Sunday, July 26, 2009

Catch ya later Space Cowboy – Cowboy Bebop

Wow, these anime blogs are playing rough with me. I’ve had to rewrite the first two I started and I couldn’t find a way to make the third one click (still working on it at this time). For some reason, I keep getting off track with these. Probably because I reviewed anime for so long, that most of these blogs start out about storytelling and turn into mini reviews. So, if this comes off a little rough, then it’s because I had to rework it on the day I published it (something I don’t like to do).

Looking at story structure “Cowboy Bebop” is set up like a situational comedy. This is odd because when you look up Bebop, most people list it as a sci-fi action show with some funny moments. In truth, that’s how I’d categorize it. But examining the structure reveals something interesting.

“Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” both are linear stories with a definite chronology to them. If you start either of them part way through, you’ll end up confused (especially the case with “Outlaw Star”). Cowboy Bebop is pretty much nothing but stand alone episodes. This means you can just catch any episode of “Cowboy Bebop” and enjoy it.

One of the keys to this are the characters. Much like the crew of “Outlaw Star”, Bebop features a set of stock characters. By looking at them and listening to a few lines you know right away who you’re dealing with. Spike is the super cool, devil may care protagonist. He never breaks a sweat, always has a retort ready and is naturally able to get out of any situation with a well-placed shot or karate chop. Jett is the older, world-weary partner. He’s more responsible and less rash than his friend and will be there to bail him out if things get too sticky. Faye Valentine is the smoking hot gambling babe, who smokes cigars, has no problem using heavy weapons and seems to attract her share of trouble. Ed is the kid computer genius who acts several years younger than she is (yes Ed is a girl) and whose eccentricities usually say more than they first appear. Instead of a cat girl, we’ve got a data dog named Ein. This little Corgi is super intelligent but still a dog at heart. He doesn’t talk, but he doesn’t have to. The animation is so good you know just what Ein is thinking at any given time. And yes Ed and Ein are best friends.

Basically the writers toss our crew into various situations and let the action roll. Most of the time the story has something to do with a specific character – Spike’s past with gangsters, Jett’s past as a cop, Faye’s lack of a past, Ed’s hacking skills, or story behind Ein’s super intelligence. What is interesting is that no matter what happens to the characters in any given episode, they are no different in the next episode.

One of my favorite episodes deals with Jett. He ends up saving the daughter of his old cop partner. The girl is attractive and very appreciative of his deed. Jett is obviously attracted to her, but she see’s him as a father figure. You can tell it frustrates him, and he make some comment to Spike that’s he just too old to play the hero – because he can’t get the girls any more. Spike has a wry comment, but you can see that Jett is actually feeling his age in this episode. You’d expect this to have some kind of pay off in the later episodes… but it doesn’t. Jett just defaults back to his old self in the next episode.

This actually annoyed the hell out of me when I first saw the series. But watching it again, I realized that this was more akin to sit-coms. To keep the comedy interesting, the characters can’t change. The situations change all they want, but the audience expects the characters to act a certain way, that’s what makes it funny.

That’s what Bebop is going for. It’s not a dramatic series, even though it has a definite film noir look to it and the amazing animation does a great job of mixing sci-fi, the old west and 60’s spy movies together. Bebop is just a good time, with some super cool characters and some entertaining adventures. Sure Spike does have a bit of a change in the last few episodes (and the center entirely on him), but that’s as deep as the story gets.

Why construct the series this way? Bebop has some serious creative talent in it. The animation is probably the best of the 90’s generation of anime. The music is amazing (a mix of jazz, blues, and 60’s John Barry inspired scoring). The voice talents are top notch. The production design is creative and visually interesting. Add to it that fact that is just captures “cool” in a way I’ve never really seen in animation since. That is a lot of good stuff in it – but it seems all surface. The writing, the place where depth could be added, is really straightforward. The best thing about the writing are the wry comments from Spike and Ed’s funny twisty dialogue.

I always feel like Bebop is a missed opportunity. It could have been something seriously special, but it ends up being fun and entertaining. For “Outlaw Star” I accept it, because that’s all the series seemed to be shooting for. “Bebop” with is huge talent behind it seemed to want to be something more and never quite reached it. Or maybe I’m the stick in the mud expecting more from something that just wanted to show the audience a good time.

With that said, I think the series could have really knocked it out of the park with a story line that developed over the 28 episodes. It didn’t have to be depressing or deep, but it could have given us characters that changed in a way that pulled us into their world more. I think that’s what I miss in this series. It’s fun to watch the characters, but I never get pulled in, because they are always reset at the start of the next episode.

In a way it even gives the characters immunity because you know they all have to be around for the next adventure. This is contrary to “Outlaw Star” which killed off a character who I was certain would be a main character about four episodes in (and thus made the space pirates a real threat), but also kept the thrill level higher, because you were never sure what dangers they would encounter.

Bebop never has those thrilling moments, except for the ending three episode arc, where you know something can go down, because the series has to end. It’s amazing how good those episodes play because the noir look has a real threat behind it. Spikes gangster past really seems to be dangerous for once and those episodes turn out t be some of the best.

But let me state for the record that I’m in the minority on this one. Lots of people love this show and think it’s one of the high points of all Japanese animation (or at the least the best series of the 90’s). I see lots of raves of the storytelling and even the characterization (which always seems to be reading more into the series than there is on the surface). The series clicked for just about everyone. But I find it to be very pretty, and nice to spend some time with, but not something I return to or even think about too often afterward.

Have you seen “Cowboy Bebop”? What did you think of it? Can you make a story with serious impact and not have the characters change or develop over time (28 episodes in this case)? Do you have a good story about style over substance writing or movies?

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