The Matrix, 20 years old this month, changed cinema overnight — and just one year after Bebop premiered in Japan. Watanabe’s own postmodern masterpiece later became a monument for Western anime fans after Adult Swim aired the series in September 2001. Bebop was, like The Matrix, an anachronistic blend of styles and genres picked up by creators who possess a devoted appreciation for culture outside their native lands.
So it made perfect sense for Watanabe to take part in the best thing to come out of The Matrix: 2003’s anthology film, The Animatrix.
Released straight to DVD between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, The Animatrix strung together nine shorts, all set in the world created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Directed by some of the most respected names in animation, the talent roster included Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike, Peter Chung, visual-effects artist Andrew Jones, and Mahiro Maeda.
Watanabe directed a pair of shorts for the anthology: “Kid’s Story,” the only one set between the first and second Matrix films, and “A Detective Story,” a prequel to the franchise’s initial installment.
At first viewing, “Kid’s Story,” written by The Wachowskis, appears to be very un-Watanabe. There are no space battles, gunfights, or references to jazz or classic cinema found anywhere in the short’s 15-minute runtime. The Kid (Clayton Watson) in question is a high school student who, after receiving a phone call from Neo, jumps off the roof of his school to escape capture by Agents. The fall is an event we see in the short’s opening seconds, as The Kid dreams of it the night before. To everyone still confined in the Matrix, the troubled young man has met an untimely end. But in reality he performed a feat originally thought to be impossible; escaping the Matrix by — as Trinity says to Neo — “self substantiation;” no red pill or conversations filled with Alice in Wonderland analogies needed.
According to a behind-the-scenes feature on The Animatrix DVD, early drafts of “Kid’s Story” script only involved scenes from the second half of the film; the opening dream, a conversation on his computer, and The Kid’s commute to school is all Watanabe. He takes a character created by The Wachowskis and made it his own; the tweaks helping The Kid fall in line with protagonists found in past and future Watanabe series.
Like the crew of the Bebop, the trio in Samurai Champloo, and the young jazz musicians at the center of Kids on the Slope, The Kid finds himself out of place in society. Before his leap of faith, Watanabe lets us know that this seemingly normal character is just a tad different than anyone else around him. On his commute, while everyone is either walking or inside of a vehicle, The Kid rolls freely on his skateboard. On his way to class, he stops by his locker, stark white, impossible not to stand out among the rows of red lockers surrounding it.
In the classroom, the camera pans across the students’ faces, all looking directly at the teacher writing on the blackboard, except for The Kid. Head down, doodling in his notebook, he’s clearly not focused on the days lesson, more interested in learning about Neo, Trinity, and what The Matrix is. His last moments are not just a declaration of faith to Neo, but it makes him resemble Spike at the end of Bebop, someone willing to risk everything, not to die, but to find out if he’s truly alive.
Character traits weren’t the only aspect of his work Watanabe brought to “Kid’s Story,” he brought something we’ve come to expect from the former Sunrise episode director: electrifying visuals.
Unenthused with the look of anime at the time, Watanabe wanted to take a different approach when it came to “Kid’s Story.” Shinji Hashimoto, the short’s animation director, character designer, and key animator, suggested that they go for a rougher, more naturalistic hand drawn style. The results are nothing less than immaculate; in every close up of The Kid, you can see each swing and slash of the pencil used to bring this character to life.
“Ever since I started working as an animator, I never felt there was too much distinction between animation and live action,” Watanabe says. “Watching The Matrix, I feel pretty strongly that the two are coming closer together. So I hope I can keep working to erase those borders.”
To make those borders less visible, Watanabe filmed Watson performing all the dialogue scenes. Then animators transferred Watson’s mannerisms and facial movements from video to the page, to make the illustration look more natural.
That naturalism goes away once the chase between The Kid and the Agents begins. Once on his skateboard, The Kid’s body shifts, twists, and morphs as he zooms past agents, as well as his fellow schoolmates. The movements of both character and backgrounds are so smooth and well directed, Watanabe knowing exactly where he wants the next shot to be so that we don’t get lost or get a moment to catch our breath. It’s one of his grandest, high-energy action scenes, one you can put next to the best ones found in Champloo, Bebop, and even Space Dandy.
”A Detective Story” starts at the end. Ash, a private investigator, is on a moving train in a tight spot. He’s just been shot by Trinity, the woman he was paid to find. Just a few days prior, he was seconds away from leaving the life behind, making a bet with his cat that if the phone call he received was another paranoid husband, he would call it quits. Unfortunately for him, it was a real job, “a case to end all cases.”
In an anthology with many distinct animation styles, “A Detective Story,” written by Watanabe, stands out because of a familiar film noir look. “I always loved the hardboiled film style,” Watanabe says in the behind-the-scenes feature, “so I decided to mix the hardboiled style with a story about Trinity.”
An influence on Bebop, Watanabe only went full noir when the series shows bits of Spike and Jet’s pre-bounty-hunter past. Unlike those flashbacks, the monochrome look used for “Detective Story” is grainy, as if looking into an old newspaper. (Bits of color do appear, but sporadically.) Other tropes of the style include voice-over narration, an urban setting, and a femme fatale in the form of Trinity, who while trying to save Ash, executes him at point blank range as an Agent subsumes his body.
Glimmers of sci-fi iconography keep “A Detective Story” at a distance from full-blown noir. While Ash dresses like Bogart, packs a six-shooter, and takes calls on a rotary phone, he uses technology to find Trinity that would appear generations after the era Watanabe is paying homage to. When Ash finally locates her, she uses a device similar to the one applied on Neo to remove a bug that’s been implanted in Ash’s eye. It’s a mixing together of seemingly two polar opposites — 1940s film noir and science fiction — to make something unique, and like the anime Watanabe is famous for.
Bebop is widely considered to be a “space Western,” but in any given episode Watanabe would inject elements and tropes of blaxploitation, horror, melodrama, and early John Woo action cinema. Champloo mixed the Edo era with 1980s NYC hip-hop culture, and while Dandy is the most episodic series Watanabe has worked on up to this point, it delivered more homages and references to science fiction and genre cinema of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s in one episode than most series do in their entirety.
Watanabe went on solidify himself as one of the most well-known anime auteurs, but his experimentation in The Animatrix feels like a flash in the pan, a rare moment in which anime linked up to such a big Western property. Since 2003, DVDs have gone the way of Agent Smith, and while the David Fincher- and Tim Miller-produced adult animated anthology Netflix series Love, Death & Robots has garnered attention, I highly doubt we would see the same done for brands like The Avengers or Star Wars. Meanwhile, a Dragon Ball Z film exceeded expectations and made $30 million dollars in North America, and Western live-action versions of My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan are in the works. Those “borders” Watanabe once spoke of, are quickly becoming a lot less visible than they used to be.
Christopher Lee Inoa is a freelance critic, reporter, and video essayist based in New York City. He has written and produced videos on film and animation for The Film Stage, LAist, Syfy Wire, and Fandor.