Back in 2014, a friend and I collaborated on a series of interview-style articles called Watson Watches. The idea was to introduce Watson, who knew very little about anime and had seen only bits of a couple of shows in passing, to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. Rather than attempt to get him to love or even like anime, the overall goal was simply to see how the medium appeared to someone who did not have any prior knowledge or involvement.
The articles ended up pretty fun to write both on Watson’s end as well as mine, and since plenty of readers likewise seemed to enjoy them, we’ve decided to revive the series – but with a twist. Since Watson now naturally has some familiarity with anime, the titles chosen for him to watch will all have something in common: they’re all going to have been produced and aired before the year 2000. Oh, and just for fun, we’ll be tackling the shows in reverse chronological order.
(Note that we’ve also decided to exclude all films and OVAs in order to focus solely on shows that were originally televised. Yep, that means no Akira or early Ghibli, sorry guys.)
As always, Watson and I will be watching everything separately so that his opinions remain as independent as possible. He’s also been instructed not to look up the titles online beforehand for the same reason. The interview questions for each anime will be given to him after viewing.
First up: 1998’s Cowboy Bebop.
As you’re aware, Cowboy Bebop is a pre-2000s anime; it first began airing in 1998. Do you think you would you have been able to guess that just from watching, and do you feel that it’s a series that has aged well in terms of production values?
If I had to guess I would have said it was from early in the 21st century, so I think it has held up pretty well. The aspect that dates it most is the video resolution. While perfectly acceptable it’s obviously not made for wide, high definition screens. But this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism: rather it shows quite well a point I’ve been banging on about for more than a decade now, that visuals are NOT the be-all and end-all. It is my belief that a good show – or movie, or game, or whatever – will still be good no matter what level of technology is used for the visuals. There comes a point where they are “good enough” not to detract from the experience, and after that we’re plunging deep into diminishing returns territory. Yes, I know there is the occasional exception to this – the detailed water effects in Free, for example, did genuinely add to the show. In general though, I wish the creators who get all excited about pushing the bleeding edge of graphical technology would sit down and breathe into a paper bag for a while, because this sort of Red Queen’s Race doesn’t do us any favours. But I digress.
Anyway, the production values in general seem very solid. The technical aspects work well to complement each other, and the end result is a very competent show. They are good enough, in fact, that the creators could include several “pacing” scenes – there’s no dialogue, no action, nothing of any import happens in them. And yet they still round out the episodes they occur in beautifully. It’s not often that the creators of a show are confident enough to do that AND have it work for them. So yes, I feel Cowboy Bebop has aged very well in terms of production values.
How about with regards to story, characters, and themes?
For some reason Cowboy Bebop does have a bit of a 90s feel to it in these respects. I’m not sure why, there’s nothing I can point at specifically that does that. The closest I can get is that there’s a certain vision of the future that it draws from for these things, and that for whatever reason it’s a vision I associate with the 90s. Maybe it’s just that it isn’t as depressing as more recent ideas of the future. In any case, while it does feel noticeably different from them I don’t think it has been dated as such. The story, characters, and themes are such that their essential elements could exist in other settings quite well, and this universal applicability stands the show in good stead. It’s been nearly 20 years since the show aired, and it still provides something that many people can connect with. I see no reason the same should not be true in another 20.
Since the first Watson Watches series I have seen a few more shows, it’s true, but I doubt I could truthfully be called either an anime fan or a professional critic. So just keep in mind that this is an amateur opinion at best. With that out of the way, however, I have mixed feelings on the subject.
I can see several reasons why people might think of it in such a way. Most of the characters are well-portrayed, not heroes but regular and flawed people doing their best to get by and coping with what the world throws at them. They’re not trying to fix anything, just make it through another day. The music is also very good: moody at times, exuberant at others, but always appropriate. It genuinely adds to the scenes and the show as a whole. There aren’t many series where I actually want to listen to the opening credits every time it comes on. Another reason it might deserve that status is the contrast it provides. It draws heavily from western (and Western) pop culture to produce a show that is quite unlike both western animated shows and most anime I’ve seen. In part this is because it seems to be the end of something, rather than a beginning – Spike and Jet, and perhaps even Faye, have mostly already had their big adventures and are now coping with the aftereffects. This is a technique I’m not sure I’ve seen used before, and the way in which it leaves a lot of questions unanswered works well in the main.
But not always. I suspect that the conscious decision not to explore the background encouraged the creators to play fast and loose at times, secure in the knowledge that they would never have to explain it. And for a show that usually does so well in terms of suspension of disbelief, this is very jarring when it occurs. In several cases, implausibility’s were piled up deep enough to pull me out of my immersion. And as I’ve mentioned previously, the more often this happens the lower my tolerance for it becomes.
One point I’m undecided about is the episodes which didn’t relate to the “central plot” of the show (scare-quotes intentional since I’m not quite sure Cowboy Bebop has one in the conventional sense). The show has a generally episodic nature, which I usually like, but the episodes themselves were a little hit-and-miss. When they focused on a specific character they generally worked well, when they were played simply for comedic value… not so much. Some of them seemed completely pointless and could have been removed without harm. Swapping those for a bit more background exposition might not have been a bad idea.
On balance though, I think Cowboy Bebop does deserve to be called a classic. The aesthetics are excellent, the characters are mostly very good, the direction is solid, and its episodic and meandering nature helped make it more human. What really pushes it over the edge is the way the characters react to their pasts. That thoughtful and at times almost nostalgic theme to the show makes all the difference.
Music, particularly jazz, obviously plays a big part in the series. In fact, according to composer Kanno Yoko, the music was one of the first aspects of the series to begin production before even most of the characters. Moreover, the director has also said that he took inspiration from Kanno’s music and created new scenes for the show after listening to it. What do you think about that?
I’m very pleased to hear it. I think that the smooth integration of writing, pacing, and audio-visual elements is one of the hallmarks of a great production and more attention should be paid to it in general. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, the amount of care taken with the music and how it interacts with the rest of the show is very apparent. It’s one of the most obviously distinctive aspects of the show, and it pays dividends in engaging the audience. I always associate this management of the different aspects of a show as the work of the director, so if they can pay such attention to these things that’s a big mark in their favour.
Do you have a favourite and least favourite character?
Favourite? Ein, obviously. The data-dog is clearly the brains of the outfit, and although he receives a shamefully low amount of character development, his innate wit and charm ensures he steals every scene he appears in… although, if you insist on a human character, I’d most likely go for Jet. He’s probably the most grounded and empathetic of them, and is arguably the only one coping with their past in a way that isn’t self-destructive. He looks after the others and is remarkably tolerant of having uninvited guests in his ship. I guess those bonsai trees do a lot for his mental stability.
Least favourite? Not a difficult choice. Faye can be irritating at times, especially the way she has somehow become an expert pilot, card-shark and martial artist in the few years since waking up in a hospital bed, but her multi-competence is balanced by flaws and characterisation that make her human. Ed, on the other hand, is just annoying. I’m frankly surprised to see her in a show like this, because she seems like an author-inserted Mary Sue character of the first water. Oh look! A child genius who has no redeeming weaknesses, is pivotal to solving most problems, and generally makes everyone else looks like superfluous bumbling idiots. She appears to have an author-mandated immunity to pretty much everything as well as being the designated cuteness object and success-story. I suppose her mannerisms are meant to be endearing, but they really tick me off.
The director has said that the only character to have a real-life model was Ed, who was based on Kanno’s behaviour as observed by him when they first met. Does that make you think of Ed any differently?
A little. The main effect it has is to make me even more surprised that a character like Ed made it into the show in the first place, since real people tend to have a mix of traits that is somewhat less unequivocally aggravating. It also makes me wonder what Kanno is like in person… I have to presume that some characteristics were exaggerated and others downplayed in order to end up with the Ed that graces our screens.
Generally I don’t think it’s a good idea to base characters too closely on real-life individuals, especially in a medium like anime. Due to the limited opportunities to get to know the characters you’re going to end up with a caricature anyway, so it might as well be one that fits the artistic vision of the piece. I can see that real people can offer a more nuanced basis for the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make a character human, so there is certainly scope to use such an approach, but presumably in Ed’s case it was taken way, WAY too far.
Final question. Unlike the previous Watson Watches articles, you watched all of Cowboy Bebop before seeing these questions rather than just a handful. Do you think any of your answers would have changed dramatically if you had only seen, say, the first nine of them (at which point all main characters have been introduced)?
Yes, I’m pretty sure they would. At that point all the characters may have been introduced, but characterisation in Cowboy Bebop is an ongoing thing. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have the same feeling about them as I would later on, especially in the cases of Ed and Faye. The other thing is that Bebop is a show about the past in a lot of ways, and the audience’s understanding of that past is something else that is gradually developed. I feel that Cowboy Bebop is a complex show, and there are many layers of thought that could be applied to aspects that only start to appear as the show progresses. But why am I talking about that, when the show itself tells us all we need to know?
“The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship “BEBOP”, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… “COWBOY BEBOP”.”
You’re gonna carry that weight.
Question of the post: Any other questions for Watson, or comments in general? As per usual, Watson himself will be replying to anything aimed specifically at him.