Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gold! Always Believe in Your Soul . . .

"Oh yeah. Guess we should DO something about the monster not being dead. Maybe. I guess."

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Hi amigos! All 300,000 bounty hunters in the solar system, how y'all doin? It's time for the final installment of Witless Prattle's coverage of the entirety of Cowboy Bebop. And this week, we wrap the whole shmear up with a look at the theatrical movie, Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

"How do you say 'useless' in Texan?"

It was probably a good idea to have Bebop's bow a a feature movie be a story "hidden" in amongst the chronology of the show's run. Doing a "what happened after" wouldn't work, given who's left at the end of the finale, and doing a prequel wouldn't work because prequels always suck, especially when the whole hook of your show depends on the unsaid to work properly and explaining all the unexplained stuff would really . . .kill it dead, wouldn't it?

The challenge with shows where the finale of the series bangs the door shut with real finality but you have a whole movie yet to go is a tricky one. You either do a continuation or essentially re-tell the original story (for example: Evangelion is now into it's third version of the same story, as the finale ended with everyone but one masturbating shut-in reduced to Tang didn't really leave many places for the story to go) Bebop decided to look at it as a farewell tour. No need to rock the boat, no need to reinvent the wheel, just go out there and play Dark Side of the Moon for the punters one more time, strum the strings of sweet nostalgia, and leave them satisfied but always wanting more.

There was also a bit of a victory lap to be had, as well--initially, Bebop was plagued with all sorts of problems and caught a lot of flak for its violence and half its episodes didn't even air in its first run. How wonderful then, to come back with a big splashy feature to an anime that grew into one of the most beloved international successes ever?

Thus, Knockin' (I am not typing out that title every damn time) plays t generally safe, and you don't really notice that it's kind of Bebop's greatest hits unless you're really looking. Then again, Bebop never shied away from doing plots multiple times, because plot really wasn't that much of a thing: People liked the show because they liked the characters and the style in which Bebop was done. So it was a safe bet.

The plot is a biological warfare attack ("Gateway Shuffle") perpetrated by a veteran of the wars on Titan ("Jupiter Jazz") who has suffered some kind of damage to his memory and is out of his customary time and place (God, pick an episode, why don't you?) There's a lot of stuff that marks it as a product of the first decade of the new century--a comprehensive reaction to a terrorist threat, the fear of germ warfare, etc. Said plot eventually spirals way outside of everyone's ability to stop or control it, save the crew of the Bebop, who don't let a little thing like the impossible slow them down all that much.

Being that he's essentially a cipher, the villain of the piece, Vincent, isn't really all that interesting, as he's lost everything that made him a distinct person. We're supposed to be scared of him for that reason--lacking restraint or explanation, he's kind of supposed to be a force of nature, I guess. It . .doesn't quite come off, not does the notion that we're supposed to feel any kind of sympathy for him for losing his memory and being a victim of forces beyond his control, but it doesn't sit comfortably with someone who's indulging in a little nihilistic mass murder. Also, he sounds a bit too much like Vicious, and when you add in the common threads between them (enmity with Spike, his past on Titan, beats the shit out of Spike) he really doesn't differentiate himself successfully.

However, he's less a character and more an attempt to illustrate the main point of Cowboy Bebop--loneliness=bad; finding a place where you belong=good. Vincent has no memory and no connection to anyone and becomes a destructive nihilist. The Bebop crew, for all their problems, are a unit and manage to survive all the crazy shit that Vincent throws at them because of it.

Even if the science, which makes every effort to be plausible, is as dumb as a backward jackass.

Likewise, Electra, Vincent's former lover-cum-saviour, isn't all that interesting either, though she's a female character of a type not really featured on Bebop to any real degree and her and Spike get a lot of awesome moments together, and there's something to be said for being a good catalyst even if you aren't a fully fleshed-out character

However, as always, the ropey bits are balanced out by a bangin' soundtrack, my favourite of which (heaven help me for admitting this) is the utterly ridiculous/hilarious country pastiche/parody, "Diggin'"

If, like me, you grew up with country music all around you and it wasn't your favourite thing ever, then hearing this was the song that let you know you were not alone.

There's also the fact that this movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at--the attention to detail in the Moroccan Street sequences and the scenes of all the old airplanes taking off is just staggering and the action sequences that punctuate all the philosophizing and wisecracks are uniformly excellent, and really show off what all that extra money can get you.

I also like the near-rabbinical determination the producers of the movie had for making sure every single touchstone of Bebop got a bit in the movie. You want the three old guys who are always around playing cards? They're here? Big Shot? Definitely here. Ed wandering around the city in what seems like a plot-forwarding role, but more an excuse for a goofy break so we can chuckle over her and Ein's antics? Yep. Faye even gets tied up by Vincent, who, despite being a nihilist, knows what some folks paid to see here.

There's also the usual recurring imagery--lots of stuff about eyes and fishing, as well as a new wrinkle where things are framed by games--Vincent's Chinese Checkers-ish thing, Lee's various video games, Jet's shogi board, etc . . .there's plenty of subtext to plunder for the intellectually curious (or the hard-up blogger trying to fill up the page with words. . . )

But in between that, we get several great action scenes, and I wanna mention them now. Electra and Spike's first encounter is really rad, and demonstrates that Spike is awesome enough to hold someone off with a push-broom. The subsequent gunfight with Vincent on the Monorail is really awesome, as is the dogfight Spike has in the Swordfish with the Army jets (because again--everything you loved in Bebop got crammed into this movie, even the cool space battles) It all culminates with the fight on the tower between Spike and Vincent, which is just bad-ass.

I should make mention here that the whole philosophising about dreams and how it relates to the butterflies is a reference to a quote by Zhuangzhi, specifically:

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."

The more you know.

I have no segues for these last few bits before I talk about the end so I'll just drop them in, as I wanted to also point out two other awesome songs from the soundtrack, specifically "Dijurido"

. . .and the totally awesome "What Planet is This"

So, while the final resolution between Vincent and Electra is inexplicable when it's not being mawkish (honestly, it's a little confusing and awfully convenient that Vincent remembers he and Electra was tizz-ight at the most critical moment) the movie uses it as a perfect opportunity to restate the final thesis and make Vincent's end a hopeful one: He's found the answer he needed, but not the one he sought. He wondered if he was living in the real world or not, but what he needed to know was that he wasn't alone after all.

This is meant to presage Spike's death in the finale, and it . . .kinda does, but it also doesn't, and even if the correlation were more explicit, it's hard to draw too close a line between their situation and his because we've had 26 episodes to get to know Spike, and asking an audience to fully identify with characters as this as Electra and Vincent is not so easy.

So instead of belabouring the point too much more, we close with a song, and it's a great one that elegantly restates the themes of the movie. To play us out, here's "Gotta Knock A Little Harder."

And that's Cowboy Bebop, y'all. The whole thing (so far) There's been occasional rumours of another movie or (god help us) a live-action version produced in the USA, a possibility I see as about as worthwhile an endeavour as fitting a Humvee with a vagina--sure it's a technical achievement, but the two things don't go very well together, really, do they?

And with that, we're done. I can't remember if this is our third series we've done in the entirety of or not, but it's certainly the first one of a different style for me. I took copious notes for this--there's like half a notepad's worth, for heaven's sakes. Maybe they'll put in in a collection of my papers or something one day. More than likely, they'll do what everyone else does though, and either skip to the Mad Men reviews or just come here from Google searches for "tits."

I hope you enjoyed this comprehensive look back at the entirety of Cowboy Bebop. Thanks to all of you who've followed along (I think we got one new reader out of this--that's a good day here at the Prattle) Until next time!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Whole Damn Thing--COWBOY BEBOP #6

Hi amigos! All 300,000 bounty hunters in the solar system, how y'all doin? It's time once again for another installment of Witless Prattle's continuing (for one more week after this, anyways) coverage of the entirety of Cowboy Bebop.

This time we wrap up the series proper with the final four episodes. Typically, as a series reaches its final stretch, you'd kinda think maybe everything would get resolved, all the questions answered, and things brought to a close.

And they kinda do. Sorta. But the answers lead to more questions, and, I'd have to say, really Cowboy Bebop is a lot more about the questions than it is the actual answers. But a lot of shows are like that--or they are more because the plotting is so sloppy. In Bebop's case, it's more by design, I think. I'll try to explain as we go:

"If you want to dream, just do it by yourself!"

I was dreading this one. "Brain Scratch" is my least favourite Cowboy Bebop, and while my re-watch revealed it has a few good qualities, my opinion still stands, as it's a story that Bebop's already done multiple times as it is, and this is not the best version.

The crew gets involved in chasing down Londes, the founder of a religion called Scratch, whose adherents want to migrate their consciousness into a digital sphere. Londes' voice actor is the same voice actor as Lord Zedd. The longest note I made while watching that episode was that Londes' voice was the same as Lord Zedd's--you tell me what that bodes for the episode.

The problem with "Brain Scratch," is that we've seen this whole "people not living in the real world as metaphor (or not)" a couple times already, most notably in "Bohemian Rhapsody." Then as now, the "threat" turned out to be mostly harmless, and the whole thing resolves ambivalently.

The framing device of Londes constantly switching channels is kinda cool, and certainly allows for a more distant take on the Bebop crew than we've had up until now, but in the end, it's just a gimmick and distances the viewer a bit too far from the main cast. Couple that with the fact we've plowed this ground a few times already, it feels a bit tired.

Plus, the episode chokes on its of philosophising about television and how deleterious an effect it has on the human psyche. See also: Everything written or performed about TV ever.

On the other hands, "Big Shot," Cowboy Bebop's long-ruunning gag series gets cancelled, which certainly isn't a harbinger of things to come at all. Nope, nosiree.

"Jet--the girls are gone."

Among Bebop's many repeated themes--along with fishing, water, eyes, dreaming, people locked in by illusions and all the others I'm not typing out right now--is that of futility. One need look no further than the character of Appledelhi, Ed's father, who is engaged in mapping Earth's terrain. Only Earth is constantly being pounded by meteorite showers, which constantly reshape the terrain. Appledelhi tries to sell it as "making order out of chaos," but you and I both know it's a bunch of craziness.

I have to say, over and above that we say our goodbyes to three of the Bebop crew, given how much chemistry Ed and Faye have as characters, it's a shame this is the only episode wherein they get paired off and go on and adventure (or rather, Ed waltzes them around and tries to drive Faye insane) There's a telling bit when they arrive at the day care center where the woman in charge says that ed just sort of wanders in and out, which is interesting, as that's pretty much what Faye does on the Bebop.

If this episode has a theme it can call its own, however, it's without question, "belonging" Faye is so obsessed with regaining her memory and finding the place where she belongs again and Ed is so happy that they abandon the place where they really belong--on the Bebop. This is something which has ramifications beyond this episode, and I'll address them in the next one, but suffice it to say that it's only when they leave the Bebop for an extended period of time that real disaster strikes.

Not that saying goodbye is any the easier for the longtime viewer either. Faye running up the steps expecting to find at last the peace where she belongs and only finding ruins is heart-wrenching, as is Ed and Ein leaving the ship for the last time. And "Call Me Call Me" the song that plays over both? Pretty much a perpetual tear generator:

While it's sad Faye ends up with nothing (again) and Ed and Ein are gone, the notion that the remaining Bebop crew is the ones who are really lost is the more urgent point. If the crew is breaking up, and going in their own directions . . .that means nothing's the same any more, and well, anything could happen . . .

"Where are you going? Why are you going?"

The more I've thought about it, the break-up of the Bebop crew seems to rob them of a large degree of immunity from harm, kinda. Oh sure, Spike has been routinely thrashed by the bad guys, Faye never seems to stay very long if she can help it, and if Jet gets hurt it's usually a stinging betrayal that only hurts on the inside, but it never. . .stuck, I guess.

Well, in part 1, that pretty much all goes to hell. Jet gets sidelined by a bullet to the leg, the Bebop is brought down by a full-on assault by the Red Dragons, and even before Vicious assumes control of the syndicate, they seem determined to kill everyone even tangentially connected to Vicious.

And Spike . . .well . . .

Well, except Shin, who is one of the most goddamned maddening characters in bebop, because holy God I have no idea why he's here. I know intellectually why he's here--he's Lin's twin brother from "Jupiter Jazz," who looks just like him and is in the Red Dragons, just like Lin, and is adjutant to Vicious. . .just like Lin. This is kind of a problem, in that Lin didn't really distinguish himself all that much and all Shin does is pop in a few times to move to the plot along and we're supposed to think that he's important, but damn if I know why.

Jet, having be dragged into this nonsense after having the good sense to stay away the last three times, tells spike that Vicious and Julia are like incantations opening some kind of door that shouldn't be opened, and given what happens, he has a point. It probably explains why Spike kept quiet about it up until now.

There's a good scene where the doctor from "Asteroid Blues" is patching up Jet's leg wound and compares the two of them to two stray cats that he can't get rid of. This story may sound familiar to you, because Spike said something very much about his ship in "Wild Horses." This is all finally tied up in a knot in Part 2, when Spike weaves a somewhat complicated and thickly layered with allegory story about another stray cat in part 2 of this story.

There's a little touch i want to talk about at the beginning of Part 2. Being that with the crew of the Bebop splintered and the titular ship itself torpedoed, there aren't even any opening credits: that's how much the Cowboy Bebop we knew and loved is breaking down.

But they're not taking this on alone, because Faye, being Faye, drifts back into the Bebop's orbit (it was either that or get tied up) but not before we get a great scene that will only make sense if you paid attention to the Big Shot stuff (or understood it was someone commenting externally on Faye's situation) This leads to Faye encountering Julia, and having a frankly awesome high-speed car chase/shootout.

The strength of this two-parter is that the action scenes come frequently, and keep the energy from flagging too much. It also glosses over a couple of bitterly ropey bits--Spike and Faye waxing about Julia, Vicious' teeth-gnashingly bad line about shedding tears of scarlet, all the times people talk about "dying because they're not sure if they're really alive" and . . .well, it really brings home the fact that when Bebop has to answer questions, it doesn't do so well. We're really here for the characters (and while in other shows that may seem like a cop-out, here it's very true) more than we are for the plot points.

Which is why Jet being hurt is sad, why it sucks that the Red Dragons bring down the Bebop hurts, Faye's inability to stop Spike from going to his final and fatal reckoning with Vicious. We don't want to see these guys go, and we damn sure don't want to see them hurt. But because they're broken, they like Vicious, like damn near everyone within the course of the series, they've "lost their place in the world," and like all ghosts, bad stuff ensues.

Speaking of ghosts, let's talk about Julia for a bit. She's built up frequently as Very Important, and while she is to Spike, she's not really that big a deal, or at least in the bits we see (though she drives like a bat outta hell and can handle herself in a fight) but ultimately her death doesn't really have the "oomph" you would have expected. She works better as a representation of the lost past (or the lost self) rather than as a fleshed-out character. Still, she makes more of an impression of fucking Shin, that's for sure.

Well, the showdown is on, and it's accompanied by an interesting reprise of "The Real Folk Blues," called "See You Space Cowboy." It's pretty awesome:

I won't spoil the finer details of Spike wrecking shit on the Red Dragons, as it's best experienced in the show and you know how it's gonna play. But you will, finally, get the context for that "bang" business in "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Wild Horses," which leads into the best and the final song in the series, "Blue."

It's awesome.

So, here we are. Cowboy Bebop, barring one more curtain call, is finished. It's been quite a ride, we got to know some cool people, heard some cool music, and even though we never really figured some bits of it (Seriously, Shin--why are you here?!?) and while on the face of things you could say the ending is weak (if you wanted the overplot wrapped up, you kinda got what you wanted, but that would mean knowing what the overplot actually was) you could also say Bebop succeeds in what it meant to do--make you follow and grow to care about these characters over the 26 episodes here to the point where you're genuinely sad to see them go.

As to what it was all about. . .well. Bebop's questions, as the finale proves, are way more interesting to ask than to have answered. If Bebop has a central thesis, it's probably from the preview for "Speak Like A Child," when Jet asks the audience "what conclusions will you draw from it?" If you canvassed 10 different sites for Cowboy Bebop reviews, you're going to get 10 different reads as to What It Was All About, but that's as it should be, I think. It can mean what it needs to mean for everyone who watches it.

In lesser hands, this kind of thing is used as an excuse--ropey plotting forgiven as "oh, well, it was all about the characters all the time" is yet another craven defence of really shitty plotting, but in Bebop it had the ring of truth. These were people we came to care about, and when they're gone and there's no more Bebop . . .we'll miss them. The true test of whether people are important to you or not is when you miss them when they're gone.

And we'll miss these guys.

So good thing we have one more time around, eh? Join us next week as we wrap it up good and proper. It's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," the Cowboy Bebop movie for next week. See you then!

Sunday, February 12, 2012


I wonder if it's fair to say that 1996 was the year that the mad energy of the early 90's was finally spent. The peak year was probably 1994, but it took some time for the wave to break and roll back in earnest.

Things were certainly rolling back for Marvel, anyways. By 1995-1996, most all their franchises were doing pretty bad. The X-Men were shambling through the Onslaught debacle, which would be the point where the formerly bulletproof X-franchise started seriously running into the law of diminishing returns; and the Avengers franchise had just endured The Crossing.

We've talked about all of the above at length here at the Prattle, but haven't touched on the related changes that were going on with the Crossing (besides the Iron Man stuff) What they boil down to is this--Thor lost his powers, started dressing like He-Man and there was some stuff about him banging the Enchantress and worldengines and stuff (also known as a mild case of Warren Ellis) and Captain America was dying.

It had sort of been dying for awhile really. Like Chris Claremont, Mark Gruenwald had stayed on the book way too long and had really run out of stories he really wanted to tell. Instead, we got an awful lot of what might have been good ideas wrapped in some really dreadful stories, all of which ended up grist for the blogging mill--Cap as a woman! Cap as a werewolf! Cap as Robocop!--the list is long and infamous.

Sadder still, the bad stories were fresh enough in everyone's mind that they'd forgotten that early on Gruenwald had told some pretty great stories with the character, specifically the extended storyline which saw Steve Rogers replaced and John Walker take over as Captain America. It was a fantastic story that if I remember right ran over a couple years before finally culminating in a big anniversary issue wherein it was revealed that the Red Skull was shockingly 1) not dead and 2) had had his brain transferred into a clone of Rogers, yet another step on the way to making the characters each others' opposite number, which culminated in the movie's assertion that they were products of the same experiment, more or less.

In any event, Gruenwald finally moved on, and plans were afoot for Rob Liefeld to do his heroes Reborn thing (which was planned as a rather tortured Miracleman-cum-King Arthur story wherein Cap's shield functioned as Excalibur, another legendarily feeble story which has been blogged about ad nausauem elsewhere) but before that dropped, they had about eleven issues to kill, and since whatever filled them was lame-duck stuff (and it wasn't as if Captain America could really be doing any worse), they had the freedom to roll the dice a bit

Enter Mark Waid and Ron Garney. Waid was starting to get some notice for his run on The Flash, which was going to make his rep (well, that and Kingdom Come, which was also going to drop contemporaneously with this book) and for a run on the X-Men, which, sadly was yet another example of someone not wanting to transcribe editorial plots, which we've also covered elsewhere. Ron Garney had drifted around doing fill-in work (I mostly saw his stuff in various Annuals here and there--him and Tom Raney's work seemed to pop up near-constantly) and this was his first feature work as a "name" artist.

Waid and Garney's approach was one of simplifying things. Gone were the long-winded speeches about America that had somewhat ossified the character up to that time and made him easy to dismiss as a JSA-esque relic of an earlier, simpler time/ In his place was a vital man of action, who made very few speeches and spent one hell of a lot of time doing various action-packed things in his stories. Mark Waid has said it he'd had in mind the pacing of a Jack Ryan film (remember those?) but what Garney brought to it was more a Jackie Chan approach. Action was the watchword, and action is what we have.

But first, Waid had to do something about the whole "Cap was dead" thing, which was where Gruenwald had left things. Waid begins his run with an issue framed around a hostage crisis which is less an actual plot than a means for the Avengers on hand to exposit about what Captain America is so great (and also as a teaser for the next arc) It's not a great issue taken in isolation, but it serves an important function in the larger narrative--it allows other characters to do all the speeches that Captain America had been making way too many of, and so he didn't have to, and slow things down.

The next issue kicks off the first story arc: "Operation:Rebirth" Captain America breaks free from a block of ice, not dead, but not at full strength, either. This rude awakening is compounded when he discovers his longtime love interest, Sharon Carter, is not dead, and doesn't like him too much, either (While Waid can overdo their bickering at times, they had great chemistry together as the bitter cynical realist vs. the calm, confident symbol of a nation) To make matters worse, his resurrection was brought about by the Red Skull, who circumstances force him to team up with.

Turns out that there's a Cosmic Cube floating around, with the spirit of Adolf Hitler inside it. This is, it should be said, a Bad Thing, and Captain America, created to stop Hitler, is the only one who can defeat Hitler. But it's not exactly as cut and dried as all that . . .

"Operation: Rebirth" is a great arc which moves like a house on fire and doesn't fatally bog itself down at any given point. It uses a bunch of Cap tropes we've all seen dozens of times (even if you never read the books)--the Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube--but shuffles them around enough to where it feels a lot fresher than it had been in a long while (No mean feat, that, as Captain America vs. the Red Skull is something that's been done so many times before and since, that it's hard to think of a new spin to put on it) and generally it feels like a fresh start.

My trade paper back of the Waid/Garney run omits the "First Sign" crossover with the Avengers books, which I'm totally fine with, because as bad as The Crossing was, "First Sign" was a confusing, bewildering mess of a story that managed to be even more muddled an incoherent in four issues than The Crossing managed in . .geez, like, twenty.

In any event, the trade picks up properly with the next story arc, "Man Without A Country." Some of the fallout from "Operation: Rebirth" and Captain America's uneasy alliance with the Red Skull lead to Steve Rogers citizenship being revoked. It's a bit of an extreme reaction, but it sets up another action-packed four-parter that sees Captain America and Sharon Carter kicking ass and bickering up a storm as they run riot over Europe trying to beat the clock.

The run wraps up (all too soon) with a final story that's meant to wrap up both the run and the series proper (remember--Heroes Reborn was a permanent thing, at first. Heh.) and manages to get things to a decent stopping point. It should be mentioned that by this point, Captain America had regained some of its cachet to the point that the notion of Liefeld forcing Waid and Garney out was something fandom took substantial umbrage at. But the decision had been made at that point, and well, if you're morbidly curious, you can see the results for yourself . . .

Waid would return, of course, in the massive course-correction that followed Heroes Reborn. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the magic of that initial run wasn't quite there the second time around, and while most of it's not bad, it never hits the heights of the first run.

However, thanks to Marvel's rather inconsistent, but a little more thorough than it used to be trade program, you can pick up the early run in hardcover and trade (I'm sure the movie has a lot to do with it being so readily in print, but then, so is that "Cap is a werewolf" story) It's a good run, even if you don't much care for Captain America, and a good example of how you can revitalise a comic without a bunch of "everything you knew is wrong!" hugger-mugger and just tell good stories.

One wishes that lesson had been a bit better learned.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Whole Damn Thing--COWBOY BEBOP #5

Hi amigos! All 300,000 bounty hunters in the solar system, how y'all doin? It's time once again for another installment of Witless Prattle's continuing (and halfway over) coverage of the entirety of Cowboy Bebop.

This week, we have what one might consider a bit of a palate cleanser before the finale. These aren't quite as deep an exercise into character as episodes previous to this have been, or indeed as the final three will be, but they're interesting little adventures and are our last opportunity to see the Bebop crew doing their thing . . .well, before what happens happens, that is.

"Unlike someone else here, I always return what I owe!"

There's a nice bit of foreshadowing in the opening scene of Spike thumbing a ride. It means nothing if you haven't seen the finale episode, but it's been telegraphed a couple times by now, if you've been paying attention.

And talking of foreshadowing and repeated motifs through the series, Jet and Faye are fishing. Well, metaphorically speaking. They're trying to capture a group of space pirates who paralyse their prey with a computer virus delivered through a grappling line (this shouldn't be necessary, but Bebop is not really all that interested in science beyond what's needed to set up the premise) which paralyses the MONO system (a universal control system for ships in the Bebop universe) and allows them to hijack and/or capture said craft.

While we get a decent space battle of it, it's not really the point of the episode, as much as it is to fill in a bit of backstory with Spike and his relationship to Doohan, the man who gave him his fighter, the Swordfish (all the Bebop fighters are named after fish--see what I mean about repated motifs?--the other two are Faye's Redtail and Jet's Hammerhead) Doohan has been drafted as Spike's mechanic, as Spike is pretty reckless with his ship (not unlike every other single thing Spike is involved with) and apparently they've done this song and dance many times--Doohan grumbles about fixing it, Spike says he's not the careful type, lather rinse repeat.

Spike has no great attachment to his ship, which Miles interestingly compares to "being in love with the wrong woman." Spike just harrumphs and says it's just an old she ship he can't seem to get rid of, and aren't there just a dozen ways you could read that?

"Wild Horses" isn't really deep, as much as it is a romp. There are some cool bits--the space fight, the space shuttle Columbia being towed by a tank (OK, that one's more bittersweet) but it's a bit thin on meat (and that CGI model has not aged well) but Bebop, like pizza, is pretty good even what it's average.

"There's nothing more pure and more cruel as a child."

Man, the promo for this episode is messed up and really sets the tone for how creepy the episode itself is. It is, according to the creators a homage to Batman: The Animated Series, but I'll be damned if I've ever really worked out how, except in the obvious ways and stylistic touches.

Spike, after leaving a pool hall (called, amusingly enough, "C'est La Vie.") has the misfortune to run into Mad Pierrot, the villain of the episode, finishing up his task of murdering a few dozen someones. Pierrot isn't the sort to abide witnesses, and Spike isn't the type to allow himself to get murdered, so they're at loggerheads.

Trouble is, Pierrot has a force field that blocks every kind of attack thrown his way and has more guns on him than a year's subscription to Guns and Ammo. He also fights a bit like Pom Pom from Homestar Runner, which works far better than you'd think.

And Spike ends up a bandaged mess convalescing aboard the Bebop, a situation which even Faye can recall as familiar. But Spike being Spike, he's determined to settle the score with Pierrot whether he's at full force or not.

He toys with Faye by suggesting that this may be the fight he doesn't return from and asks if she'd go to save him, which is just him winding up Faye and if in no way shape or form any kind of foreshadowing. Additionally, all the stuff about eyes in this episode and how the cat that Pierrot is really terrified of has eyes of two different colours has nothing to do with anything. Nope. Not a thing.

"Pierrot Le Fou" is a pretty exciting episode, somewhat trippy and has a very heavy and dark conclusion, but if you think about it for more than five minutes, it looks a bit ramshackle, as all the pieces don't really fit comfortably together, and when the action is not constantly pushing things along, one notices the flaws. But the action and the mise-en-scene are pretty strong, and I find myself liking the episode anyways.

"Hot dog bun! Not too young!"

Man, this is going to be a short one. An old acquaintance of Jet's ropes him into an overly intricate plot involving his daughter and feng shui. Lots of feng shui.

I'm kinda glad we get one encounter from Jet's past that doesn't end in heartbreak for him, but I gotta be honest--this one doesn't really do it for me. There's a few fitful moments where it might have come together into something interesting--the comparison of feng shui as more active as compared to fortune telling (which bebop has never been shy about portraying as rather futile) and the notion of a treasure hunt with a feng shui twist is an intriguing enough concept.

However, I can't help but feel I would have gotten more out of this if I understood more intimately the underlying concepts of feng shui. But I don't, so it's just kinda . . .there.

"Yeah, and the teddy bear suit wasn't a tip-off at all."

This may be one of the most beloved episodes of the show, now that I think about it. On the trail of a serial bomber known as the Teddy Bomber (who I am contractually obligated to point out--just like everyone else who comments on this episode--is based on the Unabomber) Spike is constantly thwarted by Andy, who, in addition to being an utter lunatic, gets under his skin, because though he won't admit it (and everyone else will) they're very much alike.

Andy and Spike have an interesting relationship--they are alike, but not exactly, as Andy is way more light and upbeat (whether that is the serene certainty of the idiot I leave to you to judge) as compared to Spike. Probably Andy puts it best when he proposes a toast to himself "Reflected in [Faye's] eye." (and isn't that turn of phrase just brimming with meaning)

The whole hunt for Teddy Bomber is a bit of a punchline--whenever Andy and Spike get together, they're almost as destructive in their way as Teddy Bomber is, and the whole running gag of Teddy Bomber getting interrupted every time he's about to deliver his reasons for his bombing spree, it's basically the episode intentionally marginalising what one is led to beleive is the main focus of the episode.

"Cowboy Funk" is a lot of fun and carries a surprising amount of weight in terms of character insight, but doesn't bog itself down in trying to make itself seem more profound than it it is with a lot of forced melodrama. Andy is a one-shot character who doesn't outstay his welcome and manages to shed a little light on what Spike would be if he were just a little different.

That is--he would be utterly ridiculous.

And that's it for now. Join us next week when we finish out the series proper, and owing to spoilers, I'm not gonna tip my hand about what awaits. It's "Brain Scratch"; "Hard Luck Woman" and "The Real Folk Blues, Parts 1 and 2." Join us then!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Whole Damn Thing--COWBOY BEBOP #4

Hi amigos! All 300,000 bounty hunters in the solar system, how y'all doin? It's time once again for another installment of Witless Prattle's continuing (and halfway over) coverage of the entirety of Cowboy Bebop.

Before we get too far along with that, I want to say something about the Bebop movie and when we'll be covering it. I know that continuity-wise it comes somewhere in between the final clutch of episodes, but I'm going to covering in the order of its release, partly because it breaks up my neat little orderly system for reviewing these things by DVD and also because really . . .I like the movie, it's awesome, but it's less an actual story and more like a curtain call for Bebop. Which is fine, and well-deserved. I see now reason why I shouldn't treat it like what it is.

I'm just glad they didn't do anything stupid, like a make a prequel that's three times as long that only serves to wring more blood from the proverbial turnip and makes the implicit explicit. If such a thing will happen, I sure hope I am a pile of ashes in a paperweight on someone's shelf when it does.

So with that said, let's get on with this week's episodes, shall we?

"Your story needs editing."

The first of our two Faye episodes actually provide some backstory for her, and don't feature her getting tied up. There's a novelty. It also starts off by juxtaposing her origins against the fate of some frozen fish--not the only time this week that Faye is metaphorically tied to fish, oddly enough.

The meat of this episode calls back to her lesson from "Toys in the Attic"--"Nothing good ever happened to her when she trusted someone." This is the story behind that particularly cynical bromide, as we learn that Faye was thawed out of cryogenic suspension, with no memory of her life before she'd been frozen, trusted and maybe fell in love with her insurance caseworker, Whitney Haggis Matsumoto who runs a con on her an turns her already considerable debt into figures best expressed with scientific notation.

There's an undercurrent in this episode that eventually everything comes back on you. Whiney conned Faye, which has caused Faye to become something of a (rather unsuccessful) con artist, the doctor hunting Whitney steals a police car and pretends to be a cop when they're trying to turn him in for the bounty. Likewise, Whitney, like Faye, has had to continually reinvent himself and concoct new identities while he's been on the run.

Faye does it, of course, because she can't remember her past. The real tragedy of her character is that she owes everything but she has absolutely nothing. There's a concrete answer to that in that what she owes and doesn't have is "money," but it goes deeper than that. Lacking a past, lacking any grounding or any place to belong (that she feels comfortable in) she kinda. . .fills in. Even Spike says her past is always changing, and he'd know better than anyone.

I do like that the song accompanying Whitney and Faye's montage is slightly off-key and arrhythmic. Very appropriate, that.

"My Funny Valentine" is a bubbly episode, kinda funny, but ultimately tragic. We'll revisit Faye's backstory a little later on (and it won't have the soft cushion of farce when we get there) but this is the first definitive clues we've got to her past and why she is the way she is. It's also great that she's allowed to be the feature of an episode in an episode wherein the word "Featured" doesn't mean "Tied up."

"This ship is my ship, and this arm is my arm. I don't need instructions."

Jet Black suffers some more.

If Bebop has themes--and it has a lot of them--one of the crucial ones may be that however hard you try, the past always comes back on you--in some cases, rather violently. No greater illustration of this can be found than in the first shot of this episode, wherein a prison door won't stay closed. . .because one of several murdered men is blocking it from shutting.

Seems a mutiny has happened on a prison ship (I like that the prison ship is designed like a Tommy Gun. Nice touch) and one of the heads of the mutiny is Udai, an assassin for the Syndicates who is the man Jet blames for losing his arm. and on that arm hangs a tale . . .

Jet's old partner wants his friend to team up and stop the mutiny. Both of them are well past their best years, as is Udai, who Jet says "doesn't belong in this day and age," and Jet tries to distance himself from going after him as "old news" and "past the statute of limitations." But the past is not so easily escaped from.

And Jet's not averse to trying to escape. The fact that he doesn't feel pain when his cigarette burns down between the fingertips of his arm, even though Faye points out her could repair it and feel again, is a telling detail--Jet lives in denial because that's the only way he can live. He denies his past in much the same way he complains and grouses about the crew of the Bebop (you know, the people he welcomes back whenever they run off and helps even though it gains them nothing) For whatever reason, Jet can't say how he feels anymore.

Of course, given what we learn this time, who can blame him? Udai didn't shoot Jet and cost him his arm, his partner did. For the second time this series, Jet's opened himself up and depended on someone. . .and it's hurt him in ways external and internal. And circumstances conspire to force this issue to a head--it's no secret that as Jet gets close to Udai on board the prison ship, the bulkheads close in tighter and tighter, sealing them off.

I also like that when the secret comes out, it's cut in a way that makes it seem like Jet's partner shoots Udai from the flashback. It's a very concrete illustration of the idea of the past doing violence on the present, and a great homage to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which used the same effect.

"Black Dog Seranade" is a great episode. It has some fantastic action sequences, it has a very meaty and noirish story, and it provides some background on Jet, which we don't get much of, mainly due to the fact that Jet's usually filling the role of "person reacting to all the crazy people around him." It also frames the tragedy of Jet's character--because of all the stuff that's happened to him, he can't just come out and say he likes Spike and the rest of the gang, because look what's happened when he's trusted people in the past.

"Pieces, pieces--all gone!"

So after two heavy episodes, with one more to come, how about some good old-fashioned tomfoolery to cleanse the palate, eh? How better then, to shake things up than letting Ed and Ein go off on their own adventure and sideline the rest of the cast by having them trip balls on mushrooms.

As I said before, plot is not generally all that big a deal in Bebop, and here's another great example. The episode pretty much subverts the crisis do jour whenever it rears its ugly head--Domino the mushroom smuggler is a dolt, the Shaft Brother even moreso, and Pam Grier's here because there is never not a good time to have a Pam Grier homage show up. You're not really meant to take any of it seriously.

It also has two songs most likely to get stuck in your head for long periods of time in "Mushroom Hunting":

and "Chicken Bone"

It also has Ed running like a maniac. I could watch that all day.

Because this is Bebop, and even their less serious episodes swing some dramatic weight, and we get these, idiosyncratically enough, in the form of mushroom-induced hallucinations. Spike walks up an endless staircase that a talking frog tells him is "the stairway to heaven." Faye dreams that the toilet floods the bathroom and she's swimming with fish (Hm, there's that imagery again) and Jet talks philosophy with his bonsai trees and eats a lipstick because they can't all be thick with meaning.

Oh, and Ein can talk to cows because of course he can.

"Mushroom Samba" is a great, lighthearted episode, and is fondly remembered because it's almost entirely occupied with just having fun, which is one of the many things Bebop does very well indeed: it's never afraid to be silly in a way that's light and playful but doesn't turn into parody. Plus--two songs you will never ever get out of your head again! How's that for a slice of fried gold?

"The real value of a treasure like this can't be determined by looking at it."

There's something apt about the visual metaphor of this episode: Rabbits. The Rabbit Delivery Service is the one who delivers the package (C.O.D., of course) that touches the plot off, and Faye spends most of the episode at the dog track, watching the dogs chasing a rabbit which, naturally they will never get. Faye's talked a lot about meaninglessness and pointlessness, and thisLink is as apt an illustration of that as anything.

Equally apt is that the package in question has a Betamax tape in it. It's not enough that most of the cast is completely dislocated in time, but now even their flashbacks are. Jet even alludes to the legend of the Tamatebako, which involves a man disappearing and reappearing so many years later that everything is utterly changed.

Who on this show does that remind you of?

While the show, to it's credit, constantly subverts that the tape is some kind of Big Secret--the fact that Faye takes off while Spike and Jet do their big wacky scavenger hunt for a Betamax player (only to get one in the mail)--it's pretty much treated as an afterthought . . .

. . .which makes the emotional gut-punch at the end that much more deeply felt. Because the tape is a message Faye recorded for herself as a young girl, wondering about who she is now and cheerfully telling her not to forget the person she was, which is exactly what she's done.

Thankfully, this is also underplayed and it's allowed to play out without a bunch of Claremontian melodrama and rending of garments. The point of the episode and the series as a whole is summed up in the preview of this episode "What conclusions do you draw from it?" The information on the tape doesn't give you any specifics about Faye's past, but it gives you tons of detail about her character.

And that's all for this week. Join us next week when we have an utterly improbable guest star in "Wild Horses"; One of the most terrifying one-shot characters ever appears in "Pierrot Le Fou"; Jet has a somewhat lighter feature episode than usual in "Boogie Woogie Feng Shui": and Spike meets his utterly ridiculous opposite number in "Cowboy Funk." See you then!