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‘Cowboy Bebop’ screenwriter shares his secrets at Anime Boston

Legendary screenwriter Dai Sato spoke about Space Dandy, moe culture, Kill La Kill, and a resurgence in nostalgia in current anime series.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 23, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 2:31 pm CDT

You may not know who Dai Sato is, but you know his stories: Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Eureka 7, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East, Lupin III, and the more recent Space Dandy are just a few of the major works that Sato has had his hand in.

On the heels of Space Dandy‘s newly announced renewal for a second season, Sato appeared as a special guest in Anime Boston on Saturday to talk about the influence of moe on anime, and the wave of nostalgia for the “golden age” of anime that has emerged as a theme of recent series.

Sato also revealed a few details about the recently announced new drama from Studio Mappa with Watanabe reuniting with the acclaimed lead animator of Samurai Champloo, Kazuto Nakazawa, whose work was also used in Kill Bill. The title for the series is Zankyo no Terror (The Extreme Echo of Terror). Sato noted that he wouldn’t be working with Watanabe on the new series, but was instead working on a new project for children.

Sato joined Ian Condry, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, acting as translator. Condry’s recent book The Soul of Anime argues that the success of anime and other media depends on the energy of fandom to reach full completion. Perhaps no anime better illustrates this than the legendary Cowboy Bebop; but Sato was also eager to share the ways in which the more recent Space Dandy drew on these ideas as well.

Sato, a lifelong musician and lyricist, got his break as a screenwriter at the age of 18, when he was asked to write sketch comedy for a famous live action TV show in Japan, Tunnels. Among other things along his route to screenwriting for animated projects, he wrote the lyrics for theme songs to DragonBall Z and Macross Plus. That project allowed him to meet the legendary director and musician who would go on to produce Bebop with him, Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno

Sato noted that while the projects couldn’t be more different, there were similarities between writing for comedy and animation that helped hone his skills. Both require a kind of ‘plot’ invoving a setup, a question to be asked and then answered. But it was his skill as a musician that proved crucial to his success. Watanabe taught Sato that “writing an anime should be like writing a song.” The lesson comes through loud and clear in the jazz influences on both Bebop and Samurai Champloo. “It was really thrilling to me to see the connection between music and anime in these stories,” Sato told Condry. Sato described the series Eureka 7 as more “technopop” by contrast, while the series Ergo Proxy was more Brit Pop in flavor.

“I think, I should just leap from one genre to another,” he joked when a fan asked where he found such unique ideas for his widely varied plots. “For me, jumping between genres is what keeps me from being bored.”

Sato told the eager audience at Anime Boston that Space Dandy, the much-touted reunion production of the creative team behind Bebop and Champloo, began as just that: a wish to get the gang back together. Watanabe told Sato he wanted to make a comedy, as part of a desire to break away from his association with drama. The project was planned with a simultaneous worldwide release in mind: This was done not only as a way to ward off fansubbing and piracy, but more importantly because it would also give more fans an opportunity to connect and enjoy the show across international lines through the medium of social media.

Sato talked extensively about the influence of the moe movement on recent anime series. Moe, or “cute” culture, examines ideas about art, feminity, and thematic complexity vs aesthetic and design. Space Dandy draws influence from the energy and debate around moe culture, and the idea that “maybe you don’t even need a story” to have a story. 

“We thought of Space Dandy as a kind of counter-approach to this overall trend,” Sato said, citing the popular Puella Madoka Magica as an example of a moe-inspired anime that went deeper but was “kinda heavy.”

“We thought about making Space Dandy with a kind of strong story that makes series like Space Dandy and Kill La Kill stand out so much. We wanted a counter-idea that was more focused on comedy.”

Commenting tacitly on Kill La Kill‘s fanservice-laden scantily clad female characters, Sato also joked that they also wanted to head away from the “flat-chested” moe style toward the direction of “big boobs,” by way of commenting on the expansion of moe culture’s ideas about what could be cute and interesting.

Space Dandy also encompasses a deep respect for ’80s culture, Sato said, noting the series’ affection for early technological gadgetry that seems amusingly outdated by today’s standards. He also noted that Kill La Kill likewise references ’70s culture and early shoujo manga and anime.

“I also feel that there’s a real movement right now, a real popularity in looking back at the Golden Age of anime in the ’70s and ’80s and thinking about how that style can be incorporated into new anime.”

Sato said that one aspect of that nostalgia dealt with convergence culture and collaborative fandom. He cited the explosion of interest in Attack on Titan as a “return to interest in the Big Riddle, or the Big Question,” another theme of Golden Age anime. Another example Sato listed is Hatsune Miku, the superstar pop singer whose fans have given her an identity out of what began as simply a voice. Sato saw this kind of collaborative creativity as a new direction for the future of anime.

“People who are thinking about the economy have run out of ideas,” Sato said regarding the fear that fandom and increased popularity of fan culture including fansubbing would ruin the viability of the animation industry. “It was fans who said, ‘no, I get it, and this [anime culture] is important…’ That’s the story. It was these small fan groups who broke through and got anime into theatres into the U.S. And gradually spread. and I think that the same thing will happen again.”

Illustration by jenokawa/deviantART;CC BY-SA-3.0

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*First Published: Mar 23, 2014, 12:13 pm CDT