Future Blues 2020 — Session 4: The Craft Behind the Jam Session

Cowboy Bebop is an incredible production.

As a prepubescent anime fan nearly 20 years ago, what grabbed me about Cowboy Bebop at first were its looks and sounds. In the time since, I have subsequently seen nearly 20 years of anime… all of wildly varying quality.

Suffice to say, in this revisit to Bebop, the craftsmanship behind the show struck me. Its technical quality is a feat.

I forgot how good Cowboy Bebop looked before this re-visit. I mean, I knew it looked good, but I didn’t know it looked this good. Perhaps it was because Netflix had the HD masters? I have a feeling if I popped in my old Bandai Entertainment DVDs, complete with melted away plastic on the spines from extreme exposure to a decade-and-change of sunlight, the show would likely look way more blurry and artifacted. Whatever the case may be, Bebop looks amazing. It’s hard to believe a TV series from 1998 can look this good, especially when put up against contemporaries like Trigun and Outlaw Star, both of which have their fair share of funky looking episodes.

I have no idea why Bebop looks so good, because I don’t know the circumstances behind its production. The initial TV run was cut in half on TV Tokyo, so perhaps they had time to polish it up before its airing on WOWOW? I’m sure if I dug into the myriad of Japanese Bebop resource books I have sitting around in my parents’ house I could find the answer. At the moment, all I can do is speculate.

The show really pushes the limits of late-90s TV anime. While inconsistencies between episodes are certainly noticeable, the painstaking amount of detail put into the settings, vehicles, and props is extraordinary.

The background artistry is above average for TV anime of the time–locales are depicted as being caked in substantial grime and texture, making them feel lived in. Certain settings that come to mind are the dingy Chinese-inspired street corners of Mars, the post-apocalyptic ruins of Earth, and the selection of dingy bars the characters hang out in. The Bebop is a world upon itself, defined by its endless corridors, moody shadows, moving parts, and retro design sense.

Filling out the backgrounds is an impressive sense of set design. The copious amount of detail on items and vehicles cements the show in a convincing reality, be it minor inscriptions on the guns, chars on beer-cans-turned-ashtrays, or the dents on every character’s spacecraft. The expert placement of these items in each scene works to give the settings a life of their own. Even small details like the crew’s weird future-TV quietly works to suck you into the world of the characters, complete with bad reception and a hodgepodge of TV shows and news programs, including everyone’s favorite, Big Shot. Key animator Imakake Isamu is credited as “Set Designer”, and his efforts show. I am not sure how common this is, but his role gets a spotlight in the opening credits, which goes to shows the importance the staff placed on this aspect of the production.

As far as the actual animation is concerned, Bebop is quite kinetic and smooth. The fierce gunplay, the perfectly-choreographed fights, the sleek space battles: every moment on screen is amazingly crafted to excite. The subtle stuff stands out, too. Bebop has great “acting”–all the characters have very realistic mannerisms and facial expressions that help round them out as people. Spike’s subtle sleights of hand, Jet’s careful maintenance of his bonzai, or Faye’s desperate clutching of horse race tickets all work to paint a more realistic picture of each of the characters.

One of my favorite moments of character acting is in Heavy Metal Queen. A hungover-as-fuck Spike is diligently putting together a prairie oyster, only to have the raw egg fall on his crotch after thugs in the bar fight unfolding in the background bump into him. As a result, Spike proceeds to administer a frustrated-yet-nonchalant beatdown that feels heavy, brutish and satisfying. For us normal folks not versed in the ways of Jeet Kune Do, the scene brilliantly exhibits what many of us would like do when pissed off and hungover.

The show of course has more “serious” examples of extreme animation prowess, such as the visceral violence of Pierrot Le Fou, the amazing satellite laser acrobatics of Jamming with Edward, the alleyway brawl in Jupiter Jazz, and the scrupulous rendering of the space shuttle Columbia in Wild Horses. It’s amazing that a show from this era of anime looks this good, consistently.

What particularly makes Bebop’s production stand out is its unique character designs headed up by industry vet Kawamoto Toshihiro. I think his work on this show remains his best to date. While Kawamoto’s character designs in past productions such as Gundam 08th MS Team and Golden Boy are quite polished, there is an alluring gritty streak to the characters in Bebop, matching the dinged-up world in which they occupy. Just look at Spike’s scruffy hair, Jet’s torn up jacket, Faye’s skimpy garments, or Ed’s loose t-shirt–each design offers hints to each character’s personality and how they live their life.

I particularly like the bounty designs. Kawamoto goes whole hog in doodling out a very convincing rogues’ gallery of goofballs in various shapes and sizes. The nods to western pop culture are especially amusing–we all remember Woody Allen from Heavy Metal Queen, and the sinister looking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Stray Dog Strut, right? This goes for the non-bounty guest characters as well–Wild Horses’ Doohan is obviously Doc Brown from Back to the Future, and I greatly appreciated the appearance of the Blues Brothers as random goons in Boogie Woogie Feng Shui.

To compliment the eclectic visuals, the show is a Chinese breakfast buffet of aural goodness. You don’t need me to tell you this, but the soundtrack by Kanno Yoko and “The Seatbelts” is phenomenal. It’s very rare that you get an anime soundtrack that hits a bunch of genres and pulls them off superbly. While there are a bunch of anime soundtracks that shift musical genres for dramatic effect, the tracks housed in the Bebop discography feel fully explored as pieces of music, from the heavy bass and sleazy horns of Autumn in Ganymede to the quiet and sorrowful piano in Adieu. Hell, there are songs that don’t even make it into the show, like Fantaisie Sign.

Bebop pulls no punches in establishing a sophisticated tone with its slick jazz pieces, and pulling on the heartstrings with vocal numbers like Blue, Words That We Couldn’t Say and Wo Qui Non Coin. But at the same time, the show has a great selection of quirky musical arrangements, like that weird ska version of Doggy Dog, the playful vignettes of Cat Blues, or the flippant guitar and percussion of Vitamin “E”–a less-than-5-second track that snidely runs on loop during the preview for the final episode.

Completing the whole package are the vocal performances that bring the characters to life. While Bebop is remembered in the States for its English dub, this re-visit to the series marked my first time watching it in Japanese. I had watched select episodes in Japanese in the past–namely Cowboy Funk for Andy’s hilarious Engrish–but never the whole series. I got into the show through the English track on Cartoon Network, and during that time of my “anime career” I primarily enjoyed anime dubbed into English.

I never thought I would say this, but I far prefer the Japanese track to the English.

Don’t get me wrong, that English dub is great. But in the Japanese performances, there is more diversity and subtlety. Yamadera Koichi is perfect as Spike. While he certainly has that cool vibe to him, he’s also sure to be goofy when needed. It’s clear from Yamadera’s performance that Spike is still a youngster, and his air of relaxed coolness is partly a facade. I feel similar about Faye this time around, too–in stark contrast to her design, Hayashibara Megumi’s sharp and fast delivery paints Faye as a very uneasy person, as if she has something to hide. Meanwhile, Wendee Lee heaps on a bunch of cool confidence in her performance, which I feel betrays Faye’s inner conflict.

Another performance that stood out was Wakamoto Norio’s performance as Vicious. In the English dub, Skip Stellrecht portrays Vicious as something of an enigma who is unpredictable, and scary. Meanwhile, Wakamoto’s performance is straightforward, portraying Vicious as power-hungry and arrogant–qualities that really help explain his dynamic with Spike. In the English dub, Spike and Vicious never really felt like they were on the same level–Vicious felt like this all-powerful mastermind, and Spike was just a regular guy. However, in Japanese it is clear that Vicious is also just a Regular Guy, and his relationship with Spike seems more organic and personal.

Meanwhile, Ishizuka Unsho’s performance as Jet and Tada Aoi’s performance as Ed communicate the same characters that Beau Billingslea and Melissa Fahn respectively played. Both Ishizuka and Beau’s performances have a booming power to them, and this time around it was great to experience Ishizuka’s take on the character, especially considering his tragic death two years ago. Melissa’s performance of Ed is great in English, but in the original track, Ed spouts a lot of goofy phrases that only work in Japanese. These are excellently translated in the English dub, but it was cool to see what the original idiosyncrasies were compared to the English adaptation.

It’s not my intention to shit on the English Cowboy Bebop dub–it’s what I grew up with, and I still think it’s super solid. However, after experiencing Bebop in Japanese, I was able to notice more subtle aspects of the characters that I had missed previously, and at the same time enjoy career-defining performances from some of Japan’s top voice talent. When it comes down to it, both the original Japanese and English dub are excellent, and I could recommend either.

What remains consistent in either version of Bebop is a tangible devotion and passion for the work in the vocal performances–the same devotion and passion found in every aspect of the show’s production, spanning from the animation, settings, and soundtrack.

And it is this devotion and passion that makes Cowboy Bebop still shine bright, even today.

To Be Continued

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