When Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature films last September, countless media outlets and fans around the world mourned the loss of a beloved filmmaker—Japan’s most famous since Akira Kurosawa—whose movies had brought gravitas to the country’s animation industry, long a niche interest in the West. Thanks to thought-provoking films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and of course, Miyazaki’s work, American interest in Japanese animation had exploded over the last three decades and made a huge cultural impact.
Critical focus, however, has stayed largely on feature films, while anime—referring specifically to Japanese animated television series—has not earned the same kind of respect. An animator like Daisuke Nishio, for example, who directed the hit Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z series, is not considered an artist like Miyazaki, whose drawings have been displayed in museums in Paris.
But while anime has always struggled to be taken seriously as an art form, one director might be able to make critics reconsider: Shinichiro Watanabe, director of Cowboy Bebop, whose new series Space Dandy is debuting on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on January 4.
Japanese filmmakers first began experimenting with animation in the early 1900s, not long after animators in the West like Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), but it was not until the 1960s that the industry began to take shape under Osamu Tezuka, the artist whose large-eyed aesthetic is most associated with anime to this day. In 1963, Tezuka's Astro Boy was the country’s first popular televised animated series and was such a hit that it was the first anime broadcast overseas. Demand grew over the years and spread around the world, but despite its by-the-numbers popularity, anime remained a largely subcultural taste, not helped by the social outcast otaku image that persists, even in Japan. In general, animation is still widely considered children's entertainment, which has been difficult to overcome, and anime has added cultural boundaries to conquer.
Another obstacle standing in the way of anime’s critical acceptance is the fact that it’s a highly commercial product, reportedly drawing more than $2 billion each year. Driven by industry demands, most directors faithfully adapt popular manga (comics) or stick to tried-and-true story lines. The shoujo (young girl) genre, for example, hits the same plot points (class field trip, hot springs vacation, Christmas party) in each version of the high school love story. Unsurprisingly, shows that have successfully infiltrated American pop culture, like Pokémon and Sailor Moon, are highly formulaic, mindless entertainment.
Of course, there are directors who have worked against the studio system. In 1995, Hideaki Anno directed the highly controversial series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was praised for its dark tone and post-modernist exploration of psychoanalytical, religious, and sexual themes. Evangelion has been credited with advancing a more serious study of anime in Japan, but thanks in part to its use of mecha (giant mobile robots piloted by humans; think Pacific Rim’s Jaegers), it was deemed too alienating and foreign for most Western audiences at the time, despite the fact that it subverted that mecha genre.
Shortly after Evangelion ended, Watanabe entered the scene. Born in 1965 in Kyoto, Watanabe grew up during the golden days of Tezuka and the first anime boom. As an employee of Sunrise studio, he worked on storyboards and co-directed projects, before making his full directorial debut with Cowboy Bebop in 1998. The series, about a crew of space bounty hunters in the year 2071, referenced spaghetti westerns, film noir, and Hong Kong action movies, with each episode dedicated to a different style of music, like the titular bebop. It was a huge success, and the first anime series to show on Adult Swim when it launched in 2001. Critics loved the jazz and blues-inspired soundtrack, the elegant film noir style, and existential themes. Along with Evangelion, it’s been called one of the greatest anime series of all time, and it is arguably the single most popular “serious” anime among Americans.
In 2004, Watanabe followed Bebop with Samurai Champloo, which mixed Japan’s Edo period (samurai) with hip-hop culture (graffiti artists, etc.). Aside from being another hit (the series aired in more than 13 countries and was licensed for distribution in the U.S. before it even showed in Japan), Champloo cemented Watanabe’s reputation for combining unexpected cultural influences to create his own referential style. “When you’re making anime, if you get all of your inspiration from anime . . . . it’s going to lack originality and creativity, so I try to get my inspiration from different genres.” Watanabe said at a press conference at Otakon 2013. (Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, Watanabe was unable to complete an interview before press time.)
Despite his success, Watanabe is still relatively unknown outside of anime circles—especially compared to other Japanese filmmakers like Kurosawa, who was posthumously named one of the top five Asians of the century by Asiaweek magazine and CNN. But while it might seem impossible for anime to ever break out, it’s not hard to imagine anime taking the same path to critical acceptance that live-action feature films did long ago.
The first films produced at the turn of the 20th century were simple, static creations, like a straight-on recording of a performed play. D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to open people’s eyes to the medium’s possibilities with his early shorts and controversial feature film, Birth of a Nation. By experimenting with camera angles, lighting, shots, and editing, he changed people’s perception of movies. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles would take those techniques and advance them to create one of the world’s most dominant industries and an accepted art form.