Shinichirō Watanabe’s Favorite Things

I wonder what you’d call this kind of relationship? It’s not like we have any camaraderie. There isn’t really a bond here at all. Everyone just does what they want to do, comes back whenever they feel like it, and then they take off again. I’ve been tossed around so much, I’ve just had enough. Bah, I was better off as a solo act…I miss those days.” – Jet Black

How many friends do you think Shinichirō Watanabe had growing up? I wonder, because based on the three anime series he’s directed (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Kids on the Slope), the idea of friendship – and friendship as family – is a pretty big deal to him. Belonging, companionship, the sense of having a place to call home…to steal an oft-recurring lyric from his latest, Kids on the Slope, these are a few of his favorite things.

But before I go further, a few warnings: I’ll get into major spoiler specifics discussing Bebop (because really, why hasn’t everyone on Earth seen Bebop yet?), slight spoiler specifics on Champloo, but I’ll stay vague regarding Kids since many may not have seen it yet (it’s streaming free on Hulu, so get with it). Also, I feel I should make two admissions: 1) While this is a post about anime, I really don’t watch much anime. And 2) There’s some talk about jazz in here, but I really don’t know much about jazz. So clearly what follows are expert and deeply researched observations!

Okay, so I’m not the authority on these subjects; in fact, I only got into jazz after watching Bebop and loving its fantastic soundtrack – just one of the show’s many aspects that makes it, well, one of my favorite things. Movies, TV shows, anime, whatever category you want to consider, I count Bebop as a true masterpiece and one of the best things I’ve ever seen, period.

Yes, there’s the music. There’s Watanabe’s direction, who (again, only based on my limited exposure*) is the best anime director I’ve seen. And, hell, I’m always a sucker for a good noir (and if it’s set in space, even better!). But what I like most about Bebop is the underlying theme of searching for a place to belong.

It’s a fitting theme considering the setting, with Earth uninhabitable and all of humanity a diaspora spread throughout the solar system. The theme runs through the arc of every character, from bounty hunters Spike and Jet (one a former mob enforcer who faked his own death, the other a former police officer who lost his right arm), to the amnesiac femme fatale Faye (whose past turns out to be sweeter and sadder than expected), to the genius hacker kid Ed, to – yes – even Ein, the unusually intelligent Welsh Corgi. They all had pasts that left them adrift, until circumstances led them to team-up on Jet’s fishing-ship-turned-bounty-hunting HQ, the Bebop. This unusual arrangement is the closest thing any of them have to a home (for as long as it lasts…), but of course, being the hard-boiled loners they are, you’ll rarely hear any of them admit it.

In fact, as the quote above shows, it’s actually in the Cowboy Bebop movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, that Jet comes closest to acknowledging out-loud the strange relationship this group has indeed created – and hearing him, you get the sense one of the reasons they all refuse to admit it is because, deep down, they’re afraid of losing it. My favorite moments in Bebop are the ones where this theme, a constant undercurrent, briefly bubbles up to the surface.

Consider what (to me) is the biggest emotional wallop in the series, when Ed – the only character who discovers she does have a place outside the Bebop to call home – decides to leave without saying goodbye (and even sadder: Ein’s tortured decision to follow). Note this coincides with Faye getting her memory back, returning to her childhood home…and finding an empty lot. She remembers everything about her past, but still has no place to go. The shot where she lies on the dirt where her bed used to be is one of the saddest in the series. And note, again, that Spike and Jet refuse to show any hint that Ed’s departure hurts them one bit…although they clearly cared enough to symbolically tape her pinwheel to the bow of the Bebop.

Or, consider the fantastic final confrontation between Spike and Faye, who may well love each other but, for all their bounty-hunting daring, wouldn’t risk being vulnerable enough to say so. The closest we get is Faye’s tearful plea to Spike to leave his dark past behind rather than embark on a suicide mission for revenge. This scene always gives me goosebumps, because even though we knew it all along, it’s the first time Spike and Faye finally let on that they mean anything to each other.

This is also what ultimately makes Cowboy Bebop’s ending so tragic. Not only does Spike lose his life over a past he couldn’t leave behind, but his actions also shatters the unspoken bond the Bebop crew all shared. The last time we see Faye is with tears in her eyes just after Spike’s final departure, and you get the sense the next day she’ll leave, too, wandering alone again, continuing to insist it doesn’t hurt.

While I enjoyed Samurai Champloo, I felt it never gelled its disparate, anachronistic elements – modern day and Edo-period Japanese culture with a hip-hop soundtrack – as successfully as Bebop did. But in terms of themes, Watanabe’s explorations of friendship and belonging are all there: The rivalry between Mugen, the reckless outlaw, and Jin, the methodical ronin, that slowly (very slowly) reveals itself to be a mutual respect. Fuu’s search for her father, the “samurai who smells of sunflowers,” and her desire to find a place where she can feel she belongs (shades of Faye’s story here).

What I had to admire about Champloo (although, again, what made it less interesting to me than Bebop) was how the entire series – all 26 episodes – was leading up to the point where finally, finally, Mugen and Jin could simply admit they didn’t want to kill each other and, hey, actually considered each other friends. It only took months of travel together, constant threats to eventually have a duel to the death, and final battles with adversaries that left them both near enough to death as it is. The series took the tough-guys-who-can’t-talk-about-how-they-really-feel motif from Bebop, and drug out the obstinance to series-length. Interesting concept, but in the end, it made for a less engaging show.

Which brings us to Kids on the Slope, which is distinguished by being Watanabe’s most direct and uncomplicated examination of these subjects yet. Whereas Bebop and Champloo buried their emotions with tough-guy characters who’d rarely let their guards down, surrounded by swirls of style and genre mixtures that sometimes acted as buffers to the underlying themes, Kids on the Slope wears its heart on its sleeve. Gone are the tough guys, replaced by high school kids who find it a lot easier to explore and admit how they really feel about each other.

Too much so, in fact – call me a curmudgeon, but there was just a little too much high school love-triangle melodrama for my liking (which gets especially eye-rolly when the series sometimes veers into Idiot Plot territory, having characters do – or not do – inexplicable things seemingly just to stretch the melodrama out a bit longer). But again, this is a Watanabe series, so it’s no surprise that his central concern – even more so than the will-they-or-won’t-they love sagas of Kaoru/Ri-Chan and Sentaro/Yurika/Jun – is the friendship between Kaoru and Sentaro.

The former a rich kid who plays piano, that latter a poor kid who plays the drums, with both having family histories that leave them feeling like they don’t belong in the homes they live in, their slowly budding friendship is the heart of the series. As their bond grows during their many jazz sessions (although, like Mugen and Jin, they begin playing almost out of spite), the series captures in often moving ways the feeling of finding someone else on Earth you can truly relate to and share your passions with.

And the music. Oh man, the music. My favorite scene in the series came when Kaoru and Sentaro perform a very public impromptu medley (you’ll know it when you see it), and it’s a perfect fusion of the series’ two main imperatives: promoting a love and appreciation of jazz, and examining the powerful bond of friendship.

Watching the series, it occurred to me that while there are plenty of love stories in the world, there aren’t nearly as many about friendship. Sure, there are lots of buddy and “bromance” comedies like I Love You Man or Pineapple Express, but remarkably little (off the top of my head – feel free to send suggestions) that take a close, serious look at one of the biggest personal aspects of human life. And it’s on that level, despite the sometimes interminable high school dating melodrama, that I think Kids on the Slope is nearly as great a success as Bebop.

After all, as a character in Kids puts it, “Unlike love affairs, friendship is for life.”

*The only anime series I’ve seen – again, off the top of my head – are Bebop, Champloo, Kids on the Slope, Fullmetal Alchemist (the original), FLCL, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Trigun, Wolf’s Rain, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Tried Death Note, too, but ultimately gave up on it halfway through.

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2 Responses to Shinichirō Watanabe’s Favorite Things

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am sorry to intrude but artistically Samurai Champloo is far superior to Bebop. Bebop was undoubtley original but Champloo refined it’s themes, structure and imagery. Just compare their opening credits. Moreover, Champloo had a sense of direction to it. Bebop for example, had four guys waiting for something to happen every episode. This mounted the pressure among the script writers who had to depend on the audience’s gulibility (eg. Jupiter Jazz).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Kids on the slope …… A great anime????? Let the credulous and the vulgar be hypnotised by it…. It’s more like Watanabe’s day off

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