Friday, May 6, 2022

Original And Best

A while back, when I posted something about the live action remake of Cowboy Bebop, I made a point of explaining that I came to it without much prior knowledge of the original anime. I knew of it but I didn't start watching it until after I'd seen the whole of the live series.

At the time I wrote that post I'd seen the first five episodes of the anime and I wasn't very impressed. Coming straight off the back of the live action show, which I'd thoroughly enjoyed, I found the original "thin, weak and unstructured" by comparison. I've now seen the whole twenty-six episode run and I'm here to rescind that opinion and indeed recuse from it in every respect. 

As the lengthy and detailed Wikipedia entry for the anime makes abundantly clear, Cowboy Bebop was not just a critical success but the subject of numerous academic theses. I feel like something of an idiot for not realizing at once just how significant and unusual a series it was.

It would be glib, if true, to say that the show must have appeared considerably more groundbreaking when it first appeared, almost a quarter of a century ago, in 1998. Whatever cultural and aesthetic impact it had then will necessarily have become diluted over time.  

That self-serving argument, however, completely fails to recognise just how radical the show feels even today. As the series progressed I became increasingly aware of the ways in which it felt different from many other animated shows I've watched over the last few years.

The structure is loose and lithe. At times it feels almost free-form, improvised like the solos in the excellent jazzy soundtrack, as if it could fall into chaos. It never does. The narrative builds by accretion, each seemingly picaresque, unconnected episode casting light or shadow on the characters, how they came to be who they are, and on the world they inhabit.

The five central characters are all so well drawn, in both senses, I feel they'll live with me always. Yes, even Ein, the dog, who may even have changed my firm opinion on corgis. Little, if anything, is ever directly offered to explain how the characters think or why they do what they do and yet by the end I felt I'd come to know them as intimately as the characters in any novel.

Comparing the anime source with the live action interpretation is a fascinating exercise. I would guess there might be many more acedemic papers produced on just that topic in years to come, it offers such a rich field of study.

A handful of issues push themselves so much to the fore they cannot easily be ignored, chief among them the question of race. Spike, who appears to be ethnically "White" in the anime, becomes Asian in the live version, a choice more layered when you consider the anime was entirely a Japanese creation. He also acquires another, "real", name, leaving the now ethnically awkward "Spike Spiegel" to be explained as a pseudonym, adopted for self-preservation.

Until the final episode, I couldn't quite figure Jet Black's ethnicity in the anime. He's black in the live show, presumably African-American, although given the off-Earth setting that may not be a meaningful term any more. In the anime he looks white although he does tend to dress as if he'd just walked off the set of 1970s Blaxploitation movie. 

In the end his Native American heritage seems to be confirmed, although even then I felt there was a sense of plausible deniability. There's at least a suggestion that Jet himself doesn't acknowledge it. The character who so describes him appears in at least one earlier episode and it may be that the question was resolved then but I missed it. I'm certain I missed a lot. It's that kind of show.

Another major divergence from the live show is the presence of Edward, the last to join the team. Ed does appear in the live version but only in the very last scene of the entire run. If there'd ever been a second season...

In the anime, Ed first appears in Episode Nine, the appropriately-titled "Jamming With Edward". When I watched that one, at first I thought it was going to be the show's Scrappy Doo moment, where the producers decide the show isn't resonating strongly enough with a younger demographic so they throw in a pet or a younger sibling.

Ed is not that. She's as far from that as it gets. Yes, Edward is crazy - wild, rubber-limbed and kinetic to the edge of exhaustion - but she's also every bit as subtle and deep as the rest of the crew. She's also a girl called Edward, who everyone thinks could be a boy. Even, as we later learn, her father. 

Edward isn't the only gender-fluid character, although she is the only one in the Cowboy Bebop's crew, unless there's something Ein's not telling us. The gender politics of the anime seem unusually modern for a show from the late 90s, although I'm old enough to know that it wasn't exactly the dark ages back then, even if it seems that way now to those who weren't there.

Perhaps it shouldn't feel quite so surprising. The show is science fiction, after all, long a platform and an outlet for all kinds of ideas and concepts mainstream media haven't caught up with until much later. And Cowboy Bebop really is science fiction, too. Not just because it has spaceships and AIs and stargates but because it has a firm grip on its concepts and its setting.

Objectively, nothing much is ever explained and a lot makes no sense but subjectively, in context, all is explained and everything makes sense. That's how the best science fiction works. Until his real-life alien encounter, Philip K Dick never really bothered to explain how any of the worlds he wrote about came to be the way they were. He just made them real for the reader. That's what the anime does. The live show is just a tad more declarative.

The last element I'm going to mention is the story. Many of the subplots and supporting characters in the adaptation are taken directly from the original and in most cases the transplant is successful. Similarly, a good portion of Spike, Jet and Faye's stories carry over, too.

The difference is in the detail: the live version gives us far too much. It's curious, watching the shows in reverse order. It would never have occured to me while I was watching the live show that I'd get more out of it if I knew less but having seen the anime I can say without qualification that's exactly what I did get.

It's partly the writing but it's also the unavoidable extra texture provided by live actors. The anime frequently holds on almost static images for long periods, especially faces. That may have some root in cost management but its also extremely effective in building mood and intimacy. Animation has the capacity to allow the viewer's imagination to fill in the missing information and that's a degree of immersion hard to match.

Or it is when it's done as well as this. I may not have watched a lot of anime but I have watched a hell of a lot of animation and this is top quality work. Many, even most, of the scenes in every episode are painterly in their composition. It's a beautiful show.

I've had friends who've paid serious money for original animation cels. I never really felt it was worth it. I can see the point, now.

Having watched the anime and the live show, all that's left is the movie. It's hard to get hold of according to ScreenRant, who obviously haven't checked Amazon lately. You can get a Used copy on DVD there for less than a pound. 

I'm going to do just that.


  1. Having watched the show a fifth time through recently, I found myself paying a lot more attention to the details of the gate accident salted through the background of the series, which made the Feng Shui episode feel like an actual payoff instead of a confusing non-sequitur.
    S'a good show.

    1. One of the strnegths of the series, as with all good SF, is the way it treats its setting as already understood by the viewer or reader. A contemporary drama doesn't feel the need to explain how rapid transit systems work or give you a potted history of the invention of the railway. If the average person in the street would know it, there's no need to explain it.

      Of course, I want to know what happened. It's in the background of everything else. So when some of that detail is finally revealed, in an organic and non-infodump way, it's very satisfying. Good writing.

  2. Yup. ;)

    — 7rlsy


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