Sentimentality in the work of Shinichiro Watanabe

David traces the theme of sentimentality in the anime work of Shinichiro Watanabe, from Cowboy Bebop to Space Dandy...

If Shinichiro Watanabe is the director, you can be pretty sure of a few things: the work will be contemplative, visually exciting, and feature a great soundtrack hand in hand with great storytelling. Some of Watanabe’s greatest influences are from American culture – the elements co-opted by ‘cool’ specifically, and shows like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo are often appreciated along that line. But I think this minimizes Watanabe’s particular kind of sentimentality, which in and of itself is sort of the opposite of cool. 

That kind of duality is not uncommon in what we think of as good scripted TV. While Watanabe’s most popular work often features the kind of over-the-top action and fan service that are commercial hallmarks, there’s an appreciation for the human condition that’s essential to it being greater than the sum of its often cool parts. This isn’t displayed as the gushy tear-fest that people associate with the word ‘sentimentality,’ though there’s plenty of that in anime – one of the few venues for such in a society that seems to covet not being overly emotional. Within that range, I think it’s sentimentality all the same. 

The Real Folk Blues

From its first episode, Asteroid Blues, Bebop establishes two central characters who are in a similar existential place, but have arrived there very differently. Spike Speigel, former made man who left that world for a woman who took off without him, and Jet Black, an ex-cop whose main pitfall was that he wasn’t crooked. Both laid back and practical, they’ve teamed up as bounty hunters and find themselves hunting down a junkie named Asimov.  

Asimov lethally double-crossed his former syndicate and stole a large supply of the drug ‘Bloody Eye.’  Doing the groundwork as Jet stays with his spaceship, the Bebop, Spike runs into Katerina, Asimov’s pregnant girlfriend.  They talk about Mars, where she hopes to live someday. Asimov catches Spike off-guard and nearly kills him before Katerina intervenes. Things come to a head with Asimov taking off with Katerina in a space ship, pursued by his old syndicate, the Bebop and Spike in his jet racer. With Asimov consumed by his monstrous addiction, Katerina fatally shoots him. As police are about to open fire on Asimov’s ship, Spike catches up with Katerina in time for the two to see each other. He subsequently watches her body floating with the ship’s wreckage, her ‘pregnancy’ revealed to be the excess drugs.     

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Back on the Bebop, as Spike looks out into space, it’s the look on Katerina’s face that the devil-may-care bounty hunter is haunted by – until Jet floats a cigarette over to him (which, hopefully, aren’t cancer-sticks of death in the future). It’s a hard-hitting episode: Katerina pays the ultimate price for hitching her wagon to the wrong star, and Spike quite clearly feels for her. But its the sense of camaraderie with Jet, someone else who knows the way the universe often works, that fits perfectly with the bluesy harmonica in the background – blues being a form of music that wrings some kind of levity from an oppressive life. 

Subsequent additions to the Bebop crew are: super-intelligent dog Ein, on-again, off-again ally Faye Valentine, and hacker-savant Edward. Also introduced to the overall series in episode five, Ballad Of The Fallen Angels, is Vicious, Spike’s old partner from the Red Dragon crime syndicate. It may come as no surprise that Vicious isn’t the human embodiment of a puppy (his chosen pet is a vulture). Julia, the woman Spike had fallen in love with, had been Vicious’ girlfriend. There’s a parallel between that pairing and Asimov and Katerina, in how contradictory it seems for someone with a kind heart to be paired with someone who barely has a slice of humanity left. 

But back to the Bebop crew, each of whom goes through a handful of episodes before they see the emotional landscape that Spike and Jet find semi-regularly — in between banter and action-movie worthy bounty hunting. In Sympathy For The Devil, they face off against a nearly century-old foe who looks like a little kid. That dynamic has helped to essentially drive the guy, once a music prodigy, to power-hungry bitterness. With the Bebop crew stopping him by causing him to rapidly age, the episode ends with Spike having a moment for that, with the harmonica again in the background – echoing the soulful tune the longtime musician could play.

Who’s cool anyway?

There are a few episodes in which we see Spike bond with people in ways that no one else on the Bebop does, though this is generally because Edward is on a different wavelength, Faye doesn’t trust anybody, and Jet is often dutifully with his ship (and bonsai plant).  In Heavy Metal Queen, Spike connects with VT, an old space trucker who hates bounty hunters. And in Waltz For Venus, it matters to him when Rocco, a wannabe thug who stole a rare and valuable plant, wants to use said plant to cure his sister’s blindness. Checking Rocco’s story out, Spike visits the sister and lets her touch his face.  When she tells him that there’s something beautiful in him, Spike laments that anything like that died in him a long time ago. After her brother dies in a shootout, Spike ensures that the plant pays for her operation and tells the sister – who is harboring the notion that her brother died in one of his stupid schemes – that her brother really was a great guy. He then goes out into the Venus cityscape and soberly watches Venus’ version of snow, which is what causes a small percent of people, like Rocco’s sister, to go blind.          

Spike is also around when Faye is watching a video tape message from her past self, not wanting to let on that he cares. One of Bebop’s most sentimental moments results from Faye’s search for the place she comes from (In the show’s timeline, it’s only been a few years since she awoke from a cryogenic coma). Finding that her home on Earth is long gone, she despondently tells Edward about the importance of family, just after Ed has briefly reunited with her father. Ed promptly leaves to go after her father, and after one last sad look at the Bebop, Ein follows in tow. Having received a basketful of eggs from Ed’s father, Jet boils them up and prepares a spot for each member of the Bebop crew. After Spike shows him Ed’s outlandish goodbye, the two of them quietly scarf down all of the eggs.

What Spike felt looking out into space at the end of the very first episode – heaviness – is revisited at the end of the series, except we become him. Ever since Spike tried to leave with Julia, Vicious has hated that he isn’t just like him and that he’s capable of really loving someone, as well as anything at all that resembles sentimentality. To Vicious, these are just signs of weakness.  

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Watching the final episode, I initially thought it was stupid of Spike to leave the Bebop and quite possibly throw his life away going up against Vicious – not when Faye clearly has feelings for him and he can exchange hearty jokes about bad food with Jet. But Julia’s death forces Spike to face someone who he might have become if he didn’t have the re-awakening she likely helped bring about. Spike wouldn’t want to put the lives of anyone else he cares about at risk. When Spike beats Vicious in a duel and soon afterward collapses with no obvious help in sight, the credits begin to roll. And we’ve seen him more than enough good in him to feel quite sentimental.   

Missing the inner heat, life gets colder

As inspired by hip hop culture as it is the Edo era of the samurai in which takes place (and the resulting chanbara genre of films and TV), Samurai Champloo is much less overtly sentimental than anything else Watanable has directed, though its closing tunes, as is the cast with most anime, are quite sentimental and speak to the undercurrent of emotion in Champloo’s three core characters. Mugen, Jin and Fuu exist in a world that’s even more hostile than Bebop’s futuristic space setting: an extremely feudal Japan.

None of Watanabe’s other shows have had a protagonist quite as angry as Mugen. He’s obviously had a hard life devoid of the kind of privilege that leads to being a samurai, which Jin has had. He’s also more tan than his counterparts in the show, Jin and Fuu, having come from one of the islands that Japan colonized. (Perhaps due in part to his mish-mash of worldly pop culture influences, it’s another notable quality of Watanabe’s that his world-building sensibilities are aware of people whom aren’t the idealized Japanese). Mugen’s characterization largely is guided by the hip-hop influence, or at least a notion of hip-hop: he’s brashly determined to be his own guiding star; his fighting skills are a mash-up of styles that make him formidable in a way very that’s very new in old class-driven Japan. He’s also kind of a bastard, though he does have his own code and, unlike Vicious, a begrudging appreciation for sentiment.       

Jin is all about a romanticized notion of bushido – since the betrayal of his master, his only real connection to anything has been the ideals contained therein. He’s a ronin who doesn’t believe there’s a lord worth fighting for. In a way, Mugen and Jin see each other as what they hate most about the world. Jin sees a formidable barbarian with a common lack of honour, and Mugen sees a skilled samurai that his self-made style has to overcome.          

Fuu is much less skilled or worldly than Watanabe’s action-genre protagonists, except that she’s got a sense of resolve and optimism that’s the catalyst for any change on Mugen and Jin’s parts – and also a flying squirrel. Champloo is largely about the journey that Fuu gets Mugen and Jin to go on with her, after saving their lives and forcing the two to delay their duel until after they help her find the samurai who smells of sunflowers. For Fuu, it’s an extremely sentimental objective, and one she wouldn’t be able to do in such a feudal place without people who know the lay of the land.     

When Mugen and Fin resume their duel at the end of the series, both their swords break. It’s a sign that they’re both equals. They’ve, quite exhaustively, fought for each other out of a sense of obligation and the sheer will to live. Released by Fuu from that sense of obligation, they no longer want to best each other. The fact that Mugen and Jin don’t do what was part of their codes to do is incredibly, and quite deservedly, sentimental – as is the trio unceremoniously going their separate ways.    

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The Dandy way, Baby

Space Dandy is, by far, the Watanabe-associated work that takes itself the least seriously. It follows the eponymous Dandy, an alien hunter who, along with his robot partner QT and cat-like alien Meow, travels the universe in the Aloha Oe, cataloging rare aliens for money – that is, when he doesn’t have any money to eat at Hooters-knockoff ‘Boobies’. Dandy is extremely self-referential and considers himself pretty much the best at anything that’s considered cool, like surfing and starship racing.            

With its occasional one-dimensional characterizations of scantily clad women, Space Dandy initially seems like a series that only delights in the most commercial tropes of anime in general – however skillfully. But Dandy is more of a would-be womanizer than an actual one (like Zapp Brannigan, except more competent and with occasional character), and though it’s understandable if people don’t ignore its cheaper qualities the way they might for a  Game Of Thrones level of characterization, the show has its affecting moments. 

Take Dandy and Meow’s search for the best-tasting ramen in the universe (episode two), which they find produced in an alternate dimension populated by one mournful alien. After hearing the alien’s story, Dandy and Meow discover its the alien’s tears that helps makes its ramen so good. When the portal back to their universe is closing, Dandy offers the alien the chance to come with them in an, up until that point, an unusual sign of good will for him. But throughout the first season, loneliness is just about the only thing Dandy lets himself show that he’s moved by. 

With their words and music

Creatively, Shinichiro Watanabe is part of a team that has included the musical likes of Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, Fat Jon and the late great Nujabes (Jun Seba); as well as scripts by great writers like Keiko Nobumoto and Dai Sato, in addition to Watanabe himself. And, of course, he’s worked with some truly great voice casts and translators. They all add up to storytelling in which notions of genre don’t ultimately trump character. Even if the protagonists don’t always show it in the most direct way, even if they regularly live by mantras they adopt to get by in a hard, complicated universe, it’s always clear they’re capable of feelings that are bigger than that.

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