Unpopular Opinion – Double Feature: Cowboy Bebop & Samurai Champloo

It has been a hectic week and half or so, what with all the family dinners, car rides and work to be done around the holidays.  Since I haven’t put anything out for almost 2 weeks now, sorry about that, I decided to come back with a special offering, a post with the twice the analysis and complaining which I specialize in.  So today we are looking at 2 big names in the anime world and both are works of Shinichiro Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.  This will not be a straight comparison of the two because I generally don’t like to do that anyway, and it’s been done a lot already.  Instead I’m going to analyze the shit, complete with major spoilers (you have been warned), out of both and then explain my feelings about each relative to each other.  Let’s begin.

Let’s start with Cowboy Bebop.  This positive part will be quick because if I went into everything Bebop does well in detail, I’d be here all day, if you were looking for a recommendation on whether or not to watch it the answer is yes. Cowboy Bebop is one of the most famous and beloved anime, one of the few to be a huge success in the East and West for a reason, it is a high quality show.  Let me make this very clear from the outset, when it comes to the objective quality of Cowboy Bebop, and yes works of art can be judged objectively, it is arguably the most technically proficient anime of all time.  I don’t think it’s number one in that regard but it’s damn close.  So I’ll summarize it’s strengths in brief.  Bebop is almost the ideal episodic show, I’ll explain the almost later, every episode is different and interesting.  Each one adds something to the series, be it a cool fight, a new crew member or some tasteful character development to a cast that doesn’t talk about themselves too much.  Each episode is a self contained story in the best sense of that phrase, the stories have beginnings, middles and satisfying conclusions.  Each stars characters and villains who feel fully fleshed out and best of all they are full of situations and people that feel real. Everything feels grounded in reality despite being in the far future, so each episode is believable on a level that most series can’t manage in their entire run time.  This is the core of Cowboy Bebop’s success, it is so easy to immerse yourself in because each episode crafts its own small world and story with such attention to deal that it seems both plausible and real.  This is the mastery of storytelling from an objective standpoint, and it’s this mastery that made Bebop the anime classic it is today.

Bebop suffers from some very strange flaws however.  For one thing it makes no sense that Spike and the gang are always broke.  They are all capable in some fashion and in some cases extremely capable.  So why are they always out of cash?  It doesn’t make any sense for people this capable to also cause just enough collateral damage to end up with minute profits on every job.  I’m not asking them to be perfect but wouldn’t make more sense for a small capable crew to be raking in enough dough to be doing well for themselves?  I mean you never see the Lagoon Company from Black Lagoon wallowing around totally broke and they also have a certain propensity for collateral damage, shit they even lose their entire office and dock in one episode without falling into the poverty that so consistently plagues Spike and friends.  It was one of the few aspects of the show that hurt my suspension of disbelief and it just seems like such a weird thing to do considering how grounded and believable the rest of the series is.  However this is the least of the mistakes Bebop has.

I think my friend who I convinced to try the show, he doesn’t watch much anime, put it best:  The self-contained stories found in every episode are better than the over-arching story of the entire show.  Now I understand that as an episodic show, Bebop’s overall story did not have to be complicated or deep or anything like that. In fact I thought what Bebop’s overall story was mostly fine save for three bits Julia, Vicious and the ending.  Julia as a character doesn’t bother me at all but it was just weird how important they made her out to be both to the overall story and to Spike before they offed her after maybe 10 minutes of screen time.  The only thing she accomplishes in the story is dragging Spike into the final battle.  Seriously she arrives out of nowhere, meets Spike while fleeing Vicious’ men, and then dies ensuring Spike will go fight Vicious.  It’s almost exactly like how SAO brought Kirito to the location of the final battle via an email out of the blue, except more direct.  This bring us to Vicious.  Now this might just be a nitpick for me but I hate how Vicious himself and the series try to build him up as this badass, see him using a sword in space, having a creepy bird on the shoulder, his voice acting and his overall cold and brutal demeanor.  The issue appears when he isn’t really much of badass.  Spike appears more competent in both melee and ranged combat, Vicious uses tons of henchmen instead of doing much fighting himself and generally most of his evil actions are more about treachery and deceit as opposed to truly fear-inspiring brutality.  Now having a character present themselves as more badass than they are doesn’t bother me, usually because they get proven hilariously wrong by another character, but when the show puts a lot of effort into making someone appear as something more than he is, I’m just left feeling disappointed by what I see as a lackluster villain.  So Vicious just doesn’t do much for me, he isn’t a badass, he isn’t even all that compelling and most of the minor one-off villains are more interesting and/or dangerous than he is.  Which brings me to the ending.

Now I admit I may have walked into the ending with high expectations thanks to what someone I trusted said about it.  But even setting that bias aside I would say that the ending is the single greatest weakness of Cowboy Bebop.  This is especially strange considering not all of the ending is bad.  For me the end of the show can be broken into three sections, the Julia section, the big battle and the final battle.  Given what I’ve already said about Julia and her role in the story, it should come as no surprise that I thought her section of the ending was weak.  I didn’t enjoy it at all, it didn’t help me get more invested in the characters more, it just kind of left me feeling like “oh guess she wasn’t as important as I thought” and a bit disappointed.  Then the big battle happens, where Spike storms the gang’s , now controlled by Vicious, headquarters and is helped by a few of the men who did not take well to Vicious’ uprising and subsequent coup over the former gang leaders.  This part of the ending is fantastic, the battle is exciting, fast paced, large in scale and it does a terrific job of building up the tension before we get to the final battle.  Then the final battle wastes all the good will the big battle earned.  The final battle is pathetic save for its visuals and choreography, which are things Cowboy Bebop does so well most shows today can’t make fights as good.  The dialogue is uninspired, the fight flows poorly and it feels shorter than the very first fist fight Spike has in episode 1.  In short it’s over so fast it feels anticlimactic, which is the last word you want associated with your final battle.  Much like Julia’s death the final battle left me feeling like “um ok I guess that’s it”, I was unsatisfied to say the least.  Overall Cowboy Bebop is not a bad show, far from it, it’s a great show and if I gave out numbered scores it would be a 9 for me.  But the ending is failure and a bad ending can be catastrophic, just ask Mass Effect fans.  That Cowboy Bebop scores so well despite it’s ending is a testament to the quality with which the rest of the story was told, it just sucks that ending seems like a first draft effort by comparison.  Time to talk Samurai Champloo.

If Cowboy Bebop was a grounded adventure story set in the future then Samurai Champloo is almost it’s complete opposite.  Samurai Champloo takes place in the past, specifically the Edo-era which ranges from roughly the 1700’s through the 1800’s.  But this not the Edo-era history knows and loves, instead its weird mashup of historical fact and modern influences.  Like there are samurai who drop rap beats instead of fighting and punks who are into vandalism and look like they just came from death metal mosh pit.  Realism is not Samurai Champloo’s strong suit, boldness is.  In a sense I can see it as the Gurren Lagann or Kill la Kill of the historical genre, bold, ridiculous, over the top and unabashedly unashamed of itself.  In other words it’s a lot of fun.  Much like it’s predecessor Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is an episodic adventure show with small cast making their way through life despite being totally broke all the time.  Here though being broke is appropriate as none of the characters are employed come the end of episode 1 and travel in the old days was expensive.  Unfortunately Samurai Champloo is a bit more hit and miss with its episodic stories, with some that are fucking amazing like the one where everyone gets high or the one where Mugen totally wants to bang this ninja chick, and some that are decidedly less interesting like the one with big gay Dutch guy.

Another issue is the characters themselves.  Fuu is the one that drives the plot forward simply by virtue of being the only one with a goal to work towards.  But Fuu isn’t particularly interesting or endearing, which makes her story suffer.  Mostly she just comes in and nails a few funny scenes while she bumbles her way forward dragging Mugen and Jin along.  Jin is sort of bland and boring to me, he plays the cold, serious, morally grey samurai so straight you could use him as a ruler.  And he never really gets any better, with the exception of the episode where he tries to help the married woman about to become a geisha, which is my favorite episode with regards to Jin.  That was only time I thought we got a better glimpse into the type of person Jin is and what motivates him, other than that he has very little to make him appealing.  This is especially true when compared to Mugen.  Mugen is the wild and crazy thug who break dances while he sword fights.  He totally dominates the show in terms of character, no one else even comes close to him.  Mugen is fantastic to the point where basically made the show for me almost every episode.  The side characters who make up the rest of story aren’t usually very strong, with a few exceptions they are just kind of generic douchebags of one kind or another and don’t come to life the way so many minor villains did in Cowboy Bebop.  What saves Samurai Champloo, to me anyway, was that the episodes it did well, it did really well, and that in combination with a satisfying conclusion to the overall plot made up for the episodes that kind of sucked on their own.  It has cools fights, the show itself has a quite bit of character even if the actual characters besides Mugen don’t, and it concludes nicely.  At the end of the day it was fun and it finished on a high note, which is all I really wanted from the show at that point.  I mean I love seeing shows that are genuine masterpieces, but most of the time I want to know two things when I go into an anime, “will this interest me?” and “will this entertain me?”, and Samurai Champloo does both, especially the latter.

So I’ll just wrap this up with a quick comparison.  In terms of technical proficiency and objective quality, Cowboy Bebop is leagues ahead of Samurai Champloo.  And most people will tell you that Bebop is better than Champloo, and mean it in every sense.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that position, it’s a pretty easy case to make after all, but it’s not how I feel.  I loved Bebop to death after years of putting it off because I that’s just what I do with most popular shows.  Then the ending came along and just ruined things for me.  It was such a disappointment after seeing episode after episode that was handled so much better.  I still like Cowboy Bebop but I don’t love it the way I did as I watched it.  Which is why I actually prefer Samurai Champloo to Cowboy Bebop.  It’s not better than Bebop, except for Mugen, he’s the best character between the two casts.  But it was fun and it didn’t let me down at the end the way Bebop did.  Which is why I enjoy Samurai Champloo more as a whole even if I enjoyed Cowboy Bebop more as I watched it.  Anyway I think it’s time to wrap this up because it’s long and I don’t have much else to say.  For those of you who made this far, thank you for reading and I hope to see you in the next one.

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