Cowboy Bebop (Revisit)

Good

Cowboy Bebop is a well-regarded classic series that can hold its own against modern anime.  Greater than the sum of its parts, it is definitely something that people should experience.  At first blush it looks like a bit of a mishmash of an action/adventure/slice of life show with a solid dose of drama.  In reality, it’s a very focused character drama with wild things swirling about it.  I must say that it’s an interesting experience to revisit Cowboy Bebop with some friends close to 20 years after I had first seen it… it originally aired in 1998.

Purpose: Very Good

The challenge of Cowboy Bebop is that it looks like a mashup of a variety of genres, which hides the subtlety of what they were trying to accomplish.  The anime is singularly focused on showing the viewer the characters.  Everything else – the world, the plot, and the story all are designed to provide the context for them.  This realization will bring clarity to how each of the design elements are interconnected and makes sense of the wild ride we’re presented.

Characters: Excellent

Having just said Cowboy Bebop is about the characters is actually a tiny bit misleading.  The characters don’t really develop much over the course of the anime.  How they are at the beginning is pretty much how they are at the end – the way they act, the decisions they make, and so on.  They’re built solidly and presented consistently throughout the different adventures we see them take part in.  However, the subtlety of the show is that while the characters don’t change, your understanding of the characters changes.  There’s plenty of stories in the show that diverge on wild tangents, but with each new experience the viewer’s knowledge of the character increases.  That’s what makes Cowboy Bebop’s characters so very memorable – you actually get to know them in complex ways.

World: Good

The setting is also a bit of a mashup of a future sci-fi world/bits of the present/western… it isn’t enough to simply call it a space-western.  There are lots of interesting concepts that are barely touched upon in the show, often eclipsed or de-emphasized by the inclusion of many “modern world” elements.  This ended up minimizing the impact of the background upon the viewer, which was, surprisingly, not jarring and not a bad thing.  The decision to minimize the background had the effect of highlighting and emphasizing the characters more by preventing the viewer from becoming distracted by the odd elements of the world.

Plot: Decent

One of the weak points of Cowboy Bebop is the plot.  While there’s a vague, loosely connected undercurrent that leads to the final few episodes, they aren’t solidly connected.  This locks Cowboy Bebop into a very episodic format – the plots are limited to each episode.  Unfortunately, because the plots are so short, this makes the events seem a bit rushed or jarring – things happen without too much buildup.

Storytelling: Good

Due to the challenges in the plot, the storytelling isn’t able to shine as much as it should.  With the narrative leaps, many scenes lose some of their emotional impact for the viewer.  This creates an odd effect – while viewers may or may not necessarily feel anything about the events, the viewer can certainly understand how and what the characters are feeling.  It ends up making it almost a bit of an academic exercise.  That said, it doesn’t undermine what’s happening – it just grants it a bit of a distant feel, as though you’re an observer to these events instead of involved in these events.

Pace: Decent

The pace is a bit odd.  It has both a whiplash and a slow-burn feel at the same time.  Due to the nature of the plot, each episode ends up being very fast-paced, even when there’s not a whole lot going on.  At the same time, where the anime ultimately goes ends up being slower – you get tiny pieces of what’s to come early on, although it takes a while to get there.  When things ultimately happen, it’s again at a breakneck pace.  Ultimately, it’s a little odd, but finishes well.

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Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978)

Excellent

Captain Harlock is one of the legendary classic anime, created by Leiji Matsumoto.  Airing in the year 1978, it’s an anime that shows its age in terms of composition, tone, and animation.  Even so, the fundamentals of the show are stronger than you’d find in a great many modern anime.  Essentially, it’s a heroic epic that showcases the strength of the human spirit, as exemplified by Captain Harlock.  In spite of its age, the anime still stands at the top of the genre.  They don’t make heroes like they used to.

Purpose: Excellent

The anime falls into the space opera genre, which encompasses grand sweeping galactic struggles as well as commentary about humanity in general.  Of course, it’s an old anime so many may find the animation or pacing difficult to follow.  Overall, Captain Harlock is about a heroic individual, which is a hard to find subject in modern anime.  Contrary to the modern “every-man” heroes, tragic heroes, and over-powered muscle-heads, classic heroes are more about people to look up to.   It’s about a character that’s human, but moreso because of his actions, honor, or otherwise noble demeanor.  Sure, there’s action and tragedy and a startlingly high body-count, but those serve as a means of highlighting the main character’s good points.  If you can manage to survive the generally inconsistent, dated animation, and manage to suspend disbelief, you’ll find Captain Harlock a story about an individual who you probably wouldn’t mind following to the ends of the universe.

Characters: Excellent

This is the kind of anime where a 7 year old (sort of) side character ends up having more character depth than many modern anime heroes.  You eventually learn about the backstories of many of the crew members, including a cat, that end up being a mixture of stories about overcoming tragedy through strength of spirit.  What makes the characters particularly interesting is that, in addition to having their own stories and motives, they serve to highlight the strengths of Captain Harlock.  They have a really strong rapport that makes the crew all feel like a family.  On the opposite side, the Mazone (the alien race Harlock is fighting against) are also developed into fairly complex characters in their own right.

World: Very Good

Perhaps the most interesting part of the world is the “factions” – Earth proper, Harlock, and the Mazone.  Each have a very different set of ideals and morals.  Even so, none of the groups are monolithic, which is such a rarity in most fictional mediums.  In other words, there are differences of opinion and values even within each group.  That aside, lots of things about the workings of the world aren’t really explained.  For example, you’re never really sure what the difference is between a space mile and a normal mile,  or why certain things behave the way they do.  They just do.  But it’s a testament to the story that it doesn’t particularly matter why the Arcadia is an invincible battleship, for example, it’s enough that it is.  Essentially, the world serves its role to enhance the story without really bogging it down in a flurry of basically nonessential fluff.  The world does require some suspension of disbelief, so if you’re the type that likes to have some explanation of the inner workings of technology in anime, then you may find this anime a little difficult.

Plot: Very Good

We have a generally slow-burning overall plot that takes place over the course of the entire series.  In spite of this, it’s fairly episodic in nature and doesn’t generally ride in “plot arcs.”  Fortunately, this means that when the anime gets a little distracted, it’s limited to a single episode or a small part of an episode.  That’s not to say that the distractions are useless, since they often show the mettle of a characters  or end up building or maintaining relationships.  What this means is that the plot points are further apart than you’d find in more modern anime.  It’s more about broader course corrections in the overall theme than managing a tight approach to a resolution.  In that sense, maybe it’s more like navigating though the vastness of space.

Storytelling: Very Good

Some stronger points are able to mitigate some weaker ones here.  The storytelling is really sharp and powerful on its peaks – highlighting courage, heroism, and tragedy.  It’s somewhat weaker in connecting our plot points in a tight, stair-steppy way.  There’s quite a bit of gaps in the explanations of things or the why of things.  I imagine that would be frustrating to some viewers.  Of course, the storytelling style is varied as well.  Sometimes, it’s small, but not subtle, sometimes it has a broad focus, but short duration.  Overall, you get the sense that it’s a grand story, an epic even.  It’s not exactly a warm story, but there’s a lot of warmth to it.  Similarly, it’s not depressing in its tragedy, because the focus isn’t on the tragedy, but perseverance.  In general, the storytelling is about the feel and mood of the anime, and in that regard it succeeds.  What’s really interesting is that, since the storytelling is perhaps more focused on the mood, some of the failings end up falling by the wayside.

Pace: Very Good

The pace is clearly something out of another era.  The overall pace probably will feel slow.  On a per-episode level, however, it will probably feel too fast.   It’s a little at odds with itself, but fine overall once you get used to it.

One final note: This review of the classic Harlock contrasts with the most modern iteration, found in the movie Space Pirate Captain Harlock.  I forget where I heard it, but the difference between the two is that the original is an unconquerable space captain, while the modern one is a brooding space pirate.

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