By Hugh David.
There has never been a better time to be a media fan. Commentaries and spin-offs, blogs and podcasts can open up entire worlds of fandom, even to the hopeless couch potato. Long gone are the days when fan publications relied on obsessive collections of memorabilia, and the need to remember details a show you saw only once. We live in an age where we are able to make multiple viewings, and argue about the relative merits of a show with fellow fans all around the world. Blogging has democratised the “conversation” itself, allowing the lowliest viewer to broadcast his or her opinions to the world, and to offer a more representative set of voices on disputed topics. After all, for every fan who hates Season 12 of Show X, there are those rare few who adored it. This sets the bar a lot higher for professional publications. Authors writing on modern media have a lot more material to work with, and need to strive much harder to deliver.
Crescent Moon’s recent publication, Cowboy Bebop: The Anime TV Series And Movie Pocket Guide by Jeremy Mark Robinson, blazes ahead with a lovely colour cover, only to collapse into a monochrome format, its text set in a space-hogging central column, and nearly a quarter of its 400+ page-count comprising poorly reproduced images, many internet-sourced, others looking like DVD screenshots. That’s a chunky pictorial component, but no efforts are made to link the images to the text – they could have illustrated key moments in the analysis of episodes, which are instead described in textual form.
Instead, the book must stand or fall on the quality of the text itself, although this, too, is lacking. An introduction and potted history is full of factual errors and outdated facts to back up generalised points about the anime industry. It’s fine to refer to interviews or facts from 1994, given the age of the series, but only when discussing, say, the production or distribution contexts for the creation of Cowboy Bebop. Instead, some of the most pertinent issues that made Cowboy Bebop so successful, then and now, are buried in the footnotes.
Throughout the book, annotations offer nuggets of information that might conceivably open up interesting and even original avenues of thought, whereas the main body of the text is largely bogged down in lengthy, tiresome lists, seemingly deriving solely from English-language sources. If these were more complete or accurate than similar filmographies at IMDB or Anime News Network, there might have been some value in them, but quick comparison makes it clear they’re sourced from those sites alone.
Cowboy Bebop is an immense, much-loved media creation, encompassing not merely the anime, but the manga spin-offs and the audio curio Music for Freelance. Instead of investigating these, the book offers 15 pages on the cast and crew and 40 pages on the franchise’s themes, devoid of interviews or quotes with any creatives, but instead slathered with the author’s personal opinions. It’s very hard to take a book seriously that makes a childish wordplay of successful actor/producer/director Keanu Reeves’ first name instead of providing analysis as to why he might have been interested in the project or what he could have brought to it professionally; instead we get this: “And, yes, Keanu Reeves was put forward as a possible Spike Spiegel. Oh fuck me, how fucking predictable is that?! (And Kee-aaa-noo was also being suggested for the role of Togusa in the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, or for Kaneda in Akira. Listen to the fans: nooooooo!!!)” Or how to take seriously a work that prints an uncredited picture of the lead voice actress in her lingerie – is it actually her? With fan Photoshopping an active thing something is needed to justify its inclusion beyond the relative aesthetics of the individual captured. Even the caption of the show’s famous composer opens with the line: “Make no mistake, Yoko Kanno may look (and sound) like a little pixie…”
At over 150 pages, the episode guide is more than a third of the page-count, more if you add the 24 pages on the movie, while the appendices cover Samurai Champloo (another episode guide!), manga about samurai-era heroes and Macross Plus, but, again, all are afflicted by the above issues. Certainly, these two shows are germane to any serious discussion of Bebop, but no connections are made, and no lines drawn, other than starting points in footnotes. They could have been relevant as chapters, providing before-and-after context for the creatives and their ideas and visions, but are not used as such. The continual emphasis on the author’s opinions and reference-spotting means many facts are missed. A point about the plot and backstory to Session #7: Heavy Metal Queen, for example, is left as mere speculation, when it was answered a decade ago in the Ural Terpsichore diaries.
If this feels overly critical as a review, it’s because if there was ever an anime show that deserved a loving, 400-page gatherum and discussion, Cowboy Bebop is surely it, in a small field of true classics alongside the likes of Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain. An analysis of the Western and Japanese influences in the context of the show’s creation, release and enduring success, incorporating the creatives’ own acknowledged influences (beyond just what’s in the episode commentaries) and the wider media tie-ins, would have offered something new to both the experienced anime fan or Asian media academic as well as new fans coming to a classic. Unfortunately, that book remains still to be written.
Cowboy Bebop: The Anime TV Series And Movie Pocket Guide is out now from Crescent Moon.