Getting off the High Horse: Picking on Cowboy Bebop

Recently, I read an interesting exchange between Daniel and Michael about Cowboy Bebop.

And by recently, I mean about fifteen minutes ago.

Now, I’ve said my piece about the quality of Cowboy Bebop as a show, but comparing it to Faulkner is a bit unfair – both to Faulkner and Cowboy Bebop.

Faulkner’s biggest strength (in my opinion) is his use of form. As Michael rightly points out, the stream-of-consciousness first person narration creates an immersive environment. The reader is not only seeing the story through the character’s eyes, but also through their perception. So we’re actually inside of the character’s mind. It’s a form that’s often copied, but from what I’ve read of it, it’s never done quite as well.

Where I disagree with Michael is that Cowboy Bebop uses a similar style. In fact, I disagree that Bebop uses form at all. Now I could be a Philistine, but I simply can’t see the largely episodic structure (even with the slight tie-in in the end) as a homage. The episodes are too scattered, too tonally inconsistent and too rooted in third-person narration to be anything more then what they are – a collection of short pulp stories with a larger novella spread out among them.

That said, I think Raymond Chandler is a better writer than Faulkner. Hell, I think Robert Ludlum is a better writer than Faulkner.

Now, I’m not go into the whole depth issue. Frankly, I haven’t really seen a good way to judge depth. But I do think that the comparison to an “airport thriller” is also incorrect. Bebop is noir. Maybe not quite in the way that Chandler describes hardboiled detectives, but more in the way that noir has become. Spike is Chili Palmer. He’s the classic repentant criminal, who’s trying to forget about his old life, but can’t. Jet Black is… well… Philip Marlowe (or perhaps it’d be more fair to compare him to Matthew Scudder or Spenser). He’s the classic disillusioned cop, who still believes in justice, but can’t seem to work inside of the corrupt system. Faye Valentine is the femme fatale (there really are too many of them to name.) Really, the only thing that’s unusual that Bebop brings to the table is Ed and Ein. Everything else is a stylish re-hash.

But that doesn’t make it thematically empty. Yes, it does play out some rather familiar themes like identity, repentance and betrayal. But it leaves this viewer with enough questions to think about after it’s all done. For instance, is identity determined by memories? Once an identity is formed can we willingly leave that identity behind? What happens when the things we based our identity on betray us? And if this is a good measure of depth, then I think Bebop succeeds.

5 thoughts on “Getting off the High Horse: Picking on Cowboy Bebop

  1. To be honest when I was reading that Faulkner’s piece over at Daniel’s I just kind of tuned it out. He tends to either hit really well or miss by a mile, and this was the latter. Sometimes when comparing two things seemingly unrelated something insightful may be highlighted by the unusual comparison, but I’m not sure if this was the case.

  2. @omo – I do agree that comparing two unrelated things can be insightful. And I have to admit, Michael and Daniel are really the masters of it. I’m just not really convinced that there’s a bridge between the two here. Well unless you’re going to pick out one trait and then compare it to similar use of the same trait (like I really agree with Daniel’s comparison between VOTOMS and hard-boiled detectives).

  3. What I was trying (evidently rather kak-handedly) to do was to link Bebop to cheap entertainment (evidently the airport thriller was a bad choice) in how they’re both received, not because of any inherent characteristics which both share. Bebop is great, but it’s generally received as something pretty light for a number of reasons: it’s not ‘hardcore’ enough anime for some long-term fans (it’s relatively well-known in the Occident, after all), it’s action and it’s (as you point out) noir, and noir has always been looked down upon.

    The Sound and the Fury is not received like that, it’s received as a Meaningful Work. It may be that Cowboy Bebop is also a Meaningful Work, but it isn’t treated like one. I’m not really commenting on the rightness or wrongness of that, just observing that it is the case, and I’ll let you and Michael, should he choose to comment, discuss whether Bebop and TSatF are at all similar in construction, genre or theme.

  4. I really think that Bebop succeeds more as a music metaphor than a fiction one. Each episode is a riff on a theme, and the players being who they are – take it to wherever they will.

    I believe that even fans of the show are too taken in by the “main” storyline (just Spike’s really) to notice that this just serves as a placeholder for the sheer emptiness being communicated. This too, is a show about nothing. It’s a show of dead ends, the last few turns that lead to such ends. This to me, expressed mostly in the “filler” episodes are somehow more interesting than Spike’s rivalry with Vicious and the tragedy of Julia.

    Comparisons are most times unfair (I compared Ranka to Lafiel for crying out loud), but they are fun to make, and so we do.

  5. Cowboy Bebop is good, but it has never been one of my favorite anime series ever which is somewhat sacrilegious depending on your anime fan. Some elements have showed their age and it’s a fun action show, but I’ve been more intrigued by other series.

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