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Saving Spike: The Dialogue Between 'Cowboy Bebop' and 'Samurai Champloo'


The 1990s were an exciting time for Japanese animation.

Following the release of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira in 1988, anime, in all its varied forms, began flooding the Western market. What was once a cult interest to most Americans soon grew into an established brand. Mention titles like Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z to a child then and the name, along with its accompanying toys, cards, and other commercial knick-knacks, would be met with instant recognition. In the span of just a decade, anime had become part of Western consumption culture—but the addiction did not stop with children. Adults found a way to get their fix, too, and the graphic imagery of Ninja Scroll, Devilman, and other mature titles gave the medium a much darker slant. Even today, the carnal side of anime tends to sour its reputation. As the saying goes, one rotten apple spoils the barrel.

Look beyond the negative stereotype, though, and you will find some of the most compelling art put to film: the existentialism of Evangelion, the ethics of Trigun, the ecological romance of Princess Mononoke, and the probing ontology of Ghost in the Shell

And then, there was 1998's Cowboy Bebop.

Deemed the "gateway into anime," Shinichiro Watanabe's groundbreaking series follows Spike Spiegel, an ex-criminal turned bounty hunter who traverses the galaxy with crewmen Jet, Faye, and Ed. Freshly separated from the Red Dragon crime syndicate, Spike tries to establish a new life with his lover, Julia. All the while, he is relentlessly pursued by Vicious, his former friend and current Red Dragon kingpin, who tries to kill Spike for defecting. Tensions come to a head when the syndicate kills Julia. Craving revenge, Spike becomes a mirror image of his foe, hunting him with the same hateful vigor once unique to Vicious alone. In the end, this shared sin becomes both the men's undoing, and they kill each other at the series' end.

All said, Cowboy Bebop is a short, compelling, and accessible introduction to anime as an art form or, more importantly, the role of the anime director as an auteur. Artists of this kind have a style so distinct that the thematic, visual, and aural tropes of their films recur time and again, almost as if those films were in dialogue with each other.

For his part, Watanabe assumes the role of auteur by giving Cowboy Bebop a sister series, Samurai Champloo (2005). From a musical perspective, there is a subtle similarity between these two works. Watanabe is known for his colorful scores. Tank, the intro song to Cowboy Bebop, based on 40s-era jazz music, is considered one of the most iconic tracks in anime. Enter Samurai Champloo, and Watanabe treats his viewers to another classic song—only this time, it's hip hop. Listen to this piece, and it appears Watanabe wants Samurai Champloo to rival the "coolness" of Cowboy Bebop. In this sense, the two series are the same: they both have attitude. Observe the stylistic contrast between hip hop and jazz, though, and Samurai Champloo diverges from its predecessor. Here, Watanabe has decided to create something more edgy and modern.

His themes are equally as progressive.

Like Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo is a quest for deliverance: an attempt to conquer one's demons and escape the past. Watanabe introduces us to Mugen, a wandering ex-pirate who stumbles on an orphan girl named Fuu. Determined to find her estranged father, Fuu asks Mugen and a lone samurai, Jin, to accompany her on her quest after saving them from the Law. Bound by nothing but his word, Mugen agrees to help Fuu and join Jin as her bodyguard. From that point forth, what began as a life of selfishness and crime slowly evolves into one of kindness and warmth. Mugen learns to love Fuu more than himself. When his old foe, Umanosuke, takes her hostage, Mugen willingly offers his life in exchange for her own—and though this decision brings him suffering, it does not end in death. While Spike lies lifeless in his own blood, Mugen emerges from his ordeal alive. Were Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo disparate tales, the contrast between these endings would mean nothing. If we consider the similarities between Mugen and Spike, though, Watanabe's decision to kill one and spare the other reveals the narratives' larger theme.

Mugen and Spike both have a criminal past and, presumably, blood on their hands. Both are voiced in English by actor Steve Blum, both are chased by men they have slighted, and both constantly straddle the line between life and death. Watch Mugen and Spike closely enough, and viewers witness parallel stories of a soul on trial. The fundamental separation between them occurs toward the end of both shows. Spike fights because he hates Vicious; Mugen fights because he loves Fuu. While one man reverts to his ways of self-service, the other redeems himself through self-sacrifice. It is a transformation so great it assumes a spiritual dimension. As Mugen takes his punishment, beams of light shine on him through the roof above, a red cross displayed in the background while Umanosuke whips him ruthlessly.

Using the Christian cross as a benchmark, Watanabe offers a similar glimpse into Spike's heart. His first fight with Vicious takes place in a cathedral. Caught in a Mexican standoff (and perhaps foreshadowing their mutual self-destruction), the two men glare at each other while Vicious compares Spike to a "ravenous beast." Meanwhile, the camera cuts to an image of the cross. Spike's cross, however, is shrouded in darkness: a symbol of his fallen heart and jeopardized salvation. Angry and provoked, Spike shoots Vicious in the shoulder—but before he can finish the job, he is thrown through the church window, shattering an image of Christ in the process. While this symbolic "fall from grace" does not kill him, it portends doom for those who submit to hate and is a sign of Spike's destiny.

Cowboy Bebop is a tale of brooding cynicism; Samurai Champloo is a tale of budding optimism. While one story sinks slowly into the grave, the other frees viewers from the hole its forerunner dug.

For Watanabe fans, Samurai Champloo is a release from Cowboy Bebop’s tragic ending. Ed, abandoned as a child, never reconciles with her estranged father; Fuu, also abandoned, finds and forgives her father. Jet finds a foe in his friend, Fad; Mugen finds a friend in his foe, Jin. Spike meets characters who deny God; Mugen meets Christians who embrace God. Spike veils his heart with cool detachment; Mugen bares it with explosive self-loathing. These parallels, while subtle, suggest that Watanabe is telling us one, unified story, with different characters but the same souls in each of them. Look closely enough, and you can see Spike moving in Mugen: desperate, lonely, and acutely aware that he must change. Luckily, he does change, and his trying, 52-episode journey ends with one, simple lesson:

Love always wins.

Evan Vernon is an animation fan and reviewer from Indianapolis, Indiana. Evan earned his BA in English from Franklin College and plans to pursue an MA in Film Business. He hopes to work for a film distributor when his studies are complete. His favorite feature as a child was Rankin and Bass's The Last Unicorn; now, he has too many favorites to count! When he's not busy writing, Evan loves lifting, listening to Synthwave, and cuddling with his 3-legged cat, Jiji.

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