In a previous post (alternatively, five posts ago; it’s a bit dated. Remember what you were wearing back then? Hilarious.), I touched lightly upon the importance of Cowboy Bebop in terms of its influence on my early, gestating taste in entertainment. After recently devouring Shinichiro Watanabe’s sophomore Samurai Champloo over an embarrassingly brief period, my id turned its ravenous gaze toward Bebop. Before it decked my super-ego, yoinked my debit card and hopped on Amazon to buy the box set, I had a moment of hesitation: did I really want to defile a childhood sanctuary? After all, excluding Cabin in the Woods and pizza, nothing is better the second time around. The diminishing return is a fact of life, so we might as well all tie off and assume the fetal position until death delivers our haggard husks to that big, ol’ Womb in the Sky, right? Should I have left Bebop in the same keepsake box where All That and Space Jam gather dust? Do I believe the Bebop can fly?
Yeah. It soars. It sputters somewhere short of the dizzying heights from my memory, but that in itself is an interesting avenue: how does our reverence for old favorites warp with time, and how can returning to a treasured piece enhance our appreciation in new ways?
If you’re unacquainted, the conceit of Cowboy Bebop is this: in the year 2071, space is a young frontier. Efficient space travel technology has enabled the human race to spread to every corner of the solar system. That means colonialism and capitalism tag along, too: the boundless mystique of Bebop’s universe is thanks to a vision of the future that’s never excessively futuristic. Building and vessel design can be conservative, rustic, cheap, traditional or even tacky, but it’s never sleek. While the year 2071 gets closer and closer and the innovation of the warp gate is still squarely in the realm of sci-fi, the plausibility of Bebop’s world is what keeps us invested when we discover that the protagonist’s name is Spike Spiegel, that his crew mate, Faye Valentine, like a sensual Doug Funny, really does wear that ridiculous outfit every episode or that the enigmatic antagonist is a man named Vicious who wields a katana and an imposing, black parakeet. Yeah, for every few moments of brilliance in Bebop, you’ll have to make a couple of concessions. This was Adult Swim’s flagship anime title when it launched in 2001: there is a deliberate injection of pulpy “whoa-dudery” to seal the deal on the 12 to 18 to 24 nerd demographic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome, though.
Plot-wise, our first meeting with the kernel of the Bebop crew, Spike and the comically-monikered pilot, Jet Black, blasts into action with little background information supplied to the viewer. It’s a true example of in medias res, starting the story after the story starts, and more than that: it’s smart writing. Like many anime dubs, Cowboy Bebop occasionally leans too heavy on expository dialogue (dialogue that plainly explains plot; telling rather than showing) when it comes to rolling out the microcosmic narratives of each stand-alone episode, but the histories and motives of Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed are handled with a minimalist touch. For example, the first episode, “Asteroid Blues,” winds up with a short, stylish mélange of monochrome images from Spike’s past: a poignant music box tune underlies flashes of gunfire. The tension between muted sensory input (sound, color) and violent action perfectly summarizes Cowboy Bebop’s style in a matter of seconds: this is a show unafraid to take Zen-like pauses between furious bouts of chaos, that trusts its viewer to assemble pieces that aren’t always connected or even provided. It’s a show that may seem superficial and often is, but consistently challenges the viewer to dig beneath its thick layer of “cool”: the show’s living embodiment of “cool,” Spike, may move and speak with the fluidity of water, but there is a gritty bed of history underneath his collected exterior that promises to surface; one day, that stream is going to dry completely.
Growing up, I only caught obscured glances at that riverbed. Mere intimations of Spike’s past combined with breakneck action and artful direction were enough to fascinate my adolescent (and admittedly, completely superficial) mind. Spike was the kind of empowerment fantasy I could get behind: he isn’t a musclebound hero, he doesn’t always triumph, but he’s wry and intelligent; he’s the sort of guy I probably hoped to become, as a nerdy kid full on A’s but low on athletic or social skills. That’s the appeal of Cowboy Bebop for many. It’s always cool and we usually aren’t.
Fortunately for adult viewers, Cowboy Bebop isn’t satisfied with just being cool. After the breathless “Asteroid Blues,” I didn’t expect that the proceeding 25 episodes would be packed with significance. Genre pastiches, direct homages, potent social themes, loaded imagery, existential philosophy: Bebop deftly combines these subjects and more in a performance that is constantly refreshing and feels, like the best jazz, miraculously improvised. “Toys in the Attic” takes cues from Alien, playing out its absurd situation with surprising suspense; the shootout in “Ballad of the Fallen Angels” lovingly mimics the choreography of a John Woo film; “Hard Luck Woman” finds orphan Ed abandoned once again by her absentee father; “Sympathy for the Devil” is haunted by the demons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; “Brain Scratch” draws a clear distinction between intellectual skepticism and bitter nihilism.
I didn’t understand, in 2002, that the story Jet tells to Spike in “The Real Folk Blues Part One” is actually “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a story concerned with reflection. In Hemingway’s story, a big game hunter in South Africa succumbs to gangrene and looks back on a life spent wandering. Despite his concise retelling, Jet admits he doesn’t care for the story, finding the idea that a man only thinks “about [his] past right before [his] death, as if [he is] searching frantically for proof [he is] alive,” ridiculous. Jet may have missed the mountain for the rocks here, but he has a point. We’re always reflecting; every time we seek to improve we are subconsciously evaluating the past. If art imitates life, we should display the same discernment with the pop culture we consume. Dig deep into art, excavate meaning and discard the meaningless. Sharpening your skill as a critic will only increase the joy you extract from worthwhile entertainment.
Broaden your interests. Never stop learning. Never be passive. Maybe watch Cowboy Bebop if you haven’t.
In the immortal words of R. Kelly: believe you can fly.