Film

Cowboy Bebop (2003)

Jesse Hassenger

Goes spiritual by stopping the gunplay while characters get all misty-eyed over otherworldly butterflies.


Cowboy Bebop

Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Display Artist: Shinichiro Wantanbe and Hiroyuki Okiura
MPAA rating: R
Studio: STUDIO
Cast: voices of): David Lucas, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee, Melissa Charles, Jennifer Hale, Daran Norris
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-04-04 (Limited release)

The trouble with American action movies and animation, so the story goes, is that they pander to their audiences shamelessly, pursuing teenage males and young kids, with little mind towards theme, pushing boundaries, and so forth. Fans of Japanese animation, or anime, will point out how successful movies like Akira and Ghost in the Shell have been at just that: combining action and animation with decidedly more adult content. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a typical anime mix of action, sci-fi, and philosophy, and like a lot of anime, it's not quite as advanced as some might like to believe.

As its title implies, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is the film version of a television series, concerning a ragtag group of bounty hunters on Mars in the future. Spike (English language voice by David Lucas) is the young, reckless male lead who looks a bit like one of The Strokes; Jet Black(Beau Billingslea) is the older, gruff one; Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee) is the strong young woman; and Ed (Melissa Charles) is the irritating little hacker girl who would've been at home on, say, Speed Racer or Pokemon, but seems perversely out of place in a futuristic action movie.

Cowboy Bebop's story, yet another in which nanotechnology will determine the fate of the world, is easier to follow than some anime, although it still manages to confuse. Why, for example, do some of the characters not know what nanotechnology is? Haven't they ever seen any 21st century thrillers? At times, though, Cowboy Bebop displays a keen interest in pop culture. One character plays a Pacman-style videogame, enraptured with its simplicity; others watch a black and white Western at some sort of hover-car drive-in; and one chase scene begins, rather auspiciously, in a video arcade. This future isn't outlandish or gimmicky, and the filmmakers' attention to detail, both visual and cultural, gives the Mars city a tangible depth. It's one of cinema's future worlds, like the recent Minority Report, that seems plausible, not just eye candy.

Still, there is eye candy. Cowboy Bebop, like a lot of Japanese animation, possesses the visual rhythm of a comic book, but with more accuracy than most: The combination of stillness and sharp, choppy action are remarkably close to what it actually looks like to read comics. Indeed, the best parts of the movie are several spectacular chases, showdowns, and escapes. The rest of the movie isn't devoid of feeling; the characters are not particularly memorable, but they're granted a certain humanity that refreshingly eschews self-conscious attitude. Spike is not unlike many other wisecracking daredevil heroes, but his slickness is never shoved down anyone's throat. A montage shows him questioning villagers, and he pauses from his detective work to horse around with some local boys. This is not a movie that revels in its own coolness.

It does, however, linger on its half-baked "themes" long enough to slow a potentially enjoyable 90-minute movie into a scattered two hour one. Spike, Kaye, and Jet are separated for much of the movie, and they lose track of each other's subplots, especially during long scenes in which the script trots out tired sci-fi questions about memory, sanity, identity, and dreams. The mysterious villain of the piece is a soldier without real memories, but the movie explains this in quietly ponderous scenes of pre-mayhem brooding.

Primarily through its mopey villain, Cowboy Bebop is yet another movie that reminds us to "question reality" (à la The Matrix), even if the film itself never gives satisfactory reasons for the question. Nothing here suggests how the lines between dreams and reality might blur. In place of anything concrete, many dialogue scenes in the film's midsection conjure a quasi-mysticism that seems to belong in something more thoughtful, like Spirited Away. That movie felt like a dark fairy tale attuned with nature; Cowboy Bebop goes spiritual by stopping the gunplay while characters get all misty-eyed over otherworldly butterflies. For anime fans bored with Disney animation and Vin Diesel action, that may be enough; some more discerning audiences might prefer the more exciting, less pretentious stuff.

It's possible that the half-baked spirituality was once cooked all the way through; maybe something was lost in the transition to U.S. movie screens. Certainly the dubbing in English is to blame for some overemphasized delivery, but the dialogue is so hit-and-miss that it's difficult to tell if the problem was the actors, the translation, or the original script. Whatever caused the verbal inconsistency, Cowboy Bebop's metaphors are far more effective when they stick to visuals. When characters talk about "the world" (meaning Mars) being akin to purgatory, it's clichéd; when a final showdown is atop a tower in front of a hellish-orange sky, it's striking.

So, in the end, Cowboy Bebop goes flabby with generic ambition to provoke thought. It has the plot of an engaging, stylish action movie, but the pitiable soul of a second-rate philosophy major.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image