It strikes me that most of my posts so far have been about animated/illustrated sci-fi/fantasy entities. I’ll get to more live action/”real world” (ha) iterations later. But for now… back to animation we go.
The other night, I was talking to some friends about anime because there’s no bad time to start discussing your favorite Japanese animated series, especially not during a football watching party, amirite? (Sorry, everybody else.)
While they’d separately gotten into separate series or, not into the genre at all – one of them was stuck on admiration for “Fullmetal Alchemist,” a personal fave, and the other had dipped her toe into the medium and hadn’t really gotten into it – they both agreed that perhaps it was time to watch one of the granddaddies of the modern anime genre.
(Side note: if you like the TV show “Archer,” which is quite funny, you definitely should get into “Cowboy Bebop” as well, if only for the fact that their opening credits are, shall we say, very similar in tone and style.)
Ah, “Cowboy Bebop.” There are very few anime series (within the pool of all anime that’s ever been created) that have managed to get big on a global scale, and then there are even fewer series that have become popular that bear no trace of magic/mystic powers or a barrage of scantily-clad women or anything else that might, surface content-wise, make it “special.”
What “Bebop,” despite/in spite of its futuristic setting and society, really is, is a very careful character study, which places all of its efforts into the deconstruction of personas: the aloof charmer, the grumpy tough guy, the femme fatale, the kid genius. (I don’t think “dog” is really a persona but don’t think I’ve forgotten about Ein.) Its heroes aren’t heroes in the traditional sense at all: they’re hired hunters, who in their down time are just hankering for another job, who aren’t driven by anything that would traditionally be seen as “noble.”
In the backdrop, there is also the world in which the story itself takes place: space beyond Earth. But, like its tonal twin “Samurai Champloo,” “Bebop” takes its strange setting and, rather than burrowing outward and becoming lost in details that, while integral to meticulous world building, can also become distracting (like a comic that has beautiful illustrations in the service of shitty writing), takes its story intensely inward.
There are grand sweeps of characterization, most oftentimes with the targets of the Bebop’s crew, but even then it’s not ever quite that simple. Bad people do bad things; good people do good things; but when you cross over from one arbitrarily binary category to the other, things are gonna get messy. And for much of the crew of the Bebop, they have done some very, very bad things, and though they might try to (or have no option other than to) forget, when the past starts nipping at your heels, there’s only so far you can run.
While it is entirely possible for fantasy stories to be gritty and grounded in direct human action (for a notable contemporary example: A song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones), because sci-fi is by its very nature future realism, there is still a recognizable element of humanity in much of the genre. And so, whatever else is out there in the future, it still comes from the now. Unless we’re getting into the multiverse which, while still technically something that is real, and thus an applicable element of sci-fi, opens up a can with too many worms for my liking and thus shall be unceremoniously shunted out of (but not forgotten from) this conversation.
What makes “Cowboy Bebop” so great isn’t something particularly ~*special*~, but it’s something that’s so ordinary that most people take it for granted or, in reaching for something ~*greater*~, gloss over it. It treats its characters as actual people, and digs into the specificities of the characters without alienating or overwhelming the viewer. That the crew of the Bebop is made up by very specific kinds of people, and not necessarily the “average person,” is a choice made by the writers and guided by the show’s creator, but the reason you can watch “Cowboy Bebop” and get into the show is the same reason that you Facebook stalk or spend hours reading someone else’s Twitter/Instagram/Tumblr feed. When you have the opportunity to look into someone’s mind, you’ll look, and then it’s very hard to look away.
Sure, “Bebop” isn’t the only story in the world to do this, but it does it so well, and which such care and consideration, that it ends up lasting. When the credits start rolling, you’re not saying goodbye to the show, but instead wondering how you’re going to live with this story, this story, and those characters and the choices they made, forever embedded in your heart of hearts.
It’s a beautiful thing, and something that’s often lost in the flurry of “real world considerations.” But what is the real world anyway, if not your own story playing out within the curious confines of time…