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Let’s Jam With ‘Cowboy Bebop’

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Let's talk anime. "Cowboy Bebop" is my all-time favorite anime and this Saturday the Ken Cinema is showing the movie as it’s midnight film. If you have never seen an anime before then make this the one to pop your cherry.

Show transcript

Welcome back to the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast, I’m Beth Accomando.

Let’s talk anime.

CLIP Cowboy bebop theme.

Cowboy Bebop is my all-time favorite anime and this weekend the Ken Cinema is showing the movie as it’s midnight film. If you have never seen an anime before then make this the one to pop your cherry.

The anime series debuted on Japanese TV in 1998 and delivered 26 revved-up episodes that make up one of the best anime series ever. The show offers a delirious collision of styles and influences. From America, Cowboy Bebop draws on everything from film noir to westerns, Sam Peckinpah to Dirty Harry, pulp fiction to jazz. But then it gives the concoction a uniquely Asian spin. It’s like an anime take on Blade Runner in which a Sam Spade style anti-hero is time warped into a futuristic city—it’s the familiar made fresh.

The main character is Spike Spiegel, a tough-tender bounty hunter nursing a broken heart. He lives in the year 2071 when old cars and new spacecraft operate side by side and people live on Mars. Spike works with a rag tag crew that sometimes has trouble tolerating each other. There’s ex-cop Jet Black; the sexy and sassy Faye; a computer geek girl named Ed; and a smart Welsh corgi dog named Ein. The movie, which was titled Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door was released in Japan in 2001, and takes place a few episodes before the end of the series. And this is one show that actually works in both its origunal subtitled and American dubbed versions.

With Cowboy Bebop: The Movie Japan once again proves that it’s light years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to animation and it’s not just the technology that’s impressive, it’s the storytelling as well.

Perpetually broke, Spike and his crew are always scanning the solar system in search of criminals with hefty price tags on their heads. As Faye pursues one potential reward, she crosses paths with a mysterious man who appears out of the wreckage of a tanker truck that explodes. The explosion was no accident but rather an act of terrorism that released a deadly virus. Soon Spike is in hot pursuit of the mystery man who turns out to be Vincent, a soldier that supposedly died more than ten years earlier after being a test subject in an experiment on Mars. Joining the search for Vincent is Elektra, a tough dame who stirs Spike’s interest after kicking his butt.

Like the series, The Movie is a blast. Although a Japanese DVD of the film has been available for quite some time, fans should thrill at the opportunity to see their favorite characters engage in wild action on the big screen. The movie is definitely aimed at adults but older kids--with liberal-minded parents—will love it as well. One of the pleasures of the show and the movie is the way both move with ease from broad comedy to intense action to serious drama. The movie also tackles a popular theme in science fiction: the question of identity. Vincent, like the Rutger Hauer character in Blade Runner, is not a one-dimensional villain committing random violence but rather is someone in search of his soul.

CLIP

Vincent is angry because he’s been used and cheated out of his own identity. After serving as a human guinea pig, Vincent lost all memory of who he was and his humanity only comes back to him at the moment that he remembers something of his past. And Elektra, who seems thoroughly intrepid, confesses her fear of having her memory erased by the corporation she works for and losing all sense of who she is.

CLIP

The serious discussion of such classic sci-fi ideas makes Cowboy Bebop a refreshingly adult animation that pushes the envelope in terms of what most American animated films want to deal with. And older kids who do get a chance to see it will not only be dazzled by the eye candy but also might be challenged to think about provocative ideas. Japan proves once again that animation in the right hands is a stylistic choice and not – as it is too often seen in America -- merely a medium designated for kids.

Director Shinichiro Watanabe, who also directed the series, instills the film with high-octane energy as it speeds along its course. He also invests it with a lot of cleverness. There’s a scene where cars and space vehicles are packed into a futuristic Japanese multi-tiered drive-in to watch a scratchy old black and white print of High Noon.

CLIP

It’s a nice homage to the western traditions that the film plays so slyly off of. And when Spike has his final showdown with Vincent, the rain that falls gives their encounter a kind of scratchy film grain look that refers back to the movie clip of High Noon we just saw. Watanabe also invests the film with a savvy retro sensibility and snappy dialogue that harkens back to 40s film noir repartee.

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Watanabe also makes the film a rollicking roller coaster ride of action borrowing equally from martial arts, The Matrix and Star Wars. Like John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, Watanabe enjoys slow motion violence that emphasizes a balletic quality to the fighting. He also saddles us up on bullets a la Matrix. But then he picks up the pace for a Star Wars-like dogfight in the upper atmosphere. Most of the action is played out to a jazzy score that’s energizing. (In fact the film’s jazz tracks are a great addition and a nice change of pace from the more contemporary rock and roll that’s used.) And like directors of live action, Watanabe makes cinematic choices in shooting his movie. He uses a fish eye camera lens, rack focus, diffusion, slow motion—all the tools a director would call upon to film live action are used here to great effect.

The Ken is showing Cowboy Bebop: The Movie subtitled, which normally I’d say is the right way to show an anime but in the case of Cowboy Bebop I”ll actually miss the English voice cast. Plus the English dubbed script is a better translation than what’s subtitled. Seeing it on the big screen is a welcome thrill for fans and hopefully it will also make some new converts. It also arrives just before a live action version of the popular anime Attack on Titan will open. There had been plans to turn Cowboy Bebop into a live action film with Keanu Reeves rumored to take on the role of Spike. Thank god those plans never materialized. Cowboy Bebop is sheer perfection as it is and I don’t want to see that tampered with. Many Attack on Titan fans are feeling the same way about their beloved series arriving as a live action film. I’ll see the film next week and report back.

So till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident Cinema Junkie. Check back each Thursday for film reviews and each Friday for interviews. Tomorrow I’ll have my podcast wrap up of Son of Monsterpalooza, the movie monster convention that was held last weekend in Burbank. I spoke with the show organizer, amazing artist Mike Hill, and Fright Night director Tom Holland. So I hope you’ll join me.

Cinema Under the Stars is screening Blues Brothers this weekend, The Lafayette hotel is screening Roman Holiday on Friday, The Film Geeks at the digital Gym Cinema – of which I am a founding member – will be hosting a Universal suspectsTrilogy of Terror featuring Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, The Invisible Man’s Revenge and a special treat, The Case of Evil by local filmmaker Neal Hallford and done in the style of an old universal horror film! And for Universal horror fans there is an exciting opportunity to see Edgar G Ulmer’s The Black Cat with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as the Digital gym kicks off a month of TBT horror on Oct 1

Also screening in the series, which FB fans got to vote on and choose will be
BEETLEJUICE: October 8
DUEL: October 22
AAWL: October 29

And
Starting Oct 6 Stone Farms in Escondido is kicking off Movie Fright Nights with Night of the living Dead

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Cinema Junkie

Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place