Session 01: Asteroid Blues
Song and Silence
What is Cowboy Bebop?
In the fall of 2004, as my fiancée’s mother lay dying during a long, long convalescence and I took six college courses at a community college that considers four to be a full load, I drove south. In my beat-up, robin’s-egg blue 1989 Cutlass, I drove south, past my classes at Cuesta College, past San Luis Obispo, past the Five Cities, all the way south over a dry gulch to Santa Maria, an ass-pimple on the rear end of California. I brought with me my grey-gilt Vaio laptop and a red-and-black-splashed DVD I’d bought from the city’s anime shop. I drove to the Santa Maria Mall and, as the stores were closing, I bought a Coke and chicken teriyaki from the Japanese noodle counter. I drove that Cutlass up to the roof and parked there, looking down on the stars winking on along the streets and the streelights switching on above in God’s sky. I turned on my laptop, and slid in the DVD.
As night fell over Santa Maria, at age 17, over chicken teriyaki and a Coke, I saw “Asteroid Blues” for the first time.
As I touched on in the introduction, looking at Cowboy Bebop as a post-Buffy, post-Sopranos show is an exercise in futility. The plot arc only comes into play in a handful of episodes, all the rest is filler. The two main characters neither grow nor develop. The show seems more obsessed with its style than its writing. Even thinking of it in terms of the television of the time is problematic: it still basically has to be aired in order, it’s not funny or disposable like TV should be, and, besides, it’s a cartoon for adults and what kind of unnatural abomination is that?
The more I watch, the more I’m convinced that the best way to think of Cowboy Bebop is as an audio-visual jazz album.
And this is the first track. The first hint of Cowboy Bebop the world got. On October 24, 1998 in Japan and, later, on September 2, 2001* in America.
And what’s the first thing we see?
The music box motif (“Memory”) and stylish, stylized noir straight out of The Third Man. A dropped rose, firefight, a church, mid-century Prague, blood, a dozen cigarette butts, a smile, a man walking away.
We’ll be revisiting this tune, these moments, sometimes even these actual animations, as the show goes on. Usually, a show finishes off with this kind of intensity and intimacy, but Cowboy Bebop started both in the thick of the action and at a distant prologue. Because this is, basically, the opening riff on the main theme.
Speaking of the main theme, BAM MOTHERFUCKER.
Those opening credits are a work of genius. They’re a declaration of intent, a proud and arrogant horn-blast of slick bebop confidence, a sock full of Johnny Quest, over and above the Credo in the background. Those slashes of color illuminate the ships and people, in such a way that you get a pretty firm idea of what you’re in for the first time you see them, and yet, without changing, they acquire new and deeper meaning as you reach the end of the series. There will be action, there will be spaceships with old-fashioned headlights, there will be wiseguys and dames with legs for days, and all of it will be stylish as Hell.
This episode in particular, the series in general, owes a debt of gratitude to Quentin Tarantino. When Bebop was being conceived, Tarantino was king of Hollywood, with Reservoir Dogs and the seminal Pulp Fiction only a few years old. Tarantino pioneered that self-aware, music-infused, post-video, post-MTV style of cinema that Cowboy Bebop picks up and runs with. But where Tarantino’s sensibilities are rooted in rock’n’roll (Stuck in the Middle with You), Shinchiro Watanabe’s vision, like his countryman Haruki Murakami’s prose, is rooted in jazz and bebop. Both Japanese men had a black American’s album playing as the soundtrack to their writing sessions.
Back to this session.
We’ve come to the present. You can tell, there’s color. But Spike is still basked in shadow and blue, complementary colors to the prologue where he was so prominent, his (chroma)key shifted up a fifth but not fundamentally changed. It’s Jet who’s rooted in the present, in the full-color reality of the world, a different key entirely. Jet cooks, Spike does his forms. Both are participating in Chinese cultural practices that are at least a millennium old**, practiced every day by millions across the world. The focus on details, the punches in the air and the flames of the burner, is a manga and anime technique which have been called amorphic panels or amorphic frames, individual phrases used to build the soaring melodies of Spike and Jet.
And the soundtrack, the all-important musical scene setting? A leitmotif we’ll be returning to again and again: “Spokey Dokey.” It’s a spare tune, a little blues piece for harmonica and acoustic guitar. And that’s exactly what it should be. It’s the sound of flat-broke jazz legends noodling away a long afternoon with no work to be had and empty bellies to fill.
Jet interrupts Spike’s past, his timeless form, and brings him into the present with a flick of a switch and an announcement of earthy, everyday reality: “Dinner’s ready.” Spike looks abashed to be interrupted in his memorializing, but he recovers. There is so much subtlety in this first meaty scene — the urban-flavored poverty of Spike and Jet’s existence, with its fan and its plastic-mold furniture and its enforced closeness, Spike’s fixation on food (a trait of trickster gods the world over), Jet’s mechanical arm (and, by implication, Spike’s mechanical eye), even down to the identification of ‘woolong’ as currency and the exposition of Asimov Solensan.
Most of all, there’s that archetypal standard and half-joke about jazz: Jazz is about all the notes you don’t play. We don’t focus on Spike’s eye, nor mention it, but watching it again, it’s impossible not to think of Spike’s eye when we see Jet’s arm. For both men, their mechanical parts are mementos from the past, a part of the past that they can’t let go of and won’t let go of them. We don’t see it now, but it’s impossible not to see on the rewatch, twenty years later.
The other part of jazz, the indelibly Japanese part, is the silence. Both Yoko Kanno and Shinchiro Watanabe make use of selective silences, Kanno in letting the harmonica lie quiet between long, strung-out, Gilmour-esque twangs of the guitar, and Watanabe in when and where different aspects of the soundscape go silent and give way. The silence behind in the prologue was almost deafening, the silence between the characters as they come out of the Mars gateway is more forgiving. All we hear are the multilingual, prosaic announcements of the gate, an unremarkable and unremarked part of everyday life in the Bebop ‘verse. While Spike and Jet don’t comment on it, Watanabe draws our attention to it with their silence. It is truly masterful.
And it is rare.
I enjoy both The Expanse and Firefly***. I parlay Belter and wear a brown coat. But I got a beef with both of them, in that they both have pretensions of being a multicultural and broad future, and yet, both feature white Anglophone men leading white Anglophone teams with a couple minorities in to keep the SJWs from complaining. Cowboy Bebop, with a single motion, clearly establishes that their future is multicultural, and vast, and discordant. This everyday announcement, safety precautions and payment methods for the gates, is in a dozen overlapping languages.
The languages fade out, another silence, as they pay 7500 woolong (establishing the value of a woolong in five frames or so), and we’re surrounded by the hisses and clicks and clunks of a spaceship taking off. Never mind that there’d be no sound in the hard, cold vacuum of space. We’re not here for realism. We’re here for aesthetics.
The Expanse, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica all belong to the general umbrella of what is called “naturalistic science fiction.” Naturalistic science fiction tries to merge hardest-of-the-hard science (especially practical, every applications of Newtonian physics) with Dostoevsky-approved psychological complexity of character. Firefly famously used its bluegrass guitar as “the voice of the ship” in space, since there would be no sound. The Expanse spares no expense portraying the pouring of a cup of water in 1/6 G. Neither would be caught dead sounding clinks and clunks and latches and hisses in hard vacuum.
Cowboy Bebop would. Because it’s cooler, because it establishes the themes, and because they’re not interested in realism. They’re interested in rt. In writing, we’re told to aim for verisimilitude, rather than realism. Shinchiro Watanabe and crew understand this implicitly.
Now we arrive on the colony of Tijuana, and a loving montage of its streets and scenes. And what is the first thing we hear? “THIEF!” Slowly, the action focuses on a bar called El Ray, shouting out to Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado, a major influence on this session’s story and style. That connection is well-discussed elsewhere. There, the show’s Greek chorus, Antonio, Carlos, and Jobin, establish setting background and their role in the show. The bounty, Asimov, and his girlfriend, Katerina, arrive, and broker a deal with the bartender.
This scene mixes incredibly detailed and realistic elements (the architecture, the props, the cat) with more stylized elements (the people). However, reversing the effect from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s the more stylized and stereotypical parts that are the most important and closest to the action. Asimov and Katerina are caricatures of Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek…
…and they are the most important characters in the scene. Asimov even, for no reason at all, wears space spurs. It’s the most stylish, least chromatic progressions that have the strongest effect.
Speaking of stylish, this is where we get the second solo of the session: Asimov’s fight against the syndicate goons. While Spike’s memory is drawn in blue and black with bursts of red, Asimov’s red-eye speed-battle is overwhelming red like the whole world is drowned in blood. It’s both visceral and superhuman, leaving us exhausted as if we ourselves had just gone through a speed junket.
…that resolves instantly into the quiet tranquility (and boredom) of Laughing Bull’s tent. Rumbling stomachs and irreverent questions ground us in the main groove after that red-hot solo, letting Laughing Bull unveil his exposition and his prophecy while Spike deflates it for us with gentle humor. Spike emerges from the tent into the real world with a prophecy of death upon him, unruffled. “A woman will hunt the Swimming Bird and then – death.” But what is it to Spike? He’s been there already. And we start to work out, deep in our reptilian brains where the jazz goes, that Spike was the man in the prologue…
After Jet walks meaner, even more quotidian, streets in search of answers, Spike is compelled to stop off at a gas station where he encounters Asimov in the bathroom, and Katerina by chance. He steals (and returns) her food, and leads into one of my favorite lines of the whole show:
Katerina: “It must be very happy on Mars.”
Spike: “Sure, if you’re rich.”
God alone knows how many times I’ve quoted that in China, in Boston, in Rajasthan, in jest. There’s a lot of places that are happy if you’re rich, and most of us ain’t.
Spike’s flirting gets cut short along with his windpipe, as he goes to light a cigarette. At Katerina’s pleading, Asimov drops Spike before he dies, but not before he blacks out…and not before he pickpockets Asimov on his way down and out. Because Spike is truly skilled at three things: sharpshooting, Jeet Kune Do, and piloting a spaceship. And he’s marginally skilled at two other things: flirting and playing in other people’s pockets. Those are about the only things Spike knows how to do. Odysseos Polyteknikos he ain’t.
That’s where Jet finds him, long after the cigarette’s burnt to a stub, two quick shots on either side establishing just how long it’s been. None of Jet’s information is news to Spike, but the import, the connections, are. And he knows just where to find Asimov next.
The scene opens, as the scene in the bar did, with Antonio, Carlos, and Jobim talking about nothing. The only difference is that now they sit outside. Asimov enters, sits next to a man with a sombrero and the Man With No Name’s poncho.
They banter, and Spike grins, revealing the drop of red-eye that he nicked off Asimov. He tosses it in the air, and quickdraws it.
The resulting fight scene has been featured in every anime music video, every promotion, every fan retrospective the show has ever had. Spike leaps over tables, casually kicks the shit out guys, and lands a punch on the nose of a man who’d previously dodged a bullet. He dances on cars to the detriment of the mooks inside. He forces Katerina into the role of the Neutral Female, try as she might to pull a gun and protect her man.
“You rely on your eyes too much, Asimov, you’re not a chameleon you know!”
Pretty rich, given how total a motif eyes are going to be for Spike.
But the action inexorably shifts to the spacecraft, where the episode started. Katerina’s bulging pregnancy is revealed as a ruse: She’s the way Asimov has been smuggling red-eye. And when her dress is torn and their precious cargo spills out, Asimov berates her like he might lash out at her next. As her eyes twitch in fear, seeing what’s become of the man she’d loved, the music switches. Hell, the sound switches.
Because up until now, we’ve been enjoying hard, fast bebop mixed with foley artists and sound effects. Each punch lands with a meaty thud and a scream of horns. Now it’s a mournful saxophone tune, and all the other sounds are distant, echoing, out of focus. The focus is on the scant lines of voices, and on the music.
Selective silence in action.
Spike and Jet give chase, Jet giving way. Katerina looks up toward the heavens, and sees the massed cops at the one hole leading out of Tijuana, out of her little life. And she knows.
“We’ll never make it to Mars now.” She almost sounds regretful.
Spike closes, Asimov bulges, but it’s Katerina’s choice, and Katerina’s story. The saxophone ascends to the heavens, as neither Asimov nor Katerina ever will. Asimov’s surname is Solensen, and at first, I thought it was a mistransliteration of “Sorensen.” But now I know, Asimov is the son of the Sun who, like Icarus, flies too close. And it’s in that flight that he, and the woman who shares his name, are doomed.
A single gunshot shatters the music.
For the first time in the episode, we are treated to true silence.
Spike takes in the whole thing at a glance: the splotch of blood, the woman curled around the man, the regret in her eyes. Spike sees it all with his mechanical eye. Spike has seen all this before.
Katerina took Asimov’s life, giving him a clean death and cradling his body. She has time for one last word.
Then a hail of gunshot, the return of the sound effects and the foley artists, and Katerina tumbling through space, the red-eye spilling from her fake pregnancy like blood from her body.
There’s a moment’s pause, and the next strains we here are familiar now: “Spokey Dokey.”
There’s that harmonica again, and that guitar. There’s the fists in the darkness and the fire of the burner. Nothing has changed, for Spike and Jet, or for us.
In the entire run of the series, Spike collects exactly two bounties. Spike loses, and destroys, and fails, more often than he succeeds. In this, he joins an honored roster, headed by the patron saint of heroic failure, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. As even The Big Bang Theory noted, Indy fails at everything he tries to do in Raiders of the Lost Ark except save the girl. Spike Spiegel, like Indiana Jones, is a beautiful loser. Yeah, he fails at his goals…but he does so damn good doing it, we don’t actually care. And we shouldn’t.
Because he made a difference to Katerina Solensen, in the end.
What does it matter that she shot Asimov, rather than the police? It matters to her. What does it matter that she died in a hail of gunfire before of seeing Mars? It matters to her. What does it matter that she lived, and loved, and suffered at all? It matters to her.
Katerina’s gunshot, the one she couldn’t make during the fight between Asimov and Spike and the one she could make in the spaceship during the escape, is the most important sound, the most important note, in the whole session. She chose to end his life herself, for reasons unto herself. And she wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t talked to Spike, if it hadn’t been Spike pursuing her. She accepted that Spike saw her in that last moment, that perfectly human and vulnerable moment.
And Spike accepted her, and her decision. One wonders if he didn’t wish Julia had decided to do the same, once upon a time.
But these are echoes of future tracks. Session 01, the first track on this jazz record, draws to a close, and we’re left with the last few long, plaintive notes of a harmonica and an acoustic guitar.
What is Cowboy Bebop?
Cowboy Bebop is naturalistic science fiction – its science is hard as the titanium hull of the BeBop, its characterization as deep and rich as any Dostoevsky novel – mixed with jazz – for it is a freewheeling, impulsive thing that is almost alive, a blending of theme upon theme and an exploration of song and silence and the notes never played. Mixed together like gin and vermouth, Watanabe and his crew created something new and unique upon the face of the Earth. The work, which becomes a new genre in itself, will be called
Next week: Session 02 – Stray Dog Strut.
* September of 2001. Keep that in mind. It will become very important later.
** Seriously, there’s a Chinese cookbook from Song-era Hangzhou. One of the many, many still-extant recipes in it is “bell peppers and beef.”
*** By the way, Firefly? Clearly happened after Joss Whedon saw Cowboy Bebop in 2001 and went “I want one of those!”