My fixation with anime started when I was around the age of 4 or 5 [I'm 26 now]. Of course, it wasn't generally known as anime back then, but for the sake of argument, we'll call it for what it is. The earliest anime that I remember watching, and being hooked on were two programs. The first was Star Blazers. The second was Force Five. Little did I know then what a staple those two would become.
Force Five took care of my "giant robot" need. Five was a daily program, Monday through Friday, and each day had a different show. It went "Starvengers", "Gaiking", "Spaceketeers", "Grandizer" and on Fridays "Danguard Ace". It enabled me to follow different storylines, yet since it was connected with a common thread; giant robots [and the fact that it was generally made by the same animators and had that same feel to it]. At different points in the week, I had a favorite of the five shows. Sometimes I enjoyed the Starvengers and their three separate ships, whom, when formed with a different ship on top, created three different robots. Sometimes is was Grandizer, with his immortal words of "Grandizer Goooooooooo!" and I too would be running around the yard yelling "Unicron Beam!" and blasting invisible aliens from otherworldly sectors. Force Five took care of my robot fix.
Star Blazers took over my life. Featuring Derek Wildstar and Mark Venture, Star Blazers was the English adaptation of "Space Battleship Yamato". Young pioneering space cadets aboard the flying space battleship Yamato renamed the "Argo" for us American fans. Every day at seven-thirty in the morning, I'd sit, eyes glued to the television, waiting for the next installment of the "Quest for Iscandar" series. Watching them go from a radiation bombed Earth to the opposite end of the galaxy to pick up a cure, and only have one Earth year to retrieve it and come back; all the while trying to defeat the Gamalon forces under the rule of Commander Desslock. When I was young, I wanted to be on the Argo, and my first crush was on a cartoon female named Nova. Simply because she was Wildstars love. I can recreate the sound of the Wave Motion Gun with my voice to this day. Star Blazers was 70's animation answer to Star Wars and space opera. Lush music score, involved story line, and hours and hours of endless adventures with the Star Blazers team. [On a side note, Voyager Entertainment has recently released the series on DVD. 6 dvds featuring all 26 episodes of the first season. There is also a box set available that collects the whole series.] Star Blazers is highly recommended to anyone that wants to see how anime has lasted over time. It looks dated and old, but this is the foundation for the road ahead.
[The light fades]
Over my early teenage years, other anime series headed stateside that occasionally got my attention: Voltron [team Lion], Tranzor Z and a few others, but nothing that captured my heart like those early two series' did. As I grew, anime disappeared from the spotlight - gone were the weekday anime shows. When I got to my middle school years, I learned about Laserdiscs. Large, vinyl record sized shiny discs that held movies on them. They were supposed to be the future of home video; with more resolution and high digital clarity and sound. My father, being a large entertainment buff, as well as myself, a HUGE videogame freak, was always adopting the early software. Laserdiscs found a place in our home. Shortly after, I was making my weekly venture to my local comic book store for my week's comics, and came upon a new section in the store. A large bin with laserdiscs in it. These were not the normal laserdiscs that my father had brought home to watch - these had cartoon characters on them that resembled someone from Voltron, or, better yet, Star Blazers. I approached the front desk and asked about them. Japanese anime on laserdisc the man behind the counter said. Quickly I ran back, rummaged through the discs, and trembled with delight as I saw a Yamato disc. After the clerk informing me that the laserdiscs were only in Japanese, and me saying I did not care, I purchased the disc, ran home, and relived my early childhood.
As I got older, as my anime laserdisc collection grew, I noticed that the good anime was nowhere to be found. All I was seeing were horrible weekday animation that is shown in Japan. With select titles like Demon City and Supernatural Beast City, the rest were to me, space filler.
[The Holy Grail]
A 1988 comic convention in Boston changed all that. Casually walking through the isles of various comic boxes and comic fans, there was a young college student in the corner of the room with a stack of bootleg vhs videos. The crowd was eating this poor kid alive. I wiggled to the front and saw a big sign on the front of the table that said one small simple word:
Hearing of Akira from the comic store anime magazines, I paid my 25 dollars for a 4th generation copy, and made that the purchase of the show. I returned home and dedicated the next day to sitting down and watching it. Akira was like no anime I had ever seen. It was like no animation I had ever seen. Having embraced such films as "the Last Unicorn" and "Secret of N.I.M.H." for so long, I had finally seen something, animation wise, quality wise, that toppled any Disney movie, that toppled any Don Bluth picture. Akira became the end all be all of anime, and animation. The Holy Grail. Years later, as cult status grew, anime started to find it's way into the semi-mainstream. Small sections in Suncoast started to sprout up, with a few titles to try to introduce Americans to what the Japanese took for granted and saw every day. Anime was becoming a niche in America. The problem, was that aside from Akira, and since, there was nothing else any good. Once you find the top of the mountain, it's nothing but downhill from there.
When I reached high school, anime to me had been dried up. Titles and series' were coming out at a regular pace, American anime companies, such as ADV and Urban Vision and Central Park Media had been formed and started "dubbing" anime that came over. Streamline pictures eventually brought Akira stateside with, at the time, was the first dubbed anime film released on home video. But the series kept coming, and all would end up being passed on. Nothing was good anymore. Now that the fad had caught on, the junk titles were pouring through the cracks, and most Americans, because they didn't know any better, ate it up. There were some titles that reached Stateside that were good - Bubblegum Crisis, Gunsmith Cats. But for every one good series or movie, there were countless more that should have been left in Japan.
By my senior year of high school, I had deemed anime dead. Nothing was being released that was any good - that challenged the viewer, that had an in depth story line. It became the same junk I was seeing on Saturday morning cartoons in the States. A complete waste of time. By the time I graduated, I was no longer buying anime due to the depression I felt towards the genre. Americans were getting the crap fed to them, and they loved it. I knew that I would never see anything-good come of it. It took 10 years for me to reestablish my faith. Let me tell you how.
[A new religion]
My curiosity with anime never completely died. On trips to the mall I would rummage through the anime section, that was, over time, growing, and would always end up shaking my head in shame. My hopes would always be let down. Finally, I stopped looking altogether. I'd occasionally wax nostalgic with other anime fans my age, and sometimes let them show me the current series they were watching, but I could never shake that feeling that there were better things that existed, and we just didn't know it. After each conversation, I would reestablish that anime is a dead genre, insulting it's viewers into thinking this is true works of art, when in actuality, they were just bad Saturday morning cartoons. One friend changed all that.
He was a big anime nut, and he lived in another state and with the advent of the Internet, we would chat all the time and rant and rave about videogames and anime and films - typical nerd stuff. Then, one day, he said, "I've found it. You know that line you keep hoping anime will jump over? I've got it." And I would shake my head and say "nahhh, I don't believe you. You're trying too hard again. Let it go." But he refused to back down. "Trust me" he said, "You are not going to believe this one. It's amazing. It does everything correct, right down to the music. The storylines don't dumb themselves down for children. This is a thinking mans anime, and I know how you think. This is what's going to change your mind." Again, I told him to stop trying to get my hopes up. Then he said something he had never said before to me when informing me about a show:
"I've found your new Akira." He said.
"Send it my way" I directed.
Two weeks later, I received a VHS tape in the mail. My friend made a copy of the first five episodes, and told me to give it a shot.
"Just put it in and let it run till the end of the fifth episode. If you don't like this, then you will never find what you are looking for."
On the sticker on the tape were two words: COWBOY BEBOP
By the end of the first episode I thought it was awesome.
By the end of the second episode, I was hooked.
By the end of the fifth episode, I had declared Cowboy Bebop a new religion.
At the end of the tape, I slowly got up, walked to the phone and called my friend. I hung up the phone after only saying three words to him: "I found it."
After that call, I went back and watched the tape another two times, trying to figure out what I had just saw, and trying to decipher what the series wanted me to know.
[Welcome aboard the Bebop]
The Bebop is a ship. A grand old ship converted to haul Jet Black's ass around in. Jet is the owner of the Bebop - a former cop with the ISSP (Inter-Stellar Special Police); Jet retired and became a bounty hunter. Working from job to job - trying to make some cash and generally living the life of a man on the move. Three years ago, Jet met up with a man named Spike Spiegel. Tall and lanky, yet elegant and serious all at the same time. Spike joins Jet, and we enter the story three years after they have been working together.
The first episode is a general set up piece. We are introduced to Jet and Spike, and they are on the trail of some stolen underground drug, known as "red eye". In the first five episodes, we meet two more characters that will become regulars in the Bebop series; Fay Valentine - cocky and snide and rude, Fay's story is complex. She establishes herself as a tough dog, but over the series, we generally empathize for her and her hunt for information. We also meet Ein, and welsh-corgi mutt that is actually a rare laboratory data-dog. Inside his head is a microchip that makes him smart. Not smart enough to talk, but smart enough for him to know that if he revealed what he could really do, the crew of the Bebop would cash him in for money. Rounding out the cast of five is the infamous Edward Wang Hau Pepulu Trvuiski the 4th; more commonly known as the genius computer hacker Radical Edward. These five characters will establish a storyline and become characters that are made of real blood and guts; solid stories that sometimes stand alone, yet interweave with the smallest of details. Where almost every scene hints at things yet to be revealed. The animation in Bebop is outstanding. For a series that was basically a weekly series, Bebop's quality excels in every aspect. Finely blended into the traditional cel-animation are elements of CGI, but not enough that it's obvious. (With the exception of buildings that float in space - it's hard to make CGI blend in with the blackness of cel-drawn space). Having the CGI work to enhance the visuals, not steal the thunder away from them. Spikes fight scenes throughout the series are motion captured and camera angles and cinematography create new abstract and sharp angles. Again, they blend in with the animation so well, it doesn't appear to be anything over the top - the flow of the series takes it in stride. Every once in awhile I noticed what I call "static shots"; scenes of one flat animation panel, filmed for a length of time. Most regular Japanese television shows use this method to stretch out the playing time. You've seen the scenes of markets and ballgames and large groups and gatherings with nobody moving, just the camera endlessly cutting back and forth to give you the sense of a large group without having to actually animate them. I find that tiresome and bothersome - as if they didn't care to take the time to take the talent to animate the scenes. With Bebop, while there are scenes that are sort of like that (small in number), it's to set a mood, or a feeling. Still static shots are of settings; a lonely park, and empty street, an alleyway with a lonely figure standing in the distance leaning on a rail. They use these scenes like snapshots; to create the mood and environment that our characters will either occupy shortly in the future, or currently exist in. Never once did I think that the production company was cutting corners with the animation - they were creating a mood.
Mood and settings are nothing without a story. Something easily accessible for the general viewer, yet with enough layering so that you can sense a greater story underneath -a greater depth. The characters self-contained stories are to be commended. Underlying this series are personal demons and pasts that each character must deal with - regardless of if they like it or not. Who they are, where they have been; all this has to deal with why they are on this ship at this exact moment. They are using the free roaming method of bounty hunting to hide from things, to search for things, to look for themselves. The stories, while arranged in a semi-linear thread, sometimes have nothing to do with anything at all. Some, (episode "Toys in the attic") simply exist to relieve the tension of the previous few episodes; creating an Aliens-style farce to lighten the spirits. There has been no other series (especially anime) that has ever made me laugh out loud and then cry by the ending before (episode "Speaks like a child"). It is the realization that things are not always serious and not always humorous. Things go back and forth and you don't expect it. Things are happy and carefree, and then your past runs into you.
It's the amazing detail of the characters pasts that make it so incredible to watch - or rather, the lack of information that we know. Each character is presented with flashes here and there of what they did before we joined them on this show. It could be nothing more than a look, or a glint in the eye of one of the characters, but it reveals a small clue as to what made them who they are that we look at now. So by the time you get to an episode where Jet confronts a past love, you already know the way he is, and can see from her perspective why it never worked out. It's all there in front of you - it's just a matter of time before you have enough of their individual puzzles to figure it out. By the time you get to the end of the series (yes, it does have a finalization to it) nothing is left to be figured out, you know things will end the way they will because you know who that are; what the consist of. They work as individuals, and they work as a group.
[moving to the big screen]
In the late summer of 2001, Sunrise once again got together to pay homage to the series one more time. The result is "Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heavens Door": the film. Set between two of the later episodes of the series, "Knockin'" is a two hour extravaganza made to quench the thirsts of us fans who demanded more. Set in Morocco, this Bebop adventure introduces two new bounty heads to hunt down and keeps the same flavor that the series so easily sprinted along with. Not much is known about the film, as it has yet to make it's way stateside. Sony pictures has been reported as purchasing the rights to the Bebop film in the US, instead of Bandai Entertainment, and one only prays that they will keep the American vocal talent that Bandai used for the series. If they are smart, they will. We Bebop fans are keeping our fingers crossed.
[a fine score]
Getting Yoko Kanno and the Seatbealts to score the series was a work of genius. Kanno's work can be heard in series' like Macross Plus and Brain Powered. Yoko has scored various videogames and anime, but nothing stands out like the score she has constructed for Bebop. With this series, Kanno plays with acid jazz and old style bebop music from the 60's and 70's. The opening theme, TANK! is something right out of a 60's spy show. Mixing elements of world music and funk and bebop and jazz, the score doesn't really serve as background noise; it helps move the individual episodes along. This is the music that plays through their heads, plays on the radios and walkmans and plays on their ship speakers. It is the music that fits their free roaming bounty hunting lifestyle. When Jet tells Spike about a dream that consisted of Charlie Parker giving him advice, you believe it because it's an integral part of his life, just like his constant care and pruning of his banzai plants. Kanno is a superb composer. It's like having John Williams compose for cartoons - she's so good, you almost feel like she should be scoring films or making classical scores. Her music creates the ambience and sets the mood with absolute perfection. This is the music that exits in Ed and Faye's universe and life. Nothing else would be as good. Kanno's presence in the series is almost as mandatory as the main characters themselves.
While most of the series floats between the main five characters (Spike, Faye, Jet, Ed and Ein), it's main focus is on Spike. Throughout the series there is an underlying story about Spike's past and people associated with him. Having started a new life, a new profession with bounty hunting, and making new friends, after three years his past is starting to look for him. A lot of this series is him dealing with that, and on occasions, going to look for parts of his past that he is still obsessed with. The rest of the main characters are all as equally important, but it's Spike, in the end, that we learn most about. (As a side note: if you look closely, you will notice that Spike is an homage to another famous anime character: Lupin the 3rd. It's nice to know that Sunrise pays it's dues and puts little inside jokes like this throughout the series.)
[wrapping it up]
Bebop, to me, is the savior of anime. From 1988, when I first saw Akira, until 2000, when I first saw Bebop, anime to me was dead; a void. A black hole. Nothing that I had seen was any good, and certainly wasn't worth paying for to own on vhs or laserdisc. Cowboy Bebop changed all that for me. It proved that you can make a good series. You can create characters that have depth and personalities. Characters that live and breathe and have worries and laughs and don't take things seriously. By bringing the series to America, Bandai Entertainment located just the right American voice actors to live and breathe even more life into them. This is the only cast that has been able to actually top the Japanese voices. I have yet to see anything on scale, be it individual facets, or as a complete whole, that has been able to create what Bebop has done. Sunrise Inc. has managed to create a cel-animation series that I have grown to care about; to push on others and recommend and make friends watch and get hooked on. What all other anime tries to accomplish, Cowboy Bebop does with extra to spare. This could very well be the worlds greatest anime. This could very well be the worlds greatest series, period. Bebop is much more than "just anime". Just as the Simpson's have transcended the label of "cartoon", Bebop has reached the same level. It is a high watermark in the universe of anime, and it will take a long, long time to even attempt to take over it's throne.
I cannot recommend Cowboy Bebop enough. It is the top example of anime, and everyone who appreciates the vast universe of Japanese animation should see this series. It's characters, story, music and laughter make it second to none. If it took me another twenty years to find another series as good, I wouldn't mind at all.
(It should be known that the Cartoon Network has been recently showing episodes of Bebop as part of their weekly Adult Swim programming block. Unfortunately, this writer cannot recommend seeing these, as they are being shown out of order, and have been edited. This writer highly suggests watching the series on vhs or dvd to experience it's true intentions.)
--------------- Cowboy Bebop: created by Sunrise, Inc. in 1998. Directed by (also directed Macross Plus.) Music by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts. 26 episodes, available on 6 region 1 dvds through Bandai Entertainment. ( http://www.bandai-ent.com ) Also available: "Perfect Sessions" 6 dvd box set containing the complete series, original soundtrack vol. 1 and comes in a spiffy box that holds the dvds, including a space for the feature film (future date of release undetermined).