[IMPORTANT HELPFUL NOTE: It may amuse (some of) you to imagine me as a tall, lanky, blonde American, bedecked with cowboy hat and riding spurs, perched upon a horse which happens to be in an elevator at the current moment. You might also want to whistle a bit. Perhaps this will set you in the correct mood for this post, my position, and my general capabilities regarding the following.]
As I have promised for approximately five years, I have rewatched Cowboy Bebop, a series which has caused me no small amount of largely inexplicable consternation over the eight years it has been since I first watched it on one lonely August day when I probably should have been running around outdoors and overturning rocks to see what sort of disgusting things lie under them (either worms or communal copies of Playboy, depending on who you ask). This consternation is largely founded on the fact that I manage to evade the extremes of opinions about Cowboy Bebop: I neither worship it as the feather of truth that the hearts of other anime must be weighed against, nor do I revile it as some kind of impure anime too tainted by Western influences to qualify as “true anime”. I exaggerate, of course, but I’ve never really felt like I ought to throw my weight behind the “why can’t we have more anime like Cowboy Bebop?” position. I’m not even sure that the opposite position exists, as Cowboy Bebop seems to be so universally beloved of nearly everyone that assessing it as anything less than a superlative example of the fine art of Japanese animation takes on the air of trying to explain to the Pope that maybe these “indulgence” things aren’t the best idea.
Part of the problem is, of course, is that Cowboy Bebop is actually an extremely polished, highly enjoyable series. The cast is likable, the animation is fluid, most every episode is well-structured, and Shinichiro Watanabe pulls it all off without batting an eye. I had forgotten, in the Eight Year Exodus, that many of the episodes are just sheer, gleeful fun: the comic episodes were always my favorites, especially “Stray Dog Strut” and “Mushroom Samba”, and I noticed this time around that Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV is far more horribly underused than I remembered, taking a back seat to nearly everything (this is a travesty and I demand the spinoff). Even episodes such as “Speak Like a Child” and “Hard Luck Woman” that blend comedy with more dramatic events work well for me, although that might just be the peculiarities of the themes they deal with.
The more dramatic episodes and moments, though, are the ones that stymie me the most. The episodes that deal specifically with Spike’s backstory and ultimate BANG tend to leave me constantly checking the time remaining on the episode and wanting to send a letter back in time to the staff that reads “Yes, I get what you’re doing here thematically. Get on with it.” Possibly the worst offender is actually “Ganymede Elegy”; the second half of the episode felt as though the series were doing everything short of holding up a cue card that reads “BE SAD AND EMOTIONALLY MOVED HERE” to get the viewer to feel emotion, veering dangerously close to blunt force trauma with Tragic Narrative with Thematic Resonance. It’s moments like this—where characters are impelled along their paths by the mechanized workings of Theme—where any subtlety that may or may not be present is lost or disregarded through the blatantly mechanical operations of the plot’s thematic ends.
These episodes tend to feel emotionally flattened and dead to me. The mode fits well with the major themes of the work: the characters are living a half-existence, suppressing their emotions as they’re thrust forward on the linear rails of fate dictated by the events in their pasts. It’s also styled with the classic Hemingwayean hardboiled style, quite common in noir fiction and film: depict the actions of the characters truly enough, and the audience will perceive and feel the emotions underneath.
Something about the flat deadness of the hardboiled style tends to turn me off it, though: in Cowboy Bebop, I can perceive the emotions under the surface, I can understand from whence they come, and I can feel sympathy for the characters, but, with a few exceptions, I can’t seem to bring myself to really care a great deal about all of this. I don’t feel wrenched, or even a vague sorrow, but as though I am merely abstractly noting that a person feels a certain way. The exceptions—Faye watching the Betamax tape from her youth, Ed leaving the Bebop after her prodigal father—may be due to similarities from my own experiences or even just thematic familiarity from previous stories I have read and watched.
Still, at the end of the day, any real issues I have with Cowboy Bebop are largely dependent on my own personal idiosyncrasies, symptomatic not of issues within the series itself but of individual aesthetics. I have scarcely a complaint with how the series tends to let the cast pinball around within the confines of an episode; the rest seems simply a mismatching of formal aesthetics. Everything is handled exactly the way Watanabe wants it to be handled, and it snaps together nicely, but the way Watanabe handles things and the way I make personal connections to stories just don’t jibe well, and it’s disingenuous to shift responsibility to the series because of that.
Nevertheless, it seems to be the dividing line between my reserved but high opinion of the series and the adulation and idolization that I sometimes see for the series. I can easily understand why someone might feel so fervently about the series to make it their favorite series, or even a benchmark series for quality anime, but I cannot feel it for myself. It is a conscious, knowing appreciation, and not a gut-level appreciation, and that, I fear, makes all the difference.
As a sort of last-minute parting shot, it’s also possible I find myself identifying more with the characters who accept the burden of their past and face the future, rather than those who are more a prisoner of their pasts. I also note, with some amusement, that the two major characters who resolve to face the future—Faye and Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV alias Françoise—are female, while Jet seems to remain in present-day stasis and Spike, well, BANGs. I can’t tell if this is an angle worth serious thematic exploration, or even if I’m qualified to tackle it, but it struck me as interesting.