Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Dec 15th 2014
Bluray - Complete Series [Amazon Exclusive Edition]
1941: Once upon a time in New York City. There is a stage in a club called "Minton's Play House" in Harlem, open to all comers, and open every night. Night after night, they play jazz sessions, competing with each other, young jazz men with a new sense gathering, playing, and learning until at last they create a new genre unto itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed-style jazz. They're eager to play jazz more freely as they wish.
2071: In the far flung-future, the universe is still expanding. Bounty hunters, gathering in the spaceship "BEBOP", will play their own game freely without fear of risk. They must create new dreams by breaking traditional styles. We must create new films by doing the same. The work, which becomes a new genre unto itself, will be called "COWBOY BEBOP".
It was a tall order and a mighty claim for Shinichiro Watanabe, Yoko Kanno, Keiko Nobumoto, and all of Sunrise's many other players, but the rest is anime history.
There are 26 "sessions" in Cowboy Bebop's vaunted run, now rendered gorgeously in high definition on this long-awaited blu-ray release, but they can all be summed up pretty well by a fuzzy little standard definition relic included on the set known as "Session #0." The extra was originally a promotion for the series, back when it was running on TV Tokyo and not long for broadcast due to low ratings. The extra is shocking in its candor and humility, as everyone involved pleads with viewers to buy the show on DVD, apologizing that most episodes could not be aired due to harsh content. Composer Yoko Kanno describes the staff as lazy slackers, ("and it shows in the series!" she adds with a laugh, implying it to be a "positive" insult.) Head of Story Keiko Nobumoto claims she still doesn't know what the head of story is supposed to do, so she decided it meant writing tons of episodes herself (9 to be exact), while remaining confident that her scenario "makes smart use of its gaps" for the other writers to fill in. Still, for all the pants-seat flying this series of interviews implies, the comment that brings it all into perspective comes from series director Shinichiro Watanabe. When asked what he wanted to communicate through the show, Watanabe responds: "People see a lot of things over time, they find things they like, and these days, many people try to recreate what they've seen. That's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to create something that had never been seen before."
It's this vague but powerful ambition that triumphed over circumstance and made Cowboy Bebop a seminal work of excellence that truly stood the test of time. Well over a decade later, people still "get into anime" through Cowboy Bebop. Media critics wholly divorced from the so-called anime ghetto cite this TV series alongside Akira and Miyazaki's films as a breakout masterwork of the medium. The series' English dub is lauded beyond reproach from a community where even the practice of dubbing can be thankless at worst and divisive at best. It's that rare and outstanding creation that can no longer be discussed outside of its legacy: a blessing and a curse.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty of the show's content, (which due to its age and impact will be discussed with little regard for spoilers and drop many casual references to specific episodes,) there's a more immediate occasion for this updated review to cover: the blu-ray release itself! Funimation's Amazon-exclusive special edition comes in a very classy clamshell box containing a big booklet of production sketches/model sheets and a smaller artbook with color spreads and promotional art. All the on-disc extras from Bandai's DVD releases have been transferred over, from commentaries to promos to music videos. Blu-ray original features are relegated to their own disc, and unfortunately not as stellar for such an otherwise impressive set. For dub enthusiasts, there is a whopping three hours of the reunited dub cast discussing the show, first in a series of one-on-one interviews, and then at a more candid group dinner. No such luck on the Japanese production side of things, though. There's a less-than-60-second art montage of the happy watercolor dreams Ein was having while Faye doodled eyebrows on him in "My Funny Valentine," and that's it. Still, it's clear a lot of effort went into the dub-focused extras, so it's certainly better than nothing.
In terms of video quality, the HD transfer from film here is excellent, carried over from the restoration on the Japanese blu-rays. You can see the varying line weight in the drawings, the boldness (or bleakness) in the show's broad scope of colors, and even the little hints of film grain drifting by against the blacks of Jet Black's beard. Of course, that all goes away whenever the show switches to any shot with digital effects, like most of the establishing shots in "Asteroid Blues." These effects shots were created in 1998 with a lower maximum resolution in mind, and there's not much that can be done to mask that. Trips into the astral gate take a turn for the flat and jagged real fast, but on the other side there's more beautiful cel animation waiting. (For a fun comparison between film-source animation and digital-source animation in Bebop, check out the difference between the almost completely digitally animated "Pierrot le Fou" compared to most other sessions.) To fully correct this issue, it would require the digital elements to be completely remade for a higher resolution, a'la what CBS did in their multimillion-dollar restoration of Star Trek; expensive, time-consuming, and potentially not even possible depending on how much of the original production materials are available for that level of costly tinkering. Overall, Cowboy Bebop relied remarkably little on computer-generated effects for a space show, so the occasional dip in video quality during them is completely tolerable. Both audio tracks are in 5.1 surround, and both the Japanese and English versions of the show are still exemplary in completely different ways. (The English dub has a reactive energy and chemistry to it that the more muted Japanese track does not, while the Japanese track's under-acted naturalism has a hypnotic resonance that works wonders in congress with the show's musical score.)
Overall, it's a solid package that the show's sea of fans can be proud to display on their shelf, which is a relief. It's hard to think of a more widely anticipated anime release than Cowboy Bebop. This makes the standard reviewer's question of if Bebop is all-that-great a moot point. Its immortality both answers the question (yes, there must be something special about it at this point) and creates a different question: why is Cowboy Bebop all-that-great? The show inspires passion in such a wide range of viewers with different personal tastes and experiences. It probably isn't because they all really love jazz music, Hong Kong action films, and tales of neo-noir.
Above all else, Cowboy Bebop is remembered for its originality. It isn't only novel, unique, or fresh in a way that smells sweet on the vine, then rapidly rots and drops as identical fruit blossom in its place. After all, "first" is not often "best," and way-paving works frequently yield imitators or even improvements that can dull the shine of the original star to later audiences. Bebop is such an unusual series, so reliant on the eclectic yet specific obsessions of its various creators, that pulling apart how and why its gumbo of elements succeeds is too much work to bother imitating. After declaring his intention to make something "that's never been seen before" in Session #0, Watanabe admits that the things he likes will blend into his creation no matter what he does, but doesn't offer an on-camera solution to this paradox. His answer only comes when watching the end result for yourself, and it has followed Watanabe throughout his career as a master delegator.
Cowboy Bebop resounds not only with Watanabe's voice, but the clear and seemingly uncompromised voices of dozens of artists producing some of the best work in their prolific and widely divergent careers. Yoko Kanno's voice rings out both figuratively and literally in "Ballad of Fallen Angels"' Green Bird sequence, marrying a childlike round of nonsense words to Watanabe's love of John Woo imagery, creating something transcendent. Keiko Nobumoto's affection for a cosmic yet unattainable something, "the Blue" that every human soul longs for, is given new context through the longing in Kanno's actual blues music, not to mention how Watanabe visualizes the concept by artfully scrawling blue tones over the blacks and greys of Spike's noir-painted past. Then there's the flavor Kimitoshi Yamane and Satoshi Toba's "junk future" production design lends to the world of Bebop. The crew's ship is comfy, charming, and deeply lived-in, usually lit by the glow of a holographic TV that needs kicking to retain a signal. At the same time, the Bebop is dying silently from neglect, filled with dark unexplored chambers rank with forgotten mistakes both literal (Toys in the Attic) and figurative (Jupiter Jazz.) The show is filled with warm, beat-up spaces in the cold vastness of space, exposing the crew's temporary escape from many cruel and patient fates that loom around them. The visual, aural, and narrative ideas at play in the show are uncountable, but its thematic core is unshakable in its cohesion.
Without losing his own strong voice, Watanabe brilliantly improvises the world and story of Bebop around all the cacophonous voices in his care to create a story of inimitable unity. The show is real "cinematic jazz" that triumphs over the impossible pretense of such a concept in its mastery of different styles and genres, both episode to episode and within a single session. "Pierrot le Fou" is perfect as action horror spectacle. "Brain Scratch" is perfect as high concept minimalist mood piece social commentary. "Mushroom Samba" is perfect as a family-friendly blaxploitation homage stoner comedy. These things don't seem compatible, but there's no denying the result. That's not to say every episode is perfect. The show's greatness is far from equally distributed, and sessions like "Boogie Woogie Feng Shui" and "Gateway Shuffle" aren't likely to be anyone's favorites. The fact remains that almost every episode of Bebop is someone's favorite, leaving Bebop's hit-to-miss ratio as a short anthology series nigh-unparalleled.
For this reason, every fan seems to have a "different Bebop," and a different idea of what makes the show exceptional. For my part, Bebop's greatness lies in its main connective story: a deeply dark-hearted narrative with a big goofy smile on its face. For a show frequently sold on its high energy and cool action, Cowboy Bebop is profoundly and deliberately tragic from beginning to end, true to its roots in film noir: a genre dominated by pessimism and cruel circumstance. (Even Bebop's comedy is usually predicated on the crew being broke, hungry, and resentful of each other over it.) It's easy to forget that if it wasn't for the blessed levity provided by Edward and Ein, the Bebop would be populated by a trio of broken souls trudging toward the pointless individual fates they keep choosing for themselves in favor of forging new lives or connections with one another. This is illustrated perfectly by the ingenious bell the story tolls for Spike very early in the series: "Sympathy for the Devil."
Watanabe has stated that Spike was partially a twist on the character of Lupin III, but it's hard to tell that from watching the series standalone. Lupin's shameless joie de vivre has little to do with Spike's perpetual emotional dishonesty and suicidal apathy played off as badass detachment. There is a direct Lupin reference in "Sympathy for the Devil," though. The "devil," an evil and broken little boy that Spike eventually shoots between the eyes, is dressed exactly like Lupin III. The kid's dying question is a phrase uttered frequently in Cowboy Bebop: "Do you understand?" Spike waits until he's passed on, then he takes the kid's last connection to his humanity out of his pocket to examine it. It's a harmonica, but when Spike tries to play it, no sound comes out, even though it played beautiful music when the kid blew on it. Spike says that he doesn't understand at all to the little devil's corpse, tosses the harmonica into the air, points his finger at it, and says "Bang."
There is only one other time that Spike points his finger and says "Bang" in Cowboy Bebop. This is not a coincidence, and neither is the seemingly innocuous little boy's resemblance to Lupin III, Spike's supposed progenitor. In Bebop's greatest strength also lies its greatest flaw. Underneath its cool exterior, Bebop is a profoundly adult story with a harsh view of the world that it embraces unflinchingly. Somehow, this resulted in a series that strikes audiences' emotional nerves raw, but leaves many unable to articulate why they feel that way or what the story really meant, if anything. (The same could be said of writer Keiko Nobumoto's next project, Wolf's Rain.) Cowboy Bebop's enduring reputation is mostly credited to its surface elements of accessibility, action, animation, and aesthetic, but I think there are plenty of other TV shows that have that in abundance. What pushes Cowboy Bebop over the edge into greatness is something it rarely gets credit for: profound and challenging characters and themes.
Spike is not the kind of person who can understand the inner lives of others, because in the world of Cowboy Bebop, no one is. Nobumoto's dialogue consists almost entirely of emotionally dishonest statements, information bargaining, or outright falsehoods between the members of the Bebop crew. (Edward is the exception as a girl who is honest at all times, but simply cannot be understood because she's a loony toon. She is perfectly fine with this however, which is why she's promptly shuttled out of all the show's core dramatic episodes. She's already free.) Even though they all have excellent chemistry and could make a remarkable team if they really wanted to, the cast simply don't want to connect with one another, so they make excuses about why they could not understand even if they tried. Faye is often dismissed by the others for being a certain way because she is a woman, even when her male accusers act on her same flaws, sometimes within the same episode as the accusation. In "Sympathy for the Devil," Jet accuses Faye and all other women of being manipulative right after coming back from a dinner where he spent the whole time buttering up an acquaintance for classified information. Similar accusations are made of Jet for being an old man, and of Spike for being a ruthless, morally bankrupt bounty hunter...even though all of them are bounty hunters and those traits are requirements of the job. None of these characters seems willing to reconcile their inner lives with one another, and it's because all three of them have put those lives in stasis.
Each new episode is just another little dream the Bebop crew drifts through in lieu of resuming the lives they left behind, and nothing really comes of these various sessions. The Bebop crew never makes progress as bounty hunters, and they never actually form the family that they halfheartedly play at becoming. They are, as "Bohemian Rhapsody" foreshadows, just wasting time on one another because their pasts have left them unable to move forward. For Jet, his past has proven to him that a man of his beliefs has no place in the world anymore, and he can only passively support the lives of others on his ship while he waits for his obsolescence to end. For Faye, her past is a mystery, and she prefers to seek cheap thrills and escapism in lieu of making new connections, hopeful for the day she remembers her "real" home and everything makes sense again. In order to truly share their lives with one another, these lost souls would have to unfreeze all those knotted-up fears and assumptions, which is most impossible of all for Spike. His past is a giant mistake forever burned into his brain, filled with sins that he believes can only be made right through the love of a woman he has already lost forever.
In fact, Spike can't seem to die with his life in this waking sleep state, no matter how hard he tries to make it happen. Indisputably fatal injuries befall him with every new suicidal mission he takes on, but to his amazement, he always comes back alive. His story rings so true with viewers not because it's logical or fair, but because it's powerful on a much deeper level: Spike's life cannot end when he is not actually living it. Eventually the sessions wind down, and between the three options of resuming from the past, restarting in the future, or simply dreaming on, all three characters choose a different path and their little unformed family must dissolve. As Spike resumes his life from the past in all its glorious brevity, he finally realizes his sympathy for the devil he met in his dream, raises his finger, and reprises "Bang," now thick with understanding. Cowboy Bebop may be a fun romp on the surface, but its brutal underpinnings are a far cry from Lupin III, and the show knows it, concluding with "YOU'RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT." in lieu of "SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY..."
"That weight" is the burden we all bear as individual human beings living separate lives and dreams from one another that may not ever fully connect in the ways we want. Spike is gone and the show is over, but his fans still live and hopefully they've learned something from the Bebop's "pointless" little journey. The show also offers hope through the futures of both Faye and Edward, who are now free to start their lives anew. (It's implied strongly that Jet remains in emotional stasis, as while Faye grieves, he simply cleans one small spot on the ship over and over with a blank expression on his face.) Things aren't so bad for Spike either, as even waking into death is a kind of freedom. There's "no black and white in the blue," after all. Cowboy Bebop takes a cold view of the universe and colors it with warmth, inviting viewers to a tragedy that is frequently punctuated with purest joy. It takes its cynical, world-weary neo-noir roots and thoroughly transforms them into a story that is strangely uplifting in its sorrow, and filled with downright gleeful adventures in the build to the dream's conclusion. This show is so damn good that it doesn't have to be deciphered to be appreciated. Even without the episode-combing it takes to uncover the deeper reasons for Spike's final "Bang," his shot made its way straight to the hearts of millions, and with this release, hopefully millions more in the future.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ Exceptional production design and cinematic direction, brilliant use of a one-of-a-kind eclectic score, packed with complex themes and characters illustrated simply and powerfully, one of the greatest animated series ever made
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