And, of course, I am reviewing yet another film from Japan, a country which is replacing the United States as the source of disposable pop culture. The latest Asian feature to hegemonize our shores is Cowboy Bebop, which, like the TV series it's drawn from, is an example of that purely Japanese art form, the anime.
Such films are meticulously animated features, often directed at a post-pubescent audience, frequently in the crime or science fiction genres. Bebop is all of the above, a carefully rendered film about future bounty hunters who must find a terrorist before he releases a bio-mechanical weapon upon an unsuspecting world.
The key feature of anime, though, is the complexity of the plot. Classics of the genre like Ghost in the Shell and Akira make Kant's Critique of Pure Reason look like a version of Dude, Where's My Car? that's been rewritten to make it more accessible to hydrocephalics and rhesus monkeys. Again, I think this is an East/West thing. While there are certainly some highly plotted Western movies, they generally don't fall into the animation, crime or action genres. For those, we generally prefer fluffy, happy, toy heroes that fight caricatures of stereotypes of exaggerated representations of unadulterated evil.
Cowboy Bebop treads the middle ground between incomprehensible and simplified-for-American-intellects. There's certainly a good deal of plot, but it's laid out clearly during the course of the action, and it's not hard to follow. As a result, there's actually a bit too much expository dialogue, but what moviemaker doesn't want to stop in the middle of a shoot-out to have the villain go into a heartfelt monologue about his hatred of corporate culture and his longing for lost love?
While the plot is complex, the characters are exceedingly simple, and this is probably Cowboy Bebop's biggest flaw. The hero, Spike, is the typical anime lead: an ultra-smooth, martially skilled hipster who looks like he's been gelded. In searching for the terrorist, he's teamed with a collection of characters from the Acme® Character Warehouse, including The Gruff But Lovable Brute, The Chick With A Great Rack and The Nerdy Computer Expert.
The Nerdy Computer Expert, a little girl named Edward (I don't get it either) is either the most annoying or most amusing thing about the movie. She's so nerdy that she constantly sings to herself in a semi-tuneless kinder-opera manner that I, for one, found most compelling. Her weird movements and dialogue actually lift her out of the stereotype that birthed her and make her the one truly original character in the film.
She also serves the role that all computer nerd characters in crime movies now serve: making life easier for the scriptwriter. In the last 10 years or so, it seems that detective work has shifted from searching for clues to searching on Google, and whenever it's necessary to deliver a piece of information to a character in a film, somebody just tosses a few keystrokes at the Internet and voilá, instant plot movement.
I think audiences have become so used to this that they've forgotten how mysteries used to be solved in films: by having someone show up and spout exposition for 10 minutes. Ah, for the good old days.
Of course, there's still legwork to be done, and the bounty hunter heroes of Cowboy Bebop do theirs in a Martian city that's been modeled on a number of 20th-century Earth cities. Notably, you'll see landmarks from New York and Paris. Shockingly, there doesn't seem to be anything from Tucson, which is odd, because if any city could be relocated to Mars without major alteration, it's the Old Pueblo.
There's also a cool pastiche of elements of Earth social life, and while the East is represented by a short trip to "Morocco Street," most of the references are to our glorious Western culture. The soundtrack includes, shockingly, both cowboy and bebop music; breakdancers are seen in the street scenes; and the central plot point is the threat of a terrorist attack during Halloween, a holiday I'm pretty sure our barbarous European ancestors invented.
It's certainly heartening to see our jazz music and native dance styles colonizing the Japanese imagination of the future. Unlike those in high office, I love Western culture, and have strong hope that somebody it will reign across the globe. With Japan's overbearing dominance in the arenas of hip and pop, the only way this could come to pass is if they accepted a few of our precious cultural gems into their mighty cultural arsenal. With the amusing and fast-paced Cowboy Bebop, even the title hints that this may someday come to pass.