We watch... so you don't have to.

Anime for the Rest of Us

Okay, so there's this Japanese cartoon about a quartet of hard-luck bounty hunters. In space. There's this cool guy with poofy hair and lots of guns, and his buddy, who has some kind of robot arm. There's a dog, and a preadolescent genius hacker kid. And of course, this major babe with an improbably strappy outfit and legs up to here. And...

Let me guess. Most of you are clicking on to the next article by now. Some of you may be tilting your heads in mild interest. And the rest of you, the diehard anime fans, are already writing fan fiction, ordering model kits, or cutting patterns for the homemade character costume you're going to wear to your next creepy, creepy gathering.

The thing is, Cartoon Network's Cowboy Bebop does for anime what jazz did for traditional music. It takes old familiar themes, invests them with maturity and soul, and does so with style. My feelings toward anime usually resemble Godzilla's feelings toward Tokyo, but Cowboy Bebop has spoiled that fun somewhat. It's anime that even anime-haters can enjoy.

Some time in the far future, Earth is an asteroid-pocked wreck. A mysterious cataclysm shattered the Moon. Humanity has escaped to colonies throughout the solar system and beyond, creating a lawless frontier where criminals run free -- and bounty hunters nicknamed "cowboys" hunt them down.

Enter the crew of the good ship Bebop: Spike Spiegel (poofy hair), Jet Black (robot arm), Edward (hacker kid), Ein (dog) and Faye Valentine (babe.) Spike's the firepower, Jet's the muscle, Edward's the know-how, Ein's the straight man, and Faye is mostly trouble. Together, whether they like it or not, they hunt the lowlifes and scumbags of the galaxy. And though they almost always get their man (or woman), they hardly ever get the accompanying reward.

The first thing you'll notice about Bebop is that it doesn't take place in the pristine, glamorous future world most animes serve up. No shiny giant robots, no moonbases with 70's-looking nightclubs, and no free lunch. The Bebop is a mess, dim and cluttered with junk. The smaller ships each crew member pilots on planetary missions are cool, sure, but they also look like they're held together with spit and bailing wire. And when's the last time you saw those shouty steroid cases on Dragonball Z skirting the edges of bankruptcy on a day-to-day basis?

Cowboy Bebop's protagonists are pleasantly flawed and quirky. Spike and Jet, for all their steely-eyed heroism, have the same rotten luck as everyone else. They're the kind of guys who'll travel halfway across the galaxy and back for a VCR, only to discover that they tape they want to play is a Betamax -- and they got VHS.

Faye is the sort of conniving spitfire that made '30s screwball comedy so much fun to watch, whether she's working her feminine wiles on a hapless mark or just blowing her money betting on the ponies. But she's neither a lightweight nor a joke. Her self-destructive behavior seems to be rooted in a mysterious tragedy from her past. Piecing together what transformed her from naive and optimistic teenager to hardened con woman is just part of the series' narrative fun.

As for Edward, there's nothing wrong with her (yes, her) that about a truckload of Ritalin couldn't cure. Seriously, whatever spaz-inducing additive they're giving Warren Cheswick over in Stuckeyville, Edward got a horse-sized dose. Her singsong ramblings would be annoying if she weren't so well animated -- all flapping limbs and gleeful motion -- and if she didn't play so well against the fretful whimpering of tubby little Ein.

Bebop's characters and stories unfold in a universe that's alternately whimsical and grave. On the one hand, you've got serious themes of longing and loss, enacted by vivid and memorable supporting characters. On the other, you have cheerful looniness that thankfully never crosses the line into "I guess you have to be Japanese to get it" territory. Episodes are peppered with flirty transvestite hookers, thugs patterned after the Blues Brothers, or space stations full of ganja-growing hippies. My personal favorite episode deftly spoofs Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, as Spike duels a venomous creature spawned from back-of-the-fridge leftovers.

It's clear that everyone involved put a lot of thought into this show. The various spaceships are as functional as they are cool-looking, with as much personality as their pilots. The writers actually incorporate some semblance of real physics into their storylines, too. We're talking orbital momentum, the perils of hard vacuum, even spaceships with rotating crew quarters to create gravity. Science geeks rejoice!

The animation quality is top-notch as well, blending movie-quality artwork with clever CGI effects. Bebop's occasional use of a shaky, cinema-verite "camera" for point-of-view shots is downright virtuosic. Every show has at least one crackerjack action sequence, from dazzling space dogfights to madcap chases atop moving trains.

And while the English dubbing on most Japanese cartoons ranges from annoying to fingernails-on-a-chalkboard, Bebop does it right. People don't stand around shouting cheerily while their mouths flap. The translation leaves the show's wit intact, and the voice actors' laid-back, believable style suits the show to a T.

The music is equally outstanding. Composer Yuko Kanno matches the mood of each episode with impressively authentic-sounding jazz, blues and more. The first time I heard the show's bombastic opening theme, accompanied by a riot of color and stylish imagery, I could have sworn it was an actual recording from some smoky '50s nightclub.

So yes, highbrow America, it's now officially safe to watch anime. You can finally start believing those sweaty dorks who've tried to tell you, for years, that it's more than giant robots and saucer-eyed schoolgirls. And I promise you there's nary an electrified hamster in sight.

And as for you anime fans... liking Cowboy Bebop has made me feel a bit more charitable towards you all. But if even one of you starts whining about how Bebop is getting popular with sullied masses and ruining the pristine sanctity of your fandom, I'm seriously going to go to that basement you're living in and stomp on each and every one of your imported model kits. And not even the sight of you in a poorly-fitting homemade costume will stop me.


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