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Shinichirō Watanabe, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Music

The Disco Dance-off from Space Dandy
He’s a dandy guy… in space. (Series: Space Dandy)

Over the past two days, we’ve covered my favorite opening and ending themes from all the anime I’ve seen so far. In today’s article, I look to wrap up this mini-set and cover my contenders for “best overall music” for the anime series I’ve seen. (And no, despite the title, they’re not all shows from Watanabe-san. Although, spoiler: Yes, several of them are.)

Welcome to “12 Days of AniTAY 2020”, a writing challenge in which I look to have an article a day for 12 days leading up to Christmas, all centered in some way on anime or anime-related topics. You can find re-posts of my 2018 and 2019 series (posted originally on the late TAY and AniTAY Kinja sites) now here on Medium.

Actually, as I’ve noted previously, I’ve been all about music for a lot longer even than I’ve been about anime. And soundtracks (movies, TV, musicals, rock operas, etc.) have often been a big thing for me. A friend of mine’s older brother, one night when we were all hanging out in a big group playing poker or something, was looking through the CD binder I’d brought for possible music selections, and asked me “why do you have so many soundtracks?” — well, because I *like(d)* them. I mean, there’s nothing like a classic John Williams movie score, or an Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, things of that nature. More recently, I’ve been a fan of much of the work that Murray Gold did for the show when they brought back Doctor Who.

The hallmark of any good soundtrack (film or TV), is that it should properly match what’s going on onscreen. It should be there when it needs to be, and sometimes, NOT be there when it shouldn’t. With most anime, since I don’t speak Japanese, I’m often busy reading the subtitles, and so may not have as much appreciation for how well that’s being done, or in some cases, just how much of a “soundtrack” the show has beyond its opening and ending themes. Therefore, the list that follows are the shows where the music made a major impression on me, even in a few cases where I only really know the openings and endings. Unlike my previous articles, I won’t be trying to order them chronologically, but a little more by “favorites” overall. I will also group franchises (multiple series, OVAs, movies, etc.) together in one entry for each.

The Watanabe-san Shows

Okay, so, the elephant in the room. Shinichirō Watanabe is an anime director known for mixing up genres, and really using music throughout his works. I’ve seen the three series below in their entirety (obviously), plus his two contributions to The Animatrix (both of which had some great music in them as well). I still really need to see his latest series Carole & Tuesday, but it slipped behind after getting relegated to Netflix anime release hell (where in the US, Netflix releases new series they’ve licensed all in one go at the end, or shortly after the end, of the whole season having been aired in Japan). So to begin, the biggest part of that metaphorical elephant…

Cowboy Bebop

Splash screen: “The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called…. Cowboy Bebop.

Ahh, Bebop. Watanabe’s seminal work (or at least, his first one). A mix and melding of multiple genres, spread across 26 episodes plus an OVA episode and a movie. But not just the story-telling genres, Yoko Kanno’s work in creating the soundtrack for each covers a wide variety of types, although most often nearing a jazz/blues/rock fusion. In fact, each episode is instead labeled a “session” to drive home the musical influences, and “session” names pretty much all contain musical references — “Jupiter Jazz”, “Asteroid Blues”, “Honky Tonk Women”, just to name a few in the first half of the series alone. Anyway, you can find more and better articles properly breaking down just about any aspect of the series and/or its music, and honestly, you should try. Or at least go and watch and/or find the soundtrack(s, there’s at least 3 official albums I think, plus the movie OST?) on YouTube or wherever and give a listen if you never have.

In my previous articles, I listed the opening theme, “Tank!”, and the primary ending theme, “The Real Folk Blues” among my favorites. In addition to those, there are a pair of one-off endings that I love: “Space Lion” and “Blue”.

There’s something about that mournful saxophone playing that I just love. (And not just because I played sax in high school.) And the way it transitions in the percussion, and almost-tribal like vocals halfway through, perfectly matching the episode’s transition from having the characters interacting on the ground, to being back in space and moving on to the next thing.

The other one is “Blue.” A mournful lyrical piece, used over the final shots of the series.

As with “Space Lion”, I love the jazz sax found in “Road to the West”:

But there’s such a mix, that we get pieces that leave me scratching my head, even as I love them, such as “Cats on Mars”, and the pseudo-Western “Go Go Cactus Man”:

Then of course, there’s the frenetic “American Money”, the theme song from the show-within-a-show ‘Big Shot’, which tells bounty hunters all about newly available bounties:

Finally (for this article — I could like, post almost every song from the OSTs here), there’s also the music of the movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Again, many great pieces there, but I’ll leave you with my overall favorite for it, “Ask DNA”.

Samurai Champloo

After Watanabe blew our minds with Cowboy Bebop, especially thanks to a killer English dub that helped launch the “Toonami” block, a few years later he gave us Samurai Champloo. Another series, this time based around an anachronistic, but roughly Edo-period piece, that again mixed story genres this time with a more hip-hop soundtrack. Most memorable to me besides the opening and ending shared in my previous articles were the alternate endings: “Who’s Theme”, “YOU”, “FLY [SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS]”, and “San Francisco”:

The latter two in particular keep with the hip-hop fusion worked into the soundtrack, while the former two both have the mournful/soulful/whatever kind of sound that really tends to grab me for an ending theme.

Space Dandy

In 2014, Watanabe returned to the space/sci-fi genre, bringing us Space Dandy. Not nearly as serious as Bebop or Champloo, but still, full of those great themes. Unlike its predecessors, its opening and closing didn’t quite make my favorites lists, in part because I originally caught the English dub on Toonami (side note: I love Ian Sinclair’s rendition of Dandy, so much so that when I got the chance to meet him at a convention the other year, I got his autograph on a Dandy art print), and for the first half, I believe, or at least the first several episodes, they ran an alternate opening theme to the Japanese version, and for all of the episodes, they ran an alternate ending theme. And I actually prefer the American ending to the Japanese one, so here we go with Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro’s funky “Cosmic Adventure” and “Word Pack”:

Of course, I do like the Japanese opening, “Viva Namida”, it’s definitely got that energy I mentioned in my openings article:

But as with Champloo above, it’s several of the songs sung in-show, as well as one-off endings where things really shine for me as well. First, used several times in an episode where Dandy and crew form a band that releases a mega-one-hit-wonder, is ‘The Dropkix’ with “Kanchigai Lonely Night”, although I present the English dub, because again, I think Ian Sinclair killed it:

Dandy and crew go back to high school, and do the “take the bookworm/nerd-girl to the prom so she can show how beautiful she is and show up the popular clique” trope thing, with “All is All”:

Apologies — this may not work outside the US. Try searching on “Space Dandy All is All (Viva All)” for a link that works for you.

And next, to help ‘explain’ the header image — the “Dandy Dance” dance off scene:

Apologies — this may not work outside the US. Try searching on “Space Dandy dance off” for a link that works for you.

That episode also features more dancing as the ‘proper’ ending theme to it, making it well worth checking out ZEN-LA-ROCK’s “Space☆Dandy”:

And speaking of one-offs, it wasn’t all zaniness — they could do “quiet and reflective” quite well, with “White House” by the interestingly named OGRE YOU ASSHOLE:

Apologies — this may not work outside the US. If so, try this link instead, for a slightly shorter version.

And to close out the series, “SPACE FUN CLUB”:

Well. At this point, I was going to introduce shows NOT associated with Watanabe-san, but looking at it, I’ve put up well over an hour’s worth of music just here for you to listen to (and hopefully more if you explore the rest of these soundtracks), so I’m going to save those series for the TRUE final article in this subset to come tomorrow. I hope to see you there, and continue sharing some of my favorite anime music with you!

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