friends: Dandy had to be flexible, not tied down or with worries and troubles, and someone who can simply forget what happened in the previous episode, so that the new one starts fresh, with a clean slate. This is radically different from Watanabe’s usual style of deep protagonists with complicated, subtly-revealed pasts; at the same time, however, Watanabe mentioned that he prefers not to explain much about a character’s past or motivations, only giving hints towards their backstory, and allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the details in-between.

This, he says, is something shared across almost his whole filmography, from Cowboy Bebop to Terror in Resonance.

Music, however, is something he takes a deep interest in; when asked about his favourite musical genre, he mentioned that in his house he has a full “music corner” full of various CDs from a multitude of different generations and artists, and that he listens to them all for inspiration. Judging by the typical styles featured in his works with Yoko Kanno, however, it can only be assumed that he holds a soft spot in his heart for old-style jazz.

In relation to music, he was asked about his anime adaptation of the manga Kids on the Slope, centred around young musicians with a passion for their craft. It’s the only work he’s done specifically about music itself, and he really liked making it, and according to him the author of the manga, Yuki Kodama, enjoyed Watanabe’s interpretation of the story as well – they even make time to go out for drinks now and then.

What he enjoys about the manga, though, and what drew him to Kids on the Slope as a project, is how it captures the “feel” of playing, loving, and creating music as a musician; Watanabe was excited to work with the backdrop of a jazz band, and was particularly interested in the opportunity to animate music, trying to get across the feeling and energy of a live performance in animation.

With that last topic, Watanabe made his exit, thanking everyone for inviting him here to MCM London Comic Con, and saying that he’s really happy to be here, with so many people who enjoy his creative works.

Space Dandy will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by Anime Limited on 24 November.

Photos by Kay Ibrahim.

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