In 2071, the final frontier is dotted with spaceships, but there's no shiny happy Star Trek culture here in the solar system. Jump gates allow small, personally-owned ships to hop from planet to planet as easily as trains steamed through the Wild West. Jazz-age corruption is the norm for both corporations and governments. Criminals slip through the widely-spaced nets of the Interplanetary Police Force, but bounty hunters called "cowboys" are happy to pick up the slack. In Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, the four bounty hunters who crew the spaceship Bebop race to capture a man who's officially dead -- a man who would sacrifice the population of an entire planet just to prove to himself that he exists. This stylish actioner, originally titled Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, achieves the remarkable feat of being both a self-contained tale a new viewer can appreciate, and an untold side story that dovetails with the popular Cowboy Bebop television series continuity.
Mars is the place to be in the solar system. Under the glass dome that protects it from the harsh environment, crowded and diverse Alba City teems with excitement for the upcoming Halloween holiday. With so much activity, some of it's bound to be criminal -- and that's where butt-kicking bounty hunter Spike Spiegel and his comrades come in.
Storming the Gates of Heaven
Reckless Spike and fatherly ex-cop Jet Black enjoy working together, but the other two humans on the Bebop crew are free spirits. Thirteen-year-old hacker Ed cheerfully helps when asked, but the only person who understands her -- and I don't mean emotionally, I mean intellectually -- is a super-intelligent Corgi named Ein. When the last member of the crew, self-serving beauty Faye Valentine, cruises the city in her ship, hoping to make a quick sting on a small-fry bounty, a chemical tanker explodes before her eyes. She sees a brooding man with a distinctive tattoo standing at the explosion site with a sinister, proprietary manner. When the news of a deadly disease outbreak hits and a huge bounty is posted for him, she realizes the Bebop crew may have their biggest chance -- or their most dangerous mission -- yet.
Investigating the bioterrorist attack, the Bebop crew chases a thrill-seeking hacker and delves into a classified experiment and a corrupt biomedical corporation. Spike meets Electra Ovilo, a corporate security officer who can match him move for move. The coldly lovely Electra has a past with the military and with Vincent Volaju, a soldier and experimental subject believed dead -- or believed dead by everyone but former paramour Electra, and Faye, who saw him by the tanker.
The chase is on: Vincent plans to infect all of Mars with the virulent disease that was in the tanker. With no past and no future -- and only a tenuous understanding of the present -- Vincent has nothing to lose. Spike's devil-may-care attitude endangers only himself, but Vincent is willing to kill millions to force open Heaven's gates and find out once and for all what is a dream and what is real. It's up to four bounty hunters and one unnaturally bright Corgi to stop him.
The animation in Cowboy Bebop, the series, raised the bar for animation on TV. It's no surprise that the creators gleefully jump at the higher cels-per-minute rate of theatrical animation. They lavish care on every visual aspect -- the busy Moroccan Street bazaar, the moving details on the atmosphere-bound planes new to the movie, the immense and lively crowd for the Halloween parade. Even the ruffled fur on Ein's hindquarters and the sheen on the yellow mystery-fabric of Faye's favorite outfit benefit from the extra attention. Spike's martial arts moves look smoother than ever -- and we get three fights' worth of them. Computer animation mixes with the cel animation, often creating a dreamy effect. It's less pleasantly noticeable in an ominous zoom in a train car -- but if letting a computer render the train seats leaves the animators free to choreograph a jeet kune do vs. commando-style fight, complete with flying sweat and the scariest tiger-fist a seasoned kung fu movie fan may ever see -- well, I'd call it a fair trade.
The series' core staff -- director Shinichiro Watanabe (Animatrix, Macross Plus), writer Keiko Nobumoto (Macross Plus, Wolf's Rain), character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto (Golden Boy, Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory), and mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane -- faithfully follow the look and feel they created. The distinctive new characters fit into the series' sleek, vibrantly colored aesthetic. Some staffers visited Morocco just to get the right look for the scenes set on Moroccan Street.
The movie fits in near the end of the series, between episodes 22 ("Cowboy Funk") and 23 ("Brain Scratch"). It provides very minor series spoilers up through the ninth episode, "Jamming with Edward," but is otherwise a safe introduction to the series. The action-packed movie spends no time explaining how the Bebop crew met or why they work together -- if you watch the movie without any series knowledge, it's best to just walk in accepting that they're the good guys.
Yoko Kanno, who wrote all four CDs of the series' remarkable jazz-and-blues soundtrack, provides a CD and a half of music for the movie. She branches out into different genres, providing the pop tune "Cosmic Dare (Pretty with a Pistol)" on Faye's radio and the middle-Eastern-tinged music of Moroccan Street as easily as the hip-swinging funk of "Ask DNA" and several jazz tracks. Singing "Real Folk Blues," "Blue," and a number of other favorites made Mai Yamane the true voice of the series; fans will be happy to hear her familiar rough alto close the movie with "Gotta Knock a Little Harder."
Both the Japanese and the English-language series cast return to reprise their roles for the movie. As in the series, both casts turn in excellent performances; which is better is largely a matter of taste. The English dub snaps along at a good pace, making the most of the comic moments. However, Vincent's motivations -- and thus the movie's plot and theme -- are much clearer in the English subtitle script. Consider the difference between Spike's English-language comment, "We share the same soul," and the original, "We share similar souls." The latter suggests merely that Spike and Vincent have much in common; the former implies that they are conjoined twins of the spirit. I suggest watching the dub for light entertainment, but watching the sub if you like to leave a movie feeling that you got the point.
Worth Going the Extra Mile
Extras on the special edition include behind-the-scenes featurettes, conceptual art galleries, character profiles, and music videos for the opening theme ("Ask DNA") and closing theme ("Gotta Knock a Little Harder"). The six featurettes meld interviews with director Watanabe, character designer Kawamoto, and both the English and the Japanese casts into studies of the TV-to-movie transition, the characters, and the show's international appeal. It's fun to note the differences and similarities between the actors' approaches to the characters. Some of the paired Japanese and English-speaking actors approach their shared role from nearly identical angles, while others have such different takes, it's hard to believe they're playing the same character.
Even among a better-than-average crop of extras, the storyboard comparisons shine. As animation fans know, the usual storyboard extra consists of a slide show of storyboards shot at too low a resolution -- not a good way to display line art, and not terribly interesting, either. The Bebop movie extra sets the storyboards on one side of a split screen, and sets the corresponding animated scene on the other. The storyboards scroll through in sync with the animation, showing exactly how much of the detail on the screen sprang from the storyboards. It's fascinating to watch the characters' movements and compare them to the arrows signaling those movements. Sometimes, it's a surprise to see how much a sketch was altered to make a good shot. At other times, it's a hoot to see how far in advance the sight gags were planned.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is both a crowd-pleasing adventure flick and a thought-provoking addition to the series. Between the movie itself and the well-conceived extras, this special edition DVD is everything a newbie could want, and more than a fan dares ask for. It's a must-rent for any animation fan and a must-have for anyone who loved the series Cowboy Bebop.
Copyright © 2003 Laura Blackwell
Laura Blackwell lives near San Francisco, where she works as an editor. She has no pets, but superintelligent Corgis are welcome to submit applications for adoption. Her previous reviews for Strange Horizons can be found in the Archive. To contact her, send her email at email@example.com.