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Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
A Japanese production catches the American vibe
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Sunrise
Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
Japan, 2001
Every so often someone creates an animated film that prompts the question, "Why bother animating it when you could have done it in live-action?" This is usually levelled against films like Grave of the Fireflies, a realistic autobiography set it wartime Japan; I don't think it's ever been asked of any kind of science-fiction or fantasy film—which is curious, considering that live-action SF productions, with their increasingly elaborate special effects, are becoming even more animated.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (sometimes subtitled as Knockin' on Heaven's Door) made me think of the animation/live-action question during the opening credit sequence, which evoked the memory of title sequences to so many urban movies and TV shows. It's flawless: a black and white montage of life in the American city, be it New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or, in this case, somewhere on a terraformed Mars.

The plot, too, is grounded in current events and concerns, centering as it does around a terrorist plot to unleash... well, that would be telling, so let's just say it would be unpleasant for many people. Wrapped around this is the origin of the terrorist and the weapon he intends to use, government and military cover-ups, and scientists stricken with the knowledge of the horrors they've created.

None of these themes are new to anime, but it's rare that they're put into such a recognizable—that is, outwardly contemporary—form.

But then, Cowboy Bebop has always had a contemporary American flair; American in that way only non-Americans can make it, by looking in on its near-ubiquitous pop culture and extracting the most salient parts. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, those would be the settings (as often in settings familiar to twentieth-century audiences as not), Yoko Kanno's brilliant music (from the hot-jazz opening theme through to the New Orleans sound in the "Wild Horses" episode to the guitar riffs of "Heavy Metal Queen"), and the recurring presence of black (or at least dark-skinned) people throughout the foreground and background as reinforcement of the idea of an urban melting pot.

So anyway, there I was, watching the opening credits, and thinking that Cowboy Bebop could be shot in live-action in any American urban metropolis, and there'd be little lost in the translation. So why wasn't it?

There's often a point in the animation fan's life where the grail is how realistic an animated scene can be; it usually takes a little while (sometimes, frustratingly, a long while) before they realize it's not realism they're looking for, but believability. For example, the giant robots of Macross don't move anything like how a biped of that size would move, but the way their mechanics are animated make a convincing case to our sense of aesthetics.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie made me realize there's a third stage, one that anime can be particularly good at: what I call hyper-realism. That's where the director strives to make the setting, staging, motion and camerawork feel as close to live-action as possible, but takes advantage of the total control afforded by animation. You can see it in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie when Spike and Vincent, the film's ultimate antagonist, square off in a faux-Eiffel tower: the camera follows them manically, jittering as if a cameraman were frantically running to keep them in frame—but the action is clear in a way that live-action could never accomplish.

Added to the mix is the movie's treatment of its soundtrack, which borrows heavily from the American summer-blockbuster tradition of matching up songs and music to visuals to establish mood. Like the series, the Cowboy Bebop movie uses Kanno's seemingly American music, both songs and instrumentals, to deftly underscore every scene.

You might notice a certain irony here. Cowboy Bebop, a film that at this point could only have come out of the anime tradition, uses storytelling techniques and motifs that are American in origin—and does it better than many current American movies and TV shows are. For example, while movies like Go, The Matrix, and, famously, The Big Chill pulled together great musical soundtracks, most current American blockbusters seem willing to trot out whatever bunch of tracks they can get the rights for, rather than carefully craft a coherent, appropriate soundtrack. Yoko Kanno's sometimes idiosyncratic, often playful, but always thoughtful approach is only mirrored, I think, by David Holmes's work for Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven.

A week or two after watching Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, I realized that the TV series it's based on shares some thematic and structural elements with the ill-fated Firefly series, which for all its science-fiction trappings and near-future setting, also focused mainly on characters in familiar locations. Both series also featured a handful of misfit characters who are a loose family, but at any given time are likely to want to be elsewhere. They also claim to value profit over anything else. The quirky Firefly didn't catch on, seeming to actively turn off more viewers than it turned on. Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, seems to gain new converts every day. In the end, it isn't a matter of asking a question of Cowboy Bebop; rather, Cowboy Bebop demands that we answer why more shows and movies like Firefly aren't animated.

Originally appeared in fps (August 2003)
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