Cowboy Bebop: Reflecting on Shinichiro Watanabe

Shinichiro Watanabe has always been a reticent director. Neither he nor his team have spoken too deeply about their works, especially Bebop. Even the supplementary material issued doesn’t give us much detail beyond what we already know and I feel it is intentionally neutral, confusing, and, in a very subtle way, sometimes even contradictory to what the Director has said. It always gave me a sense that the intent on his part was for the viewer to look beyond these resources and not just rely on them completely to be guided through the series. Do your own work. Also, may be due to the fact that he moved on from Sunrise who own the rights to the show so he is likely not allowed to speak more about it legally.

Mish Mash Blues has a whole segment which talks about doubting everything. Doubting what you are perceiving and drawing your own conclusions. I do feel that Watanabe has kind of let this show float out there hoping that, in time, people might see some deeper layers to it and get the closure they probably did not get 20 years ago. I’m not saying there is “one right answer” to this closure but probably getting the closure which makes most sense to you. That’s sort of what made me revisit it now. With Keiko Nobumoto passing away and with the realization that Netflix has likely scared away other creators from attempting any further adaptations for a while, this becomes even more necessary. But never say never.

When I started writing these pieces, I was a bit skeptical because something like Bebop has an accepted canon and people (including me), who are very passionate about it. Some of us even act like gatekeepers to this canon. While I do feel it is necessary to expect faithfulness to the original from anyone touching it to curb fiascos like the Netflix version, I feel if someone wants to relook at the existing story and try to find new meaning in it that should be ok. When writing this, I take the ‘canon’ version of the story as an accepted given and there are many analyses on the net which cover that in detail so I really don’t have to. Plus, I have a day job. This is not something I am getting paid for or which is official in any capacity so I think it’s ok.

What I am writing is part analysis and part alternate interpretation of the series but building on what is shown on screen and its references. Maybe it’s because I am revisiting the show after a hiatus which has featured intense loss and heartache and, coming back to a cherished piece from a simpler time, I no longer want to/am not able to accept the utterly devastated version of it. Either way, this exercise is for myself and no one else. If it makes sense to someone else reading it, well and good, but I never set out to do an objective analysis so that’s the caveat.

‘Head canon’ isn’t necessarily someone being a ‘simp.’ Watanabe has mentioned in an interview about wanting people to draw their own conclusions. If someone wants to believe the story holds a strain of hope and ended on a note of continuity I think the creators would be cool with it. It might be more meaningful for someone else to believe that the story holds a different message and it ends on a definitive note of death and I feel that would also be cool.

What kind of supplemented this for me was the below excerpt from an interview with Dai Sato, a Japanese screenwriter and musician, who has worked closely with Shinichiro Watanabe (and also Keiko Nobumoto). You can read the whole interview on this link. Reading it, I could understand why this whole “thought revival” may be happening now, after so many years. Guess we were always supposed to come back to it 10 years later.

Watanabe and Dai Sato

OTAQUEST: As I’m sure you’re aware, for the month of November OTAQUEST is focusing on Shinichiro Watanabe as a director. We’re setting out to showcase the true Shinichiro Watanabe as a person, breaking through his elusive personality.

Dai Sato: It’s my own personal opinion, but regardless of how much you know about Watanabe, there’s always going to be a level to his productions that you won’t understand.

OTAQUEST: Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Dai Sato: Watanabe rarely appears in front of the media, and it’s even rarer for him to accept interviews. Even if we ask him questions about his production, he’ll just say the answer lies within the finished product. It’s about what we feel while watching his works, and there can be multiple answers to any question. It doesn’t matter who made it, it’s about how people feel throughout their viewings — that’s how I believe he thinks.

OTAQUEST: Do you think he wants people to understand the theme of his productions?

Dai Sato: I think so, but if you were to ask him about it he’d probably say something like “Don’t ask me to explain it”. If people don’t understand what is trying to be expressed when watching a series, that means the product is a failure in terms of expression. It’s the same music and film where it’s not something you can necessarily put to words as to how you want someone to feel. It’s like the Bruce Lee quote, “Don’t think. Feel.”. There are messages, attitudes, and spirit being delivered, but if the director themself explains it, you’re going to have a biased answer. What I’m looking at might be biased too, however.

OTAQUEST: Has Shinichiro Watanabe ever been disappointed by his viewers? Say, if he had an expectation for a project that people would enjoy it but it gets turned over?

Dai Sato: I don’t want to cause any problems by answering this incorrectly, but I can give an example. When I was in elementary school, I spent a lot of time listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra. They were truly a group that never explained anything. It was hard enough to understand the titles of their songs, but all of the sampling sources and logo design were all constructivism. It was too hard for kids to understand, but I thought it was cool, and I liked it. It would be good to look back at it in 10 to 20 years and think “Oh, that’s what that meant”. There are things like this in “Cowboy Bebop”, “Samurai Champloo”, and even “Carole & Tuesday”. There’s time to enjoy it now, and time to understand it years later. I think Watanabe believes his viewers will understand his productions at some point in time.

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