mercoledì 12 ottobre 2016

Cowboy Bebop: A review

Title: Cowboy Bebop
Directed by: Shinichirō Watanabe
Original concept: Hajime Hayate
Series story editor: Keiko Nobumoto
Original character design: Toshihiro Kawamoto
Mechanical designer: Kimitoshi Yamane
Music composed by: Yoko Kanno
Episodes: 26
Original run: April 3, 1998 – April 24, 1999

In the following article, I will be reviewing the anime series Cowboy Bebop, which can be classified as a postmodern space opera. Inspired by the innovative ideas of Osamu Dezaki's famous Space Adventure Cobra series, Cowboy Bebop will use them in two different ways in order to create its episodes. Firstly, it integrates them with brief, various explorations of different movie genres, stretching from comedy to hard boiled, from film noir to action movie or psychological thriller, with no disdain for a little cyberpunk touch. Secondly, they are amplified by the authors' vast store of knowledge on Western cinema and music. And here comes Cowboy Bebop, one of the most important Japanese anime series of the 1990s, whose appeal and success is to be found in its complex network of associations and quotes that resembles a mosaic, for you will need to have all the pieces to fully understand the picture.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that there is a recurring element in Shinichiro Watanabe's polyhedric work, coming from the Japanese folk legend Urashima Taro. Indeed, once we remove any postmodern element and reference to other anime, we can see remarkable analogies between the characters' complex personalities and background and the legend. Here Watanabe follows the steps of previous Japanese film directors who used the legend as metaphor of the phenomenology of postmodernity.

All Cowboy Bebop characters, villains included, can be compared to the protagonist of the legend, the fisherman Urashima, under a specific theme: problem avoidance in its escape from reality to a world of illusion. Urashima preferred to live in the underwater palace of the Dragon God instead of going back to the though life of the human world, just like the Cowboy Bepop characters would rather live in a limbo made of confused and sad memories, than face their past. A past that cannot be defeated, or it would be likely to open the mysterious magic box given to Urashima by princess Otohime. However, the importance of this anime lies in the fact that every character will be forced by the circumstances to open his/her own box, following a long search for their Self. Once it will be achieved, it will sadly lead the characters towards a destructive awakening from the limbo that had frozen them in time. Let me give you a few examples by using some of the Cowboy Bebop characters. The beautiful Faye is a clumsy thief who spends most of her time taking care of her physical appearance, but in spite of her natural sex appeal, she is sexually inactive. Even her attentions do not focus on her loved ones, but on an old VHS containing a few photograms from her childhood. During one of the most dramatic episodes of the anime, Faye will return to her home town and feel the freezing sense of loneliness that Urashima felt after he came back to his village: in both cases, no one's there to welcome them, time went by and all the people who used to know them are gone now. Vincent Volaju, a disturbing young bluesman and the main villain in Cowboy Bebop's movie Knocking On Heaven's Door, has been made immortal thanks to a nanogenes injection in his bloodstream. Nevertheless, when Spike forces him to deal with his past, Vincent dies. Similarly, Urashima died opening the magic box, which treasured his old age. Last, but not least, comes the psychopathic Mad Pierrot, a grown up man whose mind health has regressed to a childish state. A choice that is made necessary to escape a fragmented, dangerous past that, once remembered, will lead Pierrot to a sorrowful awareness of himself and his condition and, consequently, to his death. On a side note, it is interesting to see how this anime can use a wide range of different cultural elements to convey a clear existential message to its audience in an exceptionally skilled way, under a stylistic point of view.

However, following the previous analysis, it could be said that Cowboy Bebop's greatest strength lies in its characters. The technical perfection of this series mixes with a recurring cycle of tragedies that will end with the death of its charismatic protagonist, Spike. In the same way as Cobra, Spike is an ex member of crime organisation, the Red Dragon, who was forced to change identity in order to be able to leave it... and survive. In spite of his introverted and apparently superficial attitude, he will soon be surrounded by the sincere affection of his new mates. The gruff ex policeman Jet Black represents a fitting example: together with Spike, he is completely new to the profession of bounty hunter and he will have to face his demons in order to set himself free from his limbo. With them, we also remember eccentric genius Ed and the above mentioned Faye Valentine.

Spike's war against the Red Dragon, and in some way against himself, represents the main plot of the anime. If we focus only on it, Spike's story ends in a few episodes, as the largest part of the anime focuses on auto-conclusive ones, a directing choice which is typical of Watanabe's. Under a thematic point of view, the anime moves from light-hearted episodes to others that play with the audience and even make fun of it (see Session 11: Toys in the Attic). Quite obviously, there are also many tragic episodes that focus on the characters and explain their psychologies.

The beautiful soundtrack we listen to for 26 episodes, composed by Yoko Kanno during the most productive time of her career, deserves a special paragraph. In Cowboy Bebop, music and images match so perfectly that Watanabe and Kanno have necessarily inspired each other during the realization of this anime: moving from one scene to another, the music changes from typical jazz tracks to Texas blues songs played by a harmonica. We may also distinguish echoes of progressive rock (i.e. Session 20: Mad Pierrot. Mad Pierrot's main theme is quite similar to Pink Floyd's famous On the Run). In addition, the opening and ending themes, iconic and qualitatively good, suit wonderfully the distinctive postmodern trait of the anime.

To conclude, I would like to underline, once again, how the philosophical background in Cowboy Bebop is deeply rooted to the social changes that were going through Japan in the 1990s. The anime makes several references to the newly introduced computer-mediated communication. One of these is the portrait of a cyberspace, which is supposed to represent the Internet. There is also one particular episode which is fully dedicated to this topic: Session 23 Brain Scratch. Here the Bebop crew fights against the Scratch religious movement, whose purpose is «to digitise the human mind, so that it may transcend and live on beyond its physical body.»
Cowboy Bebop warns its audience against the excessive use of technology. All these messages were fully representative of the radical change that was happening in Japan: its society had recently stepped in its postmodern period. Such a delicate period of transition caused, with the rapid development of the tertiary sector, much fear among Japanese population. The most representative anime of the 1990s were, in some way, consumer goods that started to become gradually aware of themselves and their power as media. Consequently, they decided to communicate with their young audience by creating stories were meant to represent its existential problems. As a matter of fact, this audience felt disoriented and with no ways to be happy with itself, inside a society that had become fragmented too soon and that was already heading towards stagnation. This being said, it is evident that Cowboy Bebop is anything but a superficial anime and, in spite of its considerable references to Western culture, its very essence is Japanese. Indeed, the previously analysed condition of Urashima Taro becomes a metaphor to communicate with all the people who are still blocked in their limbo full of childhood memories and who are unable to grow up due to the alienating condition of their own society. To quote Japanese film director Hideaki Anno during his interview to the Atlantic magazine: «I don’t see any adults here in Japan. [...] We are a country of children.»

Nessun commento:

Posta un commento