Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #4: Gateway Shuffle

Earlier I made reference to the famous anonymous quote "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.". This excellent episode presents this dilemma at an even higher level. Sure, it features a couple obviously writerly elements - the Ganymede Sea Rat as an SF parallel to whale hunting - but what really makes it interesting is its directing. It was unit directed & storyboarded by Yoshiyuki Takei, a utility infielder for Watanabe (and Sunrise more generally). He delivered an episode that is simply a masterpiece of controlled montage. He uses a lot montage and wacky angles, but never loses control of those most important questions: "Whose perspective are we looking from?" and "What are we looking at?".

This episode also features tons of great acting from the subtle reserve of Spike, to the pants-on-her-head insanity of this week's bounty "Twinkle" Maria Murdock. Further, it contains a healthy dollop of interesting writing from the perspective of having witty lines and from the perspective of having an interesting plot. This week's session introduces important wider plot elements, such as the explaining more about the gates and - this bit is important - bringing Faye Valentine in as a permanent member of the crew.

And it does all this while keeping a slick, carefully controlled pace!

Today's adventure begins with the luckless but wily Faye Valentine out of gas, drifting around Jupiter. It's funny that she should be out of gas. It's almost like she isn't used to spaceships or something...

Anyway, a spaceship flies past, and then is destroyed. This gives us our first chance to see the monosystem that makes the core of small spaceships in Bebop. A dying man gives her a mysterious package inside. Of course, the best use of this plot device was The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but it was old even then. It's funny how Faye lies to herself even when there's no one else around to hear her.

Meanwhile, Spike & Jet have tracked a bounty into a fancy restaurant. He's wining and dining a harem of young women and he orders "Ganymede Sea Rat". Jet describes it as disgusting, barely edible meat that is "enjoying" a spurt of popularity as a pseudo-delicacy. The obvious parallel is, as mentioned before, whale meat. Not particularly suited for Japanese tastes, whale meat was once only consumed by desperate fishing villages. Someone had the bright idea of claiming it was fancy solely on the grounds of it being old, and now Japan still hunts whale. There is really no logical reason to keep hunting these sea rats, gaudy rich people will move on to a new delicacy soon anyway.

Maria Murdock is so old she has lines on her neck

But just because a position is logical (whatever that means in politics) doesn't mean its espousers are. And that's how we meet the cult of "Twinkle" Maria Murdock. Ms Murdock introduces a new kind of bounty-of-the-week. Asimov was a simple-minded thug, Abdul Hakim was a tough-as-nails pet thief and Faye Valentine was a slinky con-woman. They were all very different, sure, but importantly they all had the same motivation - money and its promise of freedom. Asimov - and more importantly Katerina - was going to use the money to escape Tijuana. Abdul Hakim was in a tense, difficult place with his fence and therefore probably many people. Faye has massive debts that brutal, corrupt, not-exactly-boundary-respecting casino owners can use to control her. Well, Murdock isn't like that.

Also, it probably ought to be said that Bebop sure has plenty roles for women! There's been important female roles in all episodes and not one has been similar to another: desperate dreamer Katerina, the matronly pet shop owner, the devious Faye Valentine and now Maria Murdock. Basically no similarities in design, character traits or plot role. Pretty interesting! Having a female head writer probably helped in this department. There will be more good roles for women and girls as time goes by.

So, "Twinkle" Maria Murdock's cult/environmental terrorist group goes absolutely apeshit on the guy for ordering Ganymede Sea Rat. This is told in a montage of guns firing, people dying and Murdock dancing around maniacally. Spike captures Murdock, who - uniquely - doesn't put up a fight. This scene is also very well designed, as you can see above. This is just a good shot, it answers those two basic questions and still looks cool. In a lesser show we might see this scene from Spike's perspective - isn't he the main character? Here Spike is to the side and in the background, a mysterious and dominant figure. Murdock isn't reacting to his presence, she's standing straight up and down. She's got steel in her spine, you have to give her that. And you gotta love how much depth is in this composition - the closest cultist is on the camera man's foot, Spike & Murdock are halfway into the background.

"We like PORK!"

So, Murdock is on The Bebop and Jet goes over her background. In the establishing shot of The Bebop, it moves from the top of frame to the bottom, instead of left to right as Star Trek taught us. Just a little extra effort to keep the episode visually interesting. The thing that makes Bebop great is making sure these extra moments are always there.

The Sea Warriors used to be a fairly mainstream, though sometimes tactically pushy environmental group that opposed overfishing the Ganymede Sea Rat, industrial pollution, etc. They even ate pork! But their tactics got more and more extreme and Murdock began taking over, leading to an exodus of sane members. This left Murdock with a solid core of True Believers, but not much else. Why is she so confident that Spike & Jet won't be collecting the sizable bounty on her head?

Carbonation humor, never fails

As it turns out the government of Ganymede is run by complete pussies who cave to Murdock's terroristic demands. But Murdock is no mad dog killer, she is after something. What does she have on the Ganymede government that makes her so invincible?

Perhaps it is related to that doodad that Faye got from that guy? No points if you guess this one. So Faye bumps her head

Why should she be so awkward in spaceships?

and comes aboard the Bebop, where she is welcomed with customary grace.

More really good staging here.

The scene where Faye asks for help really reminds me of Fujiko from Lupin III. For those that don't know, Lupin III is a very long running series about a clowning super thief who is the grandson of Arsène Lupin (a character from French media very popular in the 30's). Lupin III was obviously a huge influence on Cowboy Bebop, but more on the edges than directly. Spike is vaguely like Lupin himself, in that they are both beanpoles with sticky fingers. But where Spike is mature and emotionally guarded, Lupin is completely immature and wacky. Jet is like Jigen - but where Jigen is a bushy haired ex-con, Jet is a bald ex-cop. Faye here is actually very similar to Fujiko, but we'll learn about how different they are in the fullness of time. I don't want to exaggerate, Bebop isn't reducible to Lupin in any sense. For one, there's a lot more variety in Bebop. In the original comics, naming all the women "Fujiko" was a running gag based on artist Monkey Punch's inability to draw more than one sexy-female body shape. In fact, in the latest Lupin series, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (directed by Watanabe protege Sayo Yamamoto), it's come to the point that Spike is a bigger influence on Lupin than Lupin ever was on Spike.

Thinking about it, there seems to be no parallel to Goemon. Did you know in the original comics Goemon and Lupin were enemies? I wonder if this will come up later...

So, the plot. Jet ascertains that there will be no bounty from his friend Bob, a vaguely corrupt police friend of his. As Jet argues with Bob, Spike tries to break open Faye's doodad. This is a great sequence as Jet and Spike get more and more frustrated. The camera cuts around, following Murdock's increasingly worried eyes as tries to maintain a blank expression. The acting is really good in this scene and the montage approach highlights it.

With no bounty on their way Spike & Jet decide to let Murdock go. But what's odd about this scene is that the way its composed is focused on Spike. And not in the sense that we're looking from Spike's perspective at Murdock, its more like we're supposed to be looking at Spike. And he's got this oddly ambivalent look on his face. Is he up to something?

While Spike & Jet monitor Murdock leaving The Bebop, Faye manages to escape on her own. She is a crafty one. This scene sets up Faye & Ein's odd relationship. Faye's relationship with Ein mirrors her relationship with the rest of the Bebop crew. For the next few episodes, Ein and Faye are the only female members of the crew (admittedly, that makes the crew half female).

Well, the government is shocked to discover that the mass murdering terrorist is not 100% on the level, but not so shocked that she is moving around without a hefty military tale. Anticipating this, Murdock totally Han Solos the ISSP, first moving in one direction, then drifting out in emergency pods through chaff she laid down to a net she had laid in advance. After a bit of waiting, she and her cult move take off, able to carry out their plans hassle-free. In addition to being a cool sequence in its own right, this sets up the reason that only Spike & Jet are in the vicinity to stop them.

This sets off a cool sequence where we get to see Spike's ship - the Swordfish II - use its beam weapon for the first time. Spike's ship's design is based on a WWII torpedo ship, this is the equivalent to its torpedo. Faye comes in to save the day, snagging a sweet deal to 60% of Murdock's bounty. The government decides to seal up the Murdock cult in hyperspace, leading to an epic race to escape before they get sealed in. Spike and Faye get out.

If I didn't do all this hint dropping, it really wouldn't be obvious that this scene was more than an infodump excuse/joke.

This was a very good episode, featuring excellent writing, great performances and terrific direction. I had to leave out many of the smaller things that I noticed in order to keep the length under control. This is the kind of episode that helped create the Bebop legend. It was the first episode to let Spike fade into the background, hinting that Bebop would be much more than The Spike Spiegel Show. It's amazing to think that something this good could be one of the smaller, not particularly well remembered episodes. And the next episode, well, let me tell you, that isn't one of the smaller episodes. But that's a bridge we'll have to cross later. For now,

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