The announcement of the new series Space Dandy premiering on Toonami before Japan was a bolt of lightning striking the U.S. front of anime fandom with pure ferocity and excitement. This will mark the first time a Japanese animated series will air stateside with the Japanese broadcast following twenty-four hours after its initial American premiere. The only series in recent memory that has come even close to that is Gundam Unicorn with its first episode being simultaneously released on blu-ray and streaming services in the U.S. and Japan in 2010. This new series helmed by Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo creator Shinichiro Watanabe has been licensed by Funimation (The people who recently re-released Akira) and has the blessing (and apparent backing) of Cartoon Network to be a legitimate ace for their late night lineup. However, before we jump the gun, let’s take a closer look at the man, the myth, and the majesty of Shinichiro Watanabe.
Watanabe’s foray into the world of animation and filmmaking came in 1990 after college when he landed a job at Sunrise studios. Known for creating properties that captivated generations of fans such as Cyborg 009, Mobile Suit Gundam, and The Robot Romance Trilogy (which ended up in the pages of Marvel’s Shogun Warriors series), Watanabe was given an opportunity to serve as episode director for a number of different series during his first few years at Sunrise. As an episode supervisor, he monitored and handled the storyboards of series like Obatarian, Genki Bakuhatsu Ganbarugar (from Takara Tomy of Transformers notoriety), and Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory before he got promoted to director. His directorial debut was none-other than Macross Plus in 1994 (which featured Bryan Cranston [Breaking Bad] in the English Dub of the series). His ability to capture keen moments of tension and stunning visuals catapulted the movie to great heights along with Watanabe’s career. However, Watanabe lacked one thing: A series that expressed his vision and paid homage to the things that inspired him as a writer, director, and human being. Much like Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam), Watanabe yearned to create something original that paid its respects to the films, music, and life lessons that inspired him while still forging something unique in the process.
Shinichiro Watanabe found it in 1998 when he created and directed Cowboy Bebop. The series set in the backdrop of outer space meshed Watanabe’s love of noir films, spaghetti westerns, crime films, Hong Kong Action movies, suspense thrillers, and blues and jazz music into a tapestry of excellence that has withstood the test of time and captured the allure of Hollywood and fans the world over. Watanabe also wrote and directed the Cowboy Bebop: Knocking on Heaven’s Door film in 2001. Watanabe would then follow up his success with another hit series in Samurai Champloo in 2004 with Manglobe Studios (Dante’s Inferno: An Animated Epic). He actually drafted Samurai Champloo following his directorial duties on the two short films, A Kid’s Story and A Detective Story, featured in The Animatrix. From there, as the anime industry changed in Japan (the production side) and the United States (the licensing side), Watanabe found himself bouncing from studio to studio, becoming a supervisor on shows like Eureka Seven and Birdy the Mighty: Decode before producing and directing music for the anime series Michiko & Hatchin in 2006 with director Sayo Yamamoto (Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine), a protégé of Ninja Scroll creator Yoshiaki Kawajiri. He also juggled his short film projects such as Baby Blue (featured in the Genius Party anthology in 2008) before returning to TV work, directing Kids on the Slope in 2012.
Watanabe is considered a rebel with a cause. In the vein of Katsuhiro Otomo, Yoshiyuki Tomino, Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell), Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), the late Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika), Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children), and Dai Sato (Wolf’s Rain), Shinichiro Watanabe is considered the last of a line of traditional creators and directors who not only cherish cinema and literature more than anime and manga, but one of the few that still look to it as inspiration compared to the latter in the effervescent nature of the business. There is no doubt that the anime industry has more creators and directors who are more inspired by anime and manga given the need to appeal to the hardcore fans. These “Otaku” make up the vast majority of anime sales in Japan. (That cultural influx has manifested with the fandom stateside in regards to the fanservice shows like Hetalia and Queen’s Blade making top dollar). Although Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Hiroyuki Imaishi (FLCL) among others balance between their anime, movie, and sci-fi influences and manage to turn out excellent fare, Watanabe is one of the few creators to penetrate the American spectrum in a positive way while still remaining truthful to his wild and free creative spirit.
Space Dandy will not only determine if Shinichiro Watanabe still has the ability to enthrall fans worldwide with his unique style, but it will also show if Japanese Animation is capable of climbing the mainstream mountain taken up mostly by the superhero genre, a polarizing TV era spearheaded now by The Walking Dead (since Breaking Bad and Dexter ended), a fairly substantial movie period, and a new game console generation. However, given the explosive reception of Attack on Titan in the U.S. and Japan as well as the return of Toonami on Cartoon Network and a significant uptick in anime and manga sales this year, it seems the tide is right for Space Dandy to set sail on a voyage of success.
Finally, here are some promo vids for your viewing pleasure. The first is English dubbed, the second is straight up footage, which looks amazing.