Friday, May 20, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #6: Sympathy For The Devil

It's interesting how expectations can work. I kind of had memories of this one being mediocre, maybe even skippable but damn was I wrong. This episode has great use of music, a solid script by head writer Keiko Nobumoto,  great boards by Tensai Okamura and fine direction by Ikuro Sato. Tensai Okamura is a big time director now. His big series is Darker Than Black , which ... I've never seen. Ikuro Sato, like a lot of the Bebop crew, went on to do a lot of moving and shaking in The Big O, the cult classic giant robot series.

I haven't really talked about Bebop or its director Watanabe's enormous influence in the industry. Studio BONES was founded using money from the movie and was originally mostly Bebop production staff and their friends. Watanabe's next series, Samurai Champloo, was the first series made by Manglobe. Watanabe also directed both the first series and the first original series made by MAPPA (both series were also made for Fuji Television's prestigious noitaminA block). Though he's never been "famous" in Japan in the way Miyazaki or Anno is, he's a bona fide industry legend. I'll try to keep more track of Bebop's industry influence in future reviews.

Your Ramblings Bore This Fish

Oh, right, the episode! This episode has a plot that is a lot more obviously SF than the previous episode. So, being a crafty one, Nobumoto uses this as an opportunity to organically work in a few metaplot points. One is Spike's artificial eye, a metaphor so ingrained into my brain cells that I inadvertently talked about it last review in spite of the fact that a first time viewer won't know he even has an artificial eye until this episode. We don't learn what it symbolizes for him until much later. The presence of the eye in the falling montage from the last episode was for those rewatching. Bebop constantly reminds one of Gene Wolfe's definition of a great story: "One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.".

The other is a bit of a spoiler for this episode. I'll get to it in a bit.


"Oh Death, done stole my mother and gone"
- Charley Patton

Spike awakes from unpleasant dreams to find himself in a blues club. A kid, a child virtuoso is playing the harmonica masterfully. The song he is playing is called Digging My Potato,

I can't help but notice that Wenn is dressed like Lupin III. Interesting, since Spike himself is also influenced by Lupin. Why would they set up a parallel between these characters? Anyway, Spike and Jet are after a Yakuza looking guy named Giraffe. When they try to make their move, they notice their friend Fatty has shown up.


It's such a weird, real moment. It isn't that they are upset to see Fatty, it's just that they didn't want to hang out right now. Look at his reactions too, he doesn't want to hang out with them either. We'll learn later that he's also hunting Giraffe. Maybe it's just me, but I found this part of the scene hilarious. I also love that Fatty makes a joke almost exactly like Jet's joke, so you can even see why they'd be friends. Also, Nobumoto keeps great control of the emotional movement in this scene. From Spike's nightmare to the joke about Fatty isn't whiplash from dark to funny (cue George Lucas: "It rhymes"). It's a control that I feel is lacking in many anime. Most anime go for one emotion - Comedy, Horror, Drama - and spend their entire running time trying to build it. Others, like Trigun, deliberately mix two, leaving thick globules of comedy in between layers of drama. Bebop much more skillfully stirs emotion together.

Ein & Faye

Faye eats dog food in this episode. That's a thing that happens in an episode where I felt it was appropriate to break out the Samuel Johnson. What's great about her eating dog food isn't just that she eats dog food because she's broke, but how she and Ein act about it. When she starts eating it, Ein reacts with stunned silence. Then Faye gives a whole speech about how, as a woman she needs to be pampered (with dog food). She calls Ein a "hunting dog", though Ein is a Welsh Corgi and therefore a herding dog (such depth of insight these reviews). This is another example of one of Faye's traits that I've mentioned before, her love of long-winded justifications for selfishness. A very human trait, one that I'll go into more detail when it is played more dramatically.

Ein could bring up that she is also a woman, but she is too polite and also a dog.

Spike hunts down Giraffe, who is stalking Wenn and his (SPOILER) "father". He catches Giraffe's falling body with the Swordfish II, which is impossible in so many ways that I can't even begin to describe them. Well, I'll mention one: physically. Still, the important thing is that Giraffe gives Spike a mysterious crystalline plot coupon.

Hmm ... mysterious crystal? That looks like a job for

The Bebop Universal Analyzer!

Yes, some universal analyzing gets done. Jet and Faye begin to do research on the Bebop as Spike goes after Zebra and Wenn. Jet gives a little speech about men being bound by iron codes of honor, Faye calls him out on this and his response - "I'm trying to believe it." - is perfect. Jet, Spike and Faye are all bearing burdens of their secret pasts. What is Wenn's burden? Spike finds out what he's in for his way, while Jet and Faye find this:

Faye recognizes that in this newspaper clip Wenn isn't with Zebra (hey, good thing we brought her along). This newspaper clip is actually a collage, little bit of formal experimentation on this episode's part. The sick man is supposed to be Vincent Gigante, who in our world faked mental illness to try to escape prosecution. His counterpart in Bebop's world really was paralyzed and - here's the catch - used by Wenn to construct a criminal empire.

Wenn is immortal due to the explosion of a hyperspace gate. Yeah, those things that open most episodes are actually pretty important to the the series. The explosion somehow made Wenn immortal. Jet is able to put together that Wenn does this repeatedly, using his immortality to attack violent organizations, taking them over to protect himself from being experimented on any more. This explosion has basically destroyed the Earth ecologically, economically, socially, etc.

The decimation of Earth has a deep alienation effect. Bebop is filled with ephemera inspired by American Culture, Chinese Culture, and so on. To it's original audience, those were foreign cultures. Part of the message of this is that there never will be an episode set in Japan, Japanese culture no longer exists. Bebop keeps trying to convince you to hold it at an arms length instead of inviting the viewer in. This is an important part of that.

In the series itself it's an important plot point in many ways. As you'll see, it's impacted many characters lives directly. There is no capital of the Bebop world, local governments float freely and bloat. There are no native cultures anywhere. It's even created a generation gap between those who remember the Earth and the hard-scrabble world of , even vaguely, and people like Spike & Jet who do not.

Well, back to this episode. Zebra and Giraffe used to be part of a vigilante group, which was attacked by pirates controlled by Wenn. Wenn crippled Zebra and took over the group. Giraffe tried to save Zebra, but Wenn killed him too - you saw that earlier.

Zebra & Giraffe

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
- Dr Samuel Johnson

Wenn's immortality has forced him into immorality. Spike decides to do him a favor and take him out. Jet gets stuck with infodump duty. Beau Billingslea, Spike's English language voice actor, is a master of infodump. In Outlaw Star, he would do little speeches at the beginning of each episode to introduce a new concept in a way that wouldn't slow down the plot. Before Spike rides off to fight the invincible and immortal demon, Faye gives him her first "I'm glad you're dying anyway." speech. You'll see these a lot.

Faye brooding

Spike faces down Wenn, and needless to say the episode doesn't end with Wenn going supernova. Wenn's surreal life has an obvious reflection with Spike's past. They both live strange, unanchored lives after something that should have killed them. In another life, Spike could have descended to Wenn's level. Instead, he bears the pain of being a man. Spike throws Wenn's harmonica in the air and mimes shooting it. An effective ending (and one that will echo through the series) to a powerful story.

This was a really good episode! Episodes 5-8 are the power trio era of Bebop, and this episode is one of the stand outs - not just in the show, but in all of anime. The lion's share of credit has to go to Keiko Nobumoto's powerful script. And it certainly helps that Yoko Kanno's music really is good enough to make Wenn's emotional outlet through music believable. If I had to make a complaint, every scene in this episode seemed like a slow pan. Ikuro Sato seemed to be trying to add dynamism but only had one trick up his sleeve. That said, there weren't as many blatant off-model moments as episode 3 (there are a few times they deliberately give Faye weird expressions). A solid episode that will continue to be heard through the rest of the series.

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