Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #2: Stray Dog Strut

Can a show start with both a kickass theme and a cold open? The answer is yes, because the "beginning" of a story is often a more fuzzy concept than you might think. Today's episode opens with an enormously tall man taking off bandages in a bathroom. He's ambushed by thugs dressed in scientist smocks, but effortlessly takes them out. Needless to say, this is today's bad guy, Abdul Hakim.

 Melfina from Outlaw Star

Abdul Hakim has a strange metal box with him. This lets us know that the episode is going to play with the Girl In A Box anime cliche/trope. In this episode, the joke is that the girl in the box is, in fact, a dog. That's too weak to string a whole episode on, so it's good that this episode doesn't end with a big punchline, like "Ooops, it's a dog! Wackity Schmakity Doooooo~". But the episode still plays with the usual conventions and expectations, using the basic themes as riffs and jumping go off into more advanced harmonies.

That being said, this episode is a comedy.

Tantei Monogatari

This episode seems more like a tribute to Detective Story, an old Japanese detective show that was a big influence on Bebop. True, both today's episode and the semi-unaired pilot are driven by variations of "Spike fights a space badass", but the first episode played the tune in a unique way by bringing us into the perspective of a woman whose dreams were dependent on that space badass. Also, it was really violent. This episode plays similar themes for laughs. Abdul Hakim is impossibly tough and demands respect by his sheer, but he is a professional dognapper. Throughout the episode he is humiliated and put in absurd situations, but he tries to ignore them. He's even our first caricature, in this case of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"Notorious Serial Pet Thief"

This episode was written as second first episode, since it was meant to be the first in the proper timeslot. As a result, the writer of this episode was a lot happier in introducing series standards. TV shows, more recurring characters, a new crew member, and even the series main location - Mars. And, going back to the tone, the comedy is a lot more indicative of what the series would be like. Bebop is not a comedy and I don't want you to think that this episode is Bob Clampett wacky. It The first episode played it's bloody brawls straight, and this episode is the first sign that this show is going to mess with us.

The Martian Gate

After Hakim's one-sided fight, the episode proper begins. The Bebop and her crew are returning home to Mars. As you can see above, Mars is the Chinese planet. Martian culture and food is Chinese, people from Mars - such as the series lead - are implied to be Chinese in culture if not necessarily ethnicity. At the moment, Spike is half paying attention to the hilarious plot device that is "Big Shot - The Show For Bounty Hunters".

Shucks Howdy!

Listen, all stories require exposition. The more alien or complex a story is, the more exposition is required. Partly this is just to make the story comprehensible, but there is a deeper reason. Exposition creates expectations, and fulfilling/subverting/playing with expectations is where the flavor of a narrative comes from. Even in sports, which are definitely a form of storytelling, the announcers provide exposition on the evolution of a game. The audience needs to know that Player A failing to complete a pass is not just bad - that is obvious - but out of character. By creating expectations in the audience, announcers heighten the drama of a game.

If there is one thing that turns people off SF, it is clumsy exposition. Chapters of space elves telling underdwarves their dark history does not heighten the drama of the story. But exposition needs to be there all the same. "Big Shot" is Cowboy Bebop's answer to this problem. The show's stars Judy and Punch (yeah, yeah) tell the audience what is publicly known about the bounty of the week. Obviously, the writers of "Big Shot" are not well informed about their subjects, or else the exposition would 1) go on too long and 2) not be funny. "Big Shot" is a perfect way of saying what needs to be said fast and with a smile. In this episode it is used for that purpose.

And don't worry. As Bebop evolves, their relationship with "Big Shot" changes too.

Abdul Hakim looks for a buyer

Once in the city, Abdul Hakim is dealt his first humiliation of the episode. A pair of thieves distract him and steal his case. As he tries to track down the thief, Spike buys a bit of choice information on Abdul Hakim from a doctor he thrashed. Basic detective story stuff, nothing that would be out of place on The Martian Rockford Files.

But hey, Spike has a doctor friend on Mars. I wonder if that will come up again?

Spike tracks down the thief, thinking that he's caught Abdul Hakim himself. He refers to Abdul Hakim as just "Hakim", which to my memory is not proper Arabic, but the thief doesn't know that. The thief apparently knows Abdul Hakim by reputation, because he brought the mysterious briefcase to an old Korean lady who buys rare animals.

This lady is, without a doubt, the best

The lady identifies the "rare animal" as a Welsh Corgi, a typical dog. Her acting in this scene is great. Her suspicious eyes as she opens up the case and joy at seeing a cute little dog are great comedy. This episode was storyboarded by Watanabe himself, and it has his characteristic range. The comic stoicism of Abdul Hakim and the silliness of these characters embody different approaches to comic acting without becoming hacky or unrealistic.


Let's talk about the cute little dog. This is the first time a character joins the cast, and yes Ein is a permanent addition to the Bebop crew. Metafictionally, I like to think of Ein as a self-imposed challenge on the part of Watanabe - the answer to the question "How intelligent can you make an animated animal without humanizing it at all?". It's a challenge that the storyboarders and animators of Bebop live up to wonderfully. A running gag is that Ein is consistently right about everything, but few pay attention because she's a dog. It's never stated anywhere in the series, but Ein barks once for yes and twice for no. This is the closest that the animators allowed themselves to a cheat. For an example of this idea done wrong and cliche, you can look up the terrible Bebop manga. But still, in the show, it's an impressively creative idea and brings a welcome light heartedness to the proceedings.

But Ein does more than be smart, cute and funny. Ein is an important indication that the show is more than ultraviolence and drama. Cowboy Bebop is all about complexity and the unexpected. But as the disappointed readers of Funky Winkerbean know, complexity is not the same as darkness. Cowboy Bebop has a far more rounded and realistic take on life than that.

Trivia time: Ein's voice is a real dog, one of the producers owned a Welsh Corgi. Ein was originally designed with a splotch of white fur on her back, but it was decided that would be difficult to animate. Her designer, Kawamoto, loved the dog so much that he's owned Welsh Corgis ever since.

Seems That Way

So, Abdul Hakim kidnapped a mysterious data dog and its creators (the goons seen above) are trying to get him back. When they use their secret weapon to get it, it even starts a chase sequence set to Yoko Kanno's "Want It All Back". There are two chases in this episode, and the second is set to "Bad Dog, No Biscuits", one of my favorite songs from The Seatbelts. It's a ska/jazz song that is built out of Kanno's radical rearrangement of Tom Waits's instrumental "Rain Dogs" (thus the title). Waits's version emphasizes the raggedness and darkness, Kanno's big band version brings out an an uncontrollable liveliness. Again, Kanno evokes Charles Mingus in the way she develops a call and response structure by going crazier and freer (in the sense of "free jazz") with every round. Kanno also goes Sun Ra crazy with that synth. This one threatens to turn into a Fishbone song after a particularly wild blast, but don't worry, the melody comes back.

Abdul Hakim is trying to coordinate selling it to a buyer, but the buyer isn't being flexible. Every humiliation he receives also pushes him towards missing the buyer, which would mean all the work was for nothing. The increasing stress drives him to make increasingly erratic decisions, . In these first two episodes, Bebop tried to show that the bounties were human beings by showing how they were trapped by more than just Spike's pursuit. It was more successful in the first episode because of the interesting perspective of Katerina's character, but it still works to push Abdul Hakim and the plot forward here.

The dog runs off, shakes of Abdul Hakim and ends up in the possession of Spike and Jet. Spike is tasked with walking the dog, with the duo hoping to get Abdul Hakim to act foolishly. Spike is less than enthused by this. Spike claims to not like dogs and kids - a hint at the future.

In fact, Abdul Hakim is distracted by a fortune teller. This soothsayer uses a bird that draws cards to see the future. This is actually authentic, in that you can find these guys in a lot of big Asian cities. When Peeoko pulls the card that says that what Hakim seeks is near, all the loose dogs in the city run past him. An easy bit, but funny.

This begins the episode's second big chase, which is even bigger and funnier than the first. This chase exposes this episodes biggest weakness: we never see a big duel between Spike and Abdul Hakim. Still, the big Blues Brothers finish is worth it. Like the last episode, this one ends with failure. Abdul Hakim is caught by the police independently and the crooked scientists are arrested. In the end, Ein joins the crew, who are unaware of her special nature.

This episode is much more oriented on introducing concepts than the first and has a lot less music. This is why it is less iconic and this review is not as deep. But it's a much better indication of what the show would become than the brutality of the first episode. In the next episode, we meet another new member of the crew, and this one can talk! See you then, space cowboys!

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