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Cowboy Bebop: Jazz in the Cathedral

by Scott Rider

Sitting in a nondescript cafe and looking out on New Orleans' famous Quarter one day in early 1990, one could not help but notice the differences between the world just outside and the subdued atmosphere in the room. Inside, a jazz combo was playing something slow and sultry, a good match for the dimmed lights and the simple scotch-and-ice in hand. Outside, more than one police cruiser sped down the street, and on at least one street corner there was a proposition or drug-deal happening even as one looked on. It was is if the glass of the cafe window had turned into a movie screen, and the observer saw the lurking dangers as a fictional world not at all like his own--and yet it was the same.

This is the essence of Cowboy Bebop. The "Big Easy"...dangerously so.

The story is about two bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel and Jet Black. It is the 22nd century, and interstellar colonization has been proceeding quite rapidly, well in advance of humanity's psychological adjustment to the fact. The result is a rather undignified "sprawl" of humanity across the nearby star systems, and within each can be found every possible vice. Opportunities to collect on wanted criminals and other fugitives present themselves so plentifully that a TV show, "Big Shot", is broadcast every week with details the latest people with a price on their head.

Spike, an ex-mob enforcer, and Jet, an ex-law enforcement officer, cruise the hyperspace and local space-lanes in their ship, the "Bebop", trying to get an advantage on the bounty they deem worth going for. Somehow in between all the activity Spike manages to find the time to practice his kung-fu, and Jet manages to whip up something new for dinner in the ship's galley. When they locate the trail to their mark, however, it is all action. The show itself departs from the traditional Japanese animation story arc across episodes and presents each installment as its own story, with no episode-to-episode plot beyond run-ins with old acquaintances, fleeting images of Spike's memories of a particularly bad confrontation in a church from his mob days, or the event that cost Jet the arm his artificial limb now simulates.

The room on aboard the Bebop seems to be spacious enough for a couple more: their sometimes third "partner", a con artist-become-bounty huntress, Faye Valentine, who would undoubtedly skip off with the entire take from a job if Spike wasn't always looking over his shoulder, and a very smart Welsh Corgi that responds to the name "Ein". There is little love lost between the ensemble as it seems either Faye is always trying to cozy up just long enough to steal the advantage for the next mark, or otherwise starting enough trouble that Spike has to go out in his Canard-style fighter aircraft "Swordfish II" and sort the matter out personally. Ein is the result of chasing down one of the bounty targets in an early episode, and carries his own secret.

In watching the episodes, one cannot help but sense the strong retro-1970s look and feel of the series. The art style and fashions of the characters led one viewer to describe it as "Starsky and Hutch in Space". Those who are familiar with the Lupin III Japanese animated show for the late 1970s are sure to feel an affinity for Cowboy Bebop, as Bebop could be described as a sort of "Lupin in Space" for the next generation. Style is what makes the show work. Every detail is paid careful attention, from the "Hohner" logo on a boy's blues harp to the haze of smoke, old jazz chords and subdued noise of a cafe as Spike dozes off, scotch on the table, "staking out" a target's hangout.

Perhaps most important in the shows presentation is the musical score by Japan's most prolific--perhaps even the world's most prolific composer since Mozart was alive--Kanno Yoko. Kanno, already famous for her work on Macross Plus and Escaflowne, has produced a collection of jazz and blues charts for Bebop that convincingly set the Big Easy tone of the show. Her music somehow separates the sometimes vicious moments of the show from their actors, making the scenes seem almost dreamlike in their aspect. One does not expect a soft chorale as Spike is thrown backward out of cathedral's rosewheel window and falls to the street below, and yet not only does the music work, it fits so well that it is hard to imagine the scene being as effective any other way.

Cowboy Bebop is the gem of Sunrise Studio's 1998 production efforts. It started as a television show that originally aired as 12 episodes on TV Tokyo, with widely publicized notice that the "complete" 26-episode show would be available on VHS, LD and DVD over the coming months. The argument over whether it was an OAV or TV series was quickly solved by the Japanese satellite WOWOW network channel's presentation of all 26 episodes. Sunrise, backed by the enormous toy manufacturer Bandai, spared no expense to achieve cinematic production values for their flagship show of the year. VHS, LD and DVD episodes have been released in Japan up to episode number 18, (volume 6 for LD and DVD collectors), with releases occurring each month until complete. The folks at AnimeVillage.com will be releasing subtitled VHS tapes of the show in the upcoming months. Watch for it, and catch you later, space cowboy...



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