I don’t know much about anime, but I think Cowboy Bebop is one of the fundamentals. The only animes I can name are this, Sailor Moon, and Hello Kitty, so I figure they’re all equally famous. A friend of mine who’s not even into anime is unashamed to wear a Cowboy Bebop T-shirt. He told me it’s good. I believe that he believes that, but I don’t have much interest in finding out for myself. Like sports, James Joyce, and reality TV, it’s a gap in my cultural literacy I can live with.
But I’m about to change that.
My first dilemma is whether to watch with subtitles or dubbed. I started with subtitles for two reasons. First, hearing Japanese things in Japanese is obviously the truer version. Second, I’ve heard some awful dubs in my time. You only need to listen to Phil Hartman’s black cat in Kiki’s Delivery Service to appreciate the damage a dub can do.
But the Japanese dialogue is jarring. Since I associate Japanese dialogue with Japanese things, I expect it in a Kurosawa movie, when a kaiju is stomping through a city, or among the guards in Bridge on the River Kwai. But to my surprise, there’s nothing really Japanese in the first episode of Cowboy Becop. In fact, it’s strikingly Western. The first image is of a Gothic cathedral. The opening credits go on for some time before a mech shows up. Which turns out to be just a spaceship, so that barely even counts. And it’s not just Western in the global sense. It’s Western in the American sense. A ringworld called Tijuana, everyone wearing cowboy hats, a Native American shaman, a harmonica before and after, with a slide guitar throughout. There will be a saxophone during a chase scene.
I finally broke after getting to the saloon bartender with the bowtie and pencil mustache. He just sounds so wrong speaking Japanese. So I went back and restarted with the English dub. If I hadn’t, I would have missed that the woman has an accent. French? She says “adios”, so maybe it’s Spanish? Mexican? The implication being that she’s local to this Tijuana ringworld? It doesn’t matter. It just matters that she’s from somewhere different than everyone else, and I never would have inferred that from the Japanese dialogue. In fact, I wonder if that’s a detail only present in the English dub.
It makes for a better story if she has an accent. It seems to me the point of this episode is defying our expectations about the woman. When we first see her, is she pregnant? Surely not. Yep, she’s pregnant. She pulls a gun during the shootout, so she’s also armed. She’s presumably compassionate for sparing our bounty hunter hero — I will later realize his name is Spike, which is a pretty dumb name for someone who isn’t a family pet — and telling her boyfriend that the violence has to stop. But when she kills Asimov herself, and is then killed, and is furthermore not pregnant, that’s the twist in this episode, played to a lovely haunting silence. This image made it a half hour well spent:
But now I’m wondering if this whole thing is just episodic adventures of a bounty hunter named Spike. I guess the woman’s storyline is over. Is there going to be more about the drug she was smuggling? Is the dialogue about Mars important? Since they’re not in actual Tijuana, what’s up with Earth? Will we learn more about Spike’s comment that he’s already been killed by a woman? I presume that’s the opening sequence, before the credits, in black-and-white except for the rose and the blood. When he smiles slightly at the end of that sequence, is he priming a grenade, or is that just his lighter? I don’t need an answer. Some questions are more intriguing when they aren’t fully answered.
Whatever the case, Cowboy Bebop, now you have my attention.
Next: I double the amount of Cowboy Bebop I’ve seen!
(Why am I watching anime? Because it won a Patreon review request drawing. Check out my campaign if you’d like to participate.)