Hi. I’m Madeline Ashby. After seeing so many re-watch posts, I asked Pablo if he would be interested in re-watch posts for quality anime titles, too. He responded enthusiastically, and here we are. Although posting here is new for me, writing about anime isn’t. I blogged for Frames Per Second, I’ve published a peer-reviewed article on anime, I’ve written for Mechademia and I’ve been a panelist at SF Signal, Anticipation, and elsewhere. I even wrote a Master’s thesis on anime, although I’m now a student in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Program at the Ontario College of Art and Design. If you’re still curious, you can read some of my stories or follow me on Twitter.
“When I first heard that music, it was like someone put a gun to my head. I had to sit down. I had to watch.”
This is what a television producer told me, once, when we were talking about Cowboy Bebop. Director Shinichiro Watanabe’s 1998 masterpiece, about four bounty hunters and a dog shooting their way across the solar system in 2071, tends to elicit similar reactions in people. The last time I watched the series in full was during a holiday marathon two years ago. Early in the series my friend turned to me, his face framed in the eerie glow of frozen animation, and said: “This is a great series! Why can’t we make stuff like this here?”
Indeed. Bebop has what most live-action SF television from English-speaking countries does not: a definite end date, a genuinely compelling story, great production value, interesting speculations on technology and a merciful lack of deus ex machina. It’s a series set in the future, not about the future, and is thus liberated from making any sweeping statements regarding the future. Perhaps for that reason, the world of Cowboy Bebop is neither a sun-dappled utopia nor an unforgiving dystopia. We watch it from the point of view of bounty hunters, so we see the dirty cops and the crime syndicate lowlifes and the mom’s basement-terrorists with delusions of grandeur, but 2071 remains a recognizable iteration of our current world. Ganymede fishing trawlers can be converted to achieve escape velocity, bounties on cross-colony fugitives can be paid from ATM’s, hyperspace toll gates are vulnerable to bugs in proprietary software and need regular firmware upgrades. Its most optimistic prediction is also its most accurate: every colony from Io to Titan is full of signage in Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. There are brown people, black people and pale people with dreds, turbans and mohawks. Watanabe’s future is off-planet, and everybody’s there.
Watanabe clearly subscribes to the “Exposition Is For Babies” school of SF. Those expecting a set of narrative training wheels like the opening titles of Blade Runner or Star Wars or the latter-day Galactica should just let go of that desire and move on. The episode drops us, context-free, into a rainy scene tinged with tinkly music box notes, and we watch a dropped rose slowly grow red in a puddle of water, announcing the opening of the story like lights gently brightening a stage. A tall man carrying a bouquet finishes his cigarette and enters a cathedral. Sudden bullets illuminate his face. The man smirks slightly as blood trails down past his lips from his scalp.
From the series’ title and the name of the first episode, it should be clear that Watanabe’s inspiration is rooted in jazz and blues. As with jazz, the strength of the series comes from the collaboration of true masters: Watanabe’s direction, Keiko Nobumoto and Dai Sato’s screenwriting, Shoji Kawamori’s environmental design, and Yoko Kanno’s music. And like with jazz, the series story is partially told in the notes not played. Much of the emotion is subtextual. Just in case the audience misses that point, there’s a prominent song on the soundtrack called “Words That We Couldn’t Say.” Music plays a huge role in establishing the mood and flavour of the series, and Yoko Kanno’s contribution as chief composer and music supervisor has never been more deeply felt. The woman is a savant, capable of creating within any genre she wants, from Texas twang to Motown soul to Venetian arias. Bebop is one of the few shows wherein brassy big band sound will punctuate a fistfight. And those notes, hard and fast as knuckles in your teeth, are part of what makes this episode (and the series as a whole) so special.
In this episode, we meet two of the main characters, Spike Spiegel (the man from the introduction earlier) and Jet Black. Spike is a tall, lanky man with an untamable mop of curly hair, and Jet is a thick, broad-shouldered chap with a bionic arm and a nasty scar down one eye. (Whenever I read “Burning Chrome,” I imagine Spike and Jet.) We quickly learn that Spike is the reckless one, and Jet is the responsible one. Jet calls Spike for dinner (interrupting his Jeet Kun Do practise, in the first of what are many homages to Spike’s hero, Bruce Lee), then explains that their next bounty is a drug dealer named Asimov, and that he’ll be a tough catch. Spike whines that there’s no beef in the bell peppers and beef, and Jet tells him that there would be beef, if Spike didn’t drive up their insurance premiums every time he rammed his foot up someone’s ass or parked his personal spacecraft in other people’s front yards.
You know these guys, already. You probably live with them. These guys just happen to kick more ass.
“Asteroid Blues” functions as a perfect introduction to the series as a whole, because it foreshadows the larger events that unfold across the entire narrative. From the start, Watanabe’s favourite themes are front and centre: lost people driven together by circumstance; women who are more than they seem; inevitability; the search for a better life in a distant, unknown somewhere. Visually, Watanabe and his team express these themes with a persistent focus on wheels. Throughout this episode and the series, the gravity generator turns endlessly, as do windmills (the same ones from his previous directorial effort, Macross Plus), toy pinwheels (like the ones in his following series, Samurai Champloo), and the hyperspace gates and colonies themselves, spinning and spinning, Fortune’s Wheel on an interstellar scale.
The episode focuses on two people at the bottom of that wheel, hoping to ride it up to the top. Asimov and his wife (she’s unnamed, so let’s call her Janet, or more appropriately, Juanita) have stolen a huge stash of a drug called Red Eye. It’s delivered as an aerosol directly to the eye and gives the user a brief-but-addictive power-up that turns him or her into a fighting force of nature. That makes it a favourite among crime syndicate thugs across the system. Asimov and Juanita’s plan is to head to Mars (crime syndicate central) with their stash, where they can sell it to the highest bidders and make a lot of quick cash. But like all the most pathetic dealers, Asimov has been dipping into his own supply. He’s a sweaty, twitchy maniac when we meet him, and after a shattering demonstration of his drug-fueled crazy-fu, we think that Spike and Jet might actually be in danger when they meet.
To begin his investigation, Spike finds his friend, a recurring Native American character called Old Bull. They smoke together in a tent full of old PlayStations, and Spike gets the munchies while Bull lets sand stream through his fingers. (“This is all real mystical and all, but got anything to eat?”) Bull then delivers a prediction about where the bounty will be that hinges on a woman trying to kill Spike.
“Just like the last time,” Spike says. “I was killed before, by a woman.”
“You take women too lightly, my friend.”
“On the contrary.”
Remember these words. They are very important.
Then Spike meets Juanita, bumping into her as an excuse to pick her pocket. (He steals some of the groceries from her bag; she lets him keep the hot dog. Meet-cute, thy name is theft.) They bond for a while as he re-fuels his Swordfish II, talking about Mars and how it’s the place to get rich. Spike reveals that he was born on Mars, and warns her that it’s not so great. Juanita is undaunted, stroking her massive dome of a belly, saying “I’m sure we’ll be very happy, there.”
Then Asimov arrives, realizes that Spike is a bounty hunter, and begins to choke Spike. At the last moment Juanita stops him, and they escape. Jet finds Spike, and we learn that Spike has stolen a vial of the Red Eye. He’s calm about the encounter, and tracks Asimov to another buy. He meets Asimov dressed as The Man With No Name. Revealing himself, he taunts Asimov and begins a quick, ugly fistfight. Here’s a clip. (The action starts at 1:55. Watch until the end.)
Remember when we were worried that Spike couldn’t handle himself? We were fools. And remember how Juanita looked pregnant? Well, now we know where Asimov’s been hiding his stash. Spike gives chase, but it’s all for naught: the police are already in place high above the colony’s surface, ready to catch Asimov. Juanita shoots him, whispers a goodbye to Spike, and lets police bullets tear her apart.
Spike and Jet are right back where they started, in Fortune’s middle parts, just as screwed as usual with no bounty and no beef. As with exposition, Watanabe has little use for the traditional Try, Fail —-> Try, Succeed model. There’s a lot of failure, here. But somehow it doesn’t feel that way, because there are moments of quiet understanding, like when Jet lets his cigarette float across the low-gravity room so that Spike can take a hit. Beyond the sharing of that cigarette, nothing more needs to be said. The two men stare at the stars. Their dinner burns in the other room. They are alive. The story continues.
SEE YOU, SPACE COWBOY.