Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cowboy Bebop: The Anime Series – (A Look Back)

      How is it that some of the shortest lived TV shows stand tall as some of the best I’ve ever seen, and still have devoted fans years later? Shows like “Firefly” and “Gargoyles” are perfect examples, but the big one that I’ll be highlighting today is the 1998 anime TV series titled “Cowboy Bebop”. This show ran for two years, had a total of only 26 episodes, and a theatrical movie released in 2001. Yet, after all these years it still has a legacy, and is often regarded as one of Japans greatest Anime series ever made. Rightfully so, because this series is awesome! When I was a child I grew up with a lot of kid friendly Anime programs like “Cardcaptor Sakura” and “Yu-Gi-Oh!”, but “Cowboy Bebop” was the first grown up anime series I ever watched, and helped ignite my overall appreciation for the genera. Can’t say I loved this show immediately, but I gradually grew to appreciate this series over time, and now it might just be one of my personal favorite TV shows. The music, the art style, the homage’s to other franchises, and the tone are all made of awesome. It’s one of those shows that can have something for everyone, it can be dark and violent, it can be funny and lighthearted, it can be relatable and down to earth, or it can be wild and imaginative.

     Much like the setting of the “Firefly” TV series, this series is set in outer space, the year is 2071, and there are no aliens, just people who’ve colonized on other planets in our solar system. The premise revolves around a group of Bounty Hunters, or “cowboys” as there often called, who live on the space ship Bebop, and are always on the lookout for new targets to make some coin off of. However, for any Bounty they take, there’s usually some kind of twist, hidden agenda, or back-story that elevate the experience to more than just watching these guys make pay off of the evil crook of the week. It’s a very episodic show, with a small thread of a narrative story being told along the way, which I really like. Every character has a back-story that’s slowly being unraveled, which helps to keep things interesting, but beyond that, this is just an awesome group of characters.

       Our main lead is the cowboy named Spike, voiced in the English dub by the always outstanding Steve Blum, who’s personally one of my favorite voice actors of all time. 
Spike is the cool, laid back, tough guy who’s always one step ahead of his opponent. His back story is the deepest of all the characters, however, he’s also a jerk, a lazy bum, and not the nicest guy to share a house with, yet we still cheer for him like any great action star. His partner is Jet Black and he’s my favorite of our main anti-hero’s. He was once a cop, but after a tragic miss fire he stuck to the life of bounty hunting, and has become the sergeant father figure of the group. He talks the talk, and can be bad to the bone, but he clearly has a big heart underneath his tough exterior. 
It’s hard to explain why, but I always enjoyed episodes centered on him the most, probably because I found him to be the most interesting, and just an all around cool guy. For those of you who like eye-candy, we have Faye Valentine, a young woman who’s been awoken from a deep cryosleep, and is now finding her place in the universe. This character makes me wish the show was live action, because she would be devastatingly sexy to look at, but thankfully she’s still a great character. She’s sassy, she’s complex, she’s bad ass, pretty much everything you want in a good female lead. Then of course there’s Edward, the shows breakout character, and the funniest of the group by far. She’s a little kid who’s a hyper intelligent computer wiz, but a complete air head when it comes to the rest of the world. To call her an unpredictable “wild child” is an understatement, because she is completely loony, full of energy, and is just living in her own bizarre mind set, but a lot of fun to watch. Oh, and there’s a cute little corgi named Ein, who’s basically the team’s adorable mascot. 

    The music by the way is outstanding, and is like a convergence of different styles. There’s some cool jazz, heavy metal, and music tempo’s you’d here from spaghetti westerns or classic Samurai films. The opening credit sequence set to the music track called “Tank” is all you really need to get pumped for this show. "The Real Folk Blues" plays during the credits, and it's one of many tracks from this show that just gives me chills. Perhaps my two favorite tracks from this show are "Road to the West" and "Blue", the former always getting me in the feels whenever I hear it.  

    Honestly, I can talk all day about the highlights of this show, but to keep it simple, I’ll just list my personal top 10 favorite episodes of the series. If you’ve never seen “Cowboy Bebop”, these are the episodes I’d personally recommend checking out for yourself. 

#10 “Sympathy for the Devil” 

With every new Bounty Head the Bebop crew go after, the more opportunities come for the show to introduce interesting new villains for the week. One of the most memorable and dramatic comes in the form of what appears to be an eight year old boy, who’s really closer to eighty. After being exposed to some form of radiation, the boy’s body could no longer age, and now he’s trapped in an immortal prison.  Sometimes an interesting villain is all the show needs to carry an episode, and this kid was every bit as tragic as he was threatening. This is a hard episode to do justice, but I’ll say this, the ending is among the one of most bitter sweet of the whole show, and a great way to foreshadow what will happen with Spike in the series finally.

#9 “Honky Tonk Woman” 

In the shows third episode, we’re introduced to our awesome femme fatale Faye Valentine, who immediately kicks things off with a BANG! At this point in her story arch, she’s in a bad place and is in the custody of a nasty crime lord. But she may have a way out if she serves as a middle-woman for an illegal transaction at a space station casino. It’s here that she crosses paths with our crew of bounty hunters, who get themselves roped into her situation when Spike is mistaken for a guy that Faye was supposed to collect some values from. This episode features several familiar crime thriller tropes ranging from mistaken identity, to the confident woman, to the old western standoff, but none of it feels tired, in fact, this the point in the show that I realized “Cowboy Bebop’s” potential. This is a series that takes familiar elements from other works, but makes them feel fresh and new again, and I always love when a show or movie can pull that off. Throw in some gorgeous animation, including an explosive, space battle climax, and I found myself very excited for what the show had to offer next.    

#8 “Jupiter Jazz”  

This was the shows first 2 part episode, and it proved how cinematic the show can feel, even with a short run time. I mentioned earlier that Spike had a deep back-story, well, the genius of this series is how we don’t know the full details of the character until the very last episode. However, where given several clues throughout the shows run that peak our interest into the story surrounding Spikes shadowy past. Oh, and I forgot to mention our villain, a nasty character called Vicious, who’s the big bad of the show, and Spikes arch foe. In this episode, Spike follows up on some clues about the location of his ex-girlfriend named Julia, which leads into a thrilling three way confrontation between Spike, his nemeses, and a third man that once served with Vicious in the war. This episode really builds on our expectations for what Spikes untold past is all about, and even the one shot new character named Gren has an interesting story. Best of all, the exciting climax of this episode, followed by a dramatic epilogue, culminate into one of the most impactful endings of the series.

#7 “Pierrot Le Fou” 

This is perhaps the darkest episode of the shows run, not so much from the human drama, but through strait up scary material, as this one is a homage to classic horror. In this frightening adventure, Spike is targeted by an insane, seemingly indestructible assassin named Mad Pierrot after accidentally witnessing the killer in action. The titular bad guy of this episode looks like something from out of a Batman comic, yet he has the same chilling presence of a slasher movie villain, and his back story is nothing short of disturbing, yet tragic in its own way. This episode makes my favorite list just for its gothic art style, quiet atmospheric moments, and overall tone. Not too many action Sci-Fi shows feature episodes of this short, so it really stands out.   

#6 “Toys in the Attic” 

Now here’s an excellent “filler” episode that illustrates just how fun and creative a show can get when it’s episodic like this series. When a strange creature with a venomous bite infiltrates the Bebop, it slowly begins to incapacitate our hero’s one at a time, leaving Spike the last one standing to defend the ship and destroy the creature. This episode is a clear parody of the movie “Alien”, and is a clever satire, but it still maintains that same level of excitement and suspense from those movies. The episode even concludes with the problem being shot out an air lock, just like in the climax of “Aliens”. The interior design of the spaceship has always been inspired by the ship from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and sense the entire episode takes place in this one location, it really feels reminiscent of that film. Especially the classical music heard throughout this episode, most notably “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” ballet. I do wish the design of the creature could have been better, but the back story of how it got on the ship is so hilariously random that I couldn’t imagine this monster being anything else.  

#5 “Ganymede Elegy” 

Now let’s look at Jet Black and find out what his story entails. When the Bebop crew land on Ganymede, we discover that Jet was once a cop before he became a bounty hunter, and he also had a relationship with a girl named Alisa. Unfortunately for Jet, she left him one night, leaving him with a broken watch, emphasizing how time has now stopped for both of them, and now their trapped within the moment. In this episode, Jet has the chance to confront his old flame again, only to discover that she and her new boy friend are wanted fugitives. The whole theme of the episode revolves around moving forward with your life, and no longer clinging to the scars of the past, which is why we see Jets busted watch throughout. This was also the first time that Jet Blacks character really shined and became my favorite of the series. The final confrontation between him and Alisa is beautifully bitter sweet, and the music track during the climax is one of my favorites of the show. All in all, it’s a solid episode, with great character development, good action, and lots of eye candy. 

#4 “Mushroom Samba” 

The Bebop crew find themselves out of food, fuel, and after a collision with a hit-and-run, they find themselves stranded on one of Jupiter’s moons called IO. Edward, with the dog Ein by her side are sent out to find food, but cross paths with a bounty-head who is smuggling hallucinogenic mushrooms. The crew soon find themselves incapacitated after sampling them, and are stuck in bizarre hallucinogenic day dreams, leaving Ed and Ein the only ones left to capture the criminal, get the supplies, and safe guard the group. Of all the episodes in the shows run, I think this is the funniest by far. The animation during the day dreams is great stuff, but beyond that, this is just a really fun episode, as we watch the crazy child Edward get into all kinds of wacky situations and action. While Edward has always been an entertaining side character, this was her first solo episode, and it doesn’t disappoint.  

#3 “Hard Luck Woman” 

Following on the events of an earlier episode titled “Speak like a Child”, in which Faye discovered some old home movies, she decides to investigate her past by traveling to the landmarks seen in the videos. She and Ed stumble across on orphanage, where the two learn that none other than Edward herself had come from the place, and that her father is looking for her. Now our two girls set off on separate missions, Edward sets out to find her father, while Faye continues to unravel the mysteries of her past, and maybe even find a home. This was the last stand alone episode of the show before the two part season finally, and it’s a perfect calm before the storm. Personally, I find this to be the most touching and bitter sweet episode of the series, as both of our girls seek a place to belong to, and both are met with mixed results. I hate to spoil the ending, but it just has to be commented on. Faye manages to find herself at the bottom of the hill from her old house and begins running to the top, just like she did when she was a kid, and then ... reality makes itself known. The only thing remaining on the hill top is ruins where her home used to be. Very quietly she lies down in the rubble, draws a box around herself, and just stays there for a long time. It’s such a powerful moment that always gets to me. As if that wasn’t enough, this is Edwards final episode, and her departure along with the dog Ein is about as bitter sweet as they get.      

#2 “Ballad of Fallen Angels” 

Now we reach the episode that really won me over, and got me invested in this series. “Ballad of Fallen Angels” is only the shows fifth episode, and it is a masterfully crafted piece of television that’s only 20 minutes long. While pursuing the bounty on an executive of a crime Syndicate, Spike finds himself at an old church where he’s confronted by his oldest and greatest enemy Vicious. This episode pays homage to John Woo movies, but it’s not about the overblown, gun play action that you’d usually see in his films. This is the episode that set’s up Spikes story arch, his rivalry with our main villain, and gives us small clues about his mysterious past. The scene building up to the two meeting at an abandoned church is nothing short of inspiring. The backgrounds are haunting yet beautiful marvels of animation, also, Spikes slow walk mixed with the song “Rain” in the background help create a heavy atmosphere and mood before the action even starts. The real nail in the coffin that makes this a stand out episode is this one moment in which Spike crashes through a stain glasses window, slowly falls to his doom, we see unknown flashbacks popping up on screen as he descends, and all while mixed to the song “Green Bird”. This is as perfect a scene as you can possibly ask for, a scene with a deal of dramatic weight and inspired artistry, which really got me to respect “Cowboy Bebop” as more than just a fun, Sci-Fi action series. 

#1 “The Real Folk Blues

The series twp part finally titled “The Real Folk Blues” is personally one of my favorite series finales I’ve ever seen. It’s such a good ending that I honestly don’t want to go into too much detail, because that might spoil the experience, but I’ll do my best. Here’s the set up, the Red Dragon syndicate have sentenced Vicious to death, but the syndicate don't stop their, and begin to hunt down anyone previously associated with him. This puts Spike in a tight spot as he finds himself hunted down by the assassins, and soon discovers that his ex-girl friend Julia may be in danger. This is the episode that ties everything together, as we finally discover who this Julia character is, and Spike’s shadowy past is finally brought to light. The show has had its share of drama before, but this was about as heavy as the drama ever got, and if you’ve seen this episode, you know what I mean by “HEAVY”. It’s a bloody, action packed finally, full of deep character revelations, captivating music, a riveting final confrontation between Spike and vicious, and that ending is something that I just didn’t see coming. I do wish that both characters Jet and Faye could have been more involved, but regardless, “The Real Folk Blues” is a sold two-part episode, and an excellent ending to a great series.           

    All in all, for such a short series, it packs a real punch, and is worth watching again after all these years. If you’re an Anime fan, or a fan of outer space adventure, this show is mandatory to check out, and even if you’re not, I still recommend it. Who knows, maybe this will be that special show that will get you looking at more Japanese Anime, because that’s how it was for me. It features a memorable cast of characters, great story telling, an excellent music track, lots of style and is easily one of my favorite Japanese Anime series I’ve ever seen.   
           See you in Space Cowboy ...


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