an image dominated by colours of red and blue; embedded images of earth, spaceship, Cowboy bebop characters in red frame and lastly Spike at the right side of the image as the biggest figure in his blue suit posing with his cigarette between his lips

Who is Shinichiro Watanabe? A Brief Biography on the Creator of Cowboy Bebop

On November 19, Cowboy Bebop, which had gotten universal praise years ago, began streaming on Netflix. This ageless anime has come back as a live-action show. As a big fan of Cowboy Bebop, I feel excited but also keep wondering if it could match my high expectations and to what extent it will be committed to the original one. Personally, I always think of the original versions as the best. Perhaps it is a matter of loyalty. I am not sure. That being said, I want to turn to the real concern of this blog, which is not Cowboy Bebop but the creator of the series: Shinichirō Watanabe. Best known for his seminal TV series Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy, Watanabe created and directed genre-bending anime series. In this blog, I will be going over his works briefly.

Who is Shinichirō Watanabe?

the director, Shinichiro Watanabe wearing Matrix-Neon's black glases , looking at the directly to the camera

Born in Kyoto in 1965, Shinichiro Watanabe started his career at Sunrise studio, working on storyboards. In later years, he collaborated with Shōji Kawamori for Marcruss Plus. His first debut as a solo work was Cowboy Bebop (1998). In 2001, the film version of Cowboy Bebop was released under the title of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which is as good as the anime, without a doubt. In 2003, a big fan of The Matrix (1999) himself,  Watanabe was involved in the Wachowskis’ later film project, Animatrix, with his two short animes called “Kid’s Story” and “Detective’s Story.”  Samurai Champloo, which infuses the historical elements from the Japanese Edo era with the hip-hop subculture, was released in 2004 and got good reactions from the audience. Lastly, his recent work is Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 (2017), which came out as a prequel episode to Blade Runner 2049.

His other works include Terror in Resonance, Kids on the Slope,  and Carole and Tuesday. Though, his most celebrated anime series are Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. For some, it has been a matter of question whether Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop have connections. Though they share similarities, they are quite different shows. For instance, Cowboy Bebop takes place in the future, while Champloo’s setting dates back to the Edo period. However, Watanabe’s series always focus on a group of people who share the same journey with different motivations. That’s what lies at the core of his works. Most importantly, what differentiates his works from others lies in how skilled he is at placing anachronistic elements and borrowing from different genres.

Samurai Champloo (2004)

two men and one female anime characters standing together as we see their left profile set on a blue sky ornamented with clouds

26 -episode Samurai Champloo revolves around 3 marginalized characters: Mugen, a used-to-be pirate with his baggy hip-hop clothes, fighting skills infused with Hip-hop dance moves, and a big appetite for food; Jin, a stoic ronin with samurai codes and ethics; Fuu, a tea-waitress seeking a “samurai who smells of sunflowers.”

The show provides great insight into the Japanese Edo Period and pins down discrimination based on ethnic and racial differences in Japan. Some examples are the stories of a gay man, Ainu, and the persecuted Christians during the Tokugawa era. More, we see Mugen as an African descent representative of a marginal culture. Above all, what makes this anime unique is how it toys with anachronistic elements with the integration of graffiti and hip-hop. As Watanabe states in an interview,

“I’ve been interested in hip-hop since it first appeared: the fact that it was born not in the music industry but on the street, the idea of using a turntable as an instrument, singing vividly about reality instead of typical love songs, and its links to graffiti and dance. I believe samurai in the Edo period and modern hip-hop artists have something in common. Rappers open the way to their future with one microphone; samurai decide their fate with one sword.”

Lastly, the soundtrack by Nujabes suits the show perfectly and is as good as Bebop’s, particularly, Who’s theme and Shiki no Uta.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Cowboy Bebop characters, Jet Spike Faye Ed and corgi Ein leaning against the wall and standing in different poses, looking at different directions signifying their character dispositions
Credit: Netflix

Even though it has been years since I watched Cowboy Bebop, there are many scenes I can recall vividly. In the first episode, Spike, the bounty hunter dressed in western costumes, appears in front of a pub as if he has just got out of a Western movie, looking exactly like Clint Eastwood.  Another example would be the scene where Jet and Spike devour eggs to fulfill the emptiness they feel inside, which is by far the most memorable moment for me. Of course, I could give more examples, but it’s better to talk about the show in more general terms.

The show takes place in 2071 in a dystopic world. The bounty hunters, Spike and Jet, live on an interstellar ship and barely get by having stew with almost no meat. Jet has a mechanical arm replacing the one he lost to the mafia, whereas Spike doesn’t even feel that he is alive after losing his lover. As the series progresses, more characters join their lonely togetherness: Faye with amnesia, who can’t remember her past, a corgi named Ein, and a non-binary character, Ed, with family issues.

Fearless and rudderless characters in short. Spike, for instance, takes all sorts of risks, even if it would cost his life. As he reveals to Faye how he feels towards the end: “I am going there to see if I am still alive,” in addition to his famous motto “whatever happens happens.” The scenes and the dialogues really do stick with you; every episode brings new characters and new stories. Each one is unique in its own way. Corrupt politicians, scary clowns, and many more.

Why is Cowboy Bebop iconic?

First of all, Cowboy Bebop feels like a shared journey among the characters and between the characters and the audience. All characters carry the weight of the past on their shoulders. We get familiar with their stories slowly as the series progresses. Through the journey, they try to figure out how to confront their past and life in general. Even though the series takes place in a very different universe, the feelings are familiar, allowing the audience to resonate with the show on an emotional level.  The dialogues are powerful, hitting us to the core.

Secondly, the scenes feel both foreign and familiar. Like I mentioned before, Spike reminded me of Clint Eastwood, one of the most popular faces in Hollywood. It feels that the show uses our old acquaintances while brilliantly building on them at the same time. We look for the past in the present, as Freud also acknowledges.

More, even though it is action-packed, it doesn’t overpower the other elements of the series and doesn’t tire our eyes. Some films with lots of action feel crowded to me. But Cowboy Bebop doesn’t fall into that trap. Also, Watanabe prefers hand-drawn storyboard frames animated in 2D to register more individuality in the characters and scenes just like the famous anime director. Miyazaki. That is probably what makes both filmmakers auteur and their works so human and powerful.

Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts

I want to make a separate section for the soundtrack, another key element that made this anime work so well and iconic. The ballad “Real Folk Blues,” “Call Me Call Me,” “Rain,” and “Gotta Knock a Little Harder” are all great songs mixing rock, blues, and jazz freely without any structural restrictions. As Watanabe stated,

“In bebop, players threw away the score and played freely. They wanted to express themselves freely and started to improvise a lot. I respect and like that kind of music. Cowboy Bebop’s characters are like those musicians: they are free, and I want them to act in an improvisatory way.”

Surprisingly enough, the music was written before the film became a visual text. In other words, Yoko Kanno composed the soundtrack without seeing the film. Overall, the show leaves us with an impeccable soundtrack, excellent character development and dialogues, and a mix of different genres blended seamlessly. A combination of all these essential ingredients is what makes the show what it is. It is no wonder that it is one of the most celebrated animations, always ranking at the top of the greatest anime lists.

Space Dandy

3 animated characters flying in space enlightened with the stars: a man with a pump hair looking like a Rock' Roll star, a cat holding his back and a robot
Credit: Netflix

Space Dandy, the 26-episode show created by Watanabe, is about a bombastic alien hunter or space dandy accompanied by a responsible robot, QT, doing all the work, and a careless cat of no use called Meow, traveling the galaxy on the dandy’s starship, Aloha Oe, during space century 0014. Unlike Cowboy Bebop characters, space dandy doesn’t take life seriously and just lives with the flow, checking out women and talking about boobs.

However, when the situation necessitates it, the childish and irresponsible dandy can act like an adult, promising a character less of a superficial and shallow one and more than a speech giver about boobs. Just to give an example of how the series shows content-based growth, I will share some episode names: “Sometimes You Can’t Live Without Dying, Baby” (Ep. 4) , “There’s Always Tomorrow, Baby.”

Overall, the show gives us lovable characters despite their flaws. It gets deeper and better as the series progresses. Contrary to the assumptions, Space Dandy is not a parody of Cowboy Bebop. However, they have similarities, such as woolong currency and space as a common setting where a crew goes on colorful cosmic adventures. However, the tone and the characters are in totally different moods. Space Dandy is a full-time comedy show and has lots of goofy moments.

Zankyou no Terror or Terror in Resonance (2014)

a scene from the anime series, two boys and a girl standing on the road behind whom the runed Tokto city and buildings on fire stand as smoke covers the sky

The 11-episode show is another TV series directed and created by Watanabe. What happens in Terror in Resonance is that a terrorist attack drags Tokyo into paranoia, as the identity of the terrorist remains a mystery. Two teenage boys whose names are Nine and Twelve form a group called Sphinx. One day, they post a video on the Internet blackmailing Japan to destroy Tokyo city unless a riddle is solved, a reminder of Sophocles’ Oedipus. Nine and Twelve leave more clues for the detectives. If the detectives solve the puzzle in time, the explosions are prevented with no injury. What inspires Watanabe for this show is music, which he thinks of as a “universal language,” as he expresses in an interview:

I draw a lot of inspiration for my shows from music. There have been many times when I’ve been listening to music and that music would give me images or ideas for scenes. For example, the inspiration for one of my recent shows, Terror in Resonance, came when I was listening to the band Sigur Rós. When I was listening to Sigur Rós, I got the visual image of two boys standing in the ruins of a destroyed city and that led to the idea of Terror in Resonance. That was the original inspiration and that played out into a whole show. So because of that, we actually went to Iceland to record our music for Terror In Resonance. Sigur Rós themselves would’ve been too expensive, unfortunately.

Sakamichi no Apollon or Kids on the Slope (2012)

3 animated characters, respectively a girl in school uniform, holding music notes, a guy playing a drum, the second guy playing a piano; there is a yellow backgroundd divded intwo three sections for 3 characters by 32 vertical black lines

Kids on the Slope is an adaptation of a Japanese Manga created by Yuki Kodama about 2 guys who formed a jazz band at high school.  The story takes place in 1966. The show with a jazz voice is another collaboration between Watanabe and the composer Yoko Kanno. It deals with the complications of friendship and love, sometimes spoken through music. The show also associates the improvised style of jazz with the spontaneity of life. It has 12 episodes in total. This widely acclaimed and heartwarming series ranks high in the best anime lists.

Blade Runner: Black Short Out 2022 (2017)

the affiche of an animated film, as a man points his gun towards someone a girl in the middle around whom two other characters are placed against a background of skycrapers in a dark dystopic world

“While the Replicant NEXUS 6 expired in inventory, Tyrell Corp, pushed series 8 into the local and Off-world market.
The NEXUS series 8 were purpose-built with a natural lifespan.
Soon the human supremacy movement began.
These angry masses used the Replicant Registration database to identify and kill replicants.”

That’s the backstory provided at the beginning of the short-feature animation lasting only for 15 minutes. Briefly, the events take place three years after Blade Runner happens. The Tyrell Company pushes a new version of Replicants into the market, calling it NEXUS 8. However, humans start seeing the replicants as threats and start killing them.  Iggy, a replicant himself,  makes plans with a group of replicants to destroy the company and the Replicant Registration database to stop the brutal acts.

Cygames Pictures and Alcon Entertainment are the producers of this short anime film. According to verge, “The creative companies aren’t yet releasing information on what the series will be about, but a press release says it will include some existing Blade Runner characters and that it takes place in 2032. This sets it 17 years before Blade Runner 2049 and 10 years after Blade Runner: Black Out 2022, the 15-minute prequel anime episode to Blade Runner 2049 that Watanabe directed.”

What makes Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 a great film?

Even if it is only 15 minutes, it covers a lot. There are poetic moments like vignettes about a female Replicant, Trixie. For instance, we see Trixie making acrobatic moves to avoid being shot by humans until she loses her focus while looking at the glowing bird in the sky and falls shot and dead. A robot herself, how she feels excited by another living thing suggests the pure nature of the Replicants. As Trixie’s human friend also reveals, “Humans are selfish, stupid liars. But replicants are different, so pure, so perfect. Never betrays. More human than human.” More, in the van, Iggie and Trixie talk about what life and living mean. Trixie asks about hell and heaven; Iggy says, “All we have is this world.”  In three words, this short film is concise, dense, and impeccable.

Last words on Shinichirō Watanabe’s animated films

a black background at the bottom of which " you are gonna carry that weight reads in white"

I feel like I want to make anime that destroys the norms, something that would be strong, even if it is unconventional. –Shinichiro Watanabe

The auteur, Shinichiro Watanabe, has gifted us with the most poignant and expressive anime series filled with feelings of elusiveness, loss, alienation, and emptiness. His works cover universal feelings with cultural nuances. The characters do resonate with us deeply.  You probably won’t be the same person after watching some of Watanabe’s works. Lastly, I think Cowboy Bebop’s  final quote summarizes brilliantly what Watanabe does to us:

“You’re gonna carry that weight.”

2 thoughts on “Who is Shinichiro Watanabe? A Brief Biography on the Creator of Cowboy Bebop

  1. I love the original Cowboy Bebop, just saw it recently too.

    Started watching the new Netflix series and stopped 15 minutes in…didn’t want it to ruin the original.


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