Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Review

Studio: Sunrise   
Year: 1998  
# of Episodes: 26
Genre: action, drama, sci-fi

" Spike Spiegel, a bounty Hunter with a dark past, lives on bounty to bounty, barely making it each time, or not making it at all. His partners Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Ed and Ein the dog all help him in his adventures from planet to planet."

Cowboy Bebop is one of those titles that shows up on every other "Best anime" list, but for whatever reason, it slipped my watch for many years. If I have to think of a reason, then it's probably the bizarre title that discouraged my interest. This is what happens when you rely on common sense to pass judgment in the realm of anime and take things too literally, because it turns out that Cowboy Bebop is not really a show about cowboys, not in the traditional sense anyways. But I really should have seen it coming, because Bleach was never about the chemical that works wonders on tough stains. At the end of the day, I have my conservative mentality to blame. Now having finished the show, I feel a little unsure about how to begin this review because it's really a series like no other and my words are probably insufficient to capture its essence. Though one thing is for sure, I can finally join the cult and say, "Yes, Cowboy Bebop is a true classic". 

In terms of plot, Bebop employs an episodic narrative, in that many episodes feature a stand alone story that bares little relevance to other episodes, much like the story telling style in Detective Conan. Also like Detective Conan, there is a background plot that threads through the entire series, one that resurfaces every now and then but doesn't impact most episodes. It's a style that works for mystery series because the story arc is relatively short and the intrigue lies within the design of each specific case, rather than in a continuous plot with an unifying theme. However, it's not a style that I prefer in non-mystery oriented shows, because when most episodes are not set up to contribute to an overall goal, a series could appear to lack a sense of purpose and grow repetitive and dull. But to my surprise, Cowboy Bebop turned out to be completely satisfying.

The crew in Cowboy Bebop is made up of some bizarre personalities: Spike, an ex-assassin with a dark past; Jet, an former police officer; Faye, an amnesiac with a huge financial debt and Ed, a genius hacker who exhibits eccentric behaviors. They travel from planet to planet to catch bounties in order to put meals on the table. As I said before, many episodes have stand alone story that features bounty chasing, though more often than not, the crew return empty handed after some unexpected event twist and find themselves running out of food. It's frankly quite amusing to watch the crew members moping over their loss. Some of the standalone stories are sophisticated and inspiring, while others are simply fun and quirky, I never found myself bored or distracted. One of the highlight of this show is probably the amount of diversity in its sociocultural landscape. It's a mosaic consisting of many racial groups and various subcultures, in which representatives from every social corner can be observed, from the homeless, the hooligans, the drug dealers to the rich and the upper class. Gay culture and homosexuality, something that many creators shy away from, is also prominently featured. In my opinion, this colorful and dynamic social scene really brought Cowboy Bebop to life, setting it apart from others of its genre. 

Of course, bounty hunting is only part of the picture, there are also a number of stories dedicated to character development. The structure of such episode follows a similar pattern: a certain crew member confronts people from their past and we get a glimpse of who they were and how they lived before boarding the Bebop (the name of the spaceship in CB). I personally love these episodes because the characters have their own unique values and it's always interesting to link these values back to experiences that shaped them. The knowledge of the characters' past create a more holistic representation of their personality in my mind, and as a result, their existence and current actions began to carry more meaning to me. If there is a central plot somewhere, then Spike's haunting past probably serves the purpose. For better part of the series, his story remained elusive, aside from the fact that he used to work as an assassin for a crime syndicate, little else was revealed. Though the flashback scenes, which have an melancholic air about them, suggest a history filled with dark, violent secrets. The final two episodes are exclusively dedicated to events leading up to Spike's final confrontation with Vicious, his former comrade whose nature is probably the very definition of his name. I have to say I'm not particularly fond of the choice of his name,  it's almost like writing the word "thief" on a thief's forehead. Talk about redundancy. It would generate much more interest if a protagonist was named Vicious. Anyhow, during the last two episodes, we find out what the flashback scenes were trying to reveal, as the mysterious woman who has close ties to Spike's past comes into the picture. However, the syndicate itself, its structure and purpose, and Spike's involvement with the organization is never explained in details. Essentially, Cowboy Bebop is not a story about heroes fighting villains or anything so noble, it's a story about personal struggles against one's past and coming to terms with it, as expressed in the final title card: You're gonna carry that weight. For that purpose, it wasn't necessary to establish an elaborate background story, what's left unexplained is up to the audience's imagination. 

Despite being an adventure story that seems light hearted at first glance, the series explores a number of philosophical themes, and amongst them, the meaning of existence seems to be the most prevalent. Even though the Bebop crew traveled together, each member was tied to people or experience from their past, so in many ways, their actions were motivated by rather different needs and desires. For instance, while Faye felt agitated about her amnesia and was trying to recover her past, Spike on the other hand seemed to despise his former identity. It makes one wonder just what our past really mean to our existence. Does it still exert some kind of control over those who do not remember their past? I think, undeniably, it's an unshakable part of who we are no matter how unpleasant it may be, but how it exists in our mind and the attitude we have when we approach it is not immutable. After all, we are not robots completely subjected to the forces of nature, human experience is malleable as we can assign different values to it. And when we finally put the ghosts to rest and make peace with our past, we become truly free in the mind and soul. As how Spikes says it, "I'm not going there to die. I'm going to find out if I'm really alive." 

I think I have said enough about the characters even without specifically discussing any of their personal qualities. All I can say is every character is genuinely unique, both in terms of personality and physical design. Spike's martial arts movements is clearly modeled after Bruce Lee, he even preaches some of his philosophies in one of the episode. As for his personality, he's grumpy and impulsive. And no, that doesn't necessarily make him unlikable. He is the type of guy who often speaks in codes and never discloses too much personal information, to some extent, this attribute makes him appear sophisticated and witty, so even when he makes impulsive decision, I'm inclined to believe he has good reasons.

Faye is feisty but insecure about her own identity and her relationship with her fellow companions.  Jet, despite his rough appearance, is actually very bubbly. The fact that he spends much of his leisure time taking care of bonsai trees says as much. He's very dependable and always there when Faye and Spike get intro trouble. As for Ed, I mistook her as a boy at first because well, she looks nothing like a girl. Now Ed is probably one of the most eccentric characters I have ever come across in anime. You can describe her as the person who walks the fine line between genius and idiot. While her behaviors are almost nonsensical and beyond explanation by human psychology, yet you can't help but gawk at her exceptional hacking skills. The bonds formed between characters are never really reflected by ways of explicit verbal expressions, but it can be felt nonetheless, owning to well constructed scenarios. And the dialogues themselves are never histrionic or pretentious.   

Lastly I want to talk about the music and animation. The soundtrack is glorious, haunting and electrifying. From the OP to the ED, and to every piece used inbetween, every note hits the right moment. I rarely find anything constructive to say about anime music because I'm no expert on the subject, but the music in Cowboy Bebop has such a distinct flavor that I cannot help but express my delight. Jazz is a big part of the series, not a genre I have heard often from other anime, perhaps because it's difficult to coordinate between scenes and the kind of mood Jazz creates, but the staff of this series clearly knew what they wanted to achieve. Cowboy Bebop incorporates  music in such a way that I only have two words to describe the feeling it instills - swag and suave. It breathed life into the series, mingling so seamlessly with each and every moment of the story that I am truly enchanted. 

For its time, the series is above standard in terms of animation. The character designs are fairly complex, much more so than many present day series. The action scenes are beautifully animated, every kick and jump looks fluid. Here I have to mention Studio Bones, the company established by the core staff behind Cowboy Bebop, they have clearly carried on the tradition of quality animation.

I think Cowboy Bebop will always have a special place in my heart. For all its distinct qualities, the series has carved a niche of its own and ultimately attested to its own commercial slogan: the work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called Cowboy Bebop. Every episode in the series has its individual flair, yet when taken as a whole, it doesn't feel disjointed or awkward. At times fun, at times inspirational, and at times heartbreaking, this is a series brimming with originality and fully deserving of every praise it has garnered.

Story: 9/10
Character: 9.5/10
Animation: 9/10
Music: 10/10
Directing/Style: 10/10
Enjoyment: 10/10
Overall: 10/10

1 comment:

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