Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #1: Asteroid Blues


"Asteroid Blues" was designed as an advertisement for the rest of the show. It was to be shown on a talk show instead of the scheduled time slot. The voice actors were to be interviewed, a whole production.

The talk show nixed the whole thing. Too violent, they said. The entire show was in jeopardy from day one.

Again.

Miles Davis

That being said, "Asteroid Blues" is a perfect introduction to Cowboy Bebop as it is misleading as hell. This episode lets you know what Bebop aims for beautifully, but it uses a lot of misdirection over how it plans to go about it. You see, this episode pitches the show as a violent show for adults interested in animation like AKIRA or Ghost In The Shell, but with a cool, hip attitude. Aiming for cool, real, Miles Davis cool, is an unusual goal in animation. Nobody had ever done it before. Sure, GITS was emotionally detached, but that's because Oshii can't act (I love the guy but as a fan, you know it to be true), not because it was playing it off legit. The episode begins with not one, not two, but three music montages. The first is a wordless, sepia toned sequence that condenses every Yakuza movie into one minutes as "Memory" plays on a Celeste.


Memory

... Yes, I recognize the original songs. I kind of like this show. There's also a ballad version with vocals, because Yoko Kanno ain't no half-stepper.

The second musical montage is the world famous, genre defining, amazing opening credits. For once, I'm not being ironic. This features the song that became the series signature - "Tank!". This song is an homage to Charles Mingus or I'll eat my damn hat. It features a frankly oversized big band with an extra bongo player, electric keyboardist and I'm pretty sure that's two bass players. The main bass line is awesome by the way, as befits an homage to one of the world's great bassists. Like many Mingus songs, the music is call and response style, each call and response getting bigger and more out of control until the frentic solos come screaming at you. This is an edited version, so there's only a short Sonny Terry burst at the end, but the spirit is still there.

Hey, while we're talking about the opening credits, let's mention "series creator" "Hajime Yatate". Yatate does not exist. Instead "he" is the manifestation of the Bandai marketing department. If ideas come out of marketing, Hajime Yatate gets credited. We can all remember Yatate's one word contribution to this series. Actually, Sunrise has had to credit Yatate for several series that were largely the idiosyncratic creation of one man to the mythical marketer. The most important of these step-children is Mobile Suit Gundam, in many ways the first giant robot show that tried to be anything but glorified pro-wrestling.

I ought to talk about the postmodern typeface that litters the opening credits, since when compiled it is hilariously Engrishy and also gives a fair assessment of the show's goals. Unfortunately, I can't find a version with all the Engrish except my old DVDs in America. I'll reproduce the declaration of purpose here anyway:

"Once upon a time, in New York City in 1941... at this club open to all comers to play, night after night, at a club named "Minton's Play House" in Harlem, they play jazz sessions competing with each other. Young jazz men with a new sense are gathering. At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They're eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then... in 2071 in the universe... The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship "BEBOP", will play freely without fear of risky things. they must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called... "COWBOY BEBOP"

Okay, this is postmodern typeface, meaning it isn't meant to be read but rather is meant to be part of the artistic piece overall. But the declaration of purpose is clear. Cowboy Bebop is gonna be a show that creates a new artistic level for animation in the same way that Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie/Thelonious Monk/Bud Powell/Max Roach/etc. created the original bebop. It wasn't about cutting Louis Armstrong or anything, it was about making ones own kind of music. For series creator Shinichiro Watanabe, who risked his career several times over to make this show, it was a declaration of purpose. This was gonna be the kind of show you risked your career on...

What did you expect from the episode "Asteroid Blues"?

After the delicacy of "Memory" and the hard charge of "Tank!", we get the third and final music montage. This time, it's the heartbreaking folk-blues of "Spokey Dokey". As the harmonica gently weeps, there's a montage of various gargantuan space objects over Mars. We see our heroes careening through space, cooking dinner and training.

Okay, so I need to say this before I move on to the plot. Editing is really hard. Timing in animation is really hard. This episode does it so masterfully that it is easy to forget that it is a really non-trivial task. The great director Friz Freleng would time out gags on a music sheet, and he had the advantage of a fully original score on every episode. On Cowboy Bebop - and most modern shows, likely - Watanabe had to time out the scenes not just so that they worked, but they also had to work with the music. The timing of the scenes and the dialog had to fit. You can't end a song in the middle of a bar unless you're doing it for effect. You can't match the beat too closely or you'll look as phony as a hacky french mime (old cartoons are often funny because they break this rule so ignorantly). It requires incredible planning and expert timing to make these montages look natural.


No, I'm going somewhere with this, I swear

To explain why that is hard in an abstract way, I've conveniently linked "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)" above. In this Motown classic, The Four Tops tightly perform a song that requires to do many things. I want you to think of the background singers in particular. Most of the time, they just do stuff like "In and out my life (In and out my life)". They can wait for a cue from the main singer or the band. But there are also times like at 0:45 where they have to come before the singer. That way they end the line "I can't help myself" at the same time as the lead singer's line "I'm tied to your apron string". Notice, they can't be cued, because the melody isn't doing anything interesting yet. And they have to hit the beat exactly, because they are three people in close harmony and if one is slightly late the whole thing is gone. This means they have to sing a fairly complex song (they aren't singing the same hook every time, but a sequence of hooks in a pattern), but they also have to dance and count. Try to do it with them, hit every entrance and exit perfectly. Even though you've heard this song a million times, you probably will take several times to do it.

Editing is like doing that all the time.

I want to say this not just because these scenes are masterful that they seem like they couldn't be edited differently, just like The Four Tops make "I Can't Help Myself" seem like it is spontaneous emotion being pouring out of a man whose love is out of control. This needs to be said because it goes to show just how much Watanabe had faith in Yoko Kanno. Her changing a song was a non-trivial thing. It meant that the show was going to be harder to make. But her music was worth it.

Is there gonna be some kind of blues on an asteroid or...

Okay, okay. I won't do as much scene by scene analysis, since even I know that is hack reviewing. In the "Spokey Dokey" montage we're given a lot of information. One, this is the future and we are in space. Two, Mars is gonna be important. Three, this belongs to the genre of used futures, like Philip K Dick or Foundation after the fall of the Empire or ... okay, most written Sci-Fi. The first on the screen SF to use the used future idea was Star Wars. George Lucas used to muddy up the Death Star floors to look like an army walked on, only to have the crew try and clean them! It's amusing now, but at the time it had never been done. In the 22 years between Star Wars and Cowboy Bebop, plenty of used futures had been on screen. You see this and you know this is gonna be more cynical SF.


We meet our main characters, training and cooking breakfast as I said. In classical cinematography, whose perspective is the first question you ask. Here we're looking at lead character Spike from the perspective of Jet. Jet just made his special ...

Spike Spiegel

Oh, I guess I should talk about Spike, shouldn't I? In these first few episodes, Spike is the unquestionable lead character. The episodes are about things that happen to and around him. This is one of the aspects that is misleading about the first episode. In fact, Bebop has a great ensemble that it takes its sweet time introducing. It would be like walking into Minton's and hearing this new cat Dizzy play, then on the second set some drunk looking alto player showed up. Spike is a complicated man and no one understaaaands him but his ...

Anyway, Spike is a genuinely complex character. Maybe if I talk about him in contradictions it will help. On the one hand, he plays it cool as ice in almost every situation (dude, he gets mad at one point in the first two parter and it is scary as hell), but he's impulsive and reckless. Yeah, impulsive and reckless enough that his propensity for destruction is explained and well demonstrated in this episode, yet he's also a very perceptive and gentle person. He's quite good at seeing through the lies that people build around themselves. We know he has a tragic background, but to the other characters he's as mysterious as the stars themselves. He's a bounty hunter - a loose kind of lawman - who is obviously some sort of ex-thief. Most surprisingly, he is all this without being a walking bundle of angst and contradictions (this became the cliche after EVA). Instead, he wears all these as naturally as his green frizzy hair.

Even in design he's an oddity. He was designed with iconic Japanese comic thief's Lupin III's outfit, but has the original Japanese defective detective Shunsaku Kudo's face. For those not up on their 70's Japanese Dramas, think of Shunsaku Kudo as a Japanese Jim Rockford. Spike's got Bruce Lee's body and philosophical outlook, but stretched out into a beanpole like he's gonna take on Captain Harlock. Yeah, Spike's all that and a bag of quips all right.

Bell Peppers and ... "Beef"

So anyway, because Jet is a responsible adult who takes care of business he makes Bell Peppers "And Beef" for breakfast before discussing tomorrow's work. Bell peppers and beef are, of course, eaten with chopsticks. Beef is expensive in Asian countries. This scene sets up the contradictions of Jet's character. He insists on getting the job done honorably even when he really shouldn't. The editing in this scene is worth mentioning. It keeps the characters in their own frame when they are having different conversations and then shows them together when Spike finally forces Jet to acknowledge the unsaid. We'll have to give this guy his own intro. Maybe next episode.

Funny story, the whistling Spike does was actually improvised, at least in the original Japanese. I should have said before that I'm generally going to be watching the iconic US dub, and I am so there. Actor Koichi Yamadera, now in his first day of his first starring role, was actually very nervous improvising a melody in front of musical prodigy Yoko Kanno. Spike's english language voice actor Steve Blum was also nervous. At the time he considered himself a musician dabbling in non-union voice acting and now he was being asked to take on a serious role. Luckily he nailed it. We'll come back to these guys later.

Old Man Bull & Spike

So, after a ... "breakfast", Spike takes off to meet with Old Man Bull while Jet scrounges a police contact. Old Man Bull is a Sioux mystic of some sort (probably Lakotan, because all native Americans are Lakotan). Giving roles to non-Japanese characters was actually a major goal of this series. The ethnicity of the leads is unclear, but I'll mention the clues when I get to them. Old Man Bull (full name: Laughing Bull) says the sooth and gives some nice foreshadowing. You probably know how the series goes, but I'll play it coy and say that it turns out part of the foreshadowing is for the series and not just the episode.

So, I'm not a political person, but I guess I should say it out loud. Is Laughing Bull a stereotypical Injun Chief? I'd say no, but that's more subjective than we like to admit. There's a fine line between what one might call "representation" and what one might condemn as "stereotyping". Old Man Bull close to that line and might bother you if you want to be bothered. I don't know how much writer Keiko Nobumoto researched this character. He asks Wakan Tanka to guide Spike, which suggests she knew something about the Lakota, but I don't know if the sand thing was just to look cool or what. The show was still finding its way at this point, later episodes will continue to diversify.

I will say this: I think that if every time a native character shows up some white guy says its problematic, there's gonna be a lot less jobs for native actors.

Also, my hero Johnathan Joss (TV's John Redcorn) is an awesome guy in person and should have his own talk show it would be so great.

Oh, and Cowboy Bebop!

No, I'm going somewhere with this, I swear

Meanwhile, in Space Tijuana (this is a serious show for serious people), baddy of the week Asmiov and his "sweet thing" Katerina try to unload the drugs. I'm gonna give it away, Katerina ends up stealing the episode. People talk about "gaze" a lot, because academics like me are too stupid to actually do design, but smart enough to talk about politics (so double stupid?). As shown above, Katerina is gazed at - which is stereotypical direction. Okay, the above shot actually isn't quite fair to call "stereotypical direction", since she is purposefully making fun of the old men, but come on, this is totally a shot of boobs, not some post-avant-feminist statement. As the episode goes on, you realize that the real plot is actually from her point of view. The walls are closing in around her and Asimov, and his addictions are driving him absolutely ape.

The constantly arguing old guys come back and just get better. And yes, he does always say the same thing when he's losing.





Its shots like this kept the show off the air. This is reflected in the victims glasses.

It's a pitched shootout between Asimov and the Mexican... Space Mexican Mob and Asimov wipes the floor with them. The space meth he's dealing makes him superhuman even as it makes him spiral into paranoia and condemns him to a world were everyone but Katerina wants to kill him. Even Katerina doesn't seem to care about him so much as what his ambition represents - escape from this backwoods asteroid.


Spike and Katerina's first and (obvious spoiler) only actual meeting, we see several more sides to them both. Spike, we discover, has fast and sticky fingers, as we'd expect from a guy partly based on Lupin III. But he also is better at listening that it might appear, and he sees through Katerina like an X-Ray. Katerina's ambition to leave Tijuana to go to Mars is the only thing left in her life. Spike, who was born there, can see what a Quixotic dream it is. This is a big part of Spike's cool - he can see what drives you, but you can't tell whether he's joking or not.

But then Asimov chokes him for talking to his "sweet thing", Spike dies right there and the series ends.




It turns out these guys are the leads!

Okay, no, that doesn't happen. She talks Asimov down and they leave. As you can see from this shot, the design is changing. Increasingly we are looking from Katerina's perspective at things. The last thing we see before the eyecatch is Spike's just lit cigarette. Spike is lying unconscious in a way that the cigarette couldn't be seen. The cigarette was the last thing Katerina saw.


Those are the ISSP - the space police. We'll talk more about them later.

When we come out of the eyecatch, we see that the ISSP have set up a blockade for Asimov. At this point we know it is over for them. Even if they could unload the space yayo, they'd be murdered at the border.


Once the red-eyed coyote appeared at the Zona Norte at the far end of town, we get the first action scene of the series, and it's a big one. The Spike vs Asimov fight is just a taste of what the series has to offer. After building up Asimov as an unbeatable god of death for the whole episode, Spike utterly dominates this fight in a way both awesome and cathartic. Words and stills can't capture the awesomeness of this fight, it's truly poetry in motion. Also, the jazz has come back to the soundtrack, which is always a good sign!





Free storyboarding tip: if you wanna add some dynamism to your scene, have a character not quite stumble. It turns out, paradoxically, to be way more visual interesting to acknowledge that a character's crazy stunt is hard than to have them pull it off perfectly. Hayao Miyazaki in Future Boy Conan used this trick constantly to make Conan's superhuman movements even more visually impressive. Watanabe is more restrained in his use, but it is a cool trick that really works, I swear.


Okay, this shot might not be the perfect illustration but we are looking with Katerina at Asimov. He's become an object due to going insane.

Anyway, as things go from bad to worse for Asimov & Katerina, his mental state regresses. Eventually, he's so stressed and high that he's incapable of rational thought and just runs for the border. At this point, we've fully become Katerina from a visual storytelling point of view. The end of her story is the narrative's real end.
This episode had a lot of work to do: bring in the lead characters, establish the world, have epic fights and awesome music, all while telling a sensible story and having a comprehensible emotional thrust. Watanabe's greatest skill has always been  to make complete characters out of materials that others wouldn't even notice. It accomplishes more than this by making it truly Katerina's sad story, a character who easily have been dismissed as background cheesecake - or even left out entirely. Spike might be the lead, but at this point he's still a complete mystery. This episode didn't plumb his soul, instead it showed him seeing into someone else's. He was sympathetic, but there wasn't much he could have done. And you'd have to have a heart of stone not to want to see the space cowboy again.

As I said before, this was a wonderful, misleading first episode. The villain-of-the-week Asimov is knuckle dragging thug whose only vision in the world is physical and monetary power. In the episodes to come - and even within this episode - it would turn out that Katerina is closer to the heart of the series than he is. If you felt today's episode was a little thin, stick with the show. Cowboy Bebop has a lot more magic in it than this cynical, violent episode would suggest. For reasons stated elsewhere on this blog, I am not going to give numerical grades to this or any episode of any show. But I will give you a time: right now. That's when you should check this show out.

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