Nobumoto Keiko was not a prolific writer. When she passed away on December 1, 2021 at the age of 57 from esophageal cancer, she had only about a dozen live action and anime credits to her name, plus a video game. However, what it lacks in length, it more than makes up in impact. Among those few titles are some of the most influential series of the last few decades of Japanese pop culture: Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, Tokyo Godfathers, Wolf’s Rain, and Kingdom Hearts. She has worked alongside industry titans like Watanabe Shinichiro and Kon Satoshi, who similarly left behind a brief but brilliant legacy before passing away too young, but time and again, her own creative voice asserted itself.
One of the benefits to a creator having worked on so few projects is it becomes much simpler to look through their body of work to find common threads, and Nobumoto undeniably returned to the same themes over and over again. She examined the humanity of those who have hit rock bottom or the end of their lives, and the connections they can make even in moments of pain and loss.
Although her debut project was the movie Tobe! Kujira no Peek, about a pair of children trying to free a captive albino whale, the first to make a real impact and her first collaboration with Watanabe was Macross Plus. The 1994 installment of the long-running Macross franchise tells the story of a trio of friends who must reckon with the love triangle that has dominated their relationship and the pain it has brought them, especially as one of them becomes the model for Sharon Apple, a virtual idol.
Her partnership with Watanabe would prove to be a fruitful one, and they continued to work together to develop Cowboy Bebop in 1998. Their styles played well together: her humanistic approach to character writing was a perfect match for his affinity for grungy, lived-in speculative worlds. Watanabe directed while Nobumoto acted as series composer, penning nine episodes herself, including the first and the two-parters “Jupiter Jazz” and “The Real Folk Blues,” and supervised the scripts for the rest.
As the composer for such an episodic series, Nobumoto said, “I still don’t know what a Series Composer is supposed to do.” However, in another interview, she described how, “in some episodes, there were some lines written for Spike that felt like there was no way he’d ever say no matter the circumstances.” Without a single goal for the characters to work toward, much of her role was to keep the various writers in line and the multifaceted characters consistent.
Between Macross Plus and Cowboy Bebop, Nobumoto’s recurring themes and penchant for melancholy began to surface. Spike, Vicious, and Julia carry shades of the main trio from Macross Plus as two men and a woman who were once close but were torn apart by rivalry and sexual politics. However, in Cowboy Bebop, all three are doomed by their former connection. Before even the very first episode, Spike thinks of himself as a dead man walking, bound to life by only the thinnest thread. Despite this and despite himself, he can’t seem to avoid connecting to others. Even as he shouts that he hates “kids, pets, and mouthy women,” Ed, Ein, and Faye all become integral to his and Jet’s life on the Bebop. He still has moments of joy and comedy, as Nobumoto sums up in her statement, “One thing is, everyone has all sorts of facets to who they are. In your entire life, there are different times in the day where you change.” Still, even those connections, that joy cannot tie him to life as he walks headlong into death in the show’s finale.
The early 00’s would bring some major projects for Nobumoto, including writing the script for Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and acting as scenario supervisor for Kingdom Hearts, helping to bring Nomura Tetsuya’s vision to reality and setting the stage for the game franchise’s complex lore and worldbuilding while keeping everything internally consistent. Then in 2003, two of her greatest projects would make their debut: the film Tokyo Godfathers and the TV series Wolf’s Rain.
Tokyo Godfathers, which she co-wrote alongside director Kon Satoshi, is a far more hopeful story than much of her work, about three unhoused Tokyo residents who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve. It marked a departure for both its creative voices: a decidedly optimistic take for Nobumoto, and a character study for Kon, who usually dealt in psychological thrillers. Like all Nobumoto’s works, it turns a warmly humanistic eye toward those living in the margins, and in interviews, Kon speaks of how he had wanted to work with her for years, and credited her for the character-driven writing that contrasts with his typically story-driven films.
In most societies, the unhoused are easily one of the most stigmatized and dehumanized groups, and that held particularly true for Japan in the early 00’s. In the film, Nobumoto and Kon insist on their humanity, depicting a teenage runaway, a drunken gambling addict, and a trans woman as a found family that snipes and squabbles between themselves, but also supports one another. They are neither innocent victims of society nor leeching profligates, but complex individuals with their own internal lives, written with the understanding that many people are just a few bad days away from a similar situation.
The comical nature of Tokyo Godfathers also stands as a reminder that while Nobumoto’s pet themes are poignant, even tragic at times, she could be just as goofy. After all, she penned “Cowboy Funk,” one of the most memorably silly episodes of Cowboy Bebop. The usually cool-headed Spike’s mounting fury at Cowboy Andy, a bounty hunter who insists on capturing his quarry on horseback who looks almost identical to him and bears a number of other parallels, is downright hilarious. She wrote four episodes of Space Dandy, and while some had their share of pathos, the series as a whole is awash in absurdity.
Wolf’s Rain is easily Nobumoto’s magnum opus, as it is her only series where she is credited as the original creator and wrote the script for half the episodes. The story of wolves searching for paradise in a dying world revisits much of her thematic preoccupations: of life when just surviving from one moment to the next is a struggle, trying to carry on while everything around you crumbles to dust, and the humanity found in these struggles, which she explored using the conflict between the noble folkloric representation of wolves and the brutally violent reality. It is also very much a tragedy, almost oppressively hopeless at times.
The production at Bones was famously troubled, resorting to four consecutive recap episodes midway through that forced the series to be finished via OAV episodes instead of completing its TV run. The director, Okamura Tensai, cited a communication disconnect, as he had a hard time understanding Nobumoto’s creative vision and really only came to sympathize with the characters via an episode midway through that focused on the two men pursuing the wolves. It’s hard not to read a whiff of misogyny into his comments; Nobumoto was deeply respected by her previous collaborators who had no such struggle, and the most prominent human character is Cher, a scientist whose marriage fell apart due to her single-minded pursuit of her research.
Nobumoto never made another big project after Wolf’s Rain. She wrote scattered episodes for various Watanabe projects, apparently still happy to collaborate with her old friend who was close enough to refer to her as “Keiko” in interviews. Her final writing project is the fifteenth episode of Carole & Tuesday, titled “God Only Knows,” in which the titular duo is invited to the home of a reclusive musician named Desmond. During their visit, Desmond sings their final song for the girls and passes away. They face the end of their life peacefully, even philosophically, and this final meeting has a deep effect on Carole and Tuesday. It’s also perfectly in step with the rest of Nobumoto’s filmography: a moment of connection and humanity in the face of death, a fleeting encounter that leaves the people involved in it irrevocably changed. Though Nobumoto’s resume was brief, the characters she created transformed anime and many of its fans forever.