[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.

14 Responses to “Cowboy Bebop THE REWATCHENING”

  1. 1 steelbound 11 August 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I recently watched Cowboy Bebop for the first time and I came away feeling almost exactly the same way you did, even down to feeling the emotional flatness of the majority of the series except for when Faye watched the Betamax tape and when Ed left the Bebop.

    It’s a very good anime but I’ve seen plenty of better series.

    • 2 OGT 11 August 2010 at 8:53 pm

      I’m sort of wondering if part of my–or perhaps our–issue with it is just that it falls into the stylistics of certain kinds of blockbuster films that I just don’t care for / haven’t seen. Watanabe is heavily influenced by Western cinema, and I’m sort of lost in that world, especially since I prefer Western comedy film over Western dramatic film. But that’s just a guess.

  2. 3 ghostlightning 11 August 2010 at 4:15 pm

    I think you’re pretty fair with this. I understand how tough it could be to not be enthusiastic for a show that enjoys such wide adulation. In my case, it’s FLCL and I don’t think I can be as thorough in reflection as you’ve done here.

    Ultimately we have no obligation to like what the world deems great. There are many authors that I remain indifferent to and have no strong urge to read.

    Hard Luck Woman is one of my favorite episodes of anything ever. I think it communicates the emptiness and melancholy that this show is hollowed with.

    • 4 OGT 11 August 2010 at 9:05 pm

      I think every episode communicates the emptiness and melancholy that the show is filled with quite well. It communicates it so well that I actively want to do something more interesting and fulfilling than watch some of the episodes, like, say, take a jaunt somewhere with friends and/or family and discuss shoes and ships and sealing wax. So maybe, instead of feeling like Cowboy Bebop was a partial failure, I should regard it as so successful with me that it looped around and became the partial failure?

      It’s been so long since I’ve seen FLCL that I dunno what I think about it these days. I know that not everyone is super-keen on it, though, and it sort of occupies the niche that Haibane Renmei does. And I’m no stranger to not being enthusiastic for things that everyone else adores–Hell, I sometimes fret that the enthusiasm I feel for things is much more sedate and restrained than that others feel for the exact same thing; a nasty case of this leaves me feeling like I don’t actually like anything. I think I’ve talked about that to you before somewhere, though.

  3. 5 bateszi 13 August 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Reading this, it’s as if you were second guessing how other people feel about any given episode of the series and then questioning why you don’t feel the same way? Like your comment about “Ganymede Elegy,” while I enjoy the episode, it never felt as heavy/emotionally wrought as you’re suggesting.

    You’ve admitted that you were moved by the likes “Hard Luck Woman” and “Speak Like a Child,” which, I think, are the episodes you’re supposed to care about, and that’s enough, really. The rest is just entertaining and action-packed and fun, or intentionally ambiguous and distant. I think people love it more for those light-hearted and fun episodes, like “Mushroom Samba” and “Toys in the Attic.” I certainly find myself rewatching this show time and again just because it’s so flipping fun! :)

    • 6 OGT 13 August 2010 at 5:44 pm

      That’s what’s happening, more or less; Ganymede Elegy is kind of a cop-out example (as it’s not that great in general) but it was the biggest point where I saw the narrative gears working and I wasn’t happy about it. Plus, I figured I owed a somewhat more informed explanation of my infamously bizarre stance on Cowboy Bebop to those I subjected to it. It’s not much clearer now, sadly, but such is life.

      And you’re right, of course: most people probably just love it because it’s a lot of fun to watch (which it truly is), and that makes perfect sense to me, as that’s the level I feel it at. Every so often I run across someone who swears up and down by it and uses it as a benchmark by which to judge other anime, though, and I’ve never really gotten an explanation for that that doesn’t rely on “it’s so different from other anime!” or pointing out how well-formed the series is. Which sometimes makes me suspect that the true reason is “it does exactly what Western film does, therefore it’s better than other anime”. Which is fine–there’s no real reason anime can’t emulate Western film, and I think it’s part of what Watanabe was gunning for, especially with “new genre unto itself” talk–but it seems pretty dismissive of Japan, since it implies that their cultural products effectively can’t ever be “quality” unless they meet specific Western criteria.

  4. 7 Noel Kirkpatrick 13 August 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I think it’s valuable that you decided to give something another chance. So often we push aside things we don’t particularly like, and never revisit it in an attempt to understand it or (and I think far more importantly) to understand why we didn’t like it in the first place.

    Like you, I found the more dramatic episodes to be a bit hollow (though Faye’s arc tugged my heart pretty hard). A re-watch I did for a paper on the series changed my mind after I realized that the more dramatic episodes tend to be along the lines of yakuza genre. This allowed me some appreciation (though did little to ramp up my enjoyment) since the series hits all the right notes (one more genre in that mash-up of noir western space science fiction!), even if I never found the dramatic arc totally worthwhile.

    And perhaps that’s where the dramatic episodes kind of falter: they (especially “Jupiter Jazz”) coast on mood, style, and genre but don’t offer enough of a reworking of any of it to make it feel “like a new genre onto itself” or allow a sense of personal stakes to really come into focus.

    • 8 OGT 13 August 2010 at 5:57 pm

      My entire life has, thus far, mostly been about giving things another chance. Plus, it means I can better understand other people’s tastes and make more informed recommendations, especially since readers’ advisory is on the upswing these days in the library world. RA is about understanding the relations people have with what they love and loathe, and what sorts of pleasures they derive, and, subsequently, helping them find more things that they might like.

      I think, also, you’ve hit the nail on the head with the problem I generally have with it: Cowboy Bebop relies so much on style, mood, and genre–formal/compositional elements, basically–that if you don’t like any or all three of those elements, you’re kind of left in the dark. In that regard, Cowboy Bebop is an extremely formalist work, and since I don’t particularly care for the form, it’s hard for me to make the emotional connection that someone else who does like the form might. (I would have just used “formalism” in the post but I’m not sure how good my grasp on that term is at the moment; hence it’s here)

  5. 9 gooberzilla 18 August 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I’m not sure that Spike’s back-story is supposed to be emotionally resonant. Rather than pathos, yakuza pictures and Hong Kong crime dramas tend to aim for an air of inevitability, and they often leave the audience feeling cold and empty in some way. I think Bebop captures that quite well. Could this not have been what Watanabe was going for all along?

    • 10 OGT 18 August 2010 at 2:28 pm

      At what point did I say that this was what Watanabe was not going after? I am stating that I am not particularly caught by what Watanabe has successfully done, rather than criticizing him for failing to make me like his work. The fact that I don’t “get it”, largely due to my confessed lack of experience and interest in crime cinema (I don’t even want to watch The Godfather, for crying out loud), has zero impact on Watanabe’s skill in doing exactly what he wanted. What I wanted to pull from the work, and what he wanted his viewer to pull from his work, are different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If anything I’m saddened that I can’t pull away from the experience with an unreserved positive feeling–it can be painful for me to not share in the same delights as other people, but it’s entirely disingenuous to fake it.

      I do appreciate the clarification with regards to the connections with yakuza / crime cinema, though (everyone who’s mentioned it); since I don’t have much interest in such things, it’s harder for me to understand where the appeal lies, and so I was hoping for these sorts of responses to help clear the muddle up.

  6. 11 jeanniex1 19 August 2010 at 1:24 am

    I can see where you’re coming from with the whole “backstory episodes=flat”; I thought your angle was interesting and new. What I remember liking the most about Cowboy Bebop is that you never know what to expect with each episode. For me the whole series was a wild ride and the backstory episodes just became sort of Lost within it. I really loved that absolutely ANYTHING might turn up in the next episode, and when you look at it from a distance it’s really a series that has everything. But it may be that I just chose not to read into all the “meanings”. Anyway that’s why it’s cool to go back now and see profound opinions.

    On a seperate note, someone should tell the Old Spice Guy about the whistling cowboy On A Horse.

  7. 12 Rick Feynman 12 December 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Nice Post.

    Going have to re-watch this to see if I still agree with you. It’s been about eight years for me as well. Way too long.

    • 13 t0mnomnom 28 February 2011 at 9:23 pm

      Turns out this sums up a lot of how I felt about Cowboy Bebop when I finished watching it… I tend to avoid mention of it because I thought I was alone in feeling that way! :P

      My issue certainly lies with the “hardboiled” approach, and the way the episodes are built around it. A lot of the time the story feels quite telegraphed, and other times it feels like it brushes on emotional significance, gets scared and veers sharply away again. I’m not sure any episode really got me to feel emotional, though I did feel a slight pang for Edward leaving. Only a slight pang though…

  1. 1 Before Cowboy Bebop: hipster inexperience and the social stuff « Super Fanicom BS-X Trackback on 29 January 2012 at 4:54 pm

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I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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August 2010

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