Cowboy Bebop 21st Anniversary Post

Cowboy Bebop is more than a Gateway Series

Obviously, I won’t be able to add anything new to discussion of a series that folks have been talking and writing about for 21 years but I still wanna mark the occasion on the blog because I’ve really enjoyed Cowboy Bebop.

To dip but swiftly into the category of ‘things already said about the show’ I’m sure words and phrases like bounty hunters in space, gateway series and trailblazing or greatest anime of all time and genre defying would be on that list and for me, most of those things feel true but one of them is also reductive.

It probably is a pretty good introduction for Western (sceptical) audiences looking to trial the genre of anime, a genre which is just as varied, in terms of content and quality, as any other. The show largely works as an introduction because both the cultural references and aesthetic tend to be very recognisable to western audiences – creator Shinichirō Watanabe mentions Dirty Harry, Bruce Lee and John Woo among his influences, and of course the OST is a veritable library of US and UK-influences.

But I still fear the words ‘gateway series’ are too often used to suggest that Cowboy Bebop is a creation of a certain depth and value only, a stepping stone toward works that are either better or more ‘difficult’. It can feel as though the series is ‘merely’ an entry point into an unfamiliar art form, the way that maybe you start with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue before trying Bitches Brew or Agharta. Yet that accessibility common to both Kind of Blue and Cowboy Bebop belies a depth and complexity that – like all great art – is better revealed during subsequent encounters.

I believe part of what makes the show so rewarding is how heavily intertextual Cowboy Bebop remains but also the episodic structure, which invites repeated viewings. Obviously, I won’t present any sort of exhaustive list here but I still want to mention a few things at least. Sometimes that intertextuality is more overt – like the similarities between Spike’s costume (and his frame for that matter) and Lupin the III or our hero’s Jeet Kune Do fighting style and the famous ‘water’ speech he gives in Episode 8 (Waltz for Venus) which Bruce Lee fans will certainly recognise. Another episode that many viewers often single out to demonstrate this is the Star Trek/Alien tribute, Toys in the Attic – but which I won’t spoil here 😀

Sometimes the references, depending on any given viewer’s cultural literacy, become subtler like the Spike/Vicious weapon swap a la John Woo, or the setting recreated from Desperado in Episode 1, Asteroid Blues, (which I didn’t pick up on at first but felt like I should have when I did finally put it together). Later in the series, as the oppressiveness of the odds stacked against the Bebop crew really starts to build we’re given session 20: Pierrot Le Fou. In this episode the colour palette becomes far more muted as greys and shadows really start to dominate in a way that evokes both film noir (without Jet this time however) and Gotham City. The Batman references won’t be surprising to folks who are aware that members from CB’s production team Sunrise also worked on Batman the Animated Series prior to Cowboy Bebop. Antagonist Tongpu himself clearly evokes (at least) both the Penguin and the Joker and much of the imagery throughout the episode brings Batman to mind (and it’s one of the more harrowing episodes in the series).

There’s a lot more to love about Cowboy Bebop but I also want to quickly mention another aspect that I’ve always enjoyed about the series. Blessedly, CB isn’t one of those shows that just keeps going and going until the character and story arcs are rehashed in an endlessly sad cycle of diminishing returns and contradictions. No, it actually presents a complete story – it has an ending! In part because of this, viewers are treated to some great character development, none perhaps more striking than that of Faye Valentine. Now, my personal favourite character remains Jet but Faye has the better character arc, I feel. Considering where she begins the series emotionally and where she ends up, it’s pretty grand. Again, I don’t want to offer spoilers in this post but Faye’s fear and her quest for belonging really plays out in a touching way – though there’s a certain montage involving other characters that’s probably just as moving, damn thing nearly gets me every time!

Now, I’m aware that I’ve only really offered three points to support my assertion that Cowboy Bebop is far more than a gateway series but they were the first ones that came to mind. If you’d like to read other folks’ exploring the depth of the show, there’s a series of posts available at Overthinking It which are pretty ace 🙂

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)

Compared to my last Ghibli-related post, this time I’ve chosen a film not directed by Miyazaki (though he did write the script) but instead by Yoshifumi Kondo. Whisper of the Heart is another Ghibli adaptation, this time of a manga written by Aoi Hiiragi. While Whisper of the Heart has less action than early Ghibli works, it is full of conflict – and not simply the cliched teen angst to be found in many works aimed (unfairly?) at younger audiences.

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)
1995

whisper_1

Instead it focuses on the conflict of the writer and so I’m immediately hooked of course, or perhaps, the conflict of the creative person – whether it is main character Shizuku who desperately wants to be a writer, or Seiji, her love interest, who is striving to become a violin-maker. Much of the film focuses on the struggle these characters go through, trying to please themselves, take their dreams seriously, to work for them, to accommodate their families’ wishes and deal with their feelings for each other.

Whisper of the Heart 2

Woven within the film’s central narrative are smaller stories, the mystery of the cat Muta, the story behind the fantastic statue ‘The Baron’ and his lost love Louise, and the story young Shizuku is writing (starring the Baron) and her struggle to produce a complete draft that she is happy with. Any writer or creative person should be able to relate to her frustration and excitement. On one hand, she can’t wait for someone to read it, on the other she is convinced she’s not good enough yet. I definitely relate, and it’s part of why the movie appeals to me so much I reckon.

121112-whisper_of_the_heart_1
shizuku_and_mr_nishi

Whisper of the Heart also features a classic country song written by John Denver as something more than simply soundtrack – throughout in the film Take me Home, Country Roads is rewritten and performed by Shizuku, and also by Shizuku and Seiji in addition to appearing over the opening sequence – I’ll try find youtube links for each (John’s version, the very earnest Olivia version and the English dub of Shizuku and Seiji on vocals and violin).

And before I wrap up the review – I should mention the ending – apparently some folks feel the proposal scene is a little too much, and years ago I remember thinking I was in agreement… but I since came to feel that it was meant to be a sweet (perhaps somewhat naive) gesture, which suits youth pretty well.

Here’s Miyazaki on the ending (taken from Nausicaa.net):

Q: Wasn’t Seiji’s proposal a bit too sudden?

Many thought so. In the manga, Seiji merely says “I love you”, but Miyazaki changed it to “Will you marry me?” Miyazaki defended his position by saying, “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen’.”

The Black Cauldron – Lloyd Alexander

I’ve actually reviewed this one nearly everywhere I could over the years, including disappeared blogs etc but here we go again anyway 😀

The Black Cauldron is second in the Chronicles of Prydain, a series Lloyd Alexander started in 1964, and one which I’ve read a great many times – more than any other book in the set.

For my money, it’s the most powerful and a little grimmer than the others – the story where the characters face more of their own demons but also where the sense of wonder is strongest, where the story is tightest, most self-contained. In it, Taran and his companions must destroy the zombie-creating Black Cauldron and the odds are stacked quite high against them.

Now, Taran is a classic boy-hero but far and above my favourite character in the story is the prideful but surprising Ellidyr, and right on his heels are Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch – the three witches who steal the show.

Alexander mentions how the books were influenced by Welsh mythology, which is clear from the first read, from names to setting and myths, all of which he weaves together so well. I devoured The Black Cauldron over and over as a kid (since 1991 I think it was when I was given a copy by Mum for a birthday) and have read it about once a year ever since.

If you’ve never read these books and enjoy ‘children’s literature’ check this out. It’s a classic and well deserving of its longevity (and *far* superior to the Disney adaptation).

Battle Angel (Ganmu)

Until the start of this year I’d never seen Ganmu – which I realised was odd, since I do consider myself a cyberpunk fan. At the time, the then upcoming live-action remake (Alita) prompted me to finally see Battle Angel and while I still haven’t seen the CGI-version, I did at last watch the OVA.

Battle Angel (Ganmu) 1993

And while I think it’s far too short, it remains equal parts powerful and frustrating and I still really enjoyed it – everyone is probably well-aware by now that Kishiro never planned to have more than two episodes made and so there’s nothing remotely like a resolution to the main conflict, it’s more like an (effective?) funnel to the manga.

Instead, I’d say Battle Angel is worth seeing due to its place in the history of cyberpunk anime, for the distinctive art style, grim vision of the future and great charactarisation (save for Hugo – a touch more on that later*).

There’s a bit of gore here and there to add to the general darkness of it all but it suits the tone of the episodes, which are both around 30 mins compared to a ‘regular’ series at 23ish, so there is a touch more time to reveal a bit of character development and establish atmosphere.

The fight scenes are pretty ace – at times I got an Astro Boy vibe (which makes sense of course) but I don’t consider that a bad thing at all and again, I do think this is worth seeing at least once.

4 Stars

*This is hard to judge for me – because I suspect the manga explores Hugo’s motivations deeper, but in the anime he represents a causality of ‘compressed storylines’ where important things must of a necessity be left out, and I didn’t think his motivation was sold (to me, at least) well enough to justify his flaw.

Seatbelts – Cowboy Bebop (OST)

For me, this is the greatest soundtrack of any animated series – no hyperbole at all there, right? 😀

Seatbelts, Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Case in point is probably the theme Tank! – where the hard bop just leaps out of the gates with its Latin percussion and Masato Honda’s wild alto solo that I never get tired of hearing, not to mention Rush or Too Good Too Bad… and I could go on.

As a jazz fan I guess I’m pretty biased (and I really like progressive big band too so that’s another tick) but the Seatbelts are such versatile players that this OST is never boring. They cover a lot of ground here; the Latin-influenced hard bop, the space-like saxophone ballads or sparser songs like ‘Waltz for Zizi’ which is both bittersweet and relaxing.


Most fans of the anime will know that Yoko Kanno (composer, piano) is behind the incredible breadth of music in Cowboy Bebop and while some of the other soundtracks from the TV series feature heaps of real standouts (like Elm or Call Me, Call Me) that are missing here, the self-titled OST is the more jazz-focused of them all and I reckon even ‘general’ jazz fans would find a lot to enjoy.

Usually the CD import has a fairly steep price-tag attached and I’m not sure re: streaming, but if you like Jazz you’ll probably like this.

5 Stars

A Wild Sheep Chase (Hitsuji o meguru bōken)

A Wild Sheep Chase (Hitsuji o meguru bōken) 1989 (trans)

I loved A Wild Sheep Chase – when I first read it years ago I remember being hooked so quickly and surprised by the seemingly ‘low-key’ ending (which in a way, really suits the oft-times taciturn narrators Murakami features).

For me, this is a great place to start if you’re new to Haruki Murakami. The story has all the classic Murakami elements; an almost detective-like search, a mysterious, bewitching girl and wonderful surrealist aspects – most strikingly perhaps, in one hell of a strange sheep that no-one can seem to find.

Unlike say, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s wider scope, this shorter novel has a much swifter storyline and also features more surrealism than what’s widely considered another excellent entry point to his work, Norwegian Wood.

When I look back on it my strongest impression is actually (at first) feeling that the ending wasn’t as strong as I was expecting… yet I found myself thinking about the end of the story often in the days after. So, as it turns out, it was actually exactly what it needed to be 🙂

5 Stars

Green Legend Ran (Gurīn Rejendo Ran)

For me, this OVA series was in no way terrible… but it just seemed like it included a really wide range of ideas that didn’t quite come together by the end, and so missed the mark a little for me.

Green Legend Ran Gurīn Rejendo Ran (1992)

A lot of folks mention the influence of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here and it’s definitely clear, though Green Legend Ran is both more violent and less assured in its storytelling. There were some haunting moments and some sharp action sequences in the series but even with a reasonably sympathetic hero and heroine, I still wasn’t enthralled.

(not the best example I could find actually, still somewhat illustrative)

I did like the character design from Yoshimitsu Ohashi (who has worked on Millennium Actress and Trigun among others) some of it was really memorable – especially the Bishops, who were both bizarre and creepy, that aspect was pretty great. (In terms of more ‘cross-overs’ from other 1990s series, a minor character is also voiced by Kōichi Yamadera who most probably recognise as the voice of Spike from Cowboy Bebop.)

Still, despite some big themes and some fun connections with other shows, I’d only recommend Green Legend Ran if you had always been curious about the series and perhaps can find it reasonably cheap/can stream it.

3 Stars

Claymore (Kureimoa)

If you’ve read about Claymore you’ll know it’s fairly violent and pretty grim.

Claymore (Kureimoa)
2007

It’s not without hope however – and heroes do actually exist in the series. And while the muted colour-scheme adds to the oppressive feel of this medieval series, there are some vivid uses of green, pink and blue, that provide some nice levity throughout.

For me, what was most engaging were the characters – obviously Clare, but the ‘half-monster’ hunting ‘true monsters’ set-up allowed for some other interesting players to feature too, but I won’t spoil anything there.

What did disappoint me was that after 20 killer episodes with consistent rising tension, the last few fell quite short, especially given the build up. Not sure whether the creators planned a second season and it never got green-lit, but a few plot threads seemed simply abandoned – and I do mean ‘abandoned’, compared to ‘left unresolved’ which I’d have had no trouble with as a viewer.

Another key problem for me was the vengeance sub-plot that does become, at one point, a key reason to keep watching and the way it is handled is kind of baffling – again, if I accept that the writers thought they were going to have a chance to adapt more of the manga then it possibly makes sense.

Still, I think the series deserves the ‘classic’ tag as it’s compelling, often disturbing and even a few times, kinda heart-rending. Fans of Beserk will probably like it if they haven’t already come across it – after all, the series is a few years old now.

4 Stars

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

For the first post on this blog I wanted to actually jump back to a write up I did a fair few years ago – because if I’m going to review/highlight anime (amongst the other things I’ll ramble on about here) then I should start with the studio that really had an impact on me (though as a kid of the 80s I remember starting off with Astro Boy :D).

So, up first it’s Spirited Away!

Miyazaki is such a warm director that I seem to naturally gravitate toward his films. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Takahata’s work, or the films of the other directors from Studio Ghibli, but you’ll see a fair few Miyazaki ones reviewed here over time.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
2001

Perhaps like many Western audiences, this was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and its wonderful films – though I didn’t see this movie until about three years after it’s English-language release.

I was actually at uni and had recently borrowed the impressive 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Inside, I noticed Spirited Away and went straight to the university library where I borrowed the DVD and that was it. I was hooked.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl who has to work in a spirits’ bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by their own greed.

spirited-away-2a

A pretty simple description of the plot, right? But it gives an idea of the main source of tension. What it fails to show is the stunning attention to detail found in the animation (a trademark of Ghibli of course) and the great character arc at its heart. The way protagonist Chihiro goes from being basically an annoying child to a person of resolve, and one who can turn those around her into friends, is handled so well and provides an emotional core that’s a big part the reason I’ve watched the film so many times.

tumblr_l1o6vbaucB1qaew7n

But perhaps my favourite element of Spirited Away is the setting.

The bathhouse is located in an abandoned amusement park and it’s beautiful, detailed and vivid, both in terms of its social and physical structure. And part of that colour definitely comes from the variety of spirits who visit it, among the most memorable being the close-mouthed Radish Spirit and the old River Spirit, who also embodies the environmental themes Miyazaki often includes in his films.

73

Another stand out aspect of the movie (and most Ghibli films) is the music. Provided by Joe Hisaishi, it’s a moving score, with so much of it feeling both magical and familiar.

An Academy Award winner and an amazing film, Spirited Away isn’t quite my favourite Ghibli movie, but I’m kicking off with it because it’s where I started and if on the off chance you’re looking to see what Studio Ghibli is like, you probably couldn’t find a better starting place.

5 Stars

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started