AFA 2012 is, surprisingly, not Watanabe’s first visit to Singapore; the director stopped by 20 years ago, and Singapore was the first place he headed to outside of Japan. The cultural diversity and the city’s futuristic feel, even then, left such a big impression on him that it went on to inspire part of his work in Cowboy Bebop, a sci-fi series featuring – you guessed it – cowboys! In space! His experience in Singapore had an everlasting impact on him that as homage, episodes 18 and 24 of the series featured the Merlion as a clue to amnesiac female lead Faye Valentine’s lost past.
Being a massive anime fan since his childhood, Watanabe’s dream in his teens was to become an anime producer himself. Due to his love for the Gundam series, he went on to join animation studio Sunrise as a production manager, then become an episode director.
Following that, he was appointed director of Macross Plus together with the series’ original creator Shouji Kawamori. In production, he was initially told by Kawamori that he (Watanabe) would have complete freedom of direction while Kawamori observed from the sidelines – but as this was, as Watanabe put it, akin to George Lucas telling him to direct Star Wars in any way he wanted, they eventually came to an agreement to both co-direct instead.
It was during the production of Macross Plus that he encountered someone who would later become involved in another of Watanabe’s works. During recording sessions, composer Yoko Kanno’s peculiar, childlike behavior left a big impression on Watanabe and later, the character of hacker genius Ed in Cowboy Bebop would be based on her.
His most recent project Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope) is the first anime series he has directed since 2004’s Samurai Champloo. The project, which is his initial foray into adaptation rather than an original story, was chosen as it presents a bigger challenge as opposed to conceptualizing something wholly original.
The fact that the characters all play instruments over the course of the series itself also was a big plus point for the director – he felt that up until now, other titles have yet to capture the magic of truly animated instrument playing. He set out to accomplish this by first recording human musicians’ movements while playing, and then having animators use that footage as a reference to hand-draw every cel. The result is Sakamichi no Apollon’s amazingly fluid, almost lifelike animation.
When asked about what lies in store for his fans in the future, Watanabe revealed that he is working on another sci-fi series scheduled for a 2013 release which is currently in production by animation studio BONES. With his track record of constantly keeping his audience on their toes with a skillful mix of the most unexpected elements, it can be safely said that fans can expect to be once again surprised by his new project! The director also mentioned his supervision of the Hollywood live-action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop, which seems to have been brought back on the table after having been stalled in production hell for some time. His message to the Hollywood producers: “Don’t do a Dragonball!”, referring to 2009 live-action trainwreck Dragonball Evolution, left the entire hall roaring with laughter.
After the panel, SGCafe managed to steal some time with the director, who graciously answered one of our questions!
SGCafe: You are known for combining a wide variety of themes and genres into your series. How do you manage to incorporate all these completely unrelated elements so seamlessly that it feels natural?
Watanabe: That’s a very difficult question! (Laughs) I always get inspired on the spot, at any given moment. I will always think: Maybe it will be interesting, exciting or unique if we can combine A and B. Let’s talk about the theme I always use, which would be “mixing”: the word “Champloo” in ‘Samurai Champloo’ comes from an Okinawan term ‘chanpuru’ which means “something mixed”. The usage of many different ingredients in cooking would be a mixture, right? So in Samurai Champloo I thought of combining two completely different elements, a traditional samurai story and trendy hip-hop music, into one story with the belief that this would be completely new and exciting.
And with that we thanked Watanabe, wishing the director the best of luck in his future projects. Please look forward to his work in the coming year!