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The Mike Toole Show

Time:2018-02-13 19:43Turbochargers information Click:

Show Mike Toole

Some years back, I was talking to my friend Carl Horn about interesting anime directors. Mamoru Oshii was mentioned, of course, as was Hiroyuki Okiura, Mamoru Hosoda, and Mister Cowboy Bebop himself, Shinichiro Watanabe. At this point, Carl made an interesting observation: the anime business seemed to be awfully good at training up these impressive, mercurial directors, folks like Okiura, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and Kunihiko Ikuhara, and then, after a few big hits, never giving them a significant project again. Meanwhile, a director who was a bit more obviously otaku-centric, like Akiyuki Shinbo, never seemed to want for work. It was an intriguing observation, I thought.

Of course, it's an observation that was missing some crucial context, and one made just a year or two ahead of many of these directors’ resurgences. Hiroyuki Okiura's spellbinding debut, Jin-Roh, never yielded an obvious follow-up, but after years of hard work, his fun family movie A Letter to Momo hit theatres. Kunihiko Ikuhara rode the Utena wave to Los Angeles, where he spent a few years studying film and trying to learn English. After a variety of puzzling collaborations (anyone remember Schell Bullet?) and some odd jobs working on fare like Diebuster and Kokoro Connect, he returned, triumphant, with the intriguing Penguindrum. Kitakubo, a guy for whom I'd love to see a comeback, has kept busy working on recent stuff like Occult Academy and Argevollen. And Shinichiro Watanabe did not disappear after Samurai Champloo, the successor to Cowboy Bebop—he kept busy, largely as a music producer. He resurfaced in 2012 with Kids on the Slope, but that was just the prelude.

I was in the room at Otakon 2013 when Watanabe announced Space Dandy to the world. Unlike his return to direction, the period drama Kids on the Slope, Space Dandy was billed as a truly original work, a rollicking cosmic comedy-adventure about a pompadoured man that the director himself awkwardly described as “the dandiest man in space.”  I don't think anyone was won over by the first promo images of Dandy himself, a skinny dude with a varsity jacket, a strong chin, and a rakish grin. His castmates, including an alien cat dude, a fireplug-esque robot, and a space ape adversary, were marginally more intriguing. But we were still filled with excitement, because the Cowboy Bebop guy was getting the Cowboy Bebop band back together. Soon, we'd realize just how much more Space Dandy had to offer.

Let's look at a typical anime series—late-night fare, obviously, but not a no-budget show doomed to the depths of the graveyard shift. Instead, we'll look at something with some muscle and a few big names behind it: Fate/Zero.  You might already know that Gen Urobuchi created the story and Ei Aoki was the director, but look a little closer and you'll see that huge swaths of the show were managed by Kei Tsunematsu and Takuya Nonaka, who each storyboarded and directed four or five episodes.  That's pretty typical—a troubled production might have a lot of staff in the mixer, but a stable show with a good director and line producer will feature a team or a dozen or so key creative types.

With Space Dandy, Watanabe took that scale to the galactic level.  After all, why have five or six episode directors when you can have, say, twenty or so? If they're all working from the same playbook, under Watanabe's watchful management and with veteran animation director Shingo Natsume watching the storyboards and double-checking everyone's work, the results have to be good, right? What Watanabe and his team ultimately delivered in Space Dandy was a concept that permitted a huge variety of approaches, while still staying true to the show's chaotic narrative. But in looking back at Space Dandy, my big question is this: who are these people?

Several of them are, for lack of a better term, “anime household names.” Watanabe himself is widely-known enough that just attaching his name as chief director is a shrewd piece of marketing. Other Bebop alumni, like screenwriters Keiko Nobumoto and Dai Sato and composer Yoko Kanno, also lend the show some cachet. Some of the other collaborators, like Masaaki Yuasa and Thomas Romain, are already popular for their own creations. But that still leaves an awful lot of talented animators and writers still hunting for recognition. Let's look at ten of them, and the episodes and stories they helmed.

I'll lead off the list with Sayo Yamamoto, who's seemed on the verge of a breakthrough for years. Astute fans will recognize her name from Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin the 3rd: The Woman Named Fujiko Mine—she directed ‘em both, making her one of the show's more experienced directors. I'm partial to the second of her two episodes, “Rock n’ Roll Dandy, Baby,” simply because it's such a startlingly blunt tribute to To-Y, the obscure but influential 80s rock band OVA. Her first episode, the show's second, is still a bit stronger. “The Search for the Phantom Space Ramen, Baby” has a number of fine qualities that make it stand out—a blazing kung-fu fight by Scarlet, the show's disgruntled alien registration tech, and a trip through a bizarre assortment of space ramen stands. Writer Dai Sato based these stands on the real-life stands in his neighborhood; Yamamoto's approach is oddly delicate, but still hits like a sledgehammer.

Hiroshi Shimizu is one of Yamamoto's partners in crime, having worked with her on Fujiko, Michiko & Hatchin, and a number of other shows. I've gotten to meet this guy and quiz him about Miyazaki (“he can draw more than 30 high-quality frames in an hour – scary!”) and the beleaguered Little Nemo movie (“I was a regular animator, so we never really noticed the production's problems on our end.”) – he's a tough, seen-it-all veteran, but he's actually very seldom directed, instead plying his trade as an animation director. Like Yamamoto, he steers two episodes, both written by Keiko Nobumoto. The standout is “The Lonely Pooch Planet, Baby,” which evokes that sad dog episode of Futurama, Looney Tunes (a sequence where Meow, Dandy's vaguely feline stowaway/sidekick, chases after some food, complete with absurd sound effects, is one of my favorites), and Cowboy Bebop itself.

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