I offer you a quote from Ghostlightning, whose ongoing effort to engage with Cowboy Bebop’s love-remembering elements is one of the most meticulous and goddamn heroic blog activities I’ve ever seen:
We won’t find anything in Cowboy Bebop that has a reference that figures so significantly in the narrative so as to be the primary source of meaning and value. Cowboy Bebop can be fully enjoyed not knowing a single reference or allusion the show is making.
I’m certain that’s true. I’m enjoying Cowboy Bebop quite a lot despite being lazy about music and film (as mentioned before). I might be intimidated by the prospect of doing a series like this at the same time as Ghostlightning — walking in the shadows of giants and all, though he of all bloggers wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way — if not for my being reasonably confident that I won’t cover too much of the same ground. This is my first viewing of the show, for one thing. And, where GL’s Bebop posts are love songs to the act of remembering love, I like to write about and fangasm over structural points of interest and masterful
acts of manipulation moments of emotional resonance.
Good thing, too. For someone like me, Cowboy Bebop is downright meaty.
As I began, I remembered a time when cartoons from Japan were exciting and alluring and new. A very specific time, I mean. I was in the fourth grade — this was before Cowboy Bebop existed, incidentally — and somehow or another I’d managed to acquire the first few episodes of the Record of Lodoss War OVA from the local video rental place. What I remember most from that viewing isn’t Lodoss War itself (which I had to rewatch to recall in any detail), but the trailers preceding it, complete with cheesy narrator (“This isn’t animation…it’s JAPANAMATION!”). I can’t remember what specifically was previewed. Things like Bubblegum Crisis and Project A-Ko, I guess. But I remember that these trailers must have sampled the most stylish, violent and/or sexy scenes from their respective shows or movies. I was nine or ten years old and infinitely impressed. I interpreted the trailers as a promise.
Then, some years later, I finally did get into anime, and my tastes leaned well away from the realities of the kinds of shows previewed on the Lodoss War VHS tapes. But there was still that promise. Cowboy Bebop seems to have remembered it. In many ways it’s the un-show I constructed to illustrate “anime” in my mental dictionary.
The second thing I noticed was the pacing.
The pacing is weird, which is to say that it’s a little atypical of anime. Often you’re lulled into believing that you’re watching a movie, and you’re surprised when the ending theme kicks in after 22 minutes. Speaking purely practically, it’s a damn effective way of getting people to keep watching.
But it can be disorienting if you come in with expectations. You aren’t always watching people talk or fight or otherwise interact. Sometimes there are no people onscreen, and during many of these scenes the characters don’t bother interjecting via voice-over. There may not even be any music.
The first episode especially shows us a lot of space.
I found myself wondering about the point of it all. It reminded me of the first Star Trek movie — you know, the one in which there’s about ten minutes of plot and 300 hours of pretty lights and spaceships moving really slowly.
That might be an unfair comparison, but I don’t mean it as a criticism. The spaceships-moving-slowly thing works so much better in Bebop. It doesn’t take up that much time, in the grand 26-episode scheme. And it occurs to me that, when I said that Bebop shows us space, I probably should’ve said that it shows us spaces.
Environment (visual, aural) is important in this show in a way that it wasn’t in the Star Trek movie. A comparison with the original Star Trek TV run would be more apt (though not perfect; I’ll get to that when I talk about the cast). Place is a force or “character” here, though not in the same way as in, say, Kino’s Journey. Here it’s less immediately, directly powerful and far more talkative.
If, like me, you pay more attention to the scenes and their transitions than to the dialogue (resulting in many a rewind, let me tell you), you might get the impression that Cowboy Bebop is a show in constant conversation with itself. I don’t mean that it’s “meta” (that it talks to relevant things outside itself), which certainly it is (and does). I mean that its consistency reminds me of an active thought process or an internal monologue. It’s a little like catechism, in other words, albeit considerably cooler.
In the first seven episodes, I notice at least two distinct models for scenes in conversation. There seem to be others, but the following are the most sustained and least personal, and I can make the strongest cases for them.
Q. Does [x] have value? A. Yes.
I hesitate to use the term “middlebrow” because it is generally used negatively or even derisively, for people or works who “put on highbrow airs” while remaining populist and accessible. Put in a clumsier way, it’s a kind of pretentiousness. But I will use it here for Cowboy Bebop, not only because it has excellent episodes “to balance” lowbrow content as one would classify “Heavy Metal Queen” [episode seven] of being, but rather because the execution of this episode is on a high level.
I sympathize quite a lot with the use of “middlebrow” as a nonjudgmental descriptor, but maybe Cowboy Bebop resists such classifications altogether. It almost has no choice but to do so. Some of the creators seem to be the sorts of people who set out to make “art,” but they’re working in a medium that gets panned in the evening news as a gathering of pornographers (and, remember, Bebop aired in 1998). Several avenues of argument are available to people in that position. They could try to topple the canon, at which point all art is low; they could try to expand the canon, at which point more art is high. They could redefine the canon, even. But the real problem is that people talk and think about art in these terms to begin with — that people are inclined to distrust any medium that isn’t 400 years old, and, when such a medium finally earns some “legitimacy,” that its practitioners insist upon rewarding themselves by setting up new divisions of their devising and under their control. The child abused by its parent responds by abusing smaller children.
Cowboy Bebop looks into the eyes of those with brows lowered and those with brows raised high. I don’t think it seeks a compromise so much as it shaves its own brows clean away.
Nowhere early in the show is this more explicit than in the fifth episode, which juxtaposes, in subsequent scenes, an opera house and a convenience store, (religious) opera and porno.
There’s much to be gleaned from the contrast here, but what interests me most is that, by the time all’s said and done at each of these locations, the lines between them have been blurred. The opera house becomes a stage for smut, location of rather messy murder and fanservice vehicle Faye Valentine (who is more than that, yes, but she is a fanservice vehicle). The convenience store with its racks of porn hosts a meeting of old friends the likes of which you might find in a Hemingway story, a brand of narrative with the cultural seal of approval. In any given story there is pondering and pandering. Cowboy Bebop doesn’t try to obscure that by arranging its brows in a particular way; it throws its trenchcoat open and invites you to look.
Oh, also: that fight in the Chartres Cathedral facsimile.
Among other things, Chartres Cathedral is an enduring example of French Gothic architecture, a demonstration of the power of symbols cited by Joseph Campbell, and a launchpad for philosophizing about art, art-making, and authority for Orson Welles and other filmmakers.
Spike Spiegel blows it up with a hand grenade.
Q. Does [x] belong to [y]? A. You’d be surprised.
Cowboy Bebop is really quite American, in the United States sense (apologies in advance if you object to the U.S. appropriation of a word that means two continents; for my purposes, it’s just convenient). You’ve got things like long-distance trucking and hitchhiking, staples of American literature and film thanks to the breadth of the country and the highway system.
You’ve got a Mexican/Tijuanan cantina, “American” by virtue of its being little more than a site of activity for people who aren’t necessarily Mexican (i.e. Asimov Solensen), as in film westerns. (Incidentally, “El Rey” is the name of a fictional town inhabited by American expatriates.)
And you’ve got the music — jazz, blues, occasionally metal. The first in particular represents a mashup of cultural traditions from throughout the world, but it’s generally thought to be distinctly American because the U.S. is where the synthesis happened.
Jet Black is a fan of jazz and blues. We can understand this. He’s (kind of) a cool guy, for one thing. He’s an adult, and he doesn’t seem to be young anymore at that. Lacking the left arm with which he was born, he’s clearly seen and done some things. We’re not surprised that this is the character who dreams about Charlie Parker quoting Goethe.
He makes a comment about singing the blues in the womb or something. But in
seven eleven episodes we don’t see him act upon that. He’s lived the blues, sure, but he never gets around to playing them.
In Cowboy Bebop, this is the face of the blues:
Yep, a little white kid. He’s in the news and everything. This image is made jarring by its providing a source for the soundtrack of Spike’s weird episode-opening daydreaming, and then for Jet’s deferring to the kid’s harmonica mastery.
We learn as the sixth episode carries on that this isn’t technically a kid. He “suffers” from a peculiar kind of illness. But despite the episode’s being called “Sympathy for the Devil,” we’re never really shown how hard it is to live as he does, apart from one scene in which his parents/guardians die. Mostly he just makes life difficult for people around him — in a literal way, he is the blues, or he brings them. Being the episode’s titular devil, he might interface with the devil stuff in blues mythology, but I don’t know much about that.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, though I may be inventing a correlation between screencaps here, the whole sixth episode has to do with expectations defied. I’m not going forward without prompting.
Now, how to untangle this?
I suppose it’s partly cautionary. In other words, be careful when making assumptions about the art that a particular person might find enjoyable, applicable, or otherwise useful. Maybe the corollary is that paying attention to the art that a person actually, actively finds useful can tell you something about them, but I’m not so sure about that. Taste is slippery.
I tend to think of it as a nod toward Cowboy Bebop’s appropriating as much as it does from the U.S. and elsewhere. Art may have cultural boundaries in terms of the knowledge it requires of you, but it has no physical boundaries, especially in a setting including both the internet and FTL travel. Jazz doesn’t belong to the United States (or to cool people, or whomever), nor do trucking or hitchhiking as tropes (or as activities, really). The jazz song is an object that transcends physicality and ownership, whatever the IP barons would like you to believe. You hear it and it’s yours. It doesn’t matter if you’re Charlie Parker or a little white kid or a Japanese anime director.
Much like a Haruki Murakami novel, Cowboy Bebop exemplifies or performs this idea even when the scenes aren’t riffing off of each other to that effect. This is almost inevitably what happens as you watch; unless you’re familiar with every culture and every nuance thrown into the mix, you’re appropriating things or being asked to — and I always did appreciate stories that ask you to learn something.
You may wonder how I ended up with a sample group of seven episodes here. Post length, partly. And also because these won’t exactly be “episodic” posts — the episode progression won’t entirely determine the order in which I do things. I’ll have points to make. There will be overlap.
Next up: episodes 1-7 again, plus 8-11, and characters. I may do something about Gibsonian hackermancy, too. We’ll see.