Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 25 & 26: The Real Folk Blues, Parts 1 & 2

What good does holding on to the past do? Faye and Ed both got nothing but pain for trying to recapture theirs. When Jet tried to reconnect with Elisa, he learned more about himself then he wanted to. And when Jet tried to reconnect with his old partner, he learned more about him than he wanted to. Then there is Spike. He has spent the entire series claiming he had already died and that he’s just watching a dream he can’t wake up from. He’s not suicidal, but he’s in no hurry to go out of his way to preserve his life either… unless he thinks he can reconnect with the mysterious Julia. He sought out Mao Yenrai’s killer, despite knowing that he was most likely walking into a trap, and he went to Jupiter to find Julia, with his only lead being the fact that the name “Julia” was being used in some run-down town.

The difference between the characters is how they react to these developments. Ed and Jet learn from their mistakes; Ed realizes that she has to look forward, while Jet ignores his past as best he can. He uses the past to his advantage if he can, such as choosing a mechanical arm to ensure he always remembers the lessons his mistakes have taught him, but generally focuses on the present. Faye has a hard time letting go of the past, and trades one for the other when she returns to the Bebop because she has nowhere else to go. But the Bebop also holds a future for her, especially now that she has dropped her cynical and selfish personality traits. She initially tells the others, and herself, that she comes back to deliver a message to Spike, but she could have easily done that by phone. She is familiar with the Bebop, and believes that it’s the only place she belongs. It doesn’t hurt that Spike is there, and she has grown to love him. Unfortunately she fell for the man who just can’t let the past go. Once again, when a lead on Julia presents itself, he can’t pass it up. Even if it means he’ll probably die.

In Spike’s world, with Julia must come Vicious, and the very reason Julia has resurfaced is because Vicious attempted to stage a coup against the leaders of the Red Dragon Syndicate. When it failed, the Elders put hits out on everyone ever connected with Vicious, including Spike and Julia. Vicious is an interesting case. Unlike Spike, who goes through the motions of life and has no greater ambitions than getting something to eat, Vicious has big plans and intends on running the Red Dragons. As has been established, he and the elders have a difference of opinion on how the syndicate should be run, and he wants to do everything he can to ensure his view wins and that he becomes the new leader. He has tremendous foresight and he looks to the future, unlike his rival. But his great downfall is that he does share Spike’s fatal flaw: as much as Vicious is forward-thinking, he just can’t let Spike or Julia go. Even when his coup eventually succeeds, due to his ability to predict the behavior of his enemies, he chooses not to call off the hit on Spike and Julia. And when Julia dies, he knows that Spike will come to him for a final showdown. The thought makes him the closest emotion to happy that Vicious can feel.

No other episode lays on thematic elements of “the past” thicker than “The Real Folk Blues.” It’s on everyone’s minds, and each approach it differently. Jet wishes people wouldn’t hang so much meaning on it. Faye accepts that she has to take what is available to her, even if it isn’t ideal. Julia wants to leave it all behind and run away. And Spike and Vicious can’t see reason. They are too blinded by what has happened to move forward with their friends. Even when Vicious gets everything he wants, it’s not enough; Spike must dies. Even when Spike loses everything that mattered to him in his old life, he can’t realize that he has a new life with people who want to be with him. All he can do is seek revenge. The saddest part is that no other moment in the series so perfectly shows that, underneath their indifference and insults, Spike and Jet really do get along as friends, and that Faye does feel like she wants to be with Spike. Sometimes, people can’t see what’s right in front of them because they are too focused elsewhere. And in this case, the consequences for doing so are grave.

The final preview, for “Part 2,” showed nothing but images of Spike and Julia together in a cemetery, as Spike and Jet talked about what they learned over the course of the series. Faye mumbles philosophy, completely unaware of what the other two are discussing. And the series ends not with the credits, but with a shot of the sky of Mars, as the camera continually pans upward. A bright star blinks out, and the dream comes to an end.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 24: Hard Luck Woman

Who is Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV? Throughout the whole series, we’ve seen Edward as a kooky but happy young girl. The fact that she was living on her own when the crew first encountered her was strange, but she seemed to be doing well enough on her own that it went unquestioned. So when we finally see why she was on her own, her story immediately changes from funny to tragic. My distate for Ed has not gone unsaid in these reviews, but “Hard Luck Woman” makes it all worth it.

Much of the series has been about how to address the past and whether or not it is worth obsessing over. Much like in “Jupiter Jazz,” “Hard Luck Woman” examines how far some would go to recapture the past. Spike and Jet spend most of the episode off to the side as Faye and Ed search for their own pasts. Faye has been spending her nights watching the Beta tape from “Speak Like a Child,” desperately trying to remember her past and looking for clues in the tape about where it was shot. When Ed tells her that she knows where a certain lion-shaped fountain featured in the video is located, Faye changes the Bebop’s course and heads to Earth. They take off in the Redtail, with Ed strapped to the hull, and begin their hunt.

Before long, Ed reveals that she has taken them on a detour so they can visit an orphanage she spent time in. While there, the nun in charge states that Ed just came in one day and acted like she’d always been there, then, some time later, disappeared. She likened Ed to a cat, reinforcing the fact that despite her naivety and innocence, she can certainly handle herself. The nun also gives Ed a small hologram of her father, and said that he was looking for her, thus setting in motion Ed’s desire to fully reconnect with her past. To her, the orphanage was a nice place to stop off and get food, but she had no ties to it. But the chance to reconnect with her father triggers something in her. She holds up her end of the bargain with Faye and takes her to the fountain, then returns to the ship to begin searching for her dad.

Faye, meanwhile, encounters an elderly woman who claims to remember her from when she was in school. She comments on how Faye looks exactly the same as she did before the accident, and initially thought Faye was a ghost, stating that ghosts are known to appear in places where they have regrets. Later, in the shower, Faye’s memories come flooding back and utterly destroy her as the person we knew her as. All of the cynicism and anger melt away, and all that remains is a scared woman trying to get back to where she was before she lost everything. For once, she doesn’t have a snarky comment when Jet or Spike yell at her, and she even manages to eke out a soft “I’m sorry” to Spike, which really throws him for a loop. She decides that it’s time for her to stop running away from life and finally go where she “belongs.” As she leaves, she encourages Ed to do the same, saying that belonging somewhere is the best feeling one can experience.

Unfortunately, for both women, it’s not to be. Throughout the episode, we see Ed’s father, Appledelhi, traveling across the planet in an amphibious off-road vehicle to sites of meteor impacts. He and a partner conduct landscape surveys to redraw maps of Earth after every major meteor hit, and it is the only thing he can focus on. He can’t remember his assistant’s name, and never considers looking for his child until Ed appears before him during the climax. Spike and Jet track him down after seeing a 50 million wulong bounty on his head, and Ed follows in the Bebop. Appledelhi is initially overjoyed to see his daughter (or his son, he can’t quite recall), but his true love calls when a meteor strikes the planet miles away. As he leaves the Bebop crew in the dust, Jet and Spike can barely believe what they just saw, while Ed looks absolutely heartbroken.

Both Faye an Ed learn through tragedy that you can’t go home again (Faye learns this in pretty much the most literal way imaginable). For the most fleeting of instants, they each thought they could finally recapture the past and be with people who wanted them around, instead of living amongst people who could barely stand each other and spent most of their time struggling to eat. But while Ed realized that her only way forward was to forge a new path and seek out a new life wherever it may come, Faye gave up and spent the night in the ruins of her family’s home. Meanwhile, Jet and Spike sat in silence in the Bebop’s common room, with the status quo restored to what it was in “Asteroid Blues,” something they each claimed at some point to want. With Faye, Ed, and Ein (who left with Ed) gone, they could get back to the dynamic they had when the series began. The last thing we see is a pinwheel, given by Ed to Spike, taped to the bow of the ship. Spike and Jet do what they can to hold on to what they’ve lost, even if all they can do is make a shrine to their memories.

Up next: We see violent images, with Jet getting shot and syndicate members coming after both Spike and Vicious. Jet narrates that everything that begins must end, and that all we can do is accept that. He discusses the nature of humanity, ending as a scene of Spike and Julia meeting in a cemetery is played.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 23: Brain Scratch

For roughly the first five minutes of “Brain Scratch,” all the images we see are television broadcasts. The episode opens with TV static and a channel number in the upper right hand corner, then cuts to a different channel playing a commercial for some organization called Scratch. Every few seconds, the channel changes, and we are treated to scenes of various shows from the year 2071, none of which would look too out of place today. We see sensationalist news reports about suicides related to Scratch, a show in which a man simultaneously gives advice to and berates a crying woman who lost her son to Scratch, and an exercise infomercial for a combination elliptical machine/DJ booth. Finally, the channel changes to a reporter interviewing a woman who recently joined Scratch. She says that the group’s philosophy of shedding the physical body, which keeps us a slave to our desires and our obligations, and living on the internet attracted her because she was tired of living in debt. The woman is Faye, and the viewer is Spike. And so the episode begins.

“Brain Scratch” is an interesting work of post-modern fiction. Without going into an in-depth explanation, post-modern works include things like questioning of reality, unreliable narrators, multiple different perspectives, and the use of the media to tell the story. Two post-modern works from different media include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (sadly, I have not read Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” upon which the film was based). Dark Knight told Batman’s story through the eyes of multiple people, including the new police commissioner, the new Robin, and many media figures. Half of the story was told via TV screens, with different people spouting off their opinions of Batman and the state of Gotham City. Total Recall examines the concepts of reality and identity, asking if our memories equal ourselves, and whether “false” memories could still be real. Lead character Quaid is led to believe that his entire life is a lie, and that he doesn’t really exist. Instead, everything he remembers was implanted in his head to lead the real owner of his body to the headquarters of a resistance movement. But Quaid refuses to accept that he is not “real” or that he would ever betray a cause he believes in (or was forced to believe in).

In “Brain Scratch,” we learn a lot about the story from television and the internet. We watch the characters absorb commentary from television “personalities.” The episode examines what constitutes reality when we subject ourselves to fantasy on a daily basis. The cult Scratch woos people into becoming members by promising to take away all pain and desire, and allow them to live their lives as brain waves on the internet. It would almost appear that Scratch is legit, as its founder and leader, Londes, can’t be found on the physical plane, which leads followers to claim that Londes’ promises are achievable. The crew is looking for him because he has a 38 million wulong bounty on his head, most likely due to the fact that over a hundred people who have become members have committed suicide. But he continues to appear in commercials, explaining that true happiness requires getting rid of your body.

Keep in mind that this episode aired in 1999, well before the rise of social media, in which many people have developed lives on the internet. Thanks to the anonymity that the internet provides us, we can be whoever we want online, without having to worry about consequences. We can voice any opinion, pass ourselves off as any age, gender, race, or sexuality, and can even create multiple new personalities for ourselves. The only limit is imagination… and bandwith.

And that is exactly what Londes has done. Jet and Ed eventually track down “Londes’” physical body, a comatose hacker who had is mind connected to the internet. His mind continues to work and can perform action via the internet, but his body is nothing but a shell, keeping him chained to this plane of existence. Meanwhile, Spike tracks down Faye, passed out in front of a pile of television screens. Londes appears on the screens to deliver an extended monologue about the nature of reality, which is incredibly captivating. Londes discusses the need people feel to be with each other, even if only artificially. He cites this as why humans created the concept of God, but it also goes a long way toward explaining the existence of Twitter. And he says that television is one of the greatest and darkest things ever invented, as it causes people to become detached from reality; we inundate ourselves daily with “dramatic fantasy” and after a while, we can no longer tell reality from fiction. If you doubt this, consider how many things you do because someone on TV did it. Entertainment Weekly has a column informing readers where they can buy the clothes and accessories worn by characters in film and television shows. People watch 24-hour cable news channels, filled with pundits who are exaggerating their beliefs for the sake of being entertaining. We want to be like people on TV, we "ship" characters who we think would make better couples, and our opinions are informed by what we see. Once again, just imagine what this episode could say the writers knew about Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, Spike’s reaction is to shoot his gun at the screens. He probably knows that the physical objects through which Londes appears have no bearing on his health or safety, but all he can do is attack the physical form. Spike is the antithesis of Scratch; he is very tactile, and solves his problems with his fists and his charm. He “fixes” things by attacking them and can smooth talk his way through many situations. But not all; as we see in this episode, he can barely hide his contempt for Scratch when he speaks to representatives while trying to track down Londes. Spike is an old fashioned person, who would be lost with nothing but his mind.

Up next: Ed hums a haunting tune as this reviewer’s eyes tear up.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 22: Cowboy Funk

“Cowboy Funk” begins with Spike very nearly catching Teddy Bomber, the bounty-head-of-the-week. Cornered and thinking he’s done for, Bomber admits to Spike that every bounty head out there is afraid of being hunted by him or some stranger named Andy. Knowing what we do about Spike, and after seeing Andy act like a total prat not two minutes later, this is kind of a strange statement. Why would bounty hunters be afraid of Spike, who comes from a crew with an embarrassingly high failure rate, or Andy, a man who can’t stop boasting about himself even when he can’t recognize his target? But then the episode unfolds and the answer becomes clear: where these men go, destruction, and sometimes death, follows.

First off, let’s think about why so many of the Bebop’s adventures end in failure: their targets die. A lot. Asimov, the eco-terrorists, Decker, and the space pirates all died because the crew couldn’t capture their prey without some kind of problem occurring. Furthermore, Spike and Faye tend to forget about the consequences to their actions when they are pursuing targets. Neither one is that delicate, much to Jet’s irritation, and will do outrageous things in their attempts to get paid. Just remember their plan to shoot at two cargo ships in “Wild Horses,” thinking that they could deduce which one was their target based on which one fought and which one fled. They were willing to fire upon an innocent cargo crew and had completely forgotten that the possibility that neither were their target still existed. Anything to get paid. (Well, usually; there have been times when we’ve seen the group forego a payday for altruistic reasons.)

So when the bounty hunter known as “Cowboy Andy” shows up, directly and indirectly causes property damage, accuses Spike of being Teddy Bomber, then rides his horse over Spike, we realize why Andy is so feared. His obliviousness may not result in many of his targets going to jail, but it does cause lots of injury for people he encounters. And while Spike is smart and generally aware of himself, his stubborn personality and desire to finish the job has led to plenty of injury and destruction. His friends point this out right away, but Spike can’t believe that he could be compared to someone as stupid and dangerous as Andy.

As the episode goes on, the crew continues hunting for Teddy Bomber, and each time they get interrupted by Andy. Andy’s involvement endlessly irritates not only Spike, but Bomber himself, as each time Andy arrives, he is in the middle of explaining his motivations to Spike. Bomber is actually not too different from Spike and Andy either, as all three are very full of themselves. Andy is the most outwardly so, as all he can talk about is himself, and his home (a houseboat) reflects his personality to an unsettling degree. Spike has a level of confidence that borders on cockiness, and he flies off the handle when Jet and Faye suggest he might have similarities to the doltish Andy. Despite some obvious parallels, admitting their similarities would destroy Spike’s good image of himself. Bomber’s problem is that he hates being ignored, and all he wants out of life is for people to recognize his brilliance. He makes a point of blowing up buildings after warning people so that his bombs won’t injure anyone. He doesn’t want to hurt people, he wants to educate them, and he thinks that the only way to get people’s attention is to blow up buildings. He claims that he is making a statement about society by blowing up large buildings, but the statement is so convoluted and unrelated to his actions that people must actually listen to him in order to understand his message. By the end of the episode, Bomber basically begs Spike and Andy to show up at his crime scene, then chastises them when they are “late.” He does set a trap for the pair this time around, but it seemed almost a secondary concern, seeing how easily Spike would have taken him in if not for Andy’s interference. (I want to say that he was counting on their bickering to lead them into the trap, but he seemed genuinely surprised when they ignored him to snipe at each other.)

The episode effectively gets us to reexamine Spike, who is pretty much the default lead character. For most of the series, we have seen him as a flawed anti-hero who is a good fighter and intelligent part of a crew that is incompetent despite itself. But by placing Spike next to someone who embodies his worst traits, amplified to absurd levels, we have to ask: is Spike the Bebop’s weak link?

Up next: Andy begins narrating over strange images that have no meaning outside of context. He claims he’ll be coming back in the next episode. Spike is not amused.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 21: Boogie Woogie Feng Shui

Remember when I said that “Mushroom Samba” was my least favorite episode of Bebop? Well, I still think that, but looking back on that episode, compared to “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” I realize that it was at least entertainingly bad. It had some good ideas that I wish had been differently executed, and there was some humor. But I usually find Ed extremely annoying, and the execution left a lot to be desired. Compare this to “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” an episode that I sometimes forget exists. It starts out interesting, promising us a caper story featuring Jet, the daughter of an old friend of his, and a message from beyond the grave. But it ends up going nowhere fast, and much of the conflict isn’t that interesting. It isn’t groan-inducing, the way some aspects of “Mushroom Samba” are, but you’ll probably forget about it not too long after watching it.

As I stated, the episode is structured like a caper from the 1940s, with lots of narration from Jet to set the mood and a very interesting hook. Jet receives a letter from a man named Pao, an old friend he lost touch with, but the only brings Jet to Pao’s grave. But two things happen while Jet mulls over how a dead man could have sent him a letter: first, he meets Meifa, Pao’s estranged daughter, and two men who look like the Blues Brothers begin shooting at Jet and Meifa. Jet and Meifa escape back to the Bebop, where they decide what to do next. Meifa explains the concept of Feng Shui to Jet; Pao was a master of the art, and she is trying to follow in his footsteps. The skeptical Jet thinks it’s just a fancy method of fortune telling, but Meifa says it’s more of a way to control destiny by turning bad luck into good luck.

Unfortunately, this is where the episode begins to fall apart. The pair resolve to find something called a “sun stone,” but much of their detective work comes from Meifa reading a luo pan, an instrument for Feng Shui reading, that never gets quite explained. Most of her dialogue indicates that Feng Shui can be used to track things down or determine where and when a set of circumstances will occur, but the only explicit explanation of the value of Feng Shui is her “bad luck into good luck” explanation. I wasn’t able to fully suspend my disbelief that Meifa could decipher her father’s clues and track things down using only her luo pan or that Jet would go along with her. Even Jet himself isn’t quite sure, as revealed in one of his voiceover narrations. The world of Cowboy Bebop has its fair share of mystical happenings, such as Laughing Bull correctly telling Spike where he could find Asimov in “Asteroid Blues” or the fortune teller correctly telling Hakim where Ein was in “Stray Dog Strut,” but for the most part, things in the show are explainable through science. Furthermore, Jet tends to be a skeptic; when Spike was about to consult Laughing Bull, Jet couldn’t believe that Spike could rest his search on the words of a shaman.

Worse yet is that the conflict is never too exciting. The Blues Brothers goons chasing Jet and Meifa never really pose much of a threat; they are terrible shots, and they go down with almost no fight. Also, I found it really strange to see Jet kill one of them then have some kids, who had just been antagonized by the goons, run over and laugh at the death of their tormentor. It was certainly disturbing. Then, when we learn about why the men were chasing Jet and Meifa, it seems rather anti-climactic. Jet reveals that Pao used to “consult” for a syndicate, but turned informant when he wanted out. Jet was his I.S.S.P. contact, but he eventually decided not to get out, fearing that the syndicate would take revenge on his family. The syndicate is seeking out Pao to make sure he doesn’t talk, but this doesn’t make sense based on what we’ve seen in the episode. The Blues Brothers were shooting at Jet and Meifa, even though the two of them were the syndicate’s best chance of finding Pao. In addition, I personally was not satisfied with the vague “consulting” explanation. Personally, the vagueness was not enough to engage me in the conflict, but I feel that this is more of a personal preference than an actual problem with the episode.

Finally, the episode ends with two things that felt unearned to me. First, Jet tries to shoehorn in a fate vs. personal choice type moral that seems to come from nowhere. In this case, it’s more of an argument over whether anyone can control the will of another: when confronted with the idea that Pao used Feng Shui to ensure that Meifa would come looking for him, Jet angrily retorts that Meifa would have done so regardless, and nothing Pao could have done would have made her do any differently. The episode could have made this a much stronger theme by putting Jet’s skepticism front and center throughout, rather than having him follow Meifa without question. Secondly, after spending the episode thinking Meifa worshipped her father and wanted to follow in his footsteps, she suddenly reveals that for many years she despised him. Once again, this is a fine development, but it had not been foreshadowed at all. Meifa did say that she didn’t spend a lot of time with him, but all of her dialogue and body language suggested that they had a strong relationship.

Unfortunately, all of the errors with this episode end up making it fairly forgettable. Without a strong conflict or memorable characters, this episode is not one that sticks with you.

Up next: Jet narrates the preview like an old-fashioned Western, complete with whistling music. We see a man dressed in a cowboy hat, riding a horse, and close with Jet starting to wonder if they’ve taken the cowboy motifs too far.