Thursday, January 6, 2011

Compliment Case 8: Cowboy Bebop

Aeon Flux was one of the earliest American animated shows to wear its anime influence on its sleeve—fluidity, sexuality, mature themes, cyber-punk, bargain-basement philosophizing. Culture, though, is a two-way street. What does it look like when the Japanese take from us?

Cowboy Bebop is the sort of multi-cultural stew that I think might one day typify pop culture of the late 20th/early 21st century—it’s a cyberpunk space opera Western Hong Kong gangster anime, indebted to American-style action movies in general, and directly referencing James Cameron, John Woo (yes, a Hong Kong film-maker, but one inspired by Sam Peckinpah) and Robert Rodriguez, and jazz. It eschews the traditional anime continuity-heavy exposition and melodrama dump if favor of the breezy Western episodic form. Pretty bold move for a medium infamous for stretching a single fight over a hundred episodes.
            So what does it look like? Well by virtue of some extremely high production values and the seemingly boundless creativity of composer Yoko Kanno, it looks and sounds pretty awesome. It’s hard to turn away from the slick opening credits, which promise hard-bitten noir men, curvy dames, guns, spaceships, and a little Bruce Lee topped with a brassy jazz riff. The show itself is similarly slick, trading anime’s angst and daddy issues for some tough guy stoicism and femme fatale backstabbing and Triad honor, delivered with the kineticism and experimentation that makes the best anime so fun and endearing.
            Somehow, the stew of influences that went into Cowboy Bebop gave it a trait almost unheard of in anime—awareness and a capacity for self-parody. In one infamous episode, the lead encounters an actual cowboy, horse, lasso, the whole affair, which results in the loss of groceries. Says one character: “I believe you, but you lose credibility with this ‘cowboy’ character. He’s lame,” jabbing at the show’s central premise. “Maybe if he were a samurai,” he brainstorms, and another character enthuses “Now that I wouldn’t question!” jabbing at (what I assume were) skeptical Japanese audiences. I love that exchange. And the episode climaxes, as it must, with a showdown at sunset, red tinged, wind blowing across the roof of a ruined skyscraper. There’s a quickdraw, and ammo expended, the dueling cowboys go to their traditional cowboy holdout—kung fu.
            Sometimes, global culture is beautiful.

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