I promise, I promise: the next post will be about a book.
I’ve never cared for anime. I ate lunch with a bunch of IT/CompSci guys during my first year of college and although they tried to convert me I had no patience for the childish aspects of the form: the jarring jumps between cartoon slapstick and saccharine melodramatic angst, the hyper-femininity and hypersexualization of young female characters, the obsession with classifying and naming levels of strength, attacks and techniques. On the recommendation of a friend I started watching the more recent Soul Eater but gave up, disappointed, five episodes in. I decided to give the medium one more shot before writing it off. There’s nothing that points to a dull mind faster than the casual dismissal of an entire form (don’t ever be the guy who says “I like all kinds of music, except Country/Rap/Metal/Opera”). On paper, Cowboy Bebop didn’t look good. It’s set in the year 2071, following a group of bounty hunters (cowboys) in space, who watch a kitschy cowboy-themed version of America’s Most Wanted produced for bounty hunters. The promotional art leaned heavily on what I could only assume to be more hypersexualized female characters. It was made in the 90’s and the wardrobe/aesthetic seemed to reflect that fact, with lots of turned-up collars and Future-Armani suit jackets. I watched all 26 episodes, each about 23 minutes long. I fucking loved it.
The show is a love letter to America and Americana, the kind of thing that only works well written in the voice and clear perspective of an outsider. Bebop is visually stunning and it’s impossible to avoid phrases like “beautifully shot” because the animation is so clearly beholden to a fictional camera (one borrowed from the golden age of American cinema). The series is a sendup of Miles Davis, Isaac Asimov, Joan Didion, John Wayne, Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen, John Coltrane and the immigrant-as-American Bruce Lee. It’s obsessive in it’s imitation and it co-opts the central aesthetic of that inspiration in a manner reminiscent of the Japanese fashion labels that manufacture 1970’s American workwear or slavishly use the same machines as some obscure and now-defunct bourbon distillery. They know their shit and they run with it, but Cowboy Bebop pulls from such disparate themes and influences that the end result is not only unique but compelling.
The stories are fun and engaging; the characters are round, nuanced and compelling. The series ties itself together wonderfully with a deliberate arc that moves forward only as the events of the past are illuminated. It makes great use of themes that persist through narrative arcs (time, existentialism, the obsession with knowing oneself or one’s past, duty, ennui) as well as themes that are constrained to a single episode (the nature of consciousness, filial bonds, the philosophical underpinnings of Bruce Lee, entropy). The juxtaposition of science fiction and Noir provides both a gripping structure and a compelling prism. The world-creation aspect is impressive too; there’s cleary an entire universe known only to the characters and their creators. While a few aesthetic elements feel a bit dated the show’s look is so much of a throwback affair that it holds up remarkably well. Even the “computer hacker” elements and visuals work, an impressive feat for anything coming out of the ‘90s. The music -created in concert with the show in a back-and forth between the head writer and the composer- is both a perfect companion and fantastic in it’s own right. The show has some problems; it falls back on melodrama sometimes, and it leans so heavily on some references that it breaks the illusion of the vivid, continuous dream. It’s still a great show and it’s clearly been influential. Give it a try. If you’re not a fan after the first five episodes it’s probably not for you.