The Theme of the Journey in the Anime of Shinichiro Watanabe [OWLS Blog Tour August 2018 – “Journey”]

We have all heard this saying in some shape or form: “Life is a journey.” We travel down a path in hope that we reach a goal or destination, but the travel in getting there isn’t always easy. Along the way, we encounter some personal struggles. It is in those moments where we must overcome an adversity to complete our journey or take a different route or path instead. In this month’s OWLS post, we will be discussing the personal journeys of pop culture creators, icons, and characters. We will explore the journeys that these characters went through, discuss the process and experiences they had on their journeys, what they discover about themselves, or share our own personal journeys.

The word “journey” has many meanings for different people. It can refer to a physical journey to a new and exciting place, an internal journey of overcoming adversity in order to better oneself, or (my favourite one) it can refer to the name of the band that sang one of the most iconic rock anthems ever, Don’t Stop Believin’ (“Hold on to the feeling…”). Whatever your definition of “journey” is, they all have one defining constant: every journey that begins eventually comes to an end.

While the theme of the journey is a common trope mostly used in Shounen anime (i.e. Joseph Campbell’s notion of “the hero’s journey”), Shinichiro Watanabe, best known for works such as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, applies a different approach to the theme of the journey which is present in almost all of his anime. Note that for this blog tour I will mostly be referring to research that I had previously done on Watanabe as part of my written thesis last year.

Watanabe’s characters are mostly seen as lonely or as social outcasts and this stems from the fact that Watanabe himself stated in an interview that he had a lonely childhood. In this regard, Watanabe’s characters try to find purpose and meaning in their lives, often to no success. Hence, in order for his characters to try and overcome their problems, they form surrogate families with other lonely characters. This is most evident in Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. In Bebop, for example, the Bebop crew, consisting of Jet, Faye, Ed and Ein, serve has Spike’s surrogate family after he escapes his previous life with the Red Dragon Syndicate. In Champloo, Mugen and Jin not only serve as Fuu’s bodyguards on her journey, but also serve as her surrogate family.

The Bebop crew (from left to right): Jet, Spike, Faye, Ed and Ein
The Champloo trio of Fuu, Mugen and Jin

In order for Watanabe’s characters to overcome their loneliness, however, they first need to overcome their traumatic pasts:

In Watanabe-san’s canon, the past is an omnipresent spectre that continually haunts his characters. For the most part, Watanabe-san’s characters choose to run away from their past rather than to confront it. In order for his characters to confront their past, however, he brings back people from their past. These past figures usually serve as allegories for a character’s past and by confronting these figures, it gives his characters the opportunity to put their past behind them and move on.

Dale Hendricks (2017)

A common characteristic in Watanabe’s anime is that he usually dedicates at least one episode to looking at a specific character’s past and how it shaped them into the person that they are in the anime. In Session 10 of Bebop, titled “Ganymede Elegy”, Jet runs into Alisa, his ex-girlfriend. Alisa tells him that she is now happy with her new boyfriend, Rhint. Jet then confronts Alisa by asking her why she left him many years ago, to which she claims that she cannot remember. However, later in the episode, Rhint is marked as the Bebop crew’s next target, which puts Jet in a difficult position as he has to consider where his loyalties lie. He ultimately decides to capture Rhint himself, telling Spike that the bounty is personal. Alisa pleads with Jet to let her and Rhint go, but he says that he cannot do that because she will be considered an accomplice. After he hands Rhint over to the police, Jet takes the watch that Alisa gave him in the past and throws it into the river, signaling that he is finally ready to put his past relationship with Alisa behind him.


Jet throwing the watch from Alisa into the river.

In a similar sense, Watanabe also addresses a character’s past as a subplot to an episode rather than as the main plot. In episodes 16 and 17 of Champloo, titled “Lullabies of the Lost Verses 1 and 2”)Jin encounters a man from his past named Yukimaru. Yukimaru and Jin were once sparring partners at Enshirou Mariya’s dojo (Jin is accoused of killing Mariya before the events of the series) and Yukimaru hopes to make a name for himself by killing Jin. Although Jin’s past serves as a subplot, we still learn a lot about his past through his duel with Yukimaru. Watanabe does this by using parallel editing to draw connections to their past and to their duel to the death.


Watanabe draws parallels between Jin and Yukimaru’s duel by cutting between their days as sparring partners and their present duel to the death.

Watanabe’s characters can also be considered nomads and wanderers as they are constantly on the move – the Bebop crew are constantly looking for new bounties to capture while the Champloo trio are traveling across Japan in search of the “samurai who smells like sunflowers”. This is where the theme of the journey comes in:

The theme of the journey is both physical and metaphorical for Watanabe-san’s characters in that while they are constantly on the move, they learn more about themselves and the people around them. Thus, the theme of the journey serves as a form of self-development.

Dale Hendricks (2017)

In Bebop, for example, the crew learn more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses while capturing various bounties throughout the series. Similarly, in Champloo, while Mugen and Jin initially saw each other as enemies, they grow to have a mutual respect for one another at the end of the series. In extension to this, Jin confesses to Fuu and Mugen that he considers them his first real friends as he always used to fight for himself before the events of the series. Therefore, the theme of the journey is not only literal, but also figurative.

In conclusion, Watanabe represents the journey as both literal and figurative in the development of his characters. He uses the theme of the journey to explore his characters’ psyche and illustrates how their physical journeys can also bring them into contact with their respective pasts, represented by various past figures. This stylistic, along with his use of genre mixing, helps to separate him from other conventional anime directors, allowing him to find creative ways for his characters to overcome adversity.

If you enjoyed reading this post and would like to learn more about Shinichiro Watanabe then please support my book, “Space Cowboys & Modern-Day Samurai: The Seminal Works of Watanabe Shinichiro”, on Amazon.

If you missed yesterday’s blog tour, then be sure to check out Z’s post on Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Also, be sure to check out Marth’s blog tour on the 21st. For a full list of this month’s blog tours, please check out the OWLS Bloggers site.


4 thoughts on “The Theme of the Journey in the Anime of Shinichiro Watanabe [OWLS Blog Tour August 2018 – “Journey”]

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  1. A very insightful post! I have yet to see Cowboy Bebop, but I did enjoy Samurai Champloo a lot. And the theme of the journey is always great to see in anime. My favourite would have to be Katanagatari – another powerful anime about confronting the past and evolving through a quest of sorts.

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