Monday, March 19, 2012

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

"Are You Living In The Real World?"

When I consider the technical achievement of Blu-Ray and its crisp, vibrant image I only wish it was there in my childhood to replace baskets of VHS tapes. Those tapes were filled to the rim with movies recorded on six hour extended play. Watching films through a persistent snow was rough. Seeing what the media has to offer fans today is truly a revelation. I wouldn't trade those wonderful memories, but I could have done without seeing John Carpenter's The Fog [1980] through snow. It was hard enough. The long promised look at Cowboy Bebop: The Movie [2001], also known as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door, is a colorfully splendid example of the wonders of Blu-Ray.

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic finally catches up to the world of lanky, cigarette-dangling Spike Spiegel, former ISSP muscle man Jet Black, the sexy, voluptuosity [I know- it's not a word, but it should be] of Faye Valentine, female hacker Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tirvrusky IV and tag along Welsh Corgi Ein the data-dog, as well as that most glorious of space vessels, the BeBop. That BeBop is the lived-in residence of both homeless drifters and bounty hunters alike.

I've really stepped away from the series for a long time. On the one hand my memory has faded on the details surrounding the stories and this colorful cast of guns for hire. On the other hand, I never fell completely in love with this series, although it was solid in its own right, so seeing the concept again with fresh eyes intrigues me.

The R rated film, given a brief theatrical release, is a visual stunner as animation goes - a delicious mix of hand drawn cel and digital. You'll be hard-pressed to find better Japanese animation. It clearly ranks up there with the best of the series [1998-2000], the productions of Studio Gainax and anything by Hayao Miyazaki. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a moving visual experience.

Through the work of Studio Sunrise, Bones and Bandai Visual, the film saw the return of ingenious director Shinichiro Watanabe [Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo] and the rousing scoring team of Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts. Most importantly, and my breakdown is based on the English translation, the film finds the return of the original English voice cast as a most welcomed variable in the film.

It's funny to watch the spontaneous-like sci-fi stylings of the characters in Cowboy Bebop unravel. I simply adored Joss Whedon's Firefly series, which Cowboy BeBop clearly pre-dates and most closely resembles in live action style, character, set-up and spirit. Strangely, it's a wonder I never fell head over heels for this series too. It's hard to see the difference between those Browncoats and these bounty hunters or [space] cowboys, yet Cowboy Bebop should adapt well to live action. Both enjoyed drawing from that Western motif and successfully fused those ideas within science fiction.

The year is 2071. The film centers on an act of bio-terrorism and urban residents in the vicinity of the toxic event are dying. What the deadly agent is remains unknown. What is known is that the terror suspect walked away from the scene following the explosion unharmed and seemingly impervious to the effects of the nano-virus, thanks to a counter-nano in his bloodstream. Hey, it's science fiction.

Later, he viciously kills an associate in the same room who, in a nice touch, remains in the foreground dead throughout much of a scene featuring a captive Faye.

One of the most interesting moments is Ein, not always useless, who manages to pick out the terrorist from a video line-up, Vincent Volaju, an allegedly deceased ex-military man. He's not called a data dog for nothing.

Faye is exposed to the nano-substance and nearly dies, but is saved. A thrilling subway sequence results in the near death of Spike who manages to miraculously escape, but he's Spike. One new character, Electra Ovilo is a true assassin, mysterious but underdeveloped. And the government, of course, is the real enemy prepared to eradicate all traces of the nano-weapon including the termination of an immuned Spike and Electra, both exposed to Vincent's blood. Yes, Vincent is the villain, but merely the spawn of the government's evils.

Generally though the film serves up a good dose of Cowboy Bebop of the big screen scale and variety. There isn't anything here you can't experience in the series, but it's essential to those who love that series. It's also not necessary to know the series to enjoy this animated yarn.



Terrorists, bounty hunters, undercover agents of the Martian government all make for an intriguing and reasonably well-paced fiction complete with cat and mouse chases [including a thrilling ride with the Swordfish], mystery, gun battles [with Spike as a surprisingly bad shot in one scene] and hand-to-hand combat [note the physically brutal, climactic ass-kicking battle between Spike and Vincent].

So how does a film like Cowboy Bebop: The Movie get received in a world dominated by Walt Disney, Pixar and even Hayao Miyazaki? On the up side, Casey Broadwater paints a positive, broad brush on the series at Blu-Ray.com [a site that is consistently fair and strong in its writing and assessments] submitting Cowboy Bebop "translates well for western audiences-and it's straight up cool." Mike Toole of Anime Jump called the film so "engaging and fun... you'll forget about your surroundings." The film, like the series, intelligently manages to create another universe. There's a tremendous amount of scale to it. It's really one of the mythic best in anime. It's incredibly detailed and highly imaginative in that way lending great strength to its visual allure. Variety's Robert Koehler noted the canvas to be more "expansive" than the series. Jamie Russell of the BBC called it as "brilliant... as Akira, Ghost In The Shell, and Spirited Away." So that's high praise. Again, visually and technically, like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it's right there, but the scripting comes up a little short in much the same way the series did for me. Jeffrey Bruner of the Des Moines Register said it had the "paranoia of The X-Files." Lisa Schwarzbaum enjoyed the "outlaw boppiness" even where some found the plot meandering.

On the inaccurate side, critics referred to the film as "Blade Runner-esque." Sure the series has always had one foot in the future, but never once did the series really feel all that much like Blade Runner. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star called it "too episodic to be coherent... too silly and too long." Some of that is arguably true, but his final remark is way off base when he notes the film as "the rare example of Japanese anime that seems singularly lacking in inspiration." That's simply not true and all of the evidence to the contrary is on that screen. Even if you're not a fan of the substance behind the series, it is indeed visually inspired.

They're not real, but they're spectacular. On the down side, Jeff Vice felt the same way for Desert News revealing "fans of the series may be disappointed." I shouldn't think so, but the film doesn't offer a great deal of new information. About.com's Jurgen Fauth noted the film was "planet-bound James Bond... only slower." Robert Roten said it featured "many of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre." Actually, the remark a little too generalizing. I understand the point. I would go so far as to say the film is a larger canvas and palette for the strengths and weaknesses of the series and they are in bold, epic display here on film too. Peter Bradshaw of the UK Guardian nails it pointing out "the plot failed to grab the attention the way the visuals did." Both he, and Tom Meek of the Boston Phoenix, felt it could have been shorter and tighter. Film Threat's Eric Campos may have an argument with his remark that the film lacks "the addictive charm of the series." I think its more in line with the series than he gives it credit, but I could see the point. Of course, the series has all of the time in the world to give us those charming moments and this film, though it had the time, really doesn't deliver on the charm or "melodrama" as one writer put it. Jan Stuart of Newsday called it "endless and endlessly pretentious."

On the whole, critics praised the atmosphere, color and visuals as arresting or spellbinding, but were definitely less than impressed with characterization and story and the critiques were generally not unfair. Yet, despite its problems it still earned a 65% tomato over at Rotten Tomatoes.

Somewhat surprisingly, to me, Cowboy Bebop placed number two, behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, in the Top 25 Anime Titles Of All Time in a poll in Newtype Magazine in 2004. It ranked number one in Anime Insider's Top 50 Anime in 2007. Mike Crandol notes the series "transcends" the genre with a "universal appeal." It's safe to say Cowboy Bebop's legacy is more than secure based on the series and the film. It certainly rises above the fray within the world of anime. I cannot deny the series deserves its proponents or that their arguments are not sound. I can only speak to how the viewing experience resonated with me and Cowboy Bebop is no doubt good, but despite the beautiful visuals I'm rarely compelled beyond that. The fairly uncomplicated substance of the adventure doesn't quite thrill the mind in the way Firefly and Joss Whedon's rip-roaring dialogue grabbed me. Yet, the series does have its moments.

This is indeed a terrific looking, lush, visually thrilling sci-fi film adventure replete with a kind of shoot-from-the-hip style. It's populated by a myriad of wildly eccentric characters too much like the world of Firefly.

According to the fan site, The Jazz Messengers, the story timeline falls somewhere between the events of Cowboy Funk [Ep22]and Brain Scratch [Ep23] from the series. So fans of the series should embrace this outstanding chapter within the Cowboy Bebop legacy. Additionally, it stands nicely on its own with no requirement to see the series. However, the series does offer a stronger depiction of the central characters and the dynamic of their relationships, which are not fleshed out well here in the film. They have been established in the series and simply exist on their own here without any comprehension as to their internal politics. The series would remedy this.

The film's focuses on an act of urban terrorism amidst high rises on Mars, but clearly reminiscent of New York, launches the film. With unsettling precision and timing, there's a certain unnerving tone about the film – a film that arrived on September 1, 2001, ten days before the world changed forever on 9/11. The film's explosive act in the city and on a subway involving chemical poisons or biological agents was no doubt inspired by the terrorist acts of Aum Shinrikyo's sarin gas subway attacks in Japan in March 1995 and the Matsumoto incident of June 1994.

Most prophetically and accurately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is indeed a reflection of its times. Strangely fortuitous in its foresight, that fact gives a certain resonance to the spiral of violence in the film. Though having stepped away from the series for a time my essential takeaway hasn't changed. It's a great concept with solid moments, but it always feels a little disjointed and I'm never in love with the characters [other than Faye Valentine]. Overall, the visuals actually overcompensate for an average story. This is indeed a visual triumph. The detail and beauty of the animation is let down by its weak plot. Still, if you love vivid animation with colorful character then this one's for you. That and shots of Faye in stockings with her breasts half exposed is never a bad thing. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie: B. Writer: Keiko Nobumoto. Director: Shinichiro Watanabe.

The Blu-Ray comes recommended, but it lacks the six featurettes and extras found exclusively on the Special Edition DVD.

3 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

Im a huge fan of good Japanese animated films, I like the top of the line cutting edge stuff. I've hear a lot of good things about this one (including your review) so I will be checking it out soon. I've never seen the show, but according to your review I should have no problem with simply jumping right into the movie, which is what I'm going to do.

I wonder whatever happened to that Cowboy Beebop movie that Keanu was going to do a couple of years ago? I was actually looking forward to that one.

le0pard13 said...

As usual, another splendid look at Japanese animation, SFF. This one, though, remains unseen by me. I've got to rectify this now based upon this fine examination of yours. Thanks, my friend.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you Franco and Michael!

I think this film is a splendid looking film and is worth a look.

Knowing your affection for animation too Franco, I must tell you, having read some of your splendid anime reviews, this one doesn't quite rise to the intellectual level of, say, Ghost In The Shell.

It's merely a fun escape. And again, I don't think you need to see the series at all. It helps in caring about these characters a bit more only because, like many films, there isn't a great deal of character development of depth. Most of that takes place in the series.

As far as that live action film, production hell no doubt. I'd love to see it happen. But I've been dying to see Neon Genesis Evangelion happen.

On that pilot/mecha note- Two of the best mecha-styled moments with people inside the suits piloting the units that come to mind are District 9 and Sucker Punch.

Someone needs to take those special effects and ideas and build on that for a true anime adaptation. Someday maybe.

Thanks again guys.
sff