Beyond Bebop: a guide to the works of Shinichiro Watanabe

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Thanks to its heavy Western pop culture influences and long life in reruns on Adult Swim, Cowboy Bebop has long been one of Americans’ most successful gateway drugs to anime. With the original anime now streaming on Netflix in advance of its live-action adaptation premiering November 19th, even more new viewers can discover “the work which becomes a new genre itself.” However, while Bebop is as close to a household name as adult-oriented anime get in the States, director Shinichiro Watanabe’s other works have never found the same level of mainstream success, despite featuring much of the same stunning animation, beautiful music, and sharp post-modernist sensibility that made Bebop a hit.

If you’ve enjoyed Bebop, here’s a guide to help you explore the rest of Watanabe’s rich catalog.

If you want to see where Watanabe started: Macross Plus

Watanabe made his directorial debut co-directing the 1994 OVA (original video animation) series Macross Plus alongside Shoji Kawamori. Macross is the mecha anime franchise that got partially localized as part of Robotech, but you don’t need to have seen any other Macross series to enjoy PlusTop Gun-style fighter pilot rivalries and battles against an evil AI pop star, written long before Hatsune Miku became a thing. Screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, composer Yoko Kanno, and animation studio Sunrise would all go on to collaborate on Bebop.

Macross Plus isn’t currently available for streaming and DVDs are out of print, but the 1995 Macross Plus Movie Edition, which edits the series’s four episodes into a single film, will screen in theaters courtesy of Fathom Events on December 14th.

If you loved how Bebop blended genres: Samurai Champloo

Probably Watanabe’s second most popular anime thanks to its Adult Swim broadcast at the height of the 2000s anime boom, the 2004 series Samurai Champloo remixes historical dramas with hip-hop much the same way Bebop combined space Westerns with jazz. Utilizing a similar episodic structure and cast of traveling misfits, Champloo is a slightly lighter viewing experience than Bebop; it’s a more straightforward heroes’ journey that holds back on lasting tragedy. But Champloo isn’t just style over substance: amid all the cool fights and anachronistic humor are interesting ideas about Japan’s relationship with the West and how society treats marginalized groups.

Samurai Champloo is streaming on Hulu and Funimation.

If you want more awesome jazz: Kids on the Slope

Eight years passed between Champloo and Watanabe’s next TV series, 2012’s Kids on the Slope. Based on the manga by Yuki Kodama, Kids on the Slope was a major change of pace for Watanabe, abandoning action and genre conceits in favor of a realistic drama about teenagers in the 1960s playing jazz music together. The lower key storyline explains why Kids on the Slope largely got overlooked, but this is a genuine gem of a show that makes amazing use of its director’s musical passion.

Kids on the Slope is streaming on Crunchyroll and Hidive.

If you wished Bebop’s comedy episodes went even further: Space Dandy

When Space Dandy premiered on Adult Swim in 2014 (a rare occasion in which a Japanese anime premiered in America before Japan), fans were hoping this new Watanabe-directed sci-fi series would be the next Bebop. What they got was less Bebop and more Douglas Adams crossed with an animation film festival. Watanabe was the chief director of Dandy, but the series is best understood as an anthology in which different directors each got to do their own unique stories about three bumbling, horny alien hunters. Characters could die in one episode and be fine in the next, all connected via a multiverse metanarrative as ambitious as anything attempted by Marvel or Rick and Morty. Dandy isn’t Bebop, but if you liked the latter’s sense of humor, there’s a lot to love about Dandy.

Space Dandy is streaming on Hulu, Funimation, and Tubi.

If you’re interested in an ambitious political statement: Terror in Resonance

If Space Dandy was where Watanabe directed his experimental and comedic instincts in 2014, Terror in Resonance was where he was aiming his more serious sensibilities and attempts at social commentary. A story about young savants trying to take down the Japanese government through acts of terrorism, Terror in Resonance is either Watanabe’s most muted success or his most ambitious failure. He and his writers clearly had a lot to say with this anime, and the animation and music are fantastic, but there’s maybe a few too many ridiculous twists to take the story seriously.

Terror in Resonance is streaming on Hulu and Funimation.

If you want to return to the Bebop-verse… and need all the feels: Carole & Tuesday

2019’s Carole & Tuesday takes place in the Martian metropolis of Alba City, the same setting as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Though the timeline details aren’t exactly clear (Carole & Tuesday theoretically takes place only a few years after Bebop but has very different technology), Watanabe has said the two shows share a universe (Dandy happens to exist as a cartoon within this universe). That might be enough to make Bebop lovers interested, but Carole & Tuesday is a unique experience all its own that might very well be Watanabe’s most emotional serialized narrative. The story of an orphaned refugee and the neglected daughter of a xenophobic politician teaming up to pursue pop stardom is by turns wholesome, hilarious, heavy, and heartwarming. The soundtrack features a wide range of styles and includes such artists as Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Denzel Curry.

Carole & Tuesday is streaming on Netflix.

Extra credit: shorts, storyboards, and music

Watanabe’s resume of short films leans heavily on his Western popularity, working with Hollywood franchises and major music artists. For The Animatrix (streaming on HBO Max), he directed the rotoscoped Matrix awakening “Kid’s Story” and the neo-noir “A Detective Story.” His 2017 short film Blade Runner Black Out 2022 (on YouTube) fills in the gaps between the original Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 (Watanabe is credited as a creative producer on the new Blade Runner: Black Lotus series on Adult Swim and Crunchyroll). Watanabe also directed the music video for “More” by Flying Lotus featuring Anderson .Paak. The most obscure of Watanabe’s shorts, “Baby Blue” from the 2008 Genius Party anthology film (on Hoopla, Tubi, and Kanopy), is a charming high school romance story that in many ways plays as a test run for Kids on the Slope.

Beyond directing, Watanabe has done other jobs here and there throughout the anime industry. He’s storyboarded episodes of The Vision of Escaflowne, Ergo Proxy, and Birdy the Mighty Decode, but his most common role tends to be helping on the musical side of things. He was the musical producer on Masaaki Yuasa’s film Mind Game and on Sayo Yamamoto’s first two TV anime, Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and directed the ending theme animation for Death Parade. This year, he advised on the soundtrack for Sonny Boy, a surreal take on Lord of the Flies from fellow Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume.

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