Tracing the Lineage of Cowboy Bebop [Useless Anime Knowledge – Creative Diaspora]

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Cowboy Bebop is among the most influential and critically acclaimed anime series of all time. Often credited with igniting the Western anime boom of the early 2000s when its US debut marked the beginning of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim anime block, this series was many Western fans’ introduction to anime, and its legacy is more than a little impressive.

In this video, I will trace the lineage of this series by following the careers of people involved in making it. In doing this, I’ll both explain what shows lead up to the creation of Cowboy Bebop, as well as what its principal creators have gone on to do since working on this series.

Because this video is going to be packed full of Japanese names and technical terminology, I’ll take a moment first to explain some aspects of anime production in the most simplified terms that I can, just to make this video much easier to follow. I’ll put a link in the description to an article that goes more into how anime is funded and produced which I highly recommend reading, but for the sake of this video I’m just going to worry about the different roles that the creative staff play in producing a series.

On the broadest level, anime are typically generated by a specific animation studio. If you don’t know what that means, basically saying that an anime was produced by Studio Sunrise would be equivalent to saying that it was produced by Pixar or Dreamworks. The roles of the director, music producer, art directors, and animation directors are probably pretty self-evident.

In this video I will be making distinctions between people who do “Series composition,” and “scriptwriters.” In anime credits, “series composition” essentially means the head writer, and person who makes sure that all the series writing falls in place together. Scriptwriters, then, are the people who write the individual episodes of the show. The same can be said of directors versus episode directors, which often differ across episodes in anime production.

A storyboard artist is someone who draws out and plans each scene that will be translated into animation, and there are typically a team of storyboard artists working on different episodes. Key animators then are the people who turn the storyboards into animation. The way anime is drawn, a key animator basically draws all the most important and extreme frames of the animation, while in-between animators fill in the rest of the movement. However, in higher-quality animation, often referred to as “sakuga,” the key animator will sometimes draw every frame of the scene, which usually leads to a more stylish and intense movement.

I think the rest of the jobs that I’ll mention are pretty self-explanatory, so with that little bit of exposition out of the way, let’s dive into some hardcore production detective work!

The history of Cowboy Bebop can be traced back, as so much of anime history can, to the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. A huge stepping stone in bringing anime to an adult audience and creating the culture of the modern “otaku,” the Gundam franchise had been around well over a decade when it underwent a massive shift in the early 1990s. Franchise creator and lead director Yoshiyuki Tomino got fed up with working on the franchise after the insane 1993 series Victory Gundam, and the show’s timeline was split, with a new alternate Gundam universe being created in 1994 with Mobile Fighter G Gundam. In the meantime, the original Gundam universe was kept alive throughout the 90s and 2000s by a series of straight-to-video releases which began with Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory in 1991. This is where our story begins.

While a number of the staff who worked on Stardust Memory would go on to perform on many of the other shows I’ll be talking about, which you can follow using the insanely massive spreadsheet I have linked in the description, there’s only two names you really need to know: Shoji Kawamori, and Shinichiro Watanabe.

Shoji Kawamori had by this point in his career become a legend in his own right as the creator of the Macross franchise, known to many in the west as Robotech, which itself is pretty important and influential. Kawamori was particularly known for his legendary mecha designs, including the likes of Optimus Fucking Prime. As such, he was brought in as the mechanical designer on Stardust Memory, and it was here that he would first encounter Shinichiro Watanabe, one of the show’s episode directors and storyboard artists.

Watanabe had been working for studio Sunrise, the producers of Gundam, since the mid-eighties, and would continue to work with them up through Cowboy Bebop, but Kawamori pulled him over to Triangle Staff to direct the studio’s first independent original anime, Macross Plus.

This four-episode OVA is commonly considered to be one of, if not THE best work in the Macross franchise, and introduced the world not only to director Shinichiro Watanabe, but the legend of anime music herself, Yoko Kanno. It was also on this series that Watanabe first worked with lead writer Nobumoto Keiko, who would also be the lead writer on Cowboy Bebop a few years later.

The epic trifecta of Watanabe, Kawamori, and Yoko Kanno returned to studio Sunrise Studio 2, most likely in sunglasses and black trenchcoats, and went to work on Kawamori’s next original series, The Vision of Escaflowne. Featuring several returning staff from Stardust Memories, including now-director Akane Kazuki, Escaflowne was to be a mammoth original series. However, while the series was planned for a thirty-nine episode run, a massive budget cut forced it to be shortened to twenty-six episodes, resulting in an infamously rushed and lackluster second half. Nevertheless, the show was fairly successful in the long run, with a legacy of being well-liked by fans.

Not long after Escaflowne’s completion, Sunrise Studio 2 launched into the production of Cowboy Bebop, the first original work to come from the mind of Shinichiro Watanabe. Most of the staff who worked on Escaflowne remained on-board, with Shoji Kawamori providing design assistance, Yoko Kanno creating perhaps the most legendary anime soundtrack of all time, and Akane Kazuki providing storyboards. Macross Plus writer Nobumoto Keiko returned as lead writer, and scriptwriter Sato Dai made his debut working on the series. (If you’ve been watching my Manglobe videos, you’ll know why he’s important already.)

Immediately following the completion of Cowboy Bebop, a significant portion of the show’s staff mass migrated away from Sunrise studio to form a new animation studio called BONES. The exact reasons for this departure are not known, but it is known that Sunrise underwent a lot of shuffling and reordering of its studios throughout the mid-nineties, likely a result of being bought out by Bandai Entertainment in 1994. Whether or not this, or even the tampering that happened with Escaflowne’s budget, were contributing factors in Bones’ defection, are a matter of speculation.

Studio BONES started out working directly with the studio it had departed from to produce feature films for both Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop, with most of the same staff that worked on the TV versions of both series returning to work on the movies. However, it is beyond this point that the staff of these shows began to split apart and go in their own directions over the course of the next fifteen years.

Because so many of the staff members who left Sunrise have remained at Studio BONES, many of them are credited on a variety of the studio’s productions–especially on their 2002 original series RahXephon–however, the main creative staff of that series actually come more from the lineage of Evangelion, which deserves to be its own video one of these days, so I’m not going to talk about it here.

In 2003, Studio BONES produced Wolf’s Rain, an original series created and composed by Nobumoto Keiko. She had conceptualized it while writing for Cowboy Bebop, and producer Minami Masahiko, who lead the charge of BONES staff away from Sunrise, agreed that they would produce it eventually. Satou Dai, who’d been doing freelance writing work since Cowboy Bebop, was brought on-board as a writer, and the character designer and other staff largely were returning collaborators.

The director, Tensai Okamura, had been a storyboarder on Cowboy Bebop, though he’d largely done freelance work before being brought on to work on Wolf’s Rain. Yoko Kanno also returned to provide yet another stunning soundtrack. Curiously absent from the production, however, was Shinichiro Watanabe.

That’s because Watanabe was busy directing two shorts for the seven-part micro-series, The Animatrix. This anomaly of animation production happened with the directors of The Matrix contracted a ton of anime studios and auteur creators to make series of short films in the Matrix universe. It is most likely through this series that Watanabe became acquainted with some of the more arthouse animation studios and creators that would come to define the latter part of his career.

Now, those who’ve been following my videos will know that BONES wasn’t the only studio to break away from Sunrise at the turn of the millennium. In 2002, a pair of producers from Sunrise Studio 7 broke off to form Studio Manglobe, and though they didn’t carry nearly as much staff with them, nor had they worked on any of the shows I’ve mentioned up till now, they made their debut by putting creative freedom in the hands of Shinichiro Watanabe.

2004’s Samurai Champloo was Watanabe’s first full-length original work since Cowboy Bebop, and with the new studio came a lot of new faces into his collaborative circle. While a couple of staff from Cowboy Bebop came along as well, the most noteworthy of them was Satou Dai, who would seem to find a home between working on Bones and Manglobe shows over the next five years.

Noteworthy among the new staff on this series is storyboard and episode director Yamamoto Sayo whom, upon finding her first taste of creative freedom working on Samurai Champloo, would go on to become an auteur talent in her own right. Watanabe would also work on this series with key animator Masaaki Yuasa, whose directorial debut, Mind Game, was released the same year, for which Watanabe produced the music.

In 2005, Studio BONES produced Eureka Seven, for which Satou Dai made his debut as lead writer. Shoji Kawamori returned to provide mecha designs once more, and Yamamoto Sayo was brought along as a storyboard and episode director. Meanwhile, Watanabe was working as a storyboard artist for episodes of Noein, an original series from Escaflowne director Akane Kazuki being made with studio Satellight.

In 2006, these creators crossed paths once more in the production of Manglobe’s Ergo Proxy. The series director, Shukou Murase, had been a key animator on Stardust Memories, the Escaflowne movie, and Wolf’s Rain, along with doing animation and character design works for many other Sunrise and BONES projects. Yamamoto Sayo worked once more as a storyboard and episode director, and both Watanabe and Akane Kazuki popped in to do some storyboards.

Also, at this point I feel like I should bring up Kawamoto Toshihiro, whom I’ve been neglecting all this time. Kawamoto was the character designer and chief animation director on Stardust Memories and Cowboy Bebop, a founding member of Studio BONES, character designer for Wolf’s Rain, and an animator on Escaflowne and Eureka Seven. In creating this post, I wanted to mostly leave out people who only worked on Sunrise and BONES shows since it’s kind of obvious that they’re going to keep appearing on shows if they work for those studios. However, Kawamoto also did some key animation and direction on Ergo Proxy, before not appearing in any more of the shows I’m going to mention, so here’s a quick nod in his direction.

2006 also saw the release of Kemonozume from Studio Madhouse, which was the next directorial work of Masaaki Yuasa. I felt it was worth mentioning because it featured Yamamoto Sayo as an episode director, along with some other staff that worked on Samurai Champloo, and because Sayo would then carry some of the other staff along to work on Michiko to Hatchin later.

Many would consider this period to be a relative dead zone in Shinichiro Watanabe’s career, but in 2007 he directed one segment of the little-known arthouse short film compilation Genius Party, produced by Studio 4c. Shoji Kawamori also had a segment in this collection with music by Yoko Kanno. That year, Kanno would also produce the soundtrack to the Studio BONES series Darker Than Black, the original work of Wolf’s Rain director Tensai Okamura, featuring again some of the same returning staff.

In 2008, Akane Kazuki would once again bring on Watanabe as a storyboard artist on a show he was directing, this time being Birdy the Mighty Decode over at Studio A-1 Pictures, which is yet ANOTHER studio that had broken away from Sunrise–this one in 2005. But that’s a story for another time.

Back at studio Manglobe, Yamamoto Sayo was making her directorial debut with her own original series, Michiko to Hatchin. Shinichiro Watanabe was involved as the music producer, while Shukou Murase returned as a storyboard and episode director. Masaaki Yuasa came aboard to storyboard the ending sequence as well. Unfortunately, with Michiko to Hatchin failing to find and audience and Manglobe turning to adaptation work for the next six years, this would be the last time that any of the auteur talents did any work with the studio.

The next four years would be a pretty rough patch in general for original anime. The Noitamina animation block became a sort of final bastion for works with creative freedom, though even still its foundations remained shaky. Shinichiro Watanabe all but blinked off the map for four years, popping up only once to storyboard and direct the first opening sequence for Star Driver, an original Studio BONES series which itself belongs in the Revolutionary Girl Utena diaspora. That one has its own chart and a post which I’ll link in the description, and I’ll probably make a video out of it one of these days.

While each of our beloved staff continued to pop up here and there on various shows, it wasn’t until 2012 that they came together once more in a big way on the mammoth TMS Entertainment production, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. This arthouse offshoot of the long-lived Lupin the Third franchise was the directorial and creative return of Yamamoto Sayo, and was finally the hit that she deserved. The show’s staff reads like a laundry list of cool, noteworthy people in the anime industry, but for now we’ll keep it to the relevant names.

Shinichiro Watanabe once again worked as a music producer on the show, while Sato Dai returned once more as a scriptwriter. Masaaki Yuasa returned once more as a key animator, and staff from all over this crazy diaspora made appearances here which you can track on the spreadsheet.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, 2012 also saw the triumphant return of Shinichiro Watanabe as the director of Sakamichi no Apollon, AKA Kids on the Slope. This was the first time Watanabe worked on manga adaptation, but given that it’s a story about high school kids getting really passionate about jazz music, and features extended jazz playing sessions, it’s not hard to see why Watanabe was interested. The series was also the beautiful reunion of Watanabe with music producer Yoko Kanno, creating the ultimate jazz ensemble. While not featuring any of the other major staff I’ve been talking about, the series did feature returning staff from all over Watanabe’s late career.

Finally, in 2014, things have come around full circle with Watanabe’s latest original work, Space Dandy. For this series, Watanabe finally returned to Studio Bones, and brought together old and new staff alike. Nobumoto Keiko, Satou Dai, and Yamamoto Sayo all returned once more to write, storyboard, and direct episodes, solidifying once and for all their places as Watanabe’s biggest collaborators. Because the show is still airing, the staff listings on anime news network are incomplete, but it’s hardly surprising to see recurring faces of the Studio BONES staff, alongside staff brought over from Manglobe, TMS, and MAPPA as well.

And that, my friends, concludes the odyssey of Cowboy Bebop’s creative diaspora. I hope you enjoyed this video, and that you’ll stick around as I dive into more of these shows individually. I’ve got a video on the history of Manglobe as well as analytical looks at Samurai Champloo, Ergo Proxy, and Wolf’s Rain as well if you haven’t seen those, and I’ll be covering more studios in the future. I hope to see you then!

2 thoughts on “Tracing the Lineage of Cowboy Bebop [Useless Anime Knowledge – Creative Diaspora]

  1. This was really good. Please make more diaspora posts, this is some very interesting stuff which is hard to know unless you spend days mucking around ANN and what-not.
    Also, I think you have the wrong video on the top of the post. It’s the Terror in Resonance ep2 video up there

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