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.