Thursday, 15 August 2013

Mangaphobia 01: Cowboy Bebop

Hello and welcome! This is the first episode of Mangaphobia, my new series chronicling the adventures of me, a seasoned anime-sceptic, as I dip my toes into the slightly frightening world of Japanese animation. Read the introduction to get up to speed, then join me as I try desperately to better myself.
First up is the cartoon that inspired me to begin this quest in the first place:

There's something decidedly western about Cowboy Bebop.
I mean, obviously, the word "cowboy" is right there in the title, but that's not what I'm talking about. It's hard to pin down, but I think it's a structural thing - something about the way the stories are built and told. Maybe it's a more recognisable three-act structure, or more pronounced character-building (anime often seems to just assume you'll accept blank characters). Whatever the reason, it just feels familiar, somehow, where a lot of anime seems detached and alien.
That's obviously my prejudice talking. Not a negative prejudice - not xenophobia or racism or anything - just that, culturally, I'm not equipped to understand the conventions of Japanese storytelling. That's probably one reason anime usually leaves me cold, and why Bebop makes such a good entry-point.

Another reason Bebop works for me is that it puts spaceships together with country music which, for some unknown reason, just feels right.
In fact, the whole show has a deep fascination with music. The episodes (which are even referred to as "sessions") have titles like Heavy Metal Queen and Black Dog Serenade, and the brilliantly integrated soundtrack is full of jazz, rock, blues, country and (of course) bebop. The show's musical leanings also result in, without a doubt, the single coolest intro-sequence of any programme ever. Oh yeah.

The "cowboy" of the title doesn't actually refer to the Western influences (though they are certainly there), rather it's a term this world uses for bounty-hunters. Our heroes are a ragtag band of such cowboys who live and travel on a rusty old ship called Bebop.
Spike Spiegal is the scrawny, sharp-suited scoundrel with big hair, massive clown feet, and a penchant for martial-arts. Jet Black (yes, really) is the rough, tough, gruff mechanic with a robotic arm and a heart of gold. Faye Valentine is the charming thief, who can weasel her way into anything but can't always weasel back out. Radical Edward (yes, really) is the prepubescent master-hacker who is probably crazy and, despite the name, definitely a girl. And Ein is the ship's pet corgi, who may or may not secretly be a super-genius.

Wow, that seems really silly written down. And it is silly, of course - when Edward's involved it often gets outright surreal - but it's weaved throughout the serious stuff in a way that makes it work. The moment that I officially fell in love with Bebop, in fact, was when I realised that the creepy, atmospheric episode I was watching had actually been an absurdist Alien homage all along.
A lot of anime seems oppressively over-serious; either with no humour at all, or with sudden, jarring shifts from crushing darkness to, "Look, a funny animal!" or, more often, "Look, he tripped and groped her boobs!" Cowboy Bebop is much more even and level - it sprinkles light humour throughout, but never really strays into stupid, obvious, or boob-centric jokes. Conversely it handles even its most serious episodes and moments with a gentle touch and a streak of fun (see: the last shot of the entire series). This is, again, something that feels unusually western to my prejudiced eyes.

You wouldn't know any of this from the beginning, though. The first episode, Asteroid Blues, had me groaning with disappointment and dreading watching the rest. It was exactly what I was afraid it would be, with an overly dour "edgy" plot about drugs and violence, endless slow pans and still-frames to save money, and several pervy boob closeups; the only levity was three random old blokes that seemed painfully out of place, and a lot of the voice-acting was terrible. It's probably my least favourite episode - it's a bloody awful place to start.

The second episode, Stray Dog Strut, is much less serious. There's a case of mistaken identity, a long slapstick dog chase, and a character who has a tortoise on their head. But, coming off the back of the po-faced Asteroid Blues, I had no idea how I was meant to process this. Going back to it, it's actually quite a fun episode but, at the time, I didn't realise it was trying to be fun, so I wrote it off as some bizarre misfire.

Episode three is where it finally clicked. Honky Tonk Woman opens with Spike and Jet kicking back in a casino - the music, the lights, Jet’s outfit, and the fact that they're bickering like an old married couple all make it feel like an Ocean’s Eleven-type caper. Then everyone’s plans go wrong - both theirs and the bad-guys’ - there’s double-crosses and ransoms and exchanges, and it ends in an inventive and spectacular shootout on the outside of the ship. It’s great and exciting and fun, and I suddenly understood what this cartoon was.

From there the show quickly finds better footing, and settles into a comfortable rhythm (fitting for a show so obsessed with music). At every scale and every level it is balancing itself - every serious beat is offset by a moment of levity, and every heavily serious episode is followed by a slightly offbeat one. It’s so well-calculated that you don’t even blink when Ed finally turns up, nine episodes in, and things start getting really whacky. Bebop is surprisingly versatile.
As a general rule, the lighter episodes tend to be standalone affairs, where the crew face a new challenge in a new location with new characters, and it all wraps up by the end of the session (like the aforementioned Alien homage, the magic mushrooms, or the time they meet an actual cowboy). That’s not to say that standalones never get serious and deep - there’s a couple that are absolutely horrifying (Pierrot Le Fou springs to mind) - but the more consistently serious ones are episodes that deal with our characters’ pasts.

Spike, Jet and Faye all have emotional damage and secrets that get slowly explored throughout the series. We do get a glance into Ed’s history, too, but since her experiences have left her either totally unphased or completely broken (it’s hard to tell which) we never really learn much.
The main arc of the series is Spike’s and, for me at least, it’s the least interesting and least engaging thing about the whole cartoon. His story is, at the risk of appearing even more biased, very very anime. It’s about his lost love, and his dark past with the triads, and the betrayal of the man he once viewed as a brother. That betrayer, a man called Vicious (bit of a giveaway, guys), is one of those patented tall, white-haired girly-men with a billowing coat and an improbably deep voice - I can picture some of my friends swooning even as I type that - and I just couldn’t take him seriously at all. I was rolling my eyes whenever he stalked effeminately onto the screen. This might have been ok if the show retained its sense of humour, but Spike’s past is treated with even more severity than the opening episode - his episodes are unrelentingly heavy and grim. Spike’s much more interesting in the episodes that aren’t about him, when he’s kicking arse and cracking wise and isn’t tied down by this rote, overplayed anime story.

I’m willing to overlook Spike and Vicious, though, because the other main stories are so much more interesting. Jet’s an ex-cop, and his episodes play out as gritty noir thrillers as we learn why he had to leave that life behind, and how he lost his arm. True to its noir stylings, while there is action, his stories burn slow and mostly deal with moral greys and difficult choices. Where Spike’s out for simple revenge and is otherwise a free spirit, Jet’s conflicts are more complex and difficult; his life and past rubbing up against his beliefs and ideologies. It paints a wonderful portrait of a man left behind by a changing world.
Faye’s story is the slowest to be revealed - with hints early on and then nothing for almost half the series - and it becomes a haunting tragedy. She’s actually suffering from amnesia, which sounds clich├ęd but works well when we learn that she was cryogenically frozen for fifty-four years after an accident. With not only no memory of her life, but also no way of returning to it even if she could remember, her journey is heartfelt and bittersweet.
Much fun as it is to watch the crew bounty-hunting, dealing with big, scary sci-fi concepts, and hunting for Betamax players (don’t ask), it’s the depth of the character exploration that really makes Cowboy Bebop stick. Thankfully, in most cases, it’s a damn sight more effective and affecting than anything we learn about Spike.

Bebop is the first anime series I can unreservedly say that I liked. In fact I kinda loved it. It still suffers from many of the juvenile and exploitative things that anime always seems to suffer from - as well as Spike’s self-serious melodrama there’s the ever-present fact that Faye dresses like a prostitute, the first episode’s boob-cam, a sequence involving suncream and, um, this guy - but it manages to tell stories that are interesting with characters who are engaging and themes that it actually sees through to the end. I called the storytelling "western" before, but I’m pretty sure that’s unfair - wherever you’re from, this is just good storytelling.
My main complaint, weirdly, is about the Bebop herself. If you ask me to draw the Starship Enterprise, I can. If you ask me to draw a Firefly, I can. If you name any ship from Star Wars, I can tell you what it looks like. Even the Planet Express ship! There are three smaller ships inside Bebop that are all iconic and memorable, but the actual Bebop? I have no idea what Bebop looks like and, considering how much time we spend with her, that’s a damned shame. But, when that’s the strongest complaint I can really muster - about an anime, of all things - then that just shows how much Cowboy Bebop gets right.

Thanks for reading, anime peoples!
I got loads of great comments and suggestions last week about where I should take Mangaphobia going forwards. Death Note and one of the Full Metals (Alchemist, I think?) seem the most popular choices, but I’d still appreciate any other suggestions you may have. Before I dive headlong into a time-eating TV series, for instance, what movies do people suggest? Ghibli, I’m guessing, but which ones?
I’m hopefully seeing The World’s End tonight (finally), so reviewing that will be my next mission, but after that I hope to return with the second episode of Mangaphobia: a retrospective on the various different versions of Evangelion. See you then!

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