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February 13, 2007

In Case You Missed It—February 13, 2007

Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)

I’m just going to give it to you straight: This is an anime. And let me offer a disclaimer: I hate anime. It is the most virulent in a long string of entertainment abominations to come out of the swill-hole of Japan. The word “melodramatic” barely does it credit. It is a self-appeasing genre too heavy-handed for its own good that tries desperately to continuously prove something we’ve all known for quite a while: that cartoons can be serious. Anime often lays on the symbolism and imagery way too thick. The characters are one-dimensional and often cut from the exact same cardboard. The peppy-yet-emotional female, the silent and brooding hero, the evil villain who’s prone to monologue, and the stoic male friend all make nauseatingly similar appearances in any respectable anime.

Cowboy Bebop’s success and quality in the sea of sub-par work is due to one singular factor: It doesn’t take itself seriously. Sure, it has its moments where it is overdone, ridiculous, and, well, cartoonish. But by focusing on its characters and their individual depths instead of subordinating them to some overarching symbolism or plot device, Cowboy Bebop manages to create a truly unique and enjoyable story arc.

The series is set in the near future, when interplanetary gates make travel from one end of the solar system to the other nearly instantaneous. The environment isn’t really important, except that it sets up a perfect world for the characters: a sort of new Wild West, where order is scarce and cowboys roam the land. The rule of law is subordinate to the anarchic rule of do-as-you-please as long as you can shoot straight enough to back it up.

The main character is one such cowboy who makes the whole series run for those who can ignore the ridiculous name of “Spike Spiegel.” He possesses the light-heartedness and style that anime so desperately lacks. He is deep, with his own complicated beliefs and tangled history, but he is not the brooding hero you so often see in anime. He is glib, lazy, and reckless. He deals with his problems not by being withdrawn, dark, or taciturn. He deals with them as almost every person in real life would: He sublimates them, pushing them to the back of his mind. The seriousness of his past puts all his life into perspective, and it becomes one cosmic joke after another.

At one point, Spike’s nemesis, a simplistic villain known only as “Vicious,” descends into a predictable, yet brief, monologue: “When angels are forced out of heaven, they become devils. You agree, don’t you, Spike?” Spike’s response: “I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.” This exchange is perfectly indicative of this show which, despite its heavy themes, keeps its dialogue tight, brief, and irreverent. It’s a perfect example of the rare anime that heeded the advice of its 11th grade English teacher: show, don’t tell.

Whereas many other animes are dominated by lengthy dialogue that plainly spells out exactly what is happening (to which even the very good Akira falls victim), Cowboy Bebop lets its characters play in this futuristic Wild West and simply watches as the unique characters and inventive episode plots explore their own bounds and create a wonderful story. It’s one of the few titles worth dipping into anime for, and I recommend it highly.

But I guess you could just go watch reruns of Dragon Ball Z.

The Seatbelts

It is impossible to write a review of Cowboy Bebop without mentioning the music, so much so that I felt it necessary to give it its own special section.

To say Cowboy Bebop has an impressive soundtrack is a gross understatement. The series is the soundtrack, and the soundtrack is the series. Episodes of the series are referred to as “sessions,” and all carry names reminiscent of either specific songs (“Honky Tonk Women”) or a type of music (“Mushroom Samba”). Even the Japanese title of the movie was “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” The show is so precisely set to music that I often found myself tapping my foot nearly the entire episode. This fusion of music and cinema isn’t entirely unique, but rarely do you see it executed with such style and with such fresh beats.

This is due to the epic union of jazz and blues musicians from all around the world known as The Seatbelts. Led by Japanese composer Yoko Kanno, this group’s music calls to mind songs from every decade since Ragtime, yet fuses them all together with a heart of blues and a soul that seems to encompass everything good about American music. The Seatbelts—supposedly named because they have to wear them during heavy jam sessions—composed the entire soundtrack for all 26 episodes of Cowboy Bebop. The opening credits (set to the swanky and energetic number “Tank”) claim that Bebop’s unique blend of music coupled with this already interesting show is so original it should constitute an entirely new genre. A little pretentious, but if anyone can claim such a feat, it is Cowboy Bebop and its musical soul.