screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto
directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
by Walter Chaw Yôko Kanno's soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (hereafter Cowboy Bebop) is a jubilant a blend of funk, jazz, blues, soul, and punk that soars even though it's a pale shadow of the "bebop" innovated by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell (and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach) in Minton's Playhouse in the early 1940s. It functions as something of a brilliantly mellifluous backbone to the film and the series that spawned it--chimeric and socially significant, again like Bird's bebop, in that the 26-episode Japanese television series became one of the most recognized and revered crossovers in animated series history. The bebop idea of riffing on a melody to the extent that the melody becomes unrecognizable (with an attendant introduction of dozens of beats to the standard four-beat bar) carries through in the frenetic kineticism of series that also, by its format, mirrors jazz bebop's compact agility (generally carried by quartet and quintet arrangements)--making a feature-length film, then, a strange place for the "Cowboy Bebop" franchise to go.
Understanding what could be meant by the title of the series goes some way towards understanding the structure of the story's cosmology, here a future-scape where the only distinct characters are bounty hunters and the fugitives that they hunt, sometimes with the help of a gloriously cheesy television program that apes reality shows on the one hand (and the Japanese have a long history of outrageous television that no number of "Fear Factor"s can approach), but more trenchantly, the Japanese infatuation with the mythology of the American Old West. The series, with the exception of the final two episodes, functioned as narratively complete short stories with a definite Zane Grey-cum-Edgar Rice Burroughs-cum-Philip K. Dick feeling (pulp as masticated by an apocalyptic culture, the only one that has experienced an atomic weapon attack)--building as it progressed a bebop quintet of characters with hero Spike, mentor Jet, buxom femme Faye, spirit guide Ed, and animal sidekick Ein. Each of them riffs on noir archetypes (the hardboiled detective with a dark past, the embittered ex-cop partner, the fatale, and manifestations of serendipity and fate), the principal players aren't so much reintroduced in Cowboy Bebop as they are joined in medias res, foiling a convenience store robbery with a sort of insouciant wit.
It's that wit that propels a great deal of the surface pleasure of Cowboy Bebop with the archetype of the gangly American cowboy prophet/warrior, one referenced in a mid-film drive-in movie of High Noon attended by Jet and lent a certain degree of poignancy by the slow understanding that the picture (and the series that spawned it) is in love with nostalgia for a post-war age that, particularly for the Japanese, was fraught with ambiguity, shame, and tragedy. The question of the title of the film therefore takes on a deeper resonance as one considers the tantalizing mélange produced by a marriage of noir, the western, and a jazz movement founded on unrest and violence, sold through a uniquely Japanese medium (animé, natch) that has been the vehicle for some of the most profound examinations of nihilism, violence, and romanticism (thinking especially of masterworks like Grave of the Fireflies and last year's Spirited Away) in the modern cinematic vocabulary. That Cowboy Bebop's main plot revolves around a deadly terrorist attack (both a specific reference to Japan's own subway massacre and a contemporary brush at a more global post-9/11 paranoia) precipitated (and ultimately ameliorated) by a doomed love affair is something to admire for its understanding of the ripple of consequence that infects as it spreads; love as the product of and the inspiration for chaos.
Ultimately, Cowboy Bebop spends too much of its time in action-movie convention--chase scenes that last way too long to no good effect, as well as a rape drama that is at once invasive and, for as central as it is to the film's conclusion, leaves too much to the imagination. The picture's finale, fatally, seems an extension of the finale of Tim Burton's Batman, complete with deadly gas and parade floats, and a battle atop an edifice that represents a stairway to heaven. The strength of the film is that idea that while technology steadily outpaces humanity's ability to reorient itself within a constantly shifting paradigm, humanity regresses into the modes of the past and the instincts of the flesh. (Consider that the "deadly gas" is in fact a cloud of nano-robots that mimic human corpuscles and proteins.) The loveliest moments of Cowboy Bebop are the ones most scented by melancholy for what's been lost of our collective history and our individual identity to the metronome inexorability of time. The greatest irony of the piece is that what the film has lost is a lot of the spry rebellion and feeling of loose improvisation that defined the television series: "cowboy," no question; "bebop," another matter altogether.
Columbia TriStar presents Cowboy Bebop in a Special Edition DVD package that is sort of bracing for its general lack of a western point-of-view (distinguishing itself from the thinly veiled paternalism of Disney's Miyazaki releases), and for its relative (read: still sparse) completeness in terms of an array of special features options for a foreign language release in an unpopular genre and medium. The video transfer is in crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen while audio is provided in an excellent and immersive Dolby 5.1 English dub (and here my qualification of a "general" lack of a western bias comes into play) that is, nonetheless, inferior to the Japanese-language 2.0 surround track, which features the original vocal talent who have, not including this film, logged over twenty-six hours of finished time voicing these characters. No matter how illiterate one presumes the audience to be, not offering the same sort of soundmix for the original language actors and soundtrack is offensive at the very least and aesthetically bankrupt at the worst. The Japanese track predictably lacks the fullness and fidelity of the 5.1 English mix, but I'll take the original voice actors any day--particularly when the English substitutes are as cornball and tinny as they are in Cowboy Bebop. A dark rumination in the original language becomes a cultural artifact in the dub, making me wonder in an offhand way what "Iron Chef" is like in Japanese.
Four scenes are given the "Storyboard Comparison" treatment (with each clip using the English language dub), demonstrating essentially that the storyboards were followed with great faithfulness, while five character biographies are unusually unhelpful, particularly to the uninitiated ("Ein likes to eat what any dog would eat"). A "Conceptual Art Gallery" features drawings of characters, aircrafts, automobiles, monorail, and accessories (extensive but useless), and two music videos ("Ask DNA" and "Gotta Knock a Little Harder") reveal themselves as excerpts from the film in which the songs in question appear.
The centrepiece of the presentation is a collection of six short featurettes that cover some of the creator philosophies of the series and film (interviewed are director Shinichiro Watanabe, acting the fool in shades, character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, who offers the best insights in general, and both sets of voice actors: American and Japanese). The featurettes are generally disinteresting but do offer a handful of insights (the best in a chat with composer Kanno, who reveals her inspiration as a Greyhound bus trip through the American south that shaped her musical foundation), in addition to an attractive comic-frame layout that only occasionally becomes irritating and, even then, mainly for its repetitiveness. Trailers for the film, Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis (available in a 2-pack with Cowboy Bebop: The Movie), Bad Boys II, I Spy, Memories, Steam Boy, and xXx round out the disc. Originally published: July 7, 2003.