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A Glimpse Into The World Of Anime

This recap is adapted from notes taken during the showing and presentation.
Any dialogue in this recap is paraphrased, and should not be read as a direct quote.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was abuzz Saturday evening with the sounds of eager and curious fans of Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, and Samurai Champloo.
After a lengthy exercise in disorganized ticket distribution, attendees filed in until the IMAX theatre was filled nearly to capacity.

The Japanese Consulate representative stepped to the podium to deliver a brief introduction to the director's work and history. Mr. Watanabe was introduced to the audience, and cautioned (through a translator) that as his works were fashioned after live action films, the anime to be shown (Cowboy Bebop episode #1, then Samurai Champloo episode #1) were not appropriate for small children. As if on cue, a 2-year-old in front of us begain to scream. Awesome contribution! Mr. Watanabe also encouraged the audience to take note of the West Texas-based scenery that appeared in Bebop.

From DVD to the Silver Screen

The anime was projected onto the IMAX screen through a DVD player - I don't think anyone was expecting an IMAX print of the shows... even though that would be KICKIN' RAD.
The audience burst into applause when Mr. Watanabe's name appeared in the opening credits to both shows.
I was a bit surprised that the coordinators had chosen to show the English dubbed versions. Some effects of presenting the premiere episodes of Bebop and Champloo side-by-side: the difference between hand-painted cels and digital animation really stood out, as did the difference in sharpness between both English dub productions. Steve Blum (Spike, Mugen) in particular seemed to jump headlong into Mugen's personality right from the start.

To be honest, it was a little hard to watch Bebop again and take it at face value - having seen and done so much goofy stuff related to the series, parodies and fannish jokes kept popping into my head. However, the bright, loud theatrical presentation nicely featured the show's attention to mechanical detail and ambient sound - something I hadn't noticed when watching it on television. The ships and environments felt as real and alive as the characters.

Seeing Champloo's graphically tight opening sequence and swordfight scenes on the big screen was a real treat. The audience also got a kick out of Beau Billingslea (Jet Black)'s turn as the villainous prefectural governor.

Fan-gasm: Champloo on the big screen

"In a way, I was raised by KISS and Dirty Harry"

After the screening, Mr. Watanabe shared some personal stories about how American film and music influenced him as far back as his elementary school and junior high years - Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" and the band KISS in particular.

When he decided on a career, "...I wanted to make movies - I liked many films and anime. I heard a rumour that if you became a live action director, you had to undergo a long, difficult training period, but becoming an anime director was easy by comparison."
He joined Sunrise Animation co. in 1985, with the encouragement of one Mr. Kawamori Shoji. "I was surprised that I didn't have to pass an entrance exam to join Sunrise - I did have to get my driver's license - but it all seemed so easy. However, anime quickly revealed itself to be fast-paced, hectic, constant work with low pay.
"In fact, you may have noticed that the characters in Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are constantly low on money and short on food - this is sort of based on my own experiences."

During the planning and research phases of Macross Plus, his co-directorial effort with Mr. Kawamori, he visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Edwards Air Force Base (and even flew in a stunt glider plane!)
"...I had hoped to visit Texas during this time, but unfortunately, there was no room for that in the production budget. As a result, I ended up using coffee table photo books for reference... and for a long time, I was convinced that all of Texas really did look like those photographs."

Cowboy Bebop & Samurai Champloo:
Creative Control, Music as Muse

When Mr. Watanabe began work on Cowboy Bebop, his first solo directorial effort, another pop culture influence joined the mixture: Bruce Lee's martial arts philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. Not only did this manifest in Spike Spiegel's character - the production crew was also encouraged to "be like water" - to relax their bodies and allow their best drawings to flow forth.

Samurai Champloo, however, drew much more from classic Japanese Samurai films than from any Western cinematic influence. The most important element, however, was the use of music. In fact, the music often came first, and the animation second.

For example, the dream/flashback/underwater sequence in Episode #14 came about before the first episode was even in production. "This compelling imagery appeared in my mind while I listened to the traditional Okinawan songs for the soundtrack. In fact, it's possible that I made Samurai Champloo in order to make that scene." [audience laughter]
"No matter the story I tell, I must always have interesting music to work with... First and foremost, I am passionate about music."

What Does the Future Hold?

Mr. Watanabe revealed that he is currently working on a chapter in the new anthology film from Studio 4°C.
He is also planning a live-action piece and a new solo-directed anime project. No further details, though.
"It's a secret," he said with a wry smile. "You'll have to wait until next year."

Open Q&A Session

Many anime works are based off of a preexisting popular manga. Have you ever adapted a manga work to animation?
No; none of the anime works I have done solo have any base in manga.

Why and how did you choose to use hip-hop as the musical theme of Samurai Champloo?
First, the musical technique of "sampling" is really fascinating to me. I love the fusion that results from using old soul, jazz, or funk records to create brand new music.
Also, I like how rappers represent themselves using the microphone. Perhaps many Japanese men these days don't represent themselves as strongly as samurai once did with their swords, or rappers do with their microphones. I think that parallel ties in well with the soundtrack. Hopefully, I can represent myself in the same way, using these animated works.


Do you plan to do an entirely music-based project; to create an entire animated work specifically for the music, like a music video?
I really enjoy the Gorillaz animation, and would like to do something similar to that as well.

Obviously you love music, and enjoy a wide variety of genres. What artists are you currently enjoying most?
Until recently, the only genres I did not enjoy were classical music and country music. However, since visiting Texas, I've been exposed more to country music, and am growing to like the new sound of country music.

An autograph session followed outside the theatre.

Personal Reflections

Mr. Watanabe's presentation had a very odd effect on me. I left the museum feeling elated and frustrated at the same time.

From about age 9 until just after college, I desperately wanted to grow up and become an animator, working on features that deviated from the "family-focused" norms of US animation.

I gave up on that dream in two parts - one, when I reached my twenties and saw market forces pushing otherwise great animated films into overproduced pap (Prince of Egypt) or media obscurity and box office loss (The Iron Giant). I decided not to pursue a career in 2-D animation after noticing more and more work farmed out to Korea, and after Disney began disbanding its own 2-D studios, further destabilizing the North American animation job market.

In the end, I wrote off childhood goal as an impossibility - and yet, Saturday night Mr. Watanabe showed us that that kind of career does not have to be just another pipe dream.

I was simultaneously thrilled and frustrated. Not out of jealousy, but because here was a director showing the world just how good animation can be... and yet so much animation - American, Japanese, or anywhere - doesn't even come CLOSE to this kind of directorial quality. Not for lack of creative talent, but for a lack of desire (on the part of the industry at large) to USE that talent.

I understand the market forces that keep so many creative animated endeavours from seeing the light of day... but God, it's just devastating to imagine how many other wonderful ideas are out there, being passed over in favor of "sure bet" marketable shows, no matter how trite and mediocre.

So, Mr. Watanabe, thank you for providing a ray of hope in a field where creativity is so often quashed or ignored. I hope many more directors all over the world are able to follow in your footsteps, and explore even more new territory in the fusion of visuals, story, and music.

In the meantime, I can't wait to see that mysterious new anime project.

Fan art Information Extra