By Andrew Osmond.
“I never thought I’d get to write so many episodes!” confesses Kimiko Ueno to a Manchester audience. Somehow she had ended up writing eight screen adventures for the irrepressible Space Dandy. “Maybe I just had the most time on my hands.”
The recent Manchester Comic Con was unusual among British conventions in inviting an anime writer – a vital part of the anime process that doesn’t get enough attention. On Space Dandy’s first season, Ueno wrote the episodes with the giant wormy monster, the zombies and the space race; she also wrote the Groundhog Day story at Meow’s home, and the one with the super-chameleon which can impersonate anything. In season two, Ueno contributed the opener about the parallel-world Dandys, the rock band story and the spoof romcom where Dandy protects the imperious Scarlet from a stalker ex.
Ueno has other anime credits, which we’ll get to in a moment. At first she wanted to be a director rather than a writer, and went to film school with that goal. However, she ended up entering a scriptwriting competition: “I didn’t win, but a producer liked what I’d written and invited me to come and work.” She found writing had its appeals. “I really struggled with going to the same workplace every day; I wanted to be able to work from home,” she says. Rather than toiling in a studio on Dandy’s adventures, she could write them at home, or at a nearby café.
Before Dandy, Ueno’s credits include a live-action film, though when we ask her what it was called, she has to consult her smartphone. “It’s really embarrassing, I can’t remember!” she laughs. “I’ll get in trouble for this…” The answer is Tengoku kara no eru or A Yell from Heaven; it’s a film about a man’s philanthropic efforts to help musicians in Okinawa, based on a true story.
When we ask if there’s any difference between writing for live-action and anime, Ueno claims, “I think they’re both the same, in terms of that you’re writing a script. With live-action you end up getting more of a flavour of the scriptwriter in the finished work. With anime, the characters kind of have to be the same from episode to episode, you can’t change them… Dandy is a bit different, but I think that in anime, you get the feeling of the director coming through much more. In Space Dandy, even though every episode is different, you still get the feeling of it being Watanabe’s world.”
Pre-Dandy, Ueno moved into anime through a lucky professional contact. She’d worked with a female producer in live-action, who later moved to a TV company and took charge of its anime slate. “She invited me to come and work with her,” Ueno says. In anime, Ueno started on children’s titles such as Gokyodai Monogatari, then moved to the Crayon Shin-chan franchise. A controversial but hugely popular title, Crayon Shin-chan is about a little boy, who’s vaguely comparable to Bart Simpson but far less restrained. The franchise had been a training ground for Keiichi Hara, who went on to make the films Colorful and Miss Hokusai.
Ueno wrote several of the brat’s adventures, including this year’s film Crayon Shin-chan: My Moving Story! Cactus Large Attack. In it, Shin-chan moves to Mexico and ends up battling carnivorous spiky plants. It was the character’s twenty-third film, and the highest-grossing of the series.
The writer’s invitation to work on Space Dandy came in a midnight email from Shinichiro Watanabe. “In the past, there had been a proposal for a live-action project and he’d read my script idea for that, so we’d met then… but the project never came to fruition,” Ueno explains. “I think he remembered me from that.” She wasn’t a science-fiction fan: “I did like sci-fi but I didn’t know very much about it.”
Watanabe has said that Space Dandy was influenced by John Carpenter’s 1974 cult film Dark Star. We ask if Ueno ever encountered Britain’s Red Dwarf, another saga of slobs in space (referenced in an episode of cheesecake anime Cat Planet Cuties). Nope. “I discovered that you can write about space even if you don’t know much about space.”
Space Dandy is an anthology series, with individual episodes by upcoming directors or established big names (Sayo Yamamoto, Masaaki Yuasa). From Ueno’s angle, “I think what’s different about Space Dandy is that we all got together to exchange ideas and talk about them.” She took part in discussions involving Watanabe (Dandy’s chief director), with whom Ueno had most communication; Shingo Natsume (the general director under Watanabe); and Dandy’s producers.
Also sitting in were a couple of Watanabe’s crack writing collaborators: Keiko Nobumoto, who handled series composition on Cowboy Bebop, and Dai Sato, whose illustrious SF credits range from Ergo Proxy to Freedom. Notably, the directors of the episodes that Ueno was writing weren’t at the talks she attended. When we ask if she swapped writing notes with, for example, Nobumoto, she says no, though they went out drinking together.
Of the meetings, Ueno remembers, “We’d always start out just talking nonsense and waffling, watching Youtube videos, but the ideas would gradually come out of that.” The process by which the ideas emerged varied from episode to episode. “I said in a meeting that I wanted to do something about zombies, we all talked about it, and decided we would do it. I was probably the least familiar person with zombies!” So why did Ueno suggest them? “Well, I thought I know zombies, but Watanabe and Sato are in a different league…”
How about the romantic episode in the second season with Dandy and Scarlet? “I don’t remember whose idea that was! I think it was Watanabe who had the idea of doing a sort of 1980s kind of thing, based on a popular 80s film and illustrator… That was Watanabe’s idea and we talked about it together to come up with the story.” Ueno says she’d have liked to have returned to Scarlet; “I like that she’s so serious, she’s beautiful but not a popular beauty like (the character) Honey.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ueno says she’s “not very good with those anime with girls being all girly, moe anime.”
Ueno’s Groundhog Day episode, meanwhile, belongs to a sub-genre of timeloop stories which seem popular in Japan; another case is the novel All You Need Is Kill which inspired the film Edge of Tomorrow. “I didn’t even realise they (time loops) were that popular,” says Ueno. “We just like stories of escaping from the same mundane everyday.
Not surprisingly, Watanabe steered the Dandy story discussions and provided many of the episode ideas, often apropos of nothing. For example he threw out an image of zombies waking early in the morning, and also suggested ‘something where there’s only fish.’ (The latter suggestion became a non-Ueno episode, the talking fish tale in season two, written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa.) “When Watanabe first comes up with things like that, it’s like ‘huh?’” says Ueno. “But then we all talk it through in the meeting and that’s what we end up doing.”
After the planning, the next step was for Ueno to write her assigned episodes. She specifies that she only writes, and is not involved in the storyboards (e-konte) which translate her words into pictures. Consequently, she could be surprised by the final product on television. “For example, I couldn’t picture what the rock and roll episode was going to look like (the season 2 story, ‘Rock’n’Roll Dandy, Baby.’) The character designs were done by a famous Japanese manga artist, and I was surprised by the finished result.”
There were no serious story roadblocks. “We would have already talked through the story when I wrote the plot, so once it got to the stage of being a script, there wasn’t that much that changed.” Ueno worked on the episodes one at a time; she had a week to write each, punctuated by weekly meetings with the Dandy brass at the Bones studio. Her favourite stories include her rock and roll episode, her timeloop episode, and her season 2 opener with multiple Dandys. Of the episodes by other writers, she singles out a headbending story with tesseracts and two-dimensional universes, written by Toh EnJoe.
With Dandy’s second season finished, Ueno has moved to other anime, including one in the current summer season and others for broadcast next year. On the possibility of Dandy’s return, she says, “It’s Space Dandy, so I don’t think it would be limited to a choice between Season 3 or a film. I think Watanabe might look for a way to surprise everybody… I’d love to meet Dandy again so I’m hoping, the same as the fans!”