Zachary's 5 Favorite Anime Pt.3

It’s that time again! In my previous entries, which you’ll find here and here, I discussed a subversive genre show and a subversive marketing vehicle. Today, I go a little more traditional with a series pretty much everyone loves. But what could that be? Well, first…check out this intro explaining my objective with this series if you haven’t. And hey, even backtrack if you’re reading this for the first time! It’s okay, I’ll wait…

Alright, time for the answer: it’s everyone’s favourite space western, Cowboy Bebop!


This might end up being my shortest review. Not only have I extensively covered my thoughts in a past article, but it’s Cowboy Bebop. Everyone’s heard of this show, even people who aren’t big on anime; in fact, I loved it before I loved anime! It’s safe to say that everyone already knows why it’s great, but for those who still don’t (all two of you,) I’ll cover the basics.


Cowboy Bebop tells the story of four bounty hunters-ex-mafia member Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet Black, a thief named Faye Valentine and a 13 year-old super genius named Edward-their faithful, canine companion, Ein, and their misadventures in space. The episodes are largely episodic, meaning that most are self-contained, but the general story seems to delve into Spike’s past: who is Spike? Why did he leave the mafia? And why is his past catching up with him?

Where do I even start? For one, the animation, helmed by Sunrise Entertainment, is gorgeous, especially by today’s standards. But it’s not simply that it’s gorgeous. Most top-tier shows look great, but Cowboy Bebop has the additional distinction of being well-directed, thanks largely to then-obscure talent ShinichirĂ´ Watanabe. Watanabe’s famous for intricate, collage-like scenes, many of which say more about their characters than any dialogue could, and this show epitomizes that. Every scene, down to the talking ones, are directed in a way that you’d have a hard time not calling them “filmic”.

Of course, this is complimented by the excellent marriage of directing and music. The show’s composer, Yoko Kanno, is a legend in Japan, having made some of the best compositions in anime, and it shows. Every tune, be it jazz or funk, matches its scene perfectly, such that so many could easily be a short, silent-film. And, of course, the opening theme is one of the best in anime, possibly even Kanno’s career. It’s not my favourite show she’s composed, but it’s easily her most-recognizable.

The characters are also wonderfully realized. Spike, Jet, Faye and Edward could’ve easily been two-dimensional cut-outs in the hands of an inferior writer, but Keiko Nobumoto, who’s also a legend in Japan, crafts them so well that you really feel they’re actual people. Spike’s a mafia-man, but he’s also a joker. Jet’s a cop, but he’s incredibly warm and fatherly. Faye’s deceptive, yet also distinctly feminine. And Edward, the comic relief, is a genius and has her goofy-to-smart ratio balanced so that she’s never annoying. All four of them have tragic backstories, further humanizing them throughout the 26-episodes.

I have to talk about the dialogue too. The show loves its music, but whenever the characters speak…look out. This is some of the best scripting in any visual medium, be it TV, film, East or West-alike. It’s a little detached, making it hard to feel the long-term weight, but that’s not so much a flaw as a nitpick; after all, good writing is good writing!

The voice acting’s also superb, especially the dub. Directed by legend Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, whom at the time was largely unknown, Cowboy Bebop elevated the standards back in 2001. Steve Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendy Lee and Melissa Fahn are brilliantly cast and directed as the four leads, as are the side characters. It’s not my favourite dub ever, and it has a terrible performance in Episode 21, but it’s good enough to fit in the top 10.

Perhaps my favourite part is how its episodes are self-contained. Even its five story episodes, which have an overarching narrative, can be watched apart from the other episodes in the show and still be satisfying. It’s great because it highlights anime’s potential for self-contained storytelling, enough even for favourites. You don’t see that much in anime, even today’s shows.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have problems with Cowboy Bebop, because I do. I’ve already highlighted my concerns in another, prior article, but I’ll reiterate and say that the level of detachment causes an emotional disconnect. Nobumoto’s writing style seems an awful lot like placing a camera in an alley and watching the passerbys do what they do. You never get a sense of actual investment, and you always know exactly what’ll happen. This makes it hard to feel anything deep, which is disappointing.

Also, the story episodes, while interesting, are kinda tacky and the least-compelling. They revolve around a shallow love triangle between a girl, a former mafia-man and a generic assassin. The inferences of what happened are vague, and the ending, while unique, raises more questions than answers. I kinda don’t care about it as much as I should, which isn’t helped by the detachment issue in the previous paragraph. I like these episodes the least, even more than “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui”.

But I can’t fault Cowboy Bebop for my personal gripes. It’s to anime what Jaws is to Spielberg: great and influential, but not an overall favourite. But it’s definitely great, so I can’t give it less than a…


Join me next when I share another unique and compelling entry. Your hint is brothers. Stay tuned to find out what that means!

Comments

  1. Yeah, I figured it was going to be Cowboy Bebop. Your hint was a dead giveaway.

    I really like this show, and I can agree with the application of the moniker "classic" to it. The animation is very good, the characters are generally likable and interesting, and it makes very clever use of its aesthetics and soundtrack, managing to juggle a plenitude of distinct genre influences into a coherent, compelling whole.

    And yet, I have some significant issues with it, such that I cannot in good conscience consider it to be *quite* the masterpiece that its biggest fans claim it to be.

    My biggest problem with the show by far is actually Edward. To Bebop's immense credit, she is neither overused nor annoying, when she easily could have been. Yet after her masterful introduction, the show fails to find much of a dramatically and thematically compelling use for her for most of the rest of its run. Sure, there's the odd moment here and there, like the virtual chess match. But she's generally little more than a quirky plot device. That is, until her very last episode, which is so emotionally powerful that it begs -nay, screams- the question: why on *earth* didn't the screenwriters start using her like this a long time before? Not only is Edward plainly a dramatically compelling character once her backstory comes along, but we see that her head wasn't so entirely within the clouds after all; her story is actually very tragic. Combine this her interactions with Faye Valentine in this episode and the whole thing just painfully underscores how utterly wasted Ed really is as a character right up until the last minute. It was in this moment that I was practically damning the show's stoic approach to its emotional beats to the depths of hell. The cool, detached, laidback atmosphere of the show works really well with Spike and Jet, and to a lesser extent with Faye [it is wisely lessened in Faye's case once her backstory begins to come out]. But it just flat out doesn't work with Ed. Oh, what could have been!

    My two other primary issues with the show are these:

    1. Who sent Faye the betamax tape? As emotionally raw and powerful as the scene that it led to was, the fact that this was unaddressed makes it seem considerably more contrived than it ought to have been.

    2. The lack of a proper epilogue. The ending was too abrupt for my tastes. A final coda with Jet and Faye would have been much appreciated.

    My problems with Cowboy Bebop are significant enough that I'm forced to lower my rating from an A to a B. But what's good about it is so good that that B is a definite B+.

    As a side note- I watched the subtitled version, so I can't give an opinion on the dub. I'm heartened to hear that you liked it, however. Next time I watch the show, I'll probably go for it in English.

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    1. I can't discredit your frustrations with the show, as they're certainly valid. However, I'll say that your frustration with ending is similar to mine, especially with Spike's resolution.

      It's interesting because, honestly, I've written more in-depth on my own problems with the show in another piece. None of them damn the series, and a lot of it is personal gripes, but it definitely isn't flawless.

      As for the dub? Do give it a watch. And since you were so quick to guess my #3 entry, I'm curious if you'll get my #2 pick just as easily...

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