Cowboy Bebop Remix: Complete Collection Review
The work which becomes a new genre itself will be called... Cowboy Bebop
The qualities and the attractions of Shinichiro Watanabe’s groundbreaking anime series from 1998 following the adventures of a space-age bounty hunter and his crew are certainly immediately obvious from a first viewing. Across 26 episodes of the series, Spike and his crew trail wanted criminals across a solar system in 2071 populated by humans, the planets made in the image of famous cities of the old Earth whose surface has been destroyed by a gateway accident. The future setting of the series as well as the western bounty-hunter element consequently retain a familiarity of look and feel, while giving it a greater freedom to expand on a variety of storylines. Coming back to the series again, finally collected in the UK in its remixed format, after a number of years during which animation techniques have advanced considerably, it’s gratifying to see that the series has other more lasting qualities.
There’s a great deal of enjoyment to be had at the laid-back nonchalance of Spike and the crew of the Bebop, their independence and every-man-for-themselves attitude and the predictability and reliability of how their adventures play out. Their carelessness and recklessness more often than not result in the deaths of their prey and a failure to collect their bounty, but just occasionally their individual talents, some brute force and a helping of dumb luck allow their individual paths to come together long enough for them to earn another paycheck that just about covers the repairs to all the damage incurred with just enough left over to restock their meagre food supplies. Mostly importantly however and most evidently on an initial viewing, it’s the formal qualities of Cowboy Bebop that stand out. Every episode is set to a blistering score from Yoko Kanno, every frame of each episode oozes class, a blend of classic retro designs and then innovative CGI work, drawing together elements from all the best action-thriller features and science-fiction adventures into exciting angles, simulated slow motion handheld-camera shoot-outs and first-person perspectives, where impossibly cool characters spin, whirl and nonchalantly take position against the colourful, elaborate backgrounds of the best that the solar system has to offer.
All that is enough to provide the series with plentiful attitude and personality, but the key to Cowboy Bebop making them work lies ultimately in its characters. Money isn’t exactly a priority with the Bebop crew. Sure, the rare fee they collect from their adventures comes in handy to pay those bills, repair the ship and put food on the table – hunger is a good motivating factor and food often plays a major part in the episodes – but there’s something deeper that drives Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed and, yeah, maybe even Ein. Reflecting their individuality and lack of togetherness, the series doesn’t introduce them as a ready-made team, the Bebop unit operated initially by Spike and Jet, two seemingly committed bachelors, lonesome cowboys with dark pasts who reluctantly pick up a dog, Ein, and then gambling troublemaker Faye and techno-wiz Edward along the way. As the crew grows, so too does the dynamic that motivates them – sometimes it’s the challenge of the case, sometimes its internal competitiveness, sometimes it’s blundering into the unknown and up against each other. As well as the constant flitting between genres, all these are factors that prevent the series from slipping into a repetitive pattern.
It’s a frequent misconception then that Cowboy Bebop is just a western given a modern science-fiction spin and set in outer space. It’s far more than that. It’s really got nothing to do with cowboys and nothing to do with jazz, but at the same time it has everything to do with them. The title expresses a mood, an attitude that permeates the characters and the series, one that is indeed closely tied to music, each of the episodes described as sessions, bearing musical references (Asteroid Blues, Gateway Shuffle, Ballad of Fallen Angels, Ganymede Elegy, Bohemian Rhapsody etc.), Yoko Kanno’s scores for each session indeed reflecting the mood and theme of the piece. So, no, not a western set in space, but rather, as the variety of the music and its predilection towards blues and jazz suggests, Cowboy Bebop is a celebration of all things American, a tribute towards classic Hollywood genre movies, with an exploration of the mood, character and history that lies behind them.
Across the 26 episodes (or sessions) of the series, there’s not just a western theme (although this is the most evident one on account of the format of ‘Big Shots’ the TV broadcast that advertises the latest hot tips for bounty hunters), but after the 007-inspired opening credits montage, there’s also the noir film, the private detective investigation, the political thriller, the spy and espionage plot with Cold War undertones, eco-warriors and disaster movie virus attacks, there’s the gangster theme and drug dealing, the hostage drama and the trucker movie, there’s computer crime and even the war movie in the flashbacks to the war on Titan, there’s the prison break and even blaxploitation, and ...ah yeah, obviously there’s the variations of the traditional science-fiction movie in a number of guises. More than being just loving tributes to genre movies and Hollywood cinema, the series clearly recognises the fundamental American attitudes that lie behind them, the cultural melting-pot and a pioneering attitude that built the West now sees its legacy pushing out here into outer space, with personal goals of love, family and the quest for liberty the driving force that behind big-business, free-enterprise, expansion and greed in the acquisition of power, money and influence. To paraphrase Orson Welles’s improvised speech as Harry Lime in The Third Man, it isn’t peace and brotherly love that led the way towards the progress of mankind.
Those all-American attributes are personified in the characters. Jet is the working-class man, the engineer and owner of the Bebop, he’s the solid arm of industry that keeps the machines oiled and productivity stable. A former cop, he believes in law and order, but his personal feelings have led him to be distrustful of the authorities to the extent that he would be an outlaw but for a deep sense of integrity that he possesses. So he’s become a bounty hunter. Faye is the opportunist – she’s got looks and she’s got talent and knows that those qualities can go far towards the acquisition of money, which in the kind of society she mixes in, counts for everything. The blanks in her past – revived 54 years after being frozen cryogenically leaving her alone in the universe – mean that she’s consequently the most selfish of the Bebop crew, ready to use them for her own needs when necessary, but quite capable of taking off at any time without a second thought for them, and probably emptying their safe and their fridge on the way out. Ed’s the technological wizard. She’s a bit of a geek, a child-savant whose utterances and thought processes are often incomprehensible to the others. Seeing the world differently through a computer screen and in terms of programming code, Ed has the vision therefore to think creatively outside the box, innovate and progress, making huge intuitive leaps that take the crew much further than their customary shoot first, worry about it later attitude. Spike is the great romantic with an idealised view of the world that is incompatible with reality, so he has withdrawn from it. Born into a Mafia family, he has left a life of violence behind and, alone but for his friend Jet, he would be content to remain inactive and non-participant in the world where it not for the fact that he gets hungry now and again. But even that only inspires half-hearted activity. The only thing that really motivates Spike is an incident in the past, an incident that has marked his life and destroyed his faith in humanity.
It’s no wonder then that acting on their own, the Bebop crew would achieve very little, and working together as individuals they don’t always succeed in achieving their targets either. What brings out the best in them, forcing them to work together and overcome their own limitations, are their own beliefs and motivations and it’s in successfully tapping into those deeper aspects of each of their backgrounds that the series achieves greatness or at least a sense of purpose. It’s the backgrounds of each of the characters that turn out to be what really keeps them going and keeps them wandering around the solar system – ostensibly on the hunt for wanted criminals with rewards on their heads, but in reality they are trying to run away from their pasts. There’s no escape from the past however, and those haunting memories that are occasionally glimpsed in a dream flashback with melancholic music are the call of the blues that inevitably brings them back from their space-hopping adventures to old familiar haunts, former lovers and unfinished business.
It’s these individual episodes that reveal the background and the disposition of each of the Bebop crew then with wonderful little humanistic touches (that the animation manages to capture in fine nuances of expression) that underpin the attitudes, the humour and the action elsewhere with solid characterisation, an undercurrent of melancholy and a consistency that unites the crew, holds them together and pushes them on towards greater achievements. It’s the same attitude that drives Cowboy Bebop, none of the individual elements or character creations being particularly original or great on their own, but comprehensively taking in characterisation and situation through a series of genre elements and the underlying motivations that lie behind them, collectively the series progresses its artform towards the status of classic anime.
Cowboy Bebop Remix – The Complete Series is finally released in the UK, courtesy of Beez Entertainment. A fold out, slipcased digipack contains 6 DVDs, each dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The set is encoded for Region 2.
Cowboy Bebop was first released on DVD in the US by Bandai back in 2000. It was later re-released, collected and reissued in Cowboy Bebop Remix format in 2005, upgrading the audio from stereo to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but there was no significant upgrade of the video undertaken. While the initial transfer of the video was fine and even quite impressive for the time, it didn’t stand up quite as well by 2005 standards and, reused again with no remastering for this release on 2009 (the English ADR producer Yutaka Maseba notes in one of the commentaries that a new telecine was to be produced for the remixed episodes, but this doesn’t appear to have been the case), its deficiencies are even more evident. For the main part, these are relatively minor concerns – some chroma issues and dot-crawl, lines occasionally breaking into jaggedness and a certain softness to the cel animation – but these are compounded with the UK release being standards converted to PAL from an NTSC source, adding to the overall softness and introducing movement artefacts through the interlacing of the frames. Some brightness or fading may also be evident down both the left and right-hand side of the image. The 4:3 frame is slightly windowboxed on all sides.
On the whole though, the strength of the animation, the designs, the colouration, the blending of traditional cel drawings and CGI effects still hold up well. Early episodes where the animation was perhaps not quite so slick suffer the most, not looking quite so sharp or clean, but by the time the series really gets underway and its style more carefully defined, the series often looks terrific, but only on a relatively smaller display. It doesn’t stand up well to 1080p upconversion, which only emphasises the flaws. A HD remastering of the video is long overdue, but as its stands, there’s still not too much to complain about the presentation here.
The soundtrack on this remix edition doesn’t give you the option of the original stereo track – both Japanese and English tracks have been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1. Considering that the soundtracks of the series are a terrific blend of smart dialogue, action effects and a powered score by Yoko Kanno, the remix is generally fine in spreading these various elements out, keeping dialogue clearly audible in a fine tone, while delivering a bit of a punch where required, although LFE sounds can be a little but dull and booming. The choice between the Japanese and English tracks is down to the individual viewer, but both are examples of the best voice-acting in anime out there, perfectly in tune with the characterisation. Since the series is not culturally-specific and would seem to be more related to US styles, the English dub is certainly a valid option (some would say the better option) and it would be my own personal preference simply for the more laid-back translation that is in keeping with the tone of the series.
Full English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is, inevitably and regrettably, yellow. They are not dubtitles and consequently are not as loose and colloquial in translation as the English dub. Partial subtitles are available for the English language track to translate infrequent signs only.
Disc 1 contains a subtitled Episode 1 Commentary by Koichi Yamadera (Spike) and Uyshou Ishizuka (Jet), both having a lot of fun looking back at the series, and an Episode 5 Commentary by Wendee Lee (Faye) and ADR producer Yutaka Maseba. An Interview with Wendee Lee (8:47) is also included where she talks about being a voice actor, playing Faye and gives her thoughts on the series popularity. There’s also a Cowboy Bebop Trailer Collection (4:33), Cartoon Network Promos of spots and trailers for the series.
Disc 2 contains an Episode 10 Commentary by Wendee Lee (Faye) and Yutaka Maseba, which is not screen specific but rather gives some random thoughts and facts about the show.
Disc 3 contains an Interview with Cartoon Network’s Sean Akins (4:07) who talks about the series popularity and its impact on the world of anime.
Disc 4 contains an Episode 17 Commentary by Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, in Japanese with English subtitles. It’s a raucous entertaining affair, rarely focussed on the episode, Kanno living up to her reputation as the inspiration for Ed in the series.
Disc 5 contains Session 0 (27:54), a collection of staff and cast interviews and music video clips for the opening theme, Tank!.
Disc 6 contains an Episode 24 Commentary by Megumi Hayashibara (Faye) and Aoi Tada (Ed), in Japanese with English subtitles.
Cowboy Bebop has a unique quality with an attitude, a mood and a character of its own that is rarely seen in more recent anime that tends to fall into more generic patterns and designs. A lot of thought has clearly gone into its conception and writing, creating strong distinctive and incredibly cool characters who you end up really caring a lot about. Made in 1998, blending traditional animation techniques with early CGI effects, the animation style is perhaps stating to look a little dated, but its impressive visual language and narrative strengths still hold up, looking much more fluid and dynamic than many modern anime series. Groundbreaking for its time, Cowboy Bebop is now looking like classic anime. The series could certainly do with a HD remastering, but it still looks fine nonetheless on this 6-disc Complete Collection.
See you Space Cowboy...