Shinichiro Watanabe is a legend in the anime community. Hailed as one of the greatest anime directors of all time, he is among the handful of creators responsible for increasing the popularity of anime in the western world.
Watanabe is known for visually impressive animation, stellar soundtracks, and a flawless narrative. Watanabe’s work is also heavily influenced by American culture, which is demonstrated in his early hits, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.
And as legendary as those anime are, his directorial debut is also noteworthy.
Fair warning, there are show spoilers in this post!
The popularity of anime in the west began to steadily increase with the likes of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll. However, amongst these entertainment marvels, Macross Plus made a quiet appearance in 1994 as a 4-part OVA series (later formatted into a movie). The anime has it all; pulse-pounding dog fights, love triangles, bitter rivalries, beautiful music, and a concept that appeals to all ages.
Macross Plus superbly dealt with the melodrama surrounding its complicated relationships while also delving deep into the morality of AI and cybernetics.
Macross Plus is set thirty years after the events of the TV series. It acts as a sequel to the original Macross (Macross II was later retconned as an alternate universe story) and centers around former friends Isamu Dyson, Guld Goa Bowman, and Myung Fang Lone.
The story begins with two rival companies competing for a contract with UN Spacy to replace the old VF-11B Thunderbolt fighter. The two machines attempting to lead the agency into the future of fighter technology are the YF-19 by Shinsei Industry and the YF-21 by General Galaxy.
The YF-19 is piloted by Isamu Dyson and is the traditional jet fighter with improved hardware and boosted performance output. The YF-21 is piloted by Guld Boa Bowman and introduces something entirely new; the ability to control the fighter with the pilot’s brain.
As the two pilots push their respective aircraft to their limits in a bid to demonstrate superiority, the rivalry heats up and sparks bitter feelings from the past. The arrival of Myung adds fuel to the situation, and emotions reach a boiling point.
Meanwhile, in the world of entertainment, AI idol Sharon Apple is a rising star with her visually stunning performances and captivating music.
Art and Music Direction
Shinichiro Watanabe co-directed Macross Plus with series creator, Shōji Kawamori. The character designs were by Mayasuki, and Koji Morimoto directed the animation direction operations.
The animation has aged very well over the years and perfectly captures the 90s aesthetic and pushed the limits of hand-drawn animation. In fact, another legendary creator, Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) was brought in as the chief animator for the first dogfight in the asteroid field.
Another signature quality of Watanabe’s shows are the incredible soundtracks, and Macross Plus is no different. This series was scored by legendary composer, Yoko Kanno. Yoko has scored many of your favorite shows, and her music on Macross Plus is considered amongst her best work. And her opening theme sets the tone for the entire series:
Any fan of Watanabe’s work can see his classic formula take shape in Macross Plus. He combined a superb soundtrack with quality animation and storytelling, which makes Macross Plus one of the best anime of the 90s. And all the experience he gained on Macross Plus was reflected in his next directorial effort, Cowboy Bebop.
Despite being over two decades old, Cowboy Bebop continues to be a landmark in the history of animation. It revolutionized the anime industry and helped set it on the road to global recognition.
Cowboy Bebop blends in a variety of styles in the content, animation, and music score. In fact, it’s hard to imagine selling the concept of space bounty hunters set to a bebop jazz soundtrack in a futuristic sci-fi wild west style setting, but the concept is executed flawlessly.
In a dystopian future set in 2071, the earth is mostly uninhabitable due to a catastrophic event involving the construction of a hyperspace gateway. This forced humankind to evacuate their home planet and spread across the galaxy.
The result of this is a lawless society where crime is at an all-time high. To contend with this, bounty hunters are spread to every corner of the solar system. And on Mars is where we find our protagonists aboard the spaceship Bebop.
The Bebop crew includes Spike Spiegel, an exiled member of the Red Dragon Syndicate, and the former ISSP officer, Jet Black. As the show progresses, the crew is joined by Faye Valentine, Edward Wong, and Ein.
Throughout the series, the characters contend with several mishaps and ghosts from their past. The main story arc is centered around Spike and his rivalry with a former friend who is affiliated with the Red Dragon Syndicate. This sets off a series of exciting and pulse-pounding events that have you fearing for Spike’s safety.
Art and Music Direction
The brilliance of Watanabe continued to manifest itself through Cowboy Bebop. He touched on numerous genres to create another work of art in the late 90s. And this show was his first solo directorial effort to boot.
Similar to Macross Plus, the animation has aged well, which makes it possible to still enjoy the anime over 20 years after its initial release. The show came out at the peak of hand-drawn and colored cel animation and retains the smooth aesthetic and warm glow that 90s anime is known for.
In true Watanabe fashion, the music is top-notch and Yoko Kanno created an iconic soundtrack that has proven to be one of the most popular anime soundtracks of all time.
Try not to get excited when you hear this theme song!
Between the quality animation, killer soundtrack, and captivating storyline, Cowboy Bebop is deservedly recognized as a gateway anime for new fans and the show has lasting appeal to even the most seasoned anime fans.
It’s hard to imagine what anime would look like in this country without Shinichiro Watanabe. Cowboy Bebop was a critical success on both a national and global scale and is often hailed as the greatest anime series of all time.
Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there are not too many anime that receive the same level of attention and accolades that Cowboy Bebop has received.
In the 90s, anime was already achieving global recognition and increasing in popularity, however, Cowboy Bebop brought anime into the mainstream in a way that no other anime had achieved up to that point. To this effect, Shinichiro Watanabe deserves a lot of credit for helping the anime industry become what we see today.