Cowboy Bebop, First Session

Cowboy Bebop, First Session (1998)
Pioneer Entertainment
Extras: Character Bios, Music Clip

Although anime, that form of animation from Japan too often characterized by big eyes, big robots, and big tentacles, has been available on VHS in quantity, it is only gradually making its way onto DVD. For the most part this is not a tragedy. While anime can be fun and has more than a few fans, how many different stories about uniformed schoolgirls threatened by perverse tentacle monsters only to be rescued by psychic/gun-toting/ninja/transforming space robots do you really need to see?

Which makes a disc like Cowboy Bebop all that much more a find. This anime series manages to avoid the stereotypes of the genre with imagination, humor, and solid story-telling. Plus, it’s got a damn fine soundtrack.
Cowboy Bebop is about of a pair of futuristic Mars bounty hunters, Spike and Jet Black. Like all good bounty hunters, they’re a pair with colored backgrounds. Spike, the cool one, has a mafia past while Jet boasts a cybernetic arm and a former life as a police detective. Working out of Mars, they travel the solar system in their spaceship, the Bebop, tracking down those criminals with a decent price on their heads. Though very good at what they do, they never seem to get a break, always winding up each adventure almost as broke as they started.

What makes Cowboy Bebop stand out from all the other futuristic Martian bounty-hunter movies (now isn’t that a genre you’d like to see?) is one thing – style, visual, aural, and intangible. The word bebop in the title isn’t just one of those wacky Japanese malapropisms, it’s the heart and soul of what makes this anime stand out from the crowd. The creators of Cowboy Bebop have watched way too much 50’s and 60’s cool and they’ve distilled that into their series. It’s not called First Session (instead of Vol. 1) for nothing. Each of the episodes on the disc plays on a music theme – Asteroid Blues, Stray Dog Strut, Honky Tonk Women, etc. The title sequence alone is one of the best pastiches of the 60’s I Spy/Mission Impossible/Avengers style you’re likely to see in a long time.

The episodes play with those themes, mixing them with unexpected. The first is a drug tale set on the asteroid colony Tequila, replete with shamans, cantinas, and faux-Morricone licks. The second is a mingling of dog-nappers, kung-fu movies, and jazz beats. The third veers off to Martian orbiting casinos, stolen software, and Vegas blues. Each episode is a complete story, but overall the world grows as new characters are introduced and details about their past are revealed.

Like good science fiction, the Bebop world is consistent and limiting. Space ships can get to Jupiter, not Alpha Centauri. Things trapped in hyperspace are visible but intangible. There are Chinese mafia bosses, but most folks work regular jobs to get by. There are no aliens, but surgery can change your skin color, your face, even your height. And the heroes always win – but also lose.

Published by Bandai and distributed on DVD by Pioneer, the disc offers a crisp image with no noticeable problems. The audio is presented in a clean Dolby Stereo mix. The options let you choose between dubbing or subtitles. Unlike some, the translations are generally free of laughable choices and the English voice acting is tolerable. (Although with the subtitle option, why bother?) There is a short extra with bios of the main characters and a clip of the opening music. The greatest disappointment is that the disc only contains five episodes for a total of 125 minutes. Be warned – there are 22 episodes and Bandai has spread them over 6 discs. There is no reason it could not have been fewer.

Still, with its humor, look, and style, Cowboy Bebop is a standout in the current crop of anime, worth the trouble of bringing it to DVD.
And then there’s that soundtrack. Where can I get that?