Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Cowboy Bebop Review #7: Heavy Metal Queen

Space Truckin'! Goin' around space, hauling things! Decorating your cab! CB radio lingo! It's back, but this time in space!!!!

So, this is the first time I can say this: today's episode is not completely essential to the Bebop series. If you miss it, later episodes won't confuse you. This is good news for me, since it finally gives me a chance to breathe and bring in even more extraneous things that I've been wanting to say. And it gives me one more review before the next episode, which is a big deal for me personally. But for you, the viewer at home?

This episode is awesome! It's fun, funny, well written and packed with surprises. Like episode 5, this episode was written by heavy hitting writer Michiko Yokote, who did a great job fighting off cliches. I'll get back to her in a sec. It was directed by Takashi Okamura, the same director as the last episode. I still haven't seen Darker Than Black, so there. And the standout storyboards are from Kunihiro Mori, a long time Gundam vet.

Today's episode draws a lot more on Detective Story, the old Japanese P.I. comedy, than previous episodes. As I've pointed out in previous reviews, Spike's design takes a lot from that series star Yusaku Matsuda. The big difference is that Kudo was kind of lame, and Spike is made of cool.

The Rockford Files

Instead of that actual connection, I'm gonna talk about a more spiritual connection. The Rockford Files is a show very similar "defective detective" type show. Lead character James Rockford was just cynical enough to qualify for the descriptor, called the police every time he got assaulted, kicked when they were down and always backed down from a fight when he could. He was played by a ninety nine foot (thirty three yard) pile of charisma named James Garner. The powers behind the show were co-creators Roy Huggins & Stephen J Cannell, James Garner himself, and de facto head writer Juanita Bartlett. I want to talk about her in particular.

What The Rockford Files and Cowboy Bebop share is powerful female writers, which gives them a leg up on other shows. In most sci-fi, the viewer isn't expected to think about why these young people are falling in love - it's just expected that main characters do that. Star Wars, of all things, was actually pretty good about it (in the first two movies anyway), but by and large most SF is vapid about love. Even talented writers - Delany, Gibson, Dick, etc. - did you ever come away from one of their books and think "I really liked that love story."? I'd really have to break my brain to find a straight SF story that even approaches the ironic kissing scenes in The Princess Bride (the book version). Spike Spiegel and James Rockford are believable as romantic leads. Not only are they physically tall, dark and handsome types, but they have a talent for saying exactly what needs to be said at exactly the right time. In the words of Orson Welles, they are only occasionally and only deliberately clowns. It's something that a mix gendered creative team can do more honestly and simply their monogendered counterparts.

Also, they have to be talented, which unfortunately knocks Sense8 out of the running.

Oh right, we're talking about The Wachowskis' inspirations, not their decline. Bebop is always finding ways of breaking up what could be the monotony of villain-of-the-week bounty hunting. In this episode, they do it by substitution - instead of the bounty being the focus of the episode, its another character they meet along the way!

Zeros and VT

Meet VT, a tough old broad who wears pants under her dress under her jacket, because in her day the layered look was in I guess. She has this weird running bet where people try to guess her name. She's also got a powerful kick, so don't mess with her. There are four named female characters in this episode - VT, Muriel, Faye & Ein - yes, I will always count Ein.

 Ein being fed bean sprouts

There's a lot of funny animation and ideas in this episode. Ein is fed bean sprouts, but even funnier I think is her "swimming" in place while Jet and the crew are arguing. Faye has some big funny reactions that unfortunately didn't take to still images very well. And the ostensible goal of the episode is to capture Woody Allen - er, Dekker


which in light of what we know about Woody Allen, maybe takes a little bit of the humor off finding him in a restaurant aimed at little kids...

All kids should come to Woody's P! (...)

The episode begins with VT pulling into an asteroid way station. This kind of 2D/3D mix animation shot would slowly become the norm, perfected in shows like Futurama. VT and her cat zeroes go to Mac's, the local bite and fight. Outside some old timer is bragging about knowing some legendary bounty hunter named "Terpsichorde". Huh, what an irrelevant detail. Mac's is crawling with bounty hunters because of a tip that Dekker, an explosives smuggler, will be there. And who should be hung over in the bathroom but Spike Spiegel.

Space Hero

Some of the bounty hunters start to harass Muriel, the cute local waitress. When things start to escalate to "outright assault" levels of harassment, VT intervenes on Muriel's behalf. Muriel is this super-exaggeratedly anime girl. Her reactions are always huge and her eyes don't seem to focus right.

Why is she leaning here, in character? Because it makes for a hilarious set up!

When it becomes clear that they're not going to be able to beat her, they pull out knives. In this process, they bump into Spike, which makes him spill his hangover cure into his lap.

Very Tantei Monogatari-esque reaction

Needless to say, Spike wipes the floor with the jerks. Literally beaten, they run off and basically key his space ship behind his back. A simple example of real world life that never happens in SF outside of Bebop. When they meet on friendlier terms after the fight, we find out that VT loathes bounty hunters and is nostalgic for her ex-husband. Hm.

"Woody's P" has a vampire bat girl in a kimono, as expected

While all this is going on, Faye is chasing the less promising lead. In a wacky and not at all foreseeable turn of events - the less likely lead turns out to work out! There's a funny scene here where Faye misidentifies someone as Dekker and rips off his shirt to check his tattoo. Is this supposed to parallel/invert Muriel's troubles at Mac's? Maybe, maybe not. There are a lot of funny takes from Faye in this episode, but I just don't have room for them.

With Spike's ship damaged by the jerks and Faye's hit by one of Dekker's explosives, VT has to give them a ride back home. Faye gives as many details about Dekker as she can while VT blasts heavy metal.

This is a good time to talk about the music in this episode. There's only one real heavy metal song in the Bebop catalog, "Live In Baghdad". It's used really well a couple times in this episode. There are several remixes and rearrangements in this episode, but I neglected to name them all in my notes. As far as I know none of these have been released outside of what is seen here (they may be on Kanno's misc. album Space Bio Charge). How many other 26 episode series can release seven albums without repeats and have music to spare? And needless to say, all the music in this episode is amazing and used perfectly.

Back on the Bebop, Spike and Faye are still arguing about the uselessness of Faye's information. Spike is washing his clothes because he got egg on them, which is frankly just plain impressive continuity. Admit it, you thought the egg thing would have no consequences. One detail that Faye keeps repeating is that Dekker's truck has Saraswati painted on it.

And wouldn't ya know it, a friend of VT's got into a hit and run with the fleeing Dekker! I love how they gave all of the trucker's cabins such personality. They really make hauling cargo in empty space seem fun and impressive. They even get time units correct! VT uses her CB friends to track Dekker, who is hiding out in an old, unstable asteroid mine. VT informs our heroes and starts chasing him down.

They have no missiles and Faye's ship is outfitted with pinchers. I wonder if they'll need them in the climax? (They do.)

Linus Mine?

VT tries to corner Dekker at the ... Linus Mine, who tries to blow her up. Unfortunately, this causes the whole mine to blow, killing Dekker immediately. Oh well. Right around this time, them ol' Duke Bo... Spike & Faye catch up with her and they begin the process of worming their way out of the mine. What should happen but an obstruction? They have to use Dekker's explosives to blow their way out, which they manipulate with Faye's pinchers! See, told you they'd come in handy. Faye complains that she isn't the delicate cautious type and shouldn't be handling high explosives. Both are true. She calls Spike "Mr Perfect", in context this is in regards to his lightning quick reflexes but if you want to see it as a Freudian slip, I won't stop you.

They place the explosives into Spikes monoracer pod, which then shoots itself forward. Apparently, you can just make it do this, which is a convenient little macro. Spike however has to get himself out of that pod, which is not convenient. He misses VT on the first go, but with some quick thinking is able to get a second try. Luckily this show tries to respect Newton's Second Law - in a less well written SF, he'd be doomed.

More neat framing

While in VT's cabin, Spike takes a crack at the guessing game. He gets it right, which explains her bitterness at bounty hunters and her nostalgia. And, being Spike Spiegel, he ends the episode by saying exactly the right thing.

This episode was really good! Every series should have its inessential episodes at this level. This episode seems very different visually than the last, despite sharing a storyboard artist. Less fast cuts and more big takes. I presume that it is Watanabe's influence keeping style to what the script needs and allows. With a lighter script, they were able to do wackier things. They were willing to have characters upside down and sideways in the low gravity scenes and have a cat that loves to sit on Spike's head. The colors were, as always, amazing. Bebop doesn't really do limited palates, but it is able to prevent the colors from becoming too loud, which helps keep comedy episodes like this grounded. Verdict: you can skip this one, but don't!

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