Since we’re on an anniversary mood, enjoy this transcription of a brilliant panel that gathered essentially all of Cowboy Bebop’s core staff last month during Japan Expo 2018. Insightful, featuring production secrets, and funnier than it has any right to be!
Masahiko Minami: Producer, current head of studio BONES
Shinichiro Watanabe: Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario.
Keiko Nobumoto: Series composer
Shin Sasaki: Production Assistant (制作進行, Seisaku Shinkou): Effectively the lowest ranking 'producer' role, and yet an essential cog in the system. They check and carry around the materials, and contact the dozens upon dozens of artists required to get an episode finished. Usually handling multiple episodes of the shows they're involved with. More, managing director of studio Sunrise
Toshihiro Kawamoto: Character designer
Kimitoshi Yamane: Mechanical designer
- So here you are, 20 years after Cowboy Bebop premiered in Japan, all gathered to celebrate its 20th anniversary with fans overseas. How does it make you all feel?
Sasaki: I’d only been at Sunrise for barely a year when they were producing Cowboy Bebop, so I’m delighted I got the chance to participate in the creation of the series and now be here with you today as the head of Sunrise.
Watanabe: Every time I’m asked this question, I give the same answer: I’m still surprised that the series went on and got this popular even 20 years afterward. But that’s actually a lie. I kind of knew it would be successful thanks to all the blood, sweat and tears I and all the staff of the series had put in. Our goal was to create something new at the time.
Minami: Although we’ve worked together many more times since then, we rarely ever take the time to look back and talk about Cowboy Bebop. So it’s great to be able to do that today with everyone here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this beloved show.
Nobumoto: It makes so happy that a story I wrote 20 years ago resonated this strongly with people from all over the world and in a way helped connect Japan with them. It’s my first time in France so I am very surprised to see the following it has here.
Kawamoto: It’s true we’ve kept collaborating over and over since Cowboy Bebop ended, but it’s still a big pleasure and joy to be with everyone here to celebrate the series as a successful work. We’re very grateful to all fans.
Yamane: I never thought we’d still be talking about a series 20 years after, but I guess Cowboy Bebop was special to everyone so I’m happy as well.
- Mr. Sasaki, what were the objectives Sunrise had for Cowboy Bebop?
Sasaki: The Japanese animation industry was at a high point at that time, and Sunrise even more so with the success of flagship IPs like Gundam. That’s why we were in a position that granted us some leeway to experiment with new concepts. Cowboy Bebop was an attempt to create a new world and bring something fresh to the audience. At the time anime was not the global market it is today, so the show was first thought for Japanese audiences. But when we saw the world crafted by the staff, we knew it’d have great success overseas.
- And it did! Mr. Watanabe, you’re a big factor in that success. What do you think made the series so popular among fans to this day?
Watanabe: First, allow me to respond to Mr. Sasaki’s statements. He claimed that they knew the series would be successful. That’s a lie. *laughs*
To answer your question, I think the creative freedom we battled for bore its fruits, right? We created Cowboy Bebop as a series of its own, not as a promotional tool for something else. In today’s industry, creative freedom is a thing of the past and that saddens me. The only series as of late that was created freely and is true to its creators’ vision and ambition is Space Dandy. *laughs*
Minami: Speaking of which, I was supposed to wear a Cowboy Bebop t-shirt for this panel celebrating the series’ 20th anniversary, but I forgot and wore a Space Dandy one instead. *laughs*
- We have asked fans of Cowboy Bebop to vote for their favorite episode. Episode 5 came in third. In that episode, the audience got a glimpse of the show’s overarching narrative for the first time.
Watanabe: I’ll let Kawamoto comment on this episode because he was in charge of it.
Kawamoto: By that point, I thought I had a decent grasp of Mr. Watanabe’s vision for the series. Turns out I wasn’t even close! It took hours of debating with him for me to somewhat sort it all out.
Watanabe: You mentioned it was the episode that truly introduced viewers to the plot. That’s actually because I’d read a theory that suggests people bear with a series until the fifth episode before they either drop it or continue with it. So I thought I had to give it my all and cram the episode with all the ideas I had for the series.
- The second most beloved episode was the finale, episode 26. Let’s have a look at this clip of scenes from the episode.
Watanabe: It was Keiko who was in charge of this episode.
*Nobumoto sheds tears*
Nobumoto: I’m sorry… It is just that when seeing that clip, I remembered all the hardships we had to go through during the series’ production, and the management did not make it any easy for us. As for the episode itself, I remember that in order to forget about those hard times and focus completely on my work, I’d wear my earphones and go on a stroll around the studio while listening to Ms. Konno’s music for the series. I drew inspiration from those moments and that’s how I decided on the way to bring the story to a close.
Watanabe: Since this event is a special event that celebrates the series’ anniversary, I want to share with you a secret that I’ve never talked about before. If you pay attention to the episode, you’ll notice white doves flying. And as you might know, I recently directed a Blade Runner by the name of Blade Runner: Black Out 2022. Now that I have set you on track, I’ll leave it to everyone’s imagination to connect the dots.
- As the grand finale of the series, it must hold a special spot in everyone’s heart. Mr. Sasaki, how did it feel for you at studio Sunrise to see it all come to an end?
Sasaki: As I said, I’d only joined the studio about a year before, so I was just a newbie goofing around. Producer Mr. (Noriaki) Tanaka took me under his wing and taught me a lot so I’m very thankful to him.
Kawamoto: Oh, Mr. Tanaka! Been a long while since I last heard his name! He was a good person to work with, and helped us a lot. It is a shame he was taken from us by the management during the series’ production.
Watanabe: Wait. Is it just me or are you are throwing stones at Sunrise?! *laughs*
Kawamoto: I’m just reminiscing about the fact that the higher-ups did not help us.
- Now let’s move onto the winner of our popularity poll: episode 20.
Minami: First let me say that I’m very disappointed that episode 10 is not among people’s favorites…
Watanabe: Episode 20 is a weird one to like. I guesss French people live up to their reputation of being odd. Though in the end, it must be because it was inspired by many French filmmakers like Godard and Melville. For example, the billiards table in the episode is a reference to Melville’s The Samurai, and I was sad to see that the reference flew over most people’s head in Japan. Also, this episode had many digital segments, so we had to rely heavily on Yasuhiro Irie and tasked him to take care of those and provide image boards.
- Alright. Before we wrap up this panel, we’ll take some questions from the audience. For starters: If one lends a meticulous ear during the last scene of the last episode, they can hear Spike kind of snoring. Does that mean they he may wake up someday?
Watanabe: *points at Sasaki* You should ask Sunrise that!
Yamane: I asked Mr. Watanabe about the Swordfish’s whereabouts many times. He answered that it must be wandering aimlessly across the galaxy.
- Earlier Mr. Watanabe regretted the lack of creative freedom in today’s industry. There’s been this online discourse that big Western companies storming the industry, mainly Netflix, open up the possibility to give creators more room for innovation, but in the end all their original series tend to fall into the same genre and follow the same tropes. Mr. Minami, as the head of one of two studios that have signed a special partnership with Netflix, do you think they can grant you any of that creative freedom? What do you feel they can contribute?
Minami: First of all, it’s my job as a producer to provide the creators I work with enough freedom so they can stick to their vision. As for Netflix, the main reason we partnered with them is to have our shows readily available in many languages to worldwide audiences, thus reaching many more people. Now I do think that this partnership may allow us to experiment with new formats, perhaps venture into new territories and target new audiences. But even if it doesn’t, what I said about worldwide availability still holds.
- How was it like to work with Yoko Kanno on Cowboy Bebop?
Watanabe: Yoko’s a very talented person, with such a broad spectrum of musical ability. For example, for episode 7 “Heavy Metal Queen,” I had her compose heavy metal music for her first and likely last time. But she still nailed it so perfectly.
Minami: She’d check the Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More and adapt the tempo and duration of every track to each sequence. And she’d do that for every episode! It must be said, though, that her paycheck for her work on the series was 5 times the industry standard. *laughs*
Watanabe: And by the way, people very often say that Cowboy Bebop was allocated a substantial budget. Not true! We just used a lot of money. What do you think, Mr. Sasaki?
Sasaki: I do remember the higher-ups got very angry at you.
Minami: It’s also my job as a producer to get yelled at by the higher-ups. Being in that position doesn’t mean the money is mine either. That is why I eventually left and founded my own studio; I thought to myself that if I were to manage other people’s money, I might as well do it while not getting yelled at, and founding my own studio was the solution for it.
Watanabe: So you are saying you did it to be able to freely mess with money?
Minami: *looks the other way* Hmmm, how about we move onto whatever is next…?
- Next is the end! Thank you all for coming!
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