Bandai // 1998 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // September 13th, 2005
"Hunger is the best spice, they say." -- Spike Spiegel
Movie buffs like to toss around "top ten" lists, and anime fans are the same way. When anime fans discuss their "top ten anime of all time," you are likely to find that Cowboy Bebop is a popular choice. In fact, it would be difficult to overexaggerate the amount of buzz this series has generated. Though it is seven years old, Cowboy Bebop still ranks among the most-discussed anime titles.
Through the whims of time, space, reviewer resources, or esoteric screener distribution policies, DVD Verdict has yet to review any of the Cowboy Bebop episodes. Yes, I gasp with you, but that is how fate has played out. Fortunately, we've been given a second chance to make a first impression, because Bandai has given Cowboy Bebop a new coat of paint with the "Remix" releases. As an anime fan and a DVD reviewer, my time has come to check out this pinnacle of anime and see whether the experience will turn me into a spittle-flecked fanboy or a disappointed cynic with little hope left for original themes.
Spike and Jet hang out in the dilapidated Bebop, a converted fishing vessel (is there fishing in space?). Jet is an ex-cop with cybernetic parts, while Spike is a cipher with martial arts mojo and a lackadaisical attitude. The pair roams the galaxy in search of lucrative bounties, ranging from hardened criminals to corporate executives to stray dogs. Things aren't going swimmingly for the pair, as Spike discovers when the special "beef with bell peppers" entree contains no beef and few bell peppers.
As the early episodes progress, Spike and Jet pick up a dog and a woman. The dog is Ein, a Welsh Corgi who harbors a scientific secret. The woman is Faye Valentine, a lithe, buxom heap of trouble. She is an adventurer herself, quick with a gun or a double cross. When it suits her, Faye is Spike's "ally," but that word can turn on a dime to read "rival." Together, they meander across the galaxy, only to lose bounties right and left.
Four episodes in, my reaction to this series and its overwhelming hype was "That's it?" Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this first disc. It is undeniably cool, the music is fantastic, and Spike is a great character. But the Earth wasn't moving like it should have if all the praise was accurate. Then came "Ballad of Fallen Angels," and I got a hint of what might be coming up. Suddenly, this episodic series got a story arc, like a scent of something yet unseen wafting in on the breeze.
Before we talk about the episodes, let's address the heart of the matter for Cowboy Bebop fans: Is the Remix collection worth a purchase if you already have the original Sessions?
At risk of letting the tail wag the Corgi, I'd like to comment on the packaging. Cowboy Bebop 1st Session had the most tasteful and appropriate packaging I'd ever seen in an anime release. In stark red, black, and white, the front cover intrigues us with a blurry graphic of a fighting man and an onlooking woman. The back cover is even more restrained; pure black and white, with one discreet graphic, like the Criterion Collection aesthetic on an anime release. The rest of the cover is filled with funky text that sets the tone. Inside, liner notes summarize each episode. The best part is that the disc looks like a cheap 45, like you could drop it on a turntable and give it a spin. Above all else, this touch really sells the vibe.
Remix 1 doesn't have all that, but it's still effective. The embossed cardboard sleeve ditches the white, and just has the red and black graphic. This is a nice nod to the original packaging and ties the releases together while being distinct. The case inside has a silvery sheen with a repeat of the cover graphic. So far so good. The back cover is where it breaks down, with Day-Glo images, dumbed-down text, and an overall less sophisticated feel. There are no liner notes, and the record graphic on the disc has been replaced by a repeat of the cover graphic. Overall, not bad, but lacking the finesse that oozed from the original Sessions.
Yet Remix 1 gains back a lot of ground and even overtakes the original Session once the disc goes in. The back cover of Remix 1 reminds me of the incongruently techie menus from Session One. The menu on the original DVD release flat-out sucked. It was clunky, hard to read, repetitive, and difficult to navigate properly. Remix 1 offers a clean, tasteful, funky menu structure that does the job in style. There are two main differences of note on that menu: extras and sound setup.
Cowboy Bebop 1st Session had but two real extras, a slapdash collage of character intros and a music clip. Both are missing on Remix 1, which I count as a positive because it forces you to discover the characters for yourself. Instead, we get actual extras. You know, stuff like trailers, promos, textless endings, that sort of thing. The real meat is a pair of episode commentaries and an interview. The interview is with Wendee Lee, a beloved English voice actress who did the voice for Faye Valentine. She comes off as a composed professional knowledgably discussing her craft. Because I don't typically spend much time with English tracks, I don't have a sense of attachment to her voice, but she provides an intimate look at one of Cowboy Bebop's central characters.
The two commentaries contrast perfectly with each other. The first is with Koichi Yamadera and Unshou Ishizuka (the Japanese voice actors for Spike and Jet). This track is boisterous and jovial, laced with fascinating tidbits that had vast ramifications in the show's eventual form. For example, Koichi Yamadera came up with Spike's plaintive whistle on the spot during production of "Asteroid Blues." Given the high profile that music and style have in Cowboy Bebop, this revelation is particularly surprising. Hearing these two talk is like hearing Spike and Jet form themselves out of ether, and the track crackles with their energy and enthusiasm (although you'll be reading the actual content via subtitles). The second commentary gives us an American viewpoint on the show from ADR English director Yutaka Maseba and Wendee Lee. They are appropriately proud of the show, which leads to detailed insights about the production process and the cultural impact of Cowboy Bebop. Wendee even discusses the composition of certain frames and how it informs the mood of the show. Between Yamadera and Ishizuka's ground-zero reminiscings and Maseba and Lee's fresh take on readying the show for American audiences, we get rich insight into the inner workings of Cowboy Bebop, which is the most you can hope for from 50 minutes of collective commentary.
Cowboy Bebop 1st Session had really good video quality, especially for its time. There were video flaws, especially digital artifacts, shimmer, and moiré, but the image was stable and the detail clear. I viewed this release back to back with Remix 1, and the difference is subtle at best. There is a slight uptick in color fidelity -- unless it is a figment of my imagination. Otherwise, the image is nigh identical to the previous release, shimmer, detail, contrast, and all.
The real story is the audio upgrade. As an audio purist, I never mind when a release has the original mix and nothing else. That's how it was made, that's how it should be. Remix 1 gives us the original stereo tracks, so we're good there. But I won't deny that 5.1 remixes can be fun if done well with the proper masters in hand. These were.
Cowboy Bebop's reputation was heavily assisted by the fine music and its sonic sophistication, so it's not like the original was a slouch in audio quality. Nonetheless, the 5.1 mix makes it seem boomy and dull by comparison. The music is as clear as air, sparkling and dynamic. It sounds like you're in a jazz club with the musicians hiding behind the speakers. Music is not the only beneficiary. In the original, Jet is cooking some peppers over one of the ship's fiery inner workings. In the Remix, peppers are crackling and sizzling while Jet stands aside a roaring inferno, taking his life into his own hands just to make dinner. Coming out of the warp gate sounds like coming out of a warp gate, not just slowing down in a tunnel. The addition of surround effects does wonders for the audio space. Quiet moments gain just as much of a boost as loud ones. You could argue that this mix is too dramatic, but there's no denying the newfound sense of depth and clarity.
So, is the Remix worth it? For the casual fan with access to the Session discs, probably not. For the Bebop aficionado, the commentaries and interview are definitely worth a listen, possibly worth a purchase. Incidentally, it was nice of Bandai to keep the same episode count as the original release. The real deciding factor is the 5.1 sound, as you might have guessed from the Remix moniker. In an A-B trial with one scene from each episode, I found that the sound upgrade actually improved the whole experience. This from a guy who is generally against 5.1 remixes; I usually downmix them to stereo.
So, is this whole Cowboy Bebop hullabaloo overblown, or are we looking at a pinnacle of anime here? Obviously I can't tell that from the first disc, but allow me a couple of observations. The plot in these five episodes seems repetitive. Spike hears about a bounty, complains about his empty stomach, hops in a ship, and visits the town. He does something sneaky, meets up with his prey, and then goes for the capture. Something goes wrong, Jet saves him, the bounty evaporates, and the two sit together back on the Bebop.
The story isn't gripping, but if you think about it, few anime stories stretch the bounds of creative storytelling -- and the ones that do are failures more often than not. Perhaps anime is defined more by style than story. If you buy that, then Cowboy Bebop streaks to the top of a short list. Its sense of style is unparalleled, with music so cool it will make you cooler just by hearing it, characters so steeped in laissez-faire that you can't help but admire them. The fusion of jazz, noir, mod, and virtually everything else that has ever been cool leads to a vibe like no other.
These summaries contain spoilers:
* "Asteroid Blues"
The opening scenes don't make sense now, but they suggest deep sadness and violence in Spike's past. The introductions of Jet and Spike on the ship assert their dynamic clearly and quickly. The episode is dusty and hot, hungry and lean. Spike establishes himself as a highly skilled professional, and a hell of a charmer to boot. The shootout in the cantina and the eventual flight of the wanted man give "Asteroid Blues" a shot of adrenaline and creative effects shots. Pitch-perfect music doesn't hurt, either. "Asteroid Blues" is a great start.
* "Stray Dog Strut"
Spike chases a man, who chases a dog, which chases a supersonic whistle. I won't go so far as to call it a bad plot, but it isn't a great one, either. This bad guy lacks the poignancy of the last. The entire plot seems like an excuse to get Ein, the gifted Welsh Corgi, onboard the Bebop. It was amusing to watch the destruction caused during the chase, but "Stray Dog Strut" didn't leave much of an impression.
* "Honky Tonk Women"
Faye Valentine gets one of the best introductions ever, smoking a cigarette while mowing down enemies with a machine gun. Hot women spraying bullets never gets old. The "money for data" exchange is a nice nod to serial Westerns; even if it feels far-fetched, it adds tension to the end of the episode. The middle act is muddled by comparison to these bookends. As with Ein in "Stray Dog Strut," this episode feels like an extended excuse to introduce Faye. Then again, you don't really need an excuse to do that.
* "Gateway Shuffle"
I hear that "Gateway Shuffle" is not embraced by all of the Cowboy Bebop community (assuming that this is the "monkey" episode haters refer to on anime message boards). Sure, it has monkeys -- and a highly unappealing Cruella DeVil clone. But I thought the doomsday tone was believably crafted, and the episode breaks the mini-rut of spurious cash loss and character exposition. Environmental terrorists seems perfectly plausible to me. The gate closure race made me sweat, and the twist at the end made me smile. Most of all, I like "Gateway Shuffle" for its random side plot taking precedence over the presumed main plot, a nice red herring that gives the episode an off-kilter feel. Also, Faye Valentine is still hot.
* "Ballad of Fallen Angels"
And now for something completely different: Cowboy Bebop takes a dark turn into Spike's past. Character relationships click into place, from Spike and Jet's uneasy partnership to Faye's decent streak. "Ballad of Fallen Angels" gives us a nasty villain and a disturbing back story for our beloved Spike. A sense of horror and menace runs throughout, from the opening slayings to the frantic shootout where Spike proves himself a total badass. All of this would have been good enough, but the icing on the cake is a moving slow-motion fall in a cloud of shattered glass. This image is so artistically handled that I felt a lump in my throat. Bonus points for not going for the cheap cliffhanger, either.
Though we haven't reviewed any of the episodes before now, Judge Pinsky did sneak a mini-review of the series into his review for Cowboy Bebop: The Movie:
"Spike Spiegel, sensitive ex-mobster, grumbles, gets beaten up and nearly killed, comes back to finish the job. Jet, the former cop, grouses about his partner, then pitches in to help. Faye, who always seems suspiciously underdressed to be doing this kind of rough work, pretends she can hack it on her own, but ultimately needs the others to come bail her out...Stuff blows up, the characters fly around in their cool ships, and Spike gets some hand-to-hand combat. In the end, they will catch the bad guy...but end up blowing the reward money."
He also stated that "Cowboy Bebop was never a deep show, hanging together precariously on charm and style." One volume in, I see no reason to refute that succinct encapsulation of the series. Cowboy Bebop isn't particularly involved, nor are its stories convoluted. But it sure can spin a sense of style, and composer Yoko Kanno went to the mattresses with the score. That makes Cowboy Bebop different enough to distinguish itself.
This court upholds the ruling of popular opinion: Cowboy Bebop is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on "Asteroid Blues" by Voice Actors Koichi Yamadera and Unshou Ishizuka
* Commentary on "Ballad of Fallen Angels" by Yutaka Maseba (ADR English Director) and Wendee Lee (English Voice of Faye Valentine)
* Interview with Wendee Lee
* Textless Ending
* Cowboy Bebop Movie Trailer
* Cowboy Bebop Trailers
* Cowboy Bebop Cartoon Network Promos
* DVD Verdict Review of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie