Future Blues 2020 — Session 6: The Motion Picture

There is a myth that Cowboy Bebop didn’t enjoy any popularity in Japan. While one can argue that the show gained more notoriety in the US compared to in Japan after its run on Adult Swim, the timeline shows that the film, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, was greenlit prior to the series’ run in the US, as evidenced by its release date of September 1st, 2001 — one day before the series’ initial run on Adult Swim. Digging out old interviews, the record shows that both the fans and the producers were clamoring for more Bebop even before the series concluded its run in Japan. And with a successful Seatbelts concert back in the day, it’s clear that Bebop was a mini-phenomenon amongst otaku at the time.

I was always down with the idea of a little bit more Cowboy Bebop. Even with its perfect set of 26 episodes, I still wanted more stories to flesh out the world and give the characters extra time to shine. So it is no surprise that I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation when news dropped about the US premier of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door back in 2002.

The film came at the right time for me. Just as I had more or less seen every episode of the TV series about 500 times over within the span of a year, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door offered a fresh new glimpse into the world of Bebop with higher stakes. It was a treat watching it in a theater (for me the now-closed Dupont Circle 5 in Washington DC)–the tactile rendering of the eclectic settings, the diversity of the expertly-performed soundtrack, and the dynamism of the explosive action scenes were a distinct cut above the TV series, and came to life in a big way in the cinema.

It was only years later when I heard that the film has a bad rap among some fans. As a huge fan of both the TV series and Heaven’s Door, I was perplexed by this point of view. However, watching it again, I can see the holes. That said, I still think it’s a great addition to the series.

To recap, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door falls between the sessions Cowboy Funk and Brain Scratch–quite late into the series–and follows the starving Bebop crew as they try to hunt down one of the biggest bounties they ever stumbled upon: a bio-terrorist named Vincent Volaju. As the crew pursues their mark, they get caught up in a bigger government conspiracy.

On a technical level, Heaven’s Door is incredible. Of course, while the TV series looks great, it was really pushing the boundaries of what TV anime could look like at the time. Meanwhile, the film has no limits. The colors, lights and shadows are convincingly organic, and draw you into the world. The multi-cultural settings pop, from the faux New York streets, the futuristic cityscapes, and the shadowy Arabian corridors of Moroccan Street. You can also tell from the very first scene that This Is a Movie–the holdup in the convenience store fills the screen perfectly, with Spike cartwheeling to dodge bullets while goons run from every corner of the 16:9 frame to get the edge on the bounty hunters trying to apprehend them. It goes without saying that the opening credits role is a standout work by Hiroyuki Okiura, depicting a great rogues gallery of scruffy-looking city goers rendered in extreme realism.

The set pieces are spectacular. Similar to how the TV series stood out for its stellar action scenes, Heaven’s Door is one of the few anime films out there that really gets both gunplay and martial arts down in a convincing, gritty and realistic manner. Spike and Elektra exchanging fisticuffs in the hallways of Cherious Medical conjures up memories of Spike’s first fight with Asimov in episode one, but with a heavier punch. Meanwhile, the visceral nature of the shootout in the city train is reminiscent of action scenes in The Real Folk Blues, but with a more piercing feeling of fear given the cavalier depiction of the gunplay, and the collateral damage. The fight at the end is the crown jewel, with Spike and Vincent punching each other out to the brilliant backdrop of fireworks, with a handful of gut-wrenching rough blows exchanged between the two.

One thing the film is very good at is portraying Vincent as an intimidating character. The scenes set in his room are some of the most frightening, such as his ero-guro encounter with Faye, in which he cuts open her outfit and kisses her in uncomfortable detail. Preceding that is the death of Malcolm–seeing him stand there nonchalantly as Vincent has his gun to the virus capsule is chilling, and the rendering of Malcolm falling face-first to the floor and smashing his glasses is patently horrifying.

Of course, along with the rest of its high technical prowess, the film knocks it out of the park with its soundtrack. While the TV series had an expansive musical lexicon, it leaned heavily into jazz and blues. Meanwhile, the film pulls influences from all over, from the James Brown-inspired funk piece What Planet is This? to the country twang of Diggin’, and the rock anthem Gotta Knock and Little Harder. When hitting Moroccan Street, we are treated to soothing middle-eastern crooning, which reminds me of visiting my grandparents’ house as a child. I particularly like the trippy R&B tracks that cue up when the bioterrorism butterflies show up, strongly supporting the already spooky visuals.

If you actually watch the film where it falls in the series between Cowboy Funk and Brain Scratch, it acts as a good lead-up to the end of the series when it comes to Spike’s story. The film expands upon Spike’s difficulties with getting a grip on reality, and introduces Vincent as an interesting foil. Vincent struggles with the same perceptions of reality, which lead him to a reckless life, similar to Spike’s. However, while Spike’s demons come from a very personal place, Vincent was cheated by society, which drives his desire to erase humanity–or at least the population of that one Martian city. It’s fascinating to see how Spike and Vincent clash with their own personal creeds at the end, and how given different circumstances, their positions could very well have been switched.

To this end, I would have liked Vincent to be explored in more detail. He has the Cool Character Design thing, Cool Deep Voice thing, and Unfortunate Past thing going on, but I feel a deeper look into what makes him tick beyond a single flashback would have worked to drive home the similarities between him and Spike even more. A similar approach could have been taken to Elektra as well. She’s great, has a super-cool design, and kicks a lot of ass. But much like Vincent, we don’t learn too much about her character or her circumstances beyond a few lines of dialogue.

This is where I start to see some holes–for a TV series that had really tight pacing in each episode, the film feels a little flabby. It runs at nearly 2 hours long, but the amount of time it spends on original characters like Vincent, Elektra, and even Mendelo is similar to the amount of time characters like this would get in a 20-minute episode of the series. Given the extended feature-length of Heaven’s Door, perhaps more time could have been budgeted towards letting these key characters shine a bit more.

A lot of the “flab” can likely be found in the time the film spends on reintroducing all your favorite main characters from the original series. Along with Spike and Faye kicking ass all up-and-down the block, we get Jet enjoying a drive-in movie with Bob, and Ed going trick or treating–where she incidentally meets Julius (who apparently moved from Callisto) and a crazy guy with a shotgun. These scenes are great, but more balance between the main characters and the new characters–or just a slightly longer runtime to compensate–would have helped Heaven’s Door hit harder.

Given the film is about bioterrorism, it’s kind of uncomfortable to watch in 2020. And as a result, I found myself squinting my eyes a bit at how they eventually beat the nano-machine-powered virus. But again, it is the future, so anything is possible. Also, given the massive scale of the story compared to the rest of the series, it’s kind of hard to believe this story is supposed to happen right after Cowboy Funk, but hey, it’s “The Movie”, so they gotta do it big.

While it ain’t up to the stuff of some of the better entries in the Cowboy Bebop TV series, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is still Very Good. It acts as a nice look back into the demons that haunt Spike, and eventually lead him to carry out his attack on the Red Dragons. While it has some pitfalls, between its high technical proficiency and nice callbacks to the key driving themes of the series, I think Heaven’s Door is a must-watch.

To Be Continued

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