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Films
by Kathi Maio

Cult Status Isn't Good Enough

IT WOULD be an insult to say that anime has finally arrived. After all, Japanese animation has been around for almost one hundred years, and it has been a cultural phenomenon around the globe for over twenty years. Yes, it would be an insult to say that anime has finally arrived. Sadly, it would also be a lie.

Although anime has achieved cult status in the U.S., and major cities can support both stores exclusively devoted to anime and manga (Japanese graphic novels) and conventions where "otaku" (rabid fans) gorge themselves on cartoons, comics, and costumed play-acting, the great majority of Americans are still blithely unaware that there is a world of animation beyond the wholesome, song-filled, and totally predictable buddy adventures put out by major American studios for tykes and their significant elders.

Okay, Pokémon and Digimon made a definite blip on the American consciousness. But they fit more readily into the expected Disney mold. The more adult, or at least more complex, tales coming out of Japan seem incapable of making a major impact on the U.S.

Several years ago, I remember, I first saw Ghost in the Shell (1995), a cyberpunkish thriller that is also a theological rumination on the nature of the soul. The art of it blew me away. The action sequences were impressive, but I had expected that. What surprised me was the intricacy—what others might call convolution—of the storyline and its philosophical underpinnings. I remember thinking (and writing) at the time that the film would have a significant impact on animation and the American movie-going public. Well, the former might be true, but the latter? Not hardly.

Every year or so, a Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust or a Metropolis or a WXIII: Patlabor the Movie 3 will get a brief release in this country. But few anime make it outside of New York, L.A., and the festival circuit. And those that do get no promotion and generally fade away rapidly. Whether I like a particular anime or not, part of me always hopes it will become a "surprise hit" just so that more anime will see the light of a darkened American theater. So far, that hasn't happened.

This Spring, my hope-it-does-well feature was Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Knockin' on Heaven's Door). Like many anime features, Cowboy Bebop started out as a Japanese TV series. Since its 1998 debut, the series has built a large cult following, even in this country. DVDs of the series have done well with anime devotees, and the show has also appeared for the last couple of years on the Cartoon Network. (Although because of its adult—if not overly graphic—content, it is on in the middle of the night during the network's "Adult Swim" programming hours.)

With a built-in audience, I was hoping that Cowboy Bebop: The Movie would break through to the general public, not just as a representative of anime, but because it is an entertaining sf film. Alas, as I write this piece, it doesn't look like that's going to happen. But I can tell you about it anyway, to support the Blockbuster rental action in the days to come.

An extension of the series (with a storyline that is supposed to take place between the 22nd and 23rd episodes), the film features the small and quite diverse crew of a modified interplanetary trawler dubbed the Bebop. The "cowboy" of the title refers to the slang term for bounty hunters—which is what the folks on the Bebop do for their (meager) living. The central characters include Spike Spiegel (English voice by Steven Jay Blum), a lanky cynic who sounds like Sam Spade and looks like a mod hipster from the 1960s; Jet Black (English voice by Beau Billingslea), a former cop who's a cross between a clinically depressed Mr. T and The Bionic Man; Faye Valentine (English voice by Wendee Lee), a standard anime cutie with perky grapefruit-shaped boobs and tiny pert mouth, who also has a gambling habit and a bad attitude; Edward (English voice by Melissa Fahn), an annoying young androgynous girl with a sing-songy voice and a genius for hacking; and Ein, a data dog in the guise of a corgi.

It is 2071, and most human society has moved away from Earth. One large colony is located on Mars, where Alba City looks amazingly like present-day New York—with a few touches from Asia and Northern Africa, plus an Eiffel Tower flourish. Law and order is supposed to be maintained by the corrupt Inter Solar System Police (ISSP). But crime syndicates, along with the military industrial complex, really seem to control things. Rather than clean things up, the government relies on "cowboys" to capture especially troublesome criminals for a fee. The bounty hunters have their own TV show, called Big Shot, which gives them the rootin' tootin' details on the latest most wanted.

The villain du jour is a brooding type who exploded a tanker truck on the freeway, triggering some sort of deadly virus. The Beboppers should have a leg up on this manhunt, since Faye actually witnessed the explosion. But there wouldn't be a reward of 300,000,000 woolongs if this were an easy case.

Like the TV series that spawned it, the movie of Cowboy Bebop is a marvelous hodgepodge of hardboiled mystery fiction, science fiction action, and tragic love story, with more cultural influences than you could possibly list—although Bebop otaku certainly have tried on their numerous fan websites. Since a great many of the pop cult references (whether visual, verbal, or musical in Yoko Kanno's vibrant score) are American, U.S. audiences should have a field day with this movie. But with an R rating, this is not the kind of thing Mom and Dad want to take the kiddies to. And the bioterrorism storyline (although devised prior to 9/11 and the Weapons of Mass Destruction hysteria) comes a little too close to reality for many Americans at the moment.

It's a pity, really.

Cowboy Bebop isn't a perfect film, it's true. It drags a bit in the middle, just as you would expect a feature-length film based on a half-hour TV series would do. And not all the beloved series characters get enough to do in this particular adventure. I didn't miss seeing more of the grating wee Eddie, but I would like to have seen a bigger role for Jet, and I wish Faye hadn't spent so much of her time bound and disheveled on a floor. (Yeah, I know the teen boy audiences probably enjoyed that part, but they aren't writing this column.)

If Faye was relegated to a minor role, there is at least another kick-ass woman who joins the cast long enough to have it out with our hero, Spike. Her name is Electra (Jennifer Hale), and she is a military commando who seems to have a past with the terrorist, Victor Volaju (Daran Norris).

Although this movie will mean more to the folks who love the TV series, prior Bebop experience is far from necessary. This should be a very pleasant diversion for anyone who enjoys animation and science fiction. Besides the main feature, directed with great energy by series director Shinchirio Watanabe, there are two additional sequences—movies within a movie—that are alone worth the price of admission or rental. One is Hiroyuki Okiura's title credits sequence, and the other is an animated rendition of an old film western, done by Tensai Okamura. Neither is essential to the plot of the film, but they are such gorgeous little animation gems that they help make this film a delight to watch.

Sad to say, more people will probably see Shinchirio Watanabe's shorts in the Animatrix collection than will see Knockin' on Heaven's Door, the Cowboy Bebop movie. Ah, well. Perhaps Animatrix will bring Watanabe new fans. We can hope. Just like I can pray that the Oscar for Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away will hearken a new day for American appreciation for Japanese animation.

Miyazaki is in a class by himself, of course. The House of Mouse (and its subsidiaries) were smart enough to recognize a genius when they saw one, too. Although one could argue with the way Disney has marketed Miyazaki, just as you could question some of the choices made in the English voice-work on the Disney releases of Miyazaki's films, I am not in the mood to second-guess anyone willing to try to hook Americans on the work of this incredible filmmaker.

I am especially happy that Disney has finally released some of Miyazaki's earlier films on American/English language DVDs. Kiki's Delivery Service was especially high on my personal list. With good reason. It's a delightful tale of a young witch coming of age, learning to recognize her own talents, and striving to serve her community.

Miyazaki has said that he is concerned about the fact that young girls seem ignorant of their cultural heritage and show a general lack of self-esteem. Well, all I can say is that all those academics who worry about Reviving Ophelia better take a lesson from this aging gent from Japan. Miyazaki's girls aren't just revived, they're resplendent! Kiki is a marvelous example. So, too, is young Chihiro (Daveigh Chase) in Spirited Away. She starts out the film as a peevish and frightened little girl, afraid to enter an abandoned building or let go of her mother's hand. And she is equally petrified at the thought of living in a new home and starting a new social life in a new school.

All that changes when she and her parents innocently invade an amusement park of the spirit world and decide (big mistake!) to chow down at a feast they happen upon. Chihiro's gluttonous parents are transformed into pigs. To free them from their porcine enchantment, our spindly-legged young lass must bravely enter a hostile, sometimes even horrific world and triumph there. She does. And by the end of the movie, she knows that she can handle anything life can dish out.

Miyazaki's animation is breathtakingly beautiful and incredibly intricate (and except for a couple of water and bubble effects, entirely and painstakingly hand-drawn). But the filmmaker is equally talented as a storyteller, weaving Japanese fable and folklore into a plot that is unabashedly moralistic.

The filmmaker doesn't simply want his heroines (or heroes) to flourish. It's not about self-worth based in empty pride and entitlement. Miyazaki's protagonists learn to take responsibility not only for their own actions, but to try to work for the common good of all. Environmental (almost luddite-like) messages are common to Miyazaki's work. Princess Mononoke practically slugged you over the head with them! Which is one of the reasons that is not my favorite Miyazaki film. But even in his latest Alice in the Wonderland Bathhouse parable, the sensei slips a few of his life lessons in, just a little more subtly.

For example, when a dreaded Stink Spirit comes to call, it spews forth foul waste, garbage, and old bicycles as Chihiro tends to its bath. After a ritualized cleansing, it turns out that the Stink Spirit is nothing more than a miserably befouled River Spirit in need of a little help from its friends.

Unfortunately, girl power and Earth Day sermons aren't enough to make people watch a movie. Is winning an Oscar? I hope so. Because some of the best science fiction and fantasy films in the world are coming out of Japan. They call it anime. But you can just call it first-rate filmmaking.

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