Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cowboy Bebop: Mou man tai

Cowboy Bebop episode 26: Last supper
Many years ago, I saw a block of three episodes in the middle of Cowboy Bebop, with one or two scattered episodes towards the beginning, and then I just stopped and walked away from it. I wasn't bewildered at the start of this mini-marathon of sorts, and felt nothing at its conclusion. Cowboy Bebop is the kind of series that doesn't require any prior history or emotional commitment to get into the more advanced episodes, but that makes it easy to stop watching. Like the ending quote of one of the episodes, easy come, easy go.

Over the course of two days, I think I now understand the appeal a bit better than with my previously limited sample size. My eyes also itch a bit, but I chalk that up to autumn allergies.

It's not the characters, at least for me it's not. None of the main cast were engaging. They're not unrealistic, but there was nothing special about their portrayal. Spike can fight, has a death wish, has some baggage that is nicely animated but plays little part in the day-to-day activities of the group. Jet is the bruiser, voice of reason, all-around handyman that everyone else takes for granted. Faye is typical all talk but insincere about her own feelings, plus unsympathetic money whore. Ed is like an Osaka given hax, but stripped of the skillz is just a dumb kid. The dog is, well, pretty remarkable for a dog, but not really a character.

The writing, while generally solid, can also be hit and miss. At times the dreaded idiot lecture was resorted to, or the story was neatly wrapped up for the sake of containing it in an episode. Episode 6 combined both, with the long pseudo-scientific explanation and the instant fabrication of a silver bullet, so to speak. There are also a lot of convenient coincidences or ironies that make the outcome obvious early on, which takes the fun out of watching sometimes. Points, though, for the parallel situations between the first and final episodes, as well as the fatalistic symbolism in that last episode.

Chessmaster Hex is a clever name. Old school rappers liked to prefix their names with Grandmaster, which is an actual chess rank. Just thought that it was something worth mentioning.

Cowboy Bebop is interesting to me mostly because of the sheer scale of its vision and its slick execution. Intense fight scenes, thrust vectoring with a pistol, the gritty depictions of Hong Kong urban living, the imagined renditions of surfaces on other planets, the series was a vehicle for cool and its animation quality easily holds its own to this day, over nine years since the first episode aired. That this quality was achieved in conjunction with several in-between studios is a testament to their co-ordination.

I actually wound up watching most of the series with the english dub (but with subtitles to cross-reference), the first time I've ever done so. At times the dialog was verbose, just stuffing words in to fill mouth-flap time, and the side-character voices could also be ridiculously flat, but the use of a variety of accents did give scenes more colour. Mushroom Samba was fun to watch (minus Ed) with African-Americans giving one another attitude, and the actual use of cantonese and cantonese-accented english, particularly in episode 2, was priceless, hence the title. One chinese phrase that didn't make it over to the english dub, though, was the first episode's sliced beef dish. Subtitles confirmed that it was mandarin. Also in mandarin was Pao's name on his gravestone.

That they threw in random stuff like a news report about the Israel-Syria conflict (in english on both language tracks!), and naming a space shuttle after the Columbia, was bonus. Whether that thing can actually go into orbit with only its main orbital engines and some puny looking, nose side mounted rockets, is up in the air. I'm leaning towards no, but this is a series where fights in vacuum make noise, so hard science fiction fans look elsewhere or otherwise put up with it.

I guess no discussion about this series is complete without at least some mention of the soundtrack. The jury's still out, although I've revised my opinion toward the positive side. Yoko Kanno gets points for the sheer volume of output for this series. I suspect, though I'm too lazy to find out, that it easily tops Escaflowne in number of pieces.

But as for greatest soundtrack for an anime series? I would stand by that only if I were willing to say that all other soundtracks suck, and I'm not quite ready to do that. Certainly the music integrates well and colours some poignant moments, and if that were the only metric, then yes it may very well be the best soundtrack for an anime series.

As for how the music stands by itself, it's mostly jazz, which is the one component of the soundtrack that many rave about. Is there anything particularly special about Cowboy Bebop's jazz? Not really. Take Tank! as an example. Yes, I'm walking on this ice with many. In its full-length incarnation, Tank! is a standard intro-solo-outro structure. The motifs, or licks, scream stereotypical, one of the first patterns that come to mind when jazz, as a general term, is brought up. Oh yeah! Jazz is all about saxophones and trumpets doing that cool descending thing all day. Clearly a watershed moment in the history of jazz at large.

Sure, there is a bit of fusion with other styles, like in Space Lion, and the Mai Yamane songs are strong, but I can go cherry-pick good material from soundtracks for Escaflowne and Darker than Black as well. It proves nothing about the overall offering.

I suspect that most diehard fans are because of sheer novelty. If nothing else, a heavy jazz component in a soundtrack for an anime series was novel for its time, and to be different is cool, after all. These are the people who go around saying Jazz is greater than thou without having ever owned such a CD in their lives. I'd want to call them Bebop-tards, but Bebop is pretty intellectual so the term would just cancel itself out.

I wouldn't look too deeply into Cowboy Bebop. It's best enjoyed with the brain on auto-pilot and a tolerance for silliness, which I seem to lack. For Serious Business (but with less fighting), consider its spiritual successor: Darker than Black.