Mar 26 2010 5:18pm

Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Stray Dog Strut”

There are a lot of artificial binaries that divide human beings: male/female; old/young; red/blue.  Most labels are inherently meaningless social constructs whose only value is created through consensual hallucination and cultural role-play. Most, that is, except “dog person” and “cat person.”

Spike Spiegel is not a dog person.


Stray Dog Strut is the second episode in the series, and it subscribes to Geoffrey Rush’s maxim from Shakespeare in Love about what makes a successful story: “Comedy, and a bit with a dog.” That’s essentially all there is to the episode: a smartass bounty hunter, a skulking thug, a hopeless sap, a crazy cat turtle lady, two lab flunkies and a Welsh corgi genetically engineered to be cleverer than all of them combined.

The episode opens in a public bathroom. I’m sure this violates some rule of narrative, like opening with the weather, but then again, writing an entire episode about a dog is probably on that list, too. A giant of a man is sitting on the throne, a large sample case at his feet. The case gives an Audition-like twitch before the man flushes some bandages and gets ambushed by a group of men who call him “Abdul Hakim.” He does his best Kareem Abdul Jabbar stance from Game of Death (another Bruce Lee reference), demolishes them, picks up the case, and leaves.

Cut to the Bebop, which is passing through the hyperspace toll gates on its way to Mars. Again, director Watanabe stubbornly refuses to exposit. Let go of any desire for an explanation of how the gates work, or when Mars was partially terraformed, or what any of the machines involved in either process do. Just surrender to the beauty of the gates spanning the distance between planets like enormous, golden vertebrae, and the fragile veils of mist that separate the thriving Martian cities from the rusty red hell outside.

On the Bebop, Spike is trying to watch TV. After some percussive maintenance, he brings up “Big Shot,” the show for “all three hundred thousand bounty hunters in the star system.” (You want some worldbuilding? That’s some worldbuilding. Think about an interstellar economy where there are three hundred thousand registered bounty hunters. Think about what that says about crime rates and the effectiveness of the police.) It stars Punch and Judy, two actors who wear cowboy costumes and give details on bounties. “Big Shot” is the most purely expository device in the entire series: Punch and Judy tell us everything we need to know about each bounty in almost every episode, providing details that would come off as hackneyed if they were worked into dialogue. The fact that we later learn a lot more about Punch and Judy turns them into more than just a device, though, but that’s a discussion for another episode.

Spike watches the segment on Abdul Hakim, who we learn has a penchant for both animal theft (I shudder to imagine why) and plastic surgery. After the episode, a transmission comes through from a man Spike calls “Doc,” who looks pretty roughed up. Doc claims to know what Hakim’s newest face looks like, and he wants to give Spike the intel cheap in exchange for Spike’s foot navigating its way straight up Hakim’s ass. Spike agrees, makes a few cocky remarks to Jet about how he has this one in the bag, and departs for Mars on the Swordfish II.

For me, one important aspect of any science fiction story involving terraformed planets or off-world colonies is always learning which elements from the home planet made it outside the atmosphere. In this city’s case, a great deal of traditional culture made it through. Hakim enters a juice and tea bar specializing in traditional Chinese medicine (there’s a great moment where he’s too tall for the door frame, and has to duck). The barkeep promises that ginseng is great for energy, and that pineapple aids digestion. It’s intriguing to me as a viewer to learn that some species of ginseng and pineapple are probably being cloned in an agricultural lab for use in traditional Martian medicine. Those little stitches of cultural embroidery contribute very little to the plot, but a great deal to the environment.

In the juice bar, Hakim gets in a fight with a homeless guy. There’s no real reason for this; Hakim’s a thug, and by the time we’re done cringing at the way he crams a cockroach down this poor guy’s throat, the hopeless sap character who’s been eyeballing Hakim since he walked in has made off with the case. He hitches a ride on a garbage truck, opens the case, hears a growl, and quickly shuts it. Meanwhile, Spike looks for info on specialty pet shops from a guy selling vintage weapons who says, “You can buy anything on Mars, from guns to human lives,” and tells him that information costs just like everything else. Spike finesses him with some shop-talk about nunchuks, and the guy tells him about a shop called Animal Treasure. (Twelve years after Cowboy Bebop, it’s hard to imagine anyone asking a living, breathing person for this information. If this story were written now, Spike would have whipped out his mobile and found an augmented map with a pet shop layer. Illegal animal trading? There’s an app for that.)

Apparently, everyone knows about Animal Treasure. The hopeless sap shows up there, looking to fence whatever is inside the case. The woman who owns the shop is wearing a turtle on her head, but don’t let that fool you. She’s a hardass. When Spike shows up at the shop and points a gun at the sap, accusing him of being Hakim, she’s far more worried about her “babies” than herself. Finally the sap opens the case, and out pops a cute Welsh corgi. The turtle woman tells them that although corgis are nice, they’re also cheap. She won’t pay very much for it. Spike, realizing that he really may have the wrong guy (and unwittingly passing up the right cargo), pats the sap on the shoulder and says one of my favourite lines in the entire series: “Sorry about the gun thing; have a nice day, huh?”

Animal Treasure is fast becoming the Mos Eisley Cantina of the pet world, though, because in walks Hakim. Spotting him, the dog starts the first of two epic foot-chases through the city. The dog runs away, Hakim chases the dog, a truck chases Hakim and Spike chases the truck. The truck is driven by two guys in lab coats, presumably workers from the lab from whence the dog was stolen. If this episode feels like it has a few too many stakeholders, that’s because it does. By the time Mai Yamane starts singing “Want It All Back” we no longer know who is chasing who, or why. But it doesn’t really matter, because Spike is on a bridge fighting Hakim. During a lull when the two men trade quips, the dog charges forward and does a Lee Majors off the bridge, landing on the awning of a boat passing underneath. Hakim jumps in after him, and Spike follows. The dog leaps for Spike’s face, and they land in the canal while Hakim lands in a crate of fresh-caught crab.

Back on the Bebop, Jet is giving the dog a collar. The tag on the collar has a locator chip that lets them track his movements. Spike comments that he hates kids and pets, and naturally the camera cuts to some kids who literally fish Hakim out of the canal. Hakim is starting to sweat bullets because he’s lost his goods, the idiots in the truck are worried that they’ve lost the dog, too, and Spike is annoyed that he has to take the dog for a walk. In another nod to traditional culture, Hakim gets a sidewalk fortune teller with a caged bird to look for the dog. The lab flunkies rely on science, instead, and deploy a dog whistle (cue inevitable dog whistle joke here) that draws the attention of every dog in a five block radius.

Remember the end of The Blues Brothers? How suddenly the cops, the country band, the Nazis, and Carrie Fisher were all chasing Jake and Elwood simultaneously? Well, this is like that. Seriously, all it needs is the Benny Hill theme. Hakim punches out the groom at a wedding before stealing the nuptial limo, almost runs Spike over, takes the dog back and mists it with some sleeping spray, and leads the chase to a major highway. Spike takes off in the Swordfish, and proceeds to crush the limo with it. The dog awakens from its drugged sleep, waits for the right moment, then presses some buttons on the steering wheel with its paws to open the door. It leaps free to the water below.

“Shit!” Spike yells, altering course to catch it. “This is why I hate pets!”

The dog lands on his windscreen, and we cut to another episode of “Big Shot” that explains what exactly is so special about the animal. (Turns out, it’s really smart. But we knew that, because, you know, it can drive a car.) The turtle woman is watching the episode while eating some noodles, seems to think of the dog she let go, then thinks better of it. She instructs the sap to keep mopping.

On the Bebop, the dog wriggles free of Jet’s grasp, hops out of the bathtub and shakes himself dry all over Spike, who is watching the end of the episode, wherein we learn that the police have picked up Hakim (and that Spike and Jet have lost the bounty, as usual) . Spike whines about the deluge, and suggests eating the dog. “You’re the one who brought him here," Jet says.

Okay, maybe he is a dog person.


Madeline Ashby is an over-educated ne’er-do-well and science fiction writer living in Toronto.

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Cass Buscher
1. Cass Buscher
Not to be too picky but you wouldn't have to genetically engineer a corgi to be that smart. They already are ;)
j p
2. sps49
Sounds like the director learned one of Roddenberry's best ideas- don't explain how a phaser works- no TV cop ever explains his .38 (9mm nowadays), just shoot the bad guy with it.
Richard Fife
3. R.Fife
For the world building, I think Cowboy Bebop does it amazingly well with the most important phrase in storytelling: Show, Don't Tell. We see the ships, we see the magnetic deck switch (in the first ep), we see the toll booths for the hypergates, the controls of the ships, the airwalls for the terra-formed cities, etc. Heck, we don't even find out why Earth is so screwed up for a long time (part of Faye's backstory, really, not that it's a secret, just the first time we had to find out.)

What I really like about CB, though, is that you can tell they were planning what they wanted to do. Yeah, there is a lot of episodality (my new word) to the series, but heck, we still haven't met half of the title-sequence cast, usually a bit of a no-no in television, at least this side of the big pond. And yet, it still works.

Which, honestly, this kind of long-form storytelling and planning does seem more prevalent in Anime (and I have a feeling Japanese television in general) than over here. They don't care if you'll be completely lost if you miss an episode over there, they have a story to tell, and you best record it if you're going to miss it.

Enjoying the commentary, Madeline. Keep it up.
Patrick Garson
4. patrickg
Boy shucks howdy!

After the somewhat elegiac first episode, I love how this one basically plays out as giant farce. Watanabe really displays his cinematic literacy in this episode, I feel. He's so competent and comfortable with old-school comedy. From an anime perspective, it reminds me almost irrepressibly of Lupin - however that is quite possibly more a result of my own relative ignorance.

I also love how Watanabe sets up Einstein to be another character in Bebop - and yet he is and he isn't. Sans the ability to talk, despite his smarts he really does remain like a "real" dog. I thought it was a cute way of playing with expectation.
Madeline Ashby
6. MadelineAshby
One of the things I've really enjoyed about writing the re-watch posts is how it's forced me to re-examine storytelling in general, and I'm glad everyone here is picking up on that, too. Watanabe is the master of Showing Not Telling, and I hadn't realized how deeply I had deeply I had internalized that lesson until recently.

I agree with R. Fife that every inch of the series seems planned from the very start. I think that's one of the things that I enjoy about anime in general -- there's a set end date, so you have to economize and tell a story that has a real beginning, middle and end. It also means that the focus is on quality, not quantity. So many live-action television series from America and elsewhere are written with the goal of being picked up for another season, and it really shows. There's a lot of filler written into their stories, the narrative equivalent of hot dog meat, and it's often tied off with desperate plot-flail during sweeps. It's a rare show that doesn't do this -- Supernatural comes to mind, and it's one of my favourites.

PatrickG is also correct that Ein is really another character in the series. At points he does move the lot along (there's even a case of deus ex canis) and he's really proof of the Less Is More rule. Despite having almost zero dialogue whatsoever, we know what he's thinking at all times. I think I read or saw in an interview that the animators spent time observing a real corgi for research, and it was time well spent. (Sidebar: some animation studios in Japan have their own cat -- Production IG does -- and this might explain why cats are so well animated.)

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