Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Whole Damn Thing: COWBOY BEBOP #1

. . .well, it was the clear winner of my "what shall I review next?" contest (with two whole votes. My majorities are generally silent) so I guess we have to do it. Plus, at a neat seven weeks, this'll hold us until we get to Mad Men's 5th season starting in March. Here, for your entertainment and edification, we here at Witless Prattle will be covering the entire run of the rather awesome anime (awesome especially for people who generally don't like anime) Cowboy Bebop.

First, a brief word about how I'm going to be covering this: Typically, I tend to do long rambling intros with information about the character and the background of the series and all that. Not going to be doing it this time, as half of what makes Cowboy Bebop so good is that you're not really given a whole lot of backstory about the world or the characters.

Rather than that feeling like half-baked storytelling, it's . . .not, really, and I'm going to attempt, and in all likelihood fail to explain it. You're given certain impressions of the main cast, and expected to make up your own mind about it. The goal is not to give you the kind of backstory you could pull off a Wikipedia entry, but to give you a sense of the person, and as you watch Bebop, draw your own conclusions about what's what.

Typically, I hate that kind of thing, but they make it work here. It's not unlike Blade Runner, wherein the story behind the story is

Oh yeah, another programming note. I reserve the right to stop the reviews at any time and draw your attention to certain selections in the soundtrack. Because it is (along with the soundtrack for FLCL) an amazing soundtrack, full of multiple genres, and it easily transcends genre and indeed its parent anime and can fully be enjoyed on its own.

I have a LOT of Bebop music on my MP3 player.

Okay, let's get right to the heart of this thing!

"This is all very mystic and all, but do you have anything to eat?"

First things first, we need to address this stuff at the start--There are two kinds of people: Those who think "Tank!" is an absolutely banging thing to play over the intro to your TV show, and assholes:

After a flashback which is terribly stylish but doesn't mean too much to us [yet] we meet our heroes, Spike Speigel, the lanky green-haired guy who might remind you of Lupin III and Jet Black, who may remind you of Daisuke Jigen (If you have no idea who either of those people are, it's not that important, just recognising the general reference for both characters) Spike and Jet are broke and hungry, being that they're bounty hunters in space and while they're pretty good at their job, they have a tendency to cause so much damage in the doing of it that any profits.

One of the things you don't really notice about the series as a whole until you've seen it through a time or two is the recurring eye motif that's sprinkled throughout, from the eye-shape of the exit to the hyperspace gate, the iris in the intro, to the way this episode's villain, Asimov uses his super-drug Bloody Eye--by spraying it into his eye, which somehow gives him, well, kinda-superpowers.

Asimov and his girlfriend have picked an out of the way place to compete a Bloody Eye deal, but really, the plot's not super-important, except as a vehicle for the characters to do their thing. In this case, it's to give Spike a big showcase and let us in on some things about him which we won't be able to contextualise until we're a bit further along.

For now, all we have are an allusion he makes that he was killed by a woman before, no one seems to know when he's joking or not (which he uses frequently in this first brace of episodes to cause people to underestimate him) and my God does he kick a lot of ass. He's the only person that Asimov, all hopped-up on eyedrops can't murder outright, and is so good, in fact, he actively seems to be messing with him in various moments.

Ultimately though, as frequently happens in Bebop, the situation spirals out of Spike and Jet's control, and there's an intriguing callback to the prophecy of "being killed by a woman" that unspools in a way not precisely as you'd expect.

This is a pretty good intro to the series. It gives you a clear picture of these characters and what they do, even if the "why" is not entirely clear. It rolls along at a pretty fierce clip, has some amazing action scenes, and the music is pretty damn awesome. You won't be able to make much sense of the clues about Spike until you've seen the final episode, but really, you have to approach Bebops as being more a story of the journey and not the destination, as after 26 episodes with these people, a lot of the heavy lifting about what it all means is going to be left to the viewer to draw his own conclusions.

Oh yeah, and the song over the end credits, "The Real Folk Blues," was what made me fall in love with this show.


If "Asteroid Blues" was a slick but very thin noirish episode, "Stray Dog Strut" goes pretty much in the direction of pure comedy. Essentially, it's Spike chasing after a dog and a guy who looks like Kareem Abdul-Jabar for 22 minutes. It's dressed up with a lot of hugger-mugger about the dog in question being a "data dog," which sounds impressive, but is rather light on actual facts.

The data dog in question is an adorably precocious Welsh Corgi named Ein, who takes an immediate liking to Spike (much to Spike's irritation) and seems to be pretty adept at getting himself out of scrapes. Ein becomes the first new crew member on the Bebop (Jet's ship) and thus begins a recurring theme of them getting new crew members who don't profit them at all, and even though they complain the whole time . . .Spike and Jet never really seem to get around to throwing them off the ship.

For the second time in as many episodes, there are attempts at prophecy or divination that don't quite come off as you'd imagine, partly because they're so vague they could mean anything, and also because by the time the person finally spits it out, it's not the future anymore.

"Stray Dog Strut" is generally lighthearted, and even the soundtrack underlies that, featuring ska-style music over the final chase and the brassy tune, "Want It All Back" that plays over the first:

If you go into it looking for a frothy stylish caper show, you'll get a lot out of it. Just be aware that this kind of mood whiplash is the norm for this show.

"Somehow, I don't think Charlie Parker'd be quoting Goethe."

Enter Faye Valentine, the Fujiko Mine of the show, if you're still doing the Lupin III comparisons. Frequently, and most especially in this episode and the one following she's as much an ally as an affable adversary--she's perfectly willing to snooker the Bebop crew out of a fat bounty as she is to beg them for help when she ends up broke and stranded--Faye being up to her eyeballs in debt is a common theme with her.

Faye doesn't have a past as such, or not one she's willing to share (or, as we discover later, entirely comprehends) except we know from her dealings with Gordon the casino boss this episode that she's assumed to be the legendary Poker Alice. Faye points out if she was, she'd be 200 years old, which is . . .not really a denial. Later on she claims to Spike and Jet that she's a gypsy, which is not technically true, and yet . . .

The caper this time out is that Faye is hired by Gordon to cheat at cards and get a special poker chip--one which contains a smaller microchip with the ultimate decryption program on it (Hopefully the irony of a program which is designed to reveal all things kept secret on a show where the amount of things kept secret could fill a small building if you printed it out is not lost on you) Spike very helpfully swallows the chip and keeps it out of Faye's hands (he can cough it up at will, which he demonstrated earlier in the episode, in a nice subtle touch) and they try to sell it back to Gordon for a higher fee than Faye's bounty.

The denouement of this takes place in space, and features one of the coolest things about bebop--here's a show that understands that space has three dimensions and there is no real "up." This is shown off in a very elaborate action climax which features Spike fighting in an EVA suit on Gordon's ship while the Bebop is inverted above/below (depending on your perspective) it. Pretty gnarly.

While Faye hasn't technically joined the Bebop crew yet, she's been drawn into their orbit, which we'll see play out in the very next episode. This episode continues the early run of the show's predilections for flashy, stylish action sequences that offer plenty of opportunities for the cast to strut their stuff and it plays really well. We're getting a few crumbs of clues about who they are, but there's still a few pieces to put into place yet . . .

"I don't know and I have no opinion."

Spike and Jet try to stop a group of environmental terrorists from turning everyone into primates with a genetically engineered virus. Faye helps for purely mercenary reasons, and naturally ends up with nothing because that's just how these things go.

This is the first instance of something which happens again in the movie--while trying to collect on a bounty, Spike and Jet get snatched up in something that is wayyyyy above their level--in this case, biological warfare.

I should also add that the head of the Space Warriors terrorists, Twinkle Maria Murdock, is this year's recipient of the Daisy O'Mega Cool Yet Ridiculous Name Award, even if she is a stuck-up bitch who ends up not being a smart as she thought she was.

Spike, however, gets to show off why underestimating him is such a dangerous thing, as his initially reckless attempts to open up an ampule of the virus, which seems like it would be a hatefully dangerous thing to do, but he's actually doing it to watch Murdock's reactions to it--thus, he knows it's dangerous enough for her to worry about, which comes in handy later.

We get a cool space battle (in hyperspace!) as well, the denouement of which fills us in a little on how hyperspace works in the Cowboy Bebop universe. I quite like that we get little bits of world-building like that with such economy.

Faye also joins the crew in much the same way that Ein did--with Spike and Jet bitching about it the whole time. Also as with Ein, while she gets on their nerves, they don't seem in so much of a hurry to throw her off the ship (the punchline of this episode notwithstanding) which says as much as what they do.

" . . .you sing off-key."

And now here's the episode that starts answering a lot of questions about Spike, and as with the best kinds of those episodes, it brings up twice as many questions.

The teaser from last episode makes explicit a recurring motif of Spike's--that he's living a dream he can't wake up from. This will ultimately hit a critical mass at the finale of the series, but we're a way's away from it, and this is only the leading edge.

A man named Mao Yenrai, who works for the Red Dragon Syndicate, is murdered just as he makes peace with a rival syndicate by a man named Vicious, who, and I may be reaching here, is Linkthe Goemon of the show, with a little Captain Harlock thrown in. Vicious is a horrifically amoral killer who takes a quiet glee in killing people. More on him later.

Before he dies, Yenrai gets off a good line about how times have changed and the kind of bloodletting that Vicious deals in have to stop, which is a good bit, and ties into this episode's recurring bloody imagery and the notion of characters who are locked in specific times, which applies neatly to about 80% of the cast, now that I think about it.

There's a bounty out for Yenrai, and Spike's resolved to go after it. Jet balks at it, wanting no part of anything that dangerous, but Spike's still resolved to go. It's obvious there's something else at work here, but Spike isn't talking. When Jet presses him on it, Spike reflects the question by asking how Jet got his artificial arm. Neither is willing to answer the other, which is kind of the problem underpinning this episode.

As Spike's leaving, Jet notices that he dropped a card--the Ace of Spades.

Also known as the death card. Ah well, probably means nothing.

Faye, coming in at the 11th hour and not really caring about their tiff, looks at the dollar signs for Yenrai and, in trying to collect the bounty, meets up with Vicious and gets herself captured. I've not mentioned how often Faye gets handcuffed or is otherwise in some kind of bondage, so let me make a note of it here, as I'm sure someone out there reading this is probably into that, so let me point it out here: Faye spends a lot of time in bondage of some sort. There.

Spike, meanwhile, follows the trail to a woman named Annie, who knows him, and is more than a little shocked to see him still alive. She claims that Yenrai never thought he was dead and we get the impression that he was some sort of mentor for Spike and what's more, we learn that Vicious has a history with both men, and that Yenrai took Vicious in and "made him everything he was." Vicious kind corroborates this, but seems to imply that he lost respect for Yenrai because he because "a beast that lost its fangs." Whatever that means.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Faye calls in Spike and Jet, and Jet's all like "Screw you, you got yourself captured." but Spike decides to go for her for reasons of his own, one assumes. I should add that the tracks that plays as Spike walks to the church where the showdown takes place, "Rain" is another awesome track

The subsequent fight in the church is pretty awesome as well, partly because the setting of the church really elevates the scope of the fight and provides a really slick Gothic backdrop to things, but mainly because it's a substantially different fight that we've seen before, because Spike is overmatched from the beginning, takes more than a few share of hits, and when he finally fights Vicious, we're put on notice that this guy is Bad News, because he's the only one we've seen thus far who can hang with Spike and ultimately beat his ass and toss him out the window, considering how easily Spike runs rings around most of the bad guys so far, it's a big deal.

As Spike tumbles out the window, we get a series of flashbacks (punctuated by shots of, you guessed it, Spike's eye) which gives us some picture of Spike and Vicious' backstory--they were allies, there's a woman involved, and apparently Spike "died" as a result of all this, but how much of that is fact and how much of it is conjecture is, well, I did say that a lot of Bebop was you putting the puzzle pieces together.

We finish up with Spike, bandaged to the point of mummification hassling Faye, who shreds a pillow over his head (giving us a rain of feathers which calls back to the episode title) and leaves the Ace of Spades on Spike's head. Not that that probably means anything.

While the previous 4 episodes had been slick and action-packed, they'd been a bit samey and stingy and a little formulaic. It's this episode that finally gives us a peek at what's going on and raises the stakes in a real way. It's the first great episode of the series, and an ideal place to close out our inaugural edition of this feature.

And that's gonna do it for this week. Join us next week when Spike declares war on lids in "Sympathy for the Devil"; we have an extended debate over the proper way to make a prairie oyster in "Heavy Metal Queen"; Spike gets an apprentice of sorts in "Waltz for Venus"; the final member of the Bebop crew arrives in "Jamming with Edward"; and Jet gets mad at his watch in "Ganymede Elegy." See you in 7!


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

At last! :)

You know, I remember the exact moment I realized this anime was going to be a completely different experience for me: by the end of the third episode, I felt I understood the characters. Oh, there's still plenty of background information missing, but as you point out, we can grasp the basics almost immediately. Even if the backstory Faye gives isn't entirely accurate, it's still enough to give a sense of who she is and why she does what she does.

Contrast that to MSG, where after a good two hours I still have no idea what was going on with Char. Or "Akira", where Tetsuoooooo and Kanedaaaaa basically circle each other for a hundred pages without the slightest exposition as to who they are and why I should care.

Next week: VT! :)

Lebeau2501 said...

Ballad of the Fallen Angels and Mushroom Samba are probably my favorite episodes. I hate Jupiter Jazz. Oh yeah, Ganemede Elegy is great too. Any Jet stories are great. Bebop is an example of anime that isn't anime, but an amazing story told in animated form, that just happens to be on the anime shelf.

Kazekage said...

Diana--well, the public has spoken. :)

Oh it's bloody brilliant the way they make it work, really. Because most of the time the plots are either bog standard stock plots or don;t really stand up to scrutiny, but still and all you can't wait to see these characters let loose in the episode. And while everything's not completely spelled out, you're given enough to get a feel for their backstory that it doesn't feel like it's just half-baked stuff.

And I think in her own way, Faye was telling the truth. As much as she's able, anyhow. ^_^

As a longtime Gundam fan, Char's arc doesn't make any damn sense the further things go. That it's so glacially paced doesn't help any, trust me on this.

SPOILER: VT will be our next inductee in the Daisy O'Mega Cool Name Hall of Fame next week. :)

Lebeau--Oh boy, covering Mushroom Samba is gonna be. . .interesting. "So, everyone gets high, and Pam Grier's shooting at people, and Ein can talk to cows." It's a great episode because it is perfectly willing to be utterly insane and gets away with it.

I am looking forward to "Ganymede Elegy" next week--I really like Jet episodes too, but "Black Dog Serenade" is probably my favourite of the Jet episodes.

It's surprisingly un-anime like, really, lacking most of the earmarks of that genre (there are a few, but then there always are) and in a better world, it would have led to western people making animated films with more grown-up themes with mass appeal that didn't have to be DCAU movies or Heavy Metal-esque softcore stuff.

Alas. . .