Spike: “Well, the show’s finally underway!”
Jet: “What’s all this?”
S: “Next week, we’re totally changing gears. It’s gonna be anime for all ages.”
J: “What’s the story?”
S: “Housepets wreak havoc amongst the stars!”
S: “No, the guy who talks to animals will not make an appearance, but anyone who loves animals should gather ‘round and watch this show!”
J: “Hey, can we say stuff like that? I don’t wanna take responsibility for this!”
S: “Caution: Small children should sit far back from the TV.”
J: “C’mon, how far back?”
S: “About three-quarters of a mile.”
J: “That’s too far!”
S: “Heh, okay. Half a mile.”
– Preview for Stray Dog Strut
Kim Stanley Robinson calls it ‘the pseudo-iterative.’ In a previous post, I called it a ‘Bolero.’ But the word we’re looking for is variation. Improvising variations on a song everybody knows is as core to jazz as hyperspace is to space opera – the genre couldn’t exist without it. The song could be anything, as long as everyone in the room knows how it’s supposed to go: Embraceable You, On Green Dolphin Street, even The Star-Spangled Banner. Most jazz players go ahead and “state the theme” or play the original piece at the beginning of the performance, to get the audience in tune.
“Asteroid Blues” was Watanabe, Kanno, and crew stating the theme.
“Stray Dog Strut” is where they start performing.
As Spike said it, the show’s underway. We aren’t treated to pickup notes of cool-toned Prague this time, only thrown directly into the staccato hornfire of TANK! And when we emerge, what do we see?
A man sitting in a public toilet. His eyes. A nearby suitcase, rattling. The toilet paper shivering in the bowl. The dripping gives way to a solid, thundering flush. More amorphic storytelling to set the scene. Men rush into the bathroom, cornering the man on the pot. He smiles.
It’s a variation on the scene between Spike and Asimov in the previous scene, with a few notes of Asimov’s speed-fight in the El Ray to give the tune some texture. The man Hakim kicks down the stall-door, and downs the three men in a flash of fists and feet, before calmly departing with his briefcase.
It’s a variation on the scene, but this time, the fight broke out, instead of ending in a tense man watching a cowboy stroll away, whistling. This bathroom is scrawled with graffiti and lined with narrow urinals like an urban American stall of a later decade, instead of the Spartan and dusty restroom of a dying Mexican town.
After the title card (silent but for Hakim’s retreating footsteps), we’re treated to another variation: The Martian approach, through the gates, but this time to the sound of rat-a-tat-tat drums and the hyperspace gate announcements in Mandarin. In Asteroid Blues, the clearest voice was in English, this time, it’s in Chinese.
That, more than anything else, sets the tone for the episode. More on that in a moment, let me let that note hang in the air.
Another variation on a theme: Spike and Jet in the ship’s living room, complaining about their poverty and swapping exposition on this week’s bounty. But this time, for tonal texture, Watanabe introduces a new motif, one that’ll be with us the rest of the show:
Shucks howdy, Big Shot!.
It takes the trappings of an older genre, the Western, from the costumes to the music to the literal Punch-and-Judy relations between high archetypes that transcend the Western genre and become something deeper, more universal, all in the service of science fiction. Now, am I talking about Big Shot, or am I talking about Bebop itself? Because Judy’s ridiculous outfit and Punch’s ridiculous accent are both, I feel, Watanabe commenting on Bebop, on its tropes and its trappings. It makes sense the first episode of Big Shot! comes in the second session of the show. There was no theme to noodle on until the first session laid the theme down.
Then we pan down to a Martian city, about as far from the Tijuana of Desperado as it is from the asteroid TJ. This is a city of narrow streets and fluttering laundry dizzying heights from those streets, of huge garish hanzi signs and sidewalk fortunetellers, of a peculiar golden afternoon light through the smog and sampan dipping next to hulking containers like the BeBop.
It’s a city I know well.
The name of this nameless city on Mars is Hong Kong, the Hong Kong of the 1970s, the fat years of Golden Harvest and being first of the Four Asian Tigers, as the Mansions became notorious and Victoria became Central.
That’s why the Gate announcement was in Mandarin. Because this session, and Bebop in general, is rooted deeply in China, specifically Hong Kong, and this session is a love letter and a leitmotif to one man, and what he meant to Watanabe and crew.
If Asteroid Blues was all about Rodriguez and Tarantino, then Stray Dog Strut is about and one man.
And one film.
Obviously, there are other connections between the one and the other…
…but Stray Dog Strut is far more loyal to its source than Kill Bill ever was. There, I said it.
Dogs and spaceships aside, this is the theme. Like Charlie Parker’s Embraceable You never bothered stating the theme in the beginning, and why should Watanabe? Game of Death is a legend in East Asia, the Dragon’s image emblazoned from every corner, even the fast food joints.
Everyone in the room already knows the tune. It’s up to Watanabe, like Charlie Parker, to play the variations alone, without fear of risky things.
It’s why this episode is grounded in the streetside realities of 1970s Hong Kong the way that Asteroid Blues was grounded in the Tijuana of the fifties. It’s why Spike comments on the Way of the Dragon-style nunchaku hanging in the dealer’s alley. It’s why the bad guy looks and sounds and is even named like “Hakim.”
But Game of Death was supposed to be an exploration of the Dragon’s philosophy of fighting. The original script involved Bruce’s character ascending the tower and fighting each man, representing different fetters along the way to becoming a true master of combat. Seriously, look it up. Bruce Lee abandoned the fixed forms of Wing Chun and Western Boxing to develop his own style, an intuitive and adaptive, ever-changing improvisational art he called the Way of the Intercepting Fist, Jeet Kune Do. Game of Death was supposed to be a new Chinese fairy tale, an allegorical tale of his development as a fighter and as a philosopher.
At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then…
Charlie Parker and Bruce Lee: the improvisers who mastered the fixed forms, the “classical mess” as the Dragon called it, and used those fixed forms to transcend form.
But Watanabe and crew still pay respects to the remix artists who taught them their trade. After Hakim steps into a street apothecary where the Cantonese-voiced proprietor offers him a foul-tasting panacea for whatever ails him*and gets his briefcase stolen, we are treated to a note-perfect briefcase shot. For all we know, it’s got Marcellus Wallace’s soul in it.
Another variation, Spike turning the ignition on the Swordfish II and the strangely comforting clanks and clunks of the takeoff sequence. This time, he’s comfortable, bantering with Jet about Peking duck, and the incessant drums follow us. It’s the same scene from “Asteroid Blues.” It’s a totally different scene from “Asteroid Blues.”
Spike heads out to get the skinny from a shady back-alley dealer behind the Chungking Mansions.
The kid tells him “You can buy anything here on Mars, from information to human lives. But it’s gonna cost ya.” Spike, unruffled, looks approvingly on a piece of his merchandise. Nunchaku. “Nice – Way of the Dragon model?” Instantly, the kid is bubbly and friendly, and tosses in the mere scrap of information Spike was after.
In sociology, there’s a pair of concepts from the German: gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft roughly means a village relationship, limited in number and complex in nature, since the butcher is also your father-in-law is also your godfather is also the man you beat in high spirits the last time you all went out to play ball together. You have multiple, overlapping relationships with everyone you know. Gesellschaft, by contrast, is a city relationship, theoretically infinite in number and simple and straightforward. The butcher is just your butcher. You may not even know his name. Gesellschaft groups are rationalized, monetized, efficient, cold. Gemeinschaft groups are irrational, traditional, so warm it’s stifling.
The kid pitched Mars as the perfect gesellschaft. Spike ignored him, and appealed to him, not just as clerk and customer, but as shared disciples of the Dragon, fellow fans of Way of the Dragon. And it got him what he wanted. It’s masterful kung fu, and he didn’t even have to raise a fist.
My old man chisels retail prices exactly the same way.
Spike finds the luckless thief who made off with the briefcase as he tries to fence the goods, and we finally find out, along with Spike, what’s inside: a Welsh corgi. Spike walks away, passes Hakim unaware on the street, and gets drawn into a chase scene by Hakim’s gunshot. The backgrounds are drawn in a soft golden glow, sketched or almost painted, making every character stand out stark and straight in the foreground. It’s a subtle detail, but it’s emphasized in this session and in this sequence in particular: compare it with interior shots of the BeBop, where Spike and Jet clearly belong, to this, where Spike, Hakim, Ein, and the rest stand out in marked contrast.
Finally, Spike corners Hakim on a narrow bridge over a canal. And oooh yes…
…except we don’t get it.
We get a few flashes of feet, Ein looking back and forth, and then it’s over the water.
It takes me by surprise every time. I mean, they’ve called out Bruce, his native Hong Kong, hell, even Way of the Dragon. The bad guy is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fer Chrissake! How could it not lead up to that legendary battle?
Because this is jazz, man.
Because Watanabe is a disciple of Bruce Lee and of Charlie Parker. He’s playing variations without the theme, tired of the fixed-style classical mess, and playing without fear of risky things.
The Kareem fight is the note he didn’t play. And that silence is deafening and astounding.
This is why “Stray Dog Strut” is cooler and more loyal than Kill Bill. Tarantino can dress up Uma in all the yellow jumpsuits he wants, he can call out Golden Harvest in half the scenes, he can use the same shots and cuts, but ultimately all he produced was a pastiche. He copied what Game of Death did, and remixed it.
Watanabe, by contrasted, copied what Game of Death was trying to do, and honored the philosophy that inspired it. By not playing those notes, he makes everyone in the room, who already know the song, think of the notes. He wins the fight without throwing a punch…just like Bruce Lee taught.
And while the unplayed notes are ringing in our braincases, he dropped in a little ditty that he’ll be playing later, with full band and all the trimmings. The chase.
Spike and Jet retreat where Spike lays down the first variation on one of his minor motifs: “I hate kids and pets!” We go from pets to kids fishing in the river, and they fish up Hakim. Hakim, meanwhile, phones up his contact, Snoop.
Hakim’s meeting with these guys, but we never meet them. In a lot of cases, we never meet the authorities, the backers, the people behind Spike, Jet, and the bounties. They’re ronin, masterless men, old-fashioned cowboys, freelancers without faction. Malcolm Reynolds may have had his own ship, still flyin’, but he wore a brown coat, and it defined him. Shifting allegiances are the bread and butter aboard the Racinante. And faction defined each and every person on Battlestar Galactica, made in the heady days when you were either With Us or Against Us.
Spike has no side. Jet was ISSP once, but that was a long time ago. Hakim stole a dog to sell, Asimov fled the syndicates. Of all the major characters in the series, there’s only two I can think of who have factions: Vicious and Twinkle Maria Murdoch. Everyone else has been atomized. Everyone else lives in a gemeinschaft, in worlds of relationships, where every relationship they do have is everything to them. Jet is Spike’s business partner, but also his mother, his voice of reason, his advisor. In an atomized universe, those old-fashioned relationships are all you have.
Hakim consults a fortune-teller (a very traditional, very village activity on urban, gesellschaft-ridden Hong Kong Mars) and Spike takes the dog for a walk. Thanks to the timely intervention of some sinister nerds…
…we get to revisit that little ditty Watanabe dropped in like the Marseillaise in the 1812 Overture. And like the Marseillaise, he didn’t quite finish the phrase. This time, he does.
Starting on foot, Spike after Hakim after the Ein after the researchers’ van, going up-tempo when Hakim steals a car from a married couple.**
Spike alights the Swordfish II and gives chase, chasing Hakim through the narrow Kowloon-esque streets above the sinister nerds. We shift uptempo again as the three of them race out onto a causeway that presumably goes out to Martian Lamma Island…but there’s a deeper, and subtler variation playing here, one we might miss in all the horn-blasts and screeches of “Want it All Back”.
In “Asteroid Blues,” it was fundamentally Katerina’s story, through Spike’s mismatched eyes.
In “Stray Dog Strut,” it’s fundamentally Ein’s story. Ein saves himself from Hakim, and sends Hakim spiraling off the causeway and into police custody, along with the sinister nerds chasing him. Once again, Spike is there to see, and to pitch in, but it’s not his story.
He pitches in by going after the falling dog instead of the bounty, slowing his jets so Ein would land with a bump, but safe and sound.
We switch to Big Shot!. Punch and Judy treat us to exposition, dishing out denoument on Hakim and explanation of Ein the data dog. But no one on BeBop is watching. The only one who sees, and almost draws a connection, is the crazy pet-store lady with her turtle hat. And she gives us the denouement for that poor thief who chose the wrong suitcase to steal.
Meanwhile, back aboard the BeBop, Ein wakes Spike up from his nap and they firmly establish their millieurs enemies relationship. Spike and Ein antagonize each other, but Spike saved Ein’s life, so we know he can’t hate the pooch too badly, and this new addition to the family firmly establishes his place, his complex relationships with both Spike and Jet. Spike isn’t the only one more comfortable in a gemeinschaft. And when he protests, Jet points out that it was Spike himself who brought Ein aboard. And he’s got no argument for that.
SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY.
Watanabe, Kanno, and crew wove variations and themes and ditties all through this session. Some were revisiting the themes they laid down in the first session. Some are initial statements of theme for later, fuller variations in other sessions. Some are peculiar to this session alone.
But the main riff that Watanabe is noodling on is the “Embracable You” escapades on the theme of Game of Death, that love letter and leitmotif to the Dragon. He honors Bruce Lee from every level, obliquely quoting him, namedropping his films, featuring one of the most iconic characters in the Dragon’s ouvre, down to embracing the Tao of Jeet Kune Do and taking away what is not necessary (the actual fight) for the true elegance of simplicity, casting off the fixed forms of the “classical mess” (as Tarantino failed to do), and sounding a note without playing, winning without fighting, making us see the fight between giant Hakim and our diminutive hero without having to show it.
And he made it look effortless. That’s the jazz.
Next week: A sultry-voiced woman muses on chance and trust, on being alone, “a stardust session played in an off-key melody.” The woman without a family, the pure mercenary of gesellchaft, takes her first steps toward a nakama…and her first steps out of it.
*street apothecaries are real, and I know exactly what that laochu tastes like. It is godawful, even without the roach in it. The roaches are also authentic.
**This married couple look so Caucasian and so alien. What the hell is this art style? The Anglican minister and clear wealth and power help. This has got to be what Anglo-Hongkongers looked like to the rest of the island’s population before the Handover in 1997. It’s a wonderfully subtle touch that grounds us in a Chinese reality, even when our main character is an ethnically-Jewish Mandarin-speaking Martian.