Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Film Noir Roots of Cowboy Bebop

I got a new feature up, an essay on Cowboy Bebop I wrote a while back. Rewatching the series for what is now the fourth time for me was interesting this time because I did it totally alone. The other times I'd been introducing people to the show and wowing them with the style and music. Watching the show while scribbling notes and analyzing things was surprising because I realized how truly barebones the stories are. That's not a bad thing, but it made me realize how much of the series is driven by style over substance. The show is about slick anime, fantastic music, and tight action scenes.

It's also very appropriate for film noir, because that's the gist of the genre as a whole. There are no complex moral decisions here. A guy who got dumped, a woman who won't risk another person wrecking their life, and another guy who won't take no for an answer sums up just about everyone in the formula. I think it worked then, today in stuff like Brick, Uncharted 2, my own terrible blog fiction, and finally Cowboy Bebop because these are things people can immediately relate to. You don't become too angry about the ending to Bebop because even if you don't agree, you know why Spike is making that decision. Which is all you really need to tell a good story. I broke down the basic elements of film noir and then used the film that the show was pretty blatantly copying to outline why Bebop is such a great show ten years after its release.

Plus, c'mon, the soundtrack is badass.


Rob Zacny said...

Bebop is funny, because it has a handful of brilliant episodes and some unforgettable moments but is mostly content to be flashy and silly. I basically love the show for the first Spike - Vicious episode, with the showdown in the cathedral, the episode with Jet's ex, and the finale episodes. Whenever I go back to it, I realize just how little of Bebop lives up to those episodes.

Not that that diminishes my affection any. I'll forgive a lot for that much style.

I'd never picked up on the Out of the Past similarities, although it's been awhile since I've watched Bebop and I think you've made a really good case for treating Bebop as a consciously parallel work. My one regret with Bebop is that Vicious does not really hold a candle to Whit as an antagonist. Where the rest of the series is capable of some real subtlety in motivation and character development, Vicious is just a scorpion: a character that instinctively does evil. We get hints that there might be more to him than that, but I never really buy it. He seems to have stumbled into Bebop from another anime.

Geoffrey said...

I'd just like to say, thank you for mentioning Brick. Netflix had been recommending it to me for a while, but I hadn't paid it much attention. Watched it last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

L.B. Jeffries said...

@ Zacny

I gotta agree, sitting down and paying attention to the show's plot instead of focusing on the style & music made me realize how tightly paced and simple most of the episodes are. There's also a lot of anime and Japanese elements that these characters are dumped into which never works as well for these noir characters. Or at least never works quite like a film noir is supposed to, the show is such a mish-mash of elements from Westerns and Samurai themes that a lot of the episodes just struck me as wild experiments. Which I guess is the appeal of it.

Vicious is stuck in that same rut to me. From a noir perspective, the villain is usually a bit more rational and stable. You understand their motivation and can relate, if only in a crude way. From an anime perspective, Vicious is remarkably not insane or immature. You're not really repulsed by him. Merging the two concepts results in a person who never emotes but never really explains anything about themselves either. Or to use the RedLetterMedia test, describing Vicious without referring to his job, ninja sword, or relationship with other characters is very difficult.

@ Geoffrey

Oh...Brick is an all-time favorite for me. It's a love letter to so many different film noir movies, whether it's borrowing scenes or camera angles. Translating it into a high school setting was such a great stroke of brilliance. This actually makes me want to watch it again...

David Page said...

funny, i've watched out of the past and cowboy bebop dozens of times and never saw the connection.

also. you gotta love the how brenden from brick is inspired by spike.