Authored by guest writer Shawn Edrei.
(Having recently completed his Master's degree in English Literature, Shawn Edrei is taking some time off to watch cartoons before pursuing his doctorate. His favorite animated series are Daria and Avatar: The Last Airbender.)
I’m not a fan of Japanese anime. Tried 'em when I was 13, came back again when I was 20, went for thirds when I was 27. And each time, I found myself losing interest almost immediately, even with alleged masterpieces like Akira and Astro Boy.
That said, it took a university degree in English Lit to pin down why I find myself so unable to engage these texts. I don't have a problem with the visual aspect - in fact, some of the best artwork and designs I've seen were Japanese in origin, even if their depictions of the female form tend to skeeve me out in so many ways. But I'm accustomed to Western narrative techniques, and everything that goes with them: strategies of characterization, plot structures, and of course postmodern subversions of these. On some unconscious level, I can't relate to characters like TETSUOOOOOOO or the kid with guns coming out of his butt precisely because their personalities and backstories are established in different ways.
And one of the first things I look for in a story is an interesting character. It doesn't necessarily have to be the protagonist; I don't even have to like this character. But it has to be someone who anchors my desire to continue following the narrative. A hundred pages into Akira and I still had no idea who any of these biker weirdoes were, much less what they were doing and why they were doing it.
(Just to show I'm not picky: I've been known to settle for an interesting plot if the characters are wafer-thin, which is why I proudly admit to watching Revenge: very few of the cast are particularly intriguing but the plot’s complex and twisted enough to hold my attention.)
The bottom line is, I need at least one accessible character or a sophisticated plot. (Experience has taught me that getting both simultaneously results in too much awesome for TV, which is why Dollhouse, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, The Middleman and Firefly are all up in whatever celestial reward awaits the really, really good stories that end before their time.) And I've never been able to find that in anime.
Enter Cowboy Bebop, which was literally described to me by a friend as the anime you watch if you don't like anime.
And from the first episode, I was completely hooked.
The premise is as follows: It's the late 21st century, and following an unexplained disaster on Earth, a terraformed Mars has become the center of human civilization (which now spans the entire solar system). Since crime has now gone interstellar and police forces are unable to keep up, the Old West tradition of putting bounties on criminals is back in style. Enter our protagonists, Jet Black and Spike Spiegel, a pair of perpetually-broke bounty hunters who spend most of the 26-episode series chasing one potential paycheck after another.
Cowboy Bebop defied my expectations in ways I could never have anticipated. The visuals are clean, crisp and grounded (no giant sweat beads or huge eyes or Don King hairdos), the English dubbed voice acting is superb without any of the usual problems that come with translation and synchronization, and the soundtrack incorporates blues, jazz, even a bit of Old West saloon-style music.
Then there’s the world-building. This is another aspect of basic narrative that can make or break my interest in a story. I quit the Game of Thrones pilot halfway in because, while it was quite good at giving you all the information you needed to make sense of things, it didn’t quite get around to giving you a reason to care. Cowboy Bebop takes the opposite approach, and brace yourselves, folks, this one's a doozy: the writers not only assume you have a brain, they assume you know how to use it. We're never given the details of why human civilization is the way it is – there are references to a lunar disaster which rendered Earth nearly uninhabitable, but what caused it? Why was a war fought on Titan's surface, and who fought it? These details enrich our understanding of the fictional world, but they're tantalizingly incomplete, creating the sense that there's a Bigger Picture out there and we're only seeing the edge of it.
This strategy extends to characterization as well. For example, the formative trauma in Spike's past - the event that turned him into the indifferent death-seeker he seems to be – involved his former partner Vicious and a woman named Julia. But despite the fact that these characters play major roles both in the backstory and the climax, the events themselves aren't disclosed to the viewer. We get glimpses, hints, momentary flashbacks, all of which infer rather than state outright. In other words, we get puzzle pieces, and the writers trust us to put them together.
It’s an emphatically different approach to storytelling, particularly in comparison to the sloppy, shoddy crap we got with Lost or Battlestar Galactica, in which writers regularly flailed about making up random explanations, not only failing to connect the dots but putting the dots on different pages. It’s the sort of lazy writing that forces the viewer to do the legwork and actually assemble some kind of coherent plot out of utterly disjointed nonsense.
(Every time someone hails Lost for its brilliance, I can't help gritting my teeth, because it relies entirely on the interpretive skills of the audience to fill plotholes the actual writers couldn’t figure out on their own.)
The multifaceted, ambiguous nature of the characters makes it easy for them to shift from one type of story to another – Cowboy Bebop isn’t a comedy, but there are truly hilarious moments with Faye's gambling addiction, Spike's deadpan expression giving way to a look of poleaxed astonishment as a completely absurd situation barrels towards him, Edward's... well, just Edward, really... it gives the crew of the Bebop a bit of color and intrigue. They're all very well-rounded and compelling, every single one of them. The same goes for the minor characters who only turn up for an episode or two, like the Three Old Men or space trucker VT or the gender-bending Gren. You get to the end of their respective episodes and quietly hope they’ll turn up again someday.
Which leads me to plot/episode structure: the dominant format here is the done-in-one story, where the Bebop crew target a bounty, chase after it, and get caught up in all sorts of complications. Sometimes they win, more often they lose. But mixed into that pattern are subplots which end up having major repercussions: an episode devoted to Faye's past sets up a later episode where said past literally turns up at her doorstep, which in turn leads to a major moment of character development towards the end. The rivalry between Spike and Vicious is established early on, but Vicious only appears once or twice after that before dominating the finale and becoming, for all intents and purposes, the primary antagonist of the series.
The episodic format has its own advantages, though, in that most of the 26 “sessions” are modeled after specific themes, genres and music styles. So when we get an episode called “Cowboy Funk”, it just happens to feature a bounty hunter who dresses up as a literal cowboy; “Pierrot le Fou” dives straight into a bona fide horror story with a crazed flying clown; “Mushroom Samba” has most of the cast incapacitated by hallucinogenic mushrooms. It adds so much variety to the series, especially when you're watching two or three episodes at a time.
If I have one criticism, it's that some of the later episodes fall headfirst into some utterly bizarre philosophy and metaphysics: invisible glowing butterflies, a surprisingly stereotypical Native American Shaman who randomly turns up to talk about warriors and spirits and guardian stars, Universal Feng Shui as a plot device... it’s a bit of a disconnect, but the series never fails to pull you back in.
So, as I said, very much not what I expected of a Japanese anime. And for that I'm extremely thankful. Cowboy Bebop has a little bit of everything: action, SF, noir, drama, romance, all coming to a truly brilliant and heart-wrenching finale. Definitely worth checking out.