Review for Cowboy Bebop Collectors Edition Part 1
We have a new company distributing anime in the UK! Actually we’ve had it for quite some time now, as Anime Limited has been up and running since the end of 2012. For the first part of this year they’ve been busy releasing Kenji Kamiyama’s 009 Re: Cyborg in cinemas and online. But the intention was to have physical distribution of home media as well, with the laudable goal of becoming the Criterion of anime. That’s a lofty target, as anime is by its very nature a disposable, transient commodity. What’s big now will be forgotten in two years. Anime Limited need a bona fide classic to make their mark, they need a title that will grab the attention, and they need to do something with it that no one else has done. The label is called All The Anime, and their first title is Cowboy Bebop on Blu-ray!
You know the usual path to UK anime? A US company licenses it, creates subtitles and possibly dubs it, then hopefully someone in Australia licenses it and creates a PAL master for the DVDs, or a Region B encode for the Blu-rays, and then we in the UK get it. This time we are the first English speaking territory in the world to get Cowboy Bebop in high definition. Australia will get it in autumn, and no one in the US has even licensed it at this time. Let me re-iterate. In a total reversal of the usual industry doctrine, we get it first. There are some anime fans turning green across the Atlantic, I can tell you. And this isn’t an anomaly. We’ll be the first English territory to get the re-mastered Outlaw Star, we’re getting the early Shinkai films on Blu-ray, and we’re getting Perfect Blue on Blu-ray. This isn’t just making a splash. This is full on Third Impact!
It’s the year 2071, and mankind has colonised the solar system, terraforming worlds and moons, and establishing space stations, spreading out across the heavens. Travel is made easy by means of warp gates connecting the various worlds, but a catastrophe means that Earth has been left marginalized, a dumping ground for people that can’t get offworld, and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It also means that policing the solar system is a tough prospect. This is where the bounty hunters come in, 300,000 of them, trying to make a living by bringing fugitives to justice. One such group of Cowboys are the crew of the spaceship Bebop. Faye Valentine, hacker Ed, and datadog Ein soon join Spike Spiegel and Jet Black in their never ending quest to earn enough money to keep their stomachs from growling. The first 13 episodes of Cowboy Bebop are presented across two BD50 discs.
Session 1. Asteroid Blues
Asimov Solenson is worth 2.5 million to Spike and Jet, and they’re soon off to the Asteroid belt and Tijuana colony where he’s hiding. Spike is in trouble though, as Asimov is peddling Bloody Eye, a drug that speeds up human reflexes to the point where a person can dodge bullets, and Asimov is partaking of his own product.
Session 2. Stray Dog Strut
Abdul Hakim pet thief extraordinaire is the next big bounty to come up on the Big Shot TV show, which advertises lucrative fugitives to the bounty hunter community. A lead from a plastic surgeon sends the Bebop to Mars, where Abdul is trying to fence a rather special Welsh Corgi. When the dog takes a liking to Spike, it looks like the Bebop will have a new crewmember.
Session 3. Honky Tonk Women
Following a shootout at a ‘Herbal Medicine’ shop, card cheat Faye Valentine is put to work paying off her debt at an orbiting casino. She’s to wait for a high stakes player who will lose all his money, and give his last chip, a rather special chip, to her. In walk Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, following a prophetic dream. Spike is a high stakes gambler, but he’s unwilling to yield his final chip.
Session 4. Gateway Shuffle
Following their previous encounter, Faye is still a fugitive, albeit one stranded in Jupiter’s orbit without any fuel. Spike and Jet shadow their next target Morgan in a Ganymede restaurant, when eco-terrorists protesting the exploitation of the sea rat interrupt them. Faye comes across some floating wreckage, and a dying courier desperate to get a vial to Ganymede’s ISSP. By the time Spike, Jet and Faye bump into each other again, the terrorists are holding Ganymede to ransom…
Session 5. Ballad Of Fallen Angels
There is turmoil at the top of the syndicates, as certain people aren’t too accepting of a reconciliation between two mafia groups. When mafia boss Mao Shinrai comes up with a 28 million woolong price tag, Spike sees some easy money. But collecting it means confronting his dark past.
Session 6. Sympathy For The Devil
Money is tight, and belts have to be tightened aboard the Bebop. It’s easy to see why when simple targets like Giraffe are slipping through their fingers. With his dying words, he pleads for Spike to help a young blues musician, a boy who is a virtuoso with the mouth organ, but is bound in service to a cryptic figure in a wheelchair.
Session 7. Heavy Metal Queen
VT is a freighter pilot, a space trucker who hates bounty hunters. It isn’t her day when the town plays host to what looks like a bounty hunter conference. They are all in town looking for an explosives nut named Decker, and their attitude in her local bar is just asking for a brawl. But her antipathy to bounty hunters will have to be put aside, when she runs into Decker on her next trip out.
Session 8. Waltz For Venus
Hijackers on a Venus bound liner prove some easy money for Spike and Faye, who are aboard as passengers. Another passenger sees Spike effortlessly defeat his foes and has an idea. When the ship lands, Roco Bonnaro accosts Spike and demands that he teaches him self-defence. He’ll need it too as he’s running with a bad crowd, smuggling a rare plant that offers the only, and very expensive cure for Venus Sickness, which his sister suffers from.
Session 9. Jamming With Edward
Following the explosion of the warp gate on the moon, the Earth has been turned into a junkyard planet, where the population live underground to avoid the constant downpours of meteorites. It’s no surprise that Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV would like to get offworld. She sees her chance when an orbiting satellite with a bored AI decides to paint graffiti on the Earth with a laser weapon. The authorities blame hacker Radical Edward, and the crew of the Bebop comes looking for the bounty.
Session 10. Ganymede Elegy
Before Jet was a bounty hunter, he was a cop in the Ganymede ISSP. Paying his homeworld a visit, he’s getting melancholic, with a watch reminding him of a lost love. Jet pays a visit to her bar to see Alisa, only to find that she is shutting up shop, relocating with her boyfriend Rhint to another city. The reasons become clear on the next episode of the Big Shot, and Jet has to make a choice between his past and his duty.
Session 11. Toys In The Attic
There is an odd sounding critter wandering the ducts and vents of the Bebop, and one by one it’s hunting down the crew. Jet is first in its sights, and when a strange purple rash fells the big man, it becomes clear that no one is safe. Is it a mutant? Is it an alien? Is it something else completely? The only answer is to tool up, hunt it down and blow it away.
Session 12: Jupiter Jazz (Part I)
The man who replaced mafia boss Mao Shinrai, coincidentally Spike’s nemesis, Vicious is heading for depression hit Callisto to close a deal for the drug Bloody Eye. On the Bebop, Faye gets antsy, sabotages the ship, steals all the money, and heads for Callisto. She winds up in Blue Crow, a town without any women in, where she meets a saxophone player named Gren. When Ed intercepts a transmission from someone called Julia, Spike gets irrational, gets into a shouting match with Jet, leaves the ship and heads for the source of the message, on Callisto. Then Jet learns of a bounty on an escaped criminal named Gren. He winds up on; you guessed it, Callisto…
Session 13: Jupiter Jazz (Part II)
Gren and Vicious have a past, they served in the military together on Titan, and Vicious saved his life. Then he turned around and betrayed him, leaving him to rot in prison. Gren wants answers or retribution. Spike and Vicious have a past, they worked for the same syndicate, and were both involved with a woman named Julia. Now Spike wants to know where Julia is, or rather where she went to after the trail petered out on Callisto. Expect an explosive confrontation.
Cowboy Bebop gets a 1080i presentation at 60Hz on these discs, pillarboxed to maintain the original 4:3 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer initially gave me pause, prior experience has led me to expect combing artefacts and animation that isn’t as smooth as progressive playback. Videophiles also have horror stories about the interlaced transfers that come from US companies like Sentai and Media Blasters, with screencaps to justify their disdain plastered across anime forums. The difference with Cowboy Bebop is that it isn’t an intentionally gimped US release to placate Japanese studios worrying about reverse importation.
The Blu-ray transfer sourced for this release of Cowboy Bebop is from the Japanese master. This is how Cowboy Bebop was released in Japan on Blu-ray, albeit localised with audio and subtitles for the English speaking market. Cowboy Bebop is a show from 1998, and while the majority of it was made traditionally, with ink and cel, photographed on film, presumably at 24 frames per second, it is composited with early digital effects, and if Star Trek the Next Generation is any example, those effects would have been completed on video at an NTSC frame rate. This is no doubt why it is released at 60 Hz 1080i.
Cowboy Bebop is gorgeous on these discs. The Japanese obviously wanted their Bebop in the best possible quality, and we get to benefit. It’s only the ever so slightly uneven pans and scrolls, in comparison to a progressive transfer, that suggest an interlaced source. It’s so slight that you’ll have forgotten it 30 seconds into an episode. The image is clear and sharp throughout, and has obviously had some restoration, with everything clean and stable, free of dirt and scratches. The episodes now look as filmic as originally intended, with a light layer of film grain. The HD transfer brings out the richness in the colour palette, and reveals detail that you will have never seen before. I’m such a nerd, I actually paused the disc 5 minutes into episode 7 so I could read the text on a poster plastered on a toilet door. If you want an example of greater elegance, just feast your eyes on the stained glass window in the church at the end of episode 5. If you had any doubts as to whether Bebop would look good in HD, then lay them to rest. Bebop looks fantastic.
Although... that mention of Star Trek TNG was deliberate. It’s a show that is also currently getting a Blu-ray release, and it has a lot in common with Bebop. Its live action elements were shot on film, but its special effects and post production work were done in SD video. Elements of Cowboy Bebop were created digitally, some space stations, and planets, as well as the warp-gate sequences, and these decidedly SD effects elements are up-scaled on the Blu-ray. I do get the sense that there was some re-compositing done for the animation however, as in the warp gate sequences, the streaking light beams remain SD, but film elements in front of that background, particularly spaceships look as if they are native HD. Once in a while, a cel animated cut will look as if it’s up-scaled, a couple of seconds in the odd episode, but I’m reminded of the first TNG sampler Blu-ray which had a 20 second scene taken from the DVD as they had ‘lost’ the film.
Consider that Paramount has the money and time to find all the film elements for the episodes, and are re-creating all of the effects shots in HD from scratch, and they expect to sell well into seven figures when it comes to their Blu-ray release. In comparison, and given the target market for Bebop, Sunrise have worked wonders. I saw not one compression artefact while watching these episodes, and more importantly I saw not one moment of digital banding, from which it is a rare anime Blu-ray that escapes. I have to say that this is the best looking anime Blu-ray since Akira. If you need further proof, just compare it to the DVD after you upgrade (and you will upgrade). I have the US remix set, and taking in the rainbowing and constant combing artefacts, on top of the low res video sourced image after watching the pristine Blu-ray all made me weep a little.
Update: Someone on a forum somewhere spotted a video glitch in episode 2 at 17:39 into the episode, a pixellated frame. I had a look and can confirm that it is there on the review discs. I must have blinked for that frame the first time around.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Japanese and English, with optional translated subtitles and a song and signs track, and while the menu is a little fiddly (the discs default to English with all subtitles off), it is completely configurable and accessible from the menus and the remote.
I watched Bebop the way that I always watch it, in the original Japanese. Lossless audio sure is fine, especially when it comes to this show’s action sequences, and especially the music. You get excellent clarity and fidelity, the dialogue is clear throughout, and there are no problems when it comes to sync or drop-outs. The Japanese audio is set at a lower level than you may be used to, but that is easily resolved with the volume control. It’s a proper surround track too, not a glorified up-mix as many anime get. The opening sequence of episode 1 as the Bebop arrives at Tijuana asteroid, you hear the automated messages of the port control coming from all corners of the room. Also, sit still for the dogfight sequences is episodes 1 and 13, as it’s silly grin time again. One insignificant problem is that the first beat to the opening sequence of episode 3 is missing.
Then I sat down and watched some select episodes in English. The volume level here is reasonably set, louder than the Japanese, and where I usually have my home cinema. Once again I’m reminded that after they dubbed Bebop, they broke the mould. It’s hard now to imagine that this dub is well over ten years old, coming from the hind end of that period when we had the salty Manga Video dubs as a benchmark. Cowboy Bebop’s English dub is so spot on, with the voice cast fitting their characters perfectly, a script translation that remains true to the intent of the original Japanese, yet flows absolutely naturally in English, and an ADR studio that was more intent on getting it right, than getting it out fast. If all anime dubs were this good, there would be no need for Japanese audio on anime. You watch this show in English, and you’d think it was a wholly US production from the beginning, although that’s helped by a show that’s inspired by and steeped in Hollywood history, rich in movie references. And yes, it sounds awesome in HD, with the surround just as lively as the Japanese, and the extra clarity in the dialogue, the action and the music all to be appreciated.
The subtitle and signs script for the Cowboy Bebop Blu-ray are identical in content to the Bandai Entertainment release, although the font is a lot more agreeable. They are timed accurately and are free of error for the most part. There has been an error in transcription, although it’s one you will probably miss. On the Bandai DVDs, there are occasions when questions are left hanging, indicated by a sentence followed by an ellipsis and concluded with a question mark. On the Blu-ray, for some reason the ellipses have been missed out, leaving the sentence looking like a straight question. On two occasions, once in episode 1, and once again in episode 2, this resulted in questions looking a little odd, although changing “What the...?” to “What the?” probably won’t count as a crime in too many books. I noticed a space between the e and r in water, in one instance of use in episode 8. Also the subtitles are the one place where you will see evidence of interlacing, as on rare occasions as the subtitles fade in or fade out, there is a hint of combing. That’s on the subtitles, not the video.
With the materials for this release sourced from the Japanese Blu-ray, you’ll note that the episodes get the original credit sequences, instead of the overlays that were created by Bandai for their DVDs. Naturally those would look out of place here, but if there is one thing this release is missing, it’s English language credits. There are four ways of going about this, a white on black text scroll after the episode as in the Sentai Filmworks discs, having those old SD DVD credit sequences as a separate extra feature, as ADV used to do on their pan-European releases, or create a text file viewable in the extras as Animeigo did for the Bubblegum Crisis Collector’s Edition releases. The fourth option would be as a physical extra with the discs, but I only got the check discs, and don’t know what the content in the booklet with this release will be... yet.
You may have also seen in promotional material that the "Ein's Summer Holiday" short would be with this release. I was informed that at the last minute it was discovered that there wasn’t room on these discs, and as a result it will now come with Part 2. I only received the check discs to review, and can’t comment on the packaging or the 40 page booklet that will come with the retail release.
The discs present their content with animated menu screens, and everything is clearly labelled and straightforward to use. One issue is with the way that the episodes are chaptered. There are just two chapters per episode, one at the halfway mark, and one at the end credits, and while you can skip forward from the beginning to the middle to the credits, you can’t skip forward to the next episode, you’ll have to use the pop-up menu.
There are two commentaries on Disc 1. The first is for episode 1, and sees Koichi Yamadera (Spike) and Unshou Ishizaka (Jet), chatting about the show. It’s a light-hearted track, which looks a little at the creative process and how the show came together. This is presented in DD 2.0 stereo, and with player forced English subtitles. The second for episode five features the English voice of Faye, Wendee Lee and ADR Producer, Yutaka Maseba. It’s a more serious, technical commentary that looks broadly at the issues of bringing the show to English territories, as well as the approach taken to voicing a character.
Also on disc 1 is some promo material. The Commercials for the BD set last 2:50, and are presented in native HD. The same is true for the show’s textless ending sequence at 1:43. The Commercials for the DVD set last 2:08 and are upscaled from SD but presented in 1080i HD. The same is true for Full Size Music Clip for Tank! (3.36), and the Tank! (Bebop AVEdit) remix by DJ Food (4:42). The latter two music videos were originally part of the Session 0 video featurette that was on the Remix DVDs, but are presented here separately. Incidentally, while the BD and DVD commercials may be new (presented in Japanese but lacking subtitles), the other material and the commentaries will be familiar from the Remix collection.
The video extras created for the Remix collection haven’t been ported over to this release, although for the first half of Bebop that amounts to Cartoon Network promos, a short interview with a CN producer, and a 9-minute interview with Wendee Lee.
Wendee Lee and Yutaka Maseba again supply the commentary on episode 10, and this is the sole extra on disc 2. With a similar tone to the previous track, they talk about the characters and the influences, the look of the show, and the visual impact of the animation, as well as differing approaches to ADR in Japan and the US. It isn’t necessarily scene specific, and the episode only gets an occasional mention, but it’s still interesting to listen to.
It’s Cowboy Bebop on Blu-ray! Of course I was going to go through it with a fine tooth comb, give it the attention that a show of its spectacular, transcendental quality is due. You want a show like this to be perfect! Now I feel like a whiny, tedious pedant, pointing out minuscule flaws. An inconsequential, and probably accidental edit, right at the head of episode 3, a couple of missing ellipses in the subtitles, and some minor combing artefacts in those subtitles. The only problem that I feel is worth addressing is the chaptering of the episodes, as that should be more in line with the general standard for anime on DVD and Blu-ray. Then again, this is Cowboy Bebop. Why you would actually want to skip those Yoko Kanno theme songs is beyond me. Even the next episode previews have wit and humour to their voiceovers that make you want to watch them.
Nitpicking aside, this collection of Cowboy Bebop episodes is fantastic. If Anime Limited wanted to establish All The Anime as the Criterion of anime then job well done. This is a set that will hold pride of place in any collection. They made sure to get the basics right first, the audiovisual quality is sublime, and the subtitling is excellent, quite naturally up to the standards of the original Bandai Entertainment release. This is a collection that is going to appeal to cinephiles first and foremost, who hold technical qualities in greater importance. But the extra features aren’t to be sniffed at, with some well-presented promotional material, as well as the thoughtful and measured audio commentaries sourced once again from the Bandai release. I haven’t seen the packaging or the physical extras as yet, but if they match the quality of the discs’ contents, then this is going to be the sort of sweet package that we haven’t seen in the UK in years. I suppose you want to read about the show itself...
The first time I saw Cowboy Bebop I thought it was some of the best television I had ever seen, and I waxed lyrical about it in my review of the Region 1 Remix collection. That’s no less true today, and I find it’s even better in HD. There’s just so much more richness and detail in the imagery, the audio is so much more encompassing, that I lost myself in these episodes in a way that I never managed with the DVDs. Once again I say best television, not best sci-fi and not even best anime. This is a show that transcends not only its genre, but its medium as well. It came as a transformative tsunami to the anime industry back in 1998, wholly reshaping it, yet never being subsequently matched. It’s what Jaws did to summer event movies, what the Wall of Sound did to pop music.
Cowboy Bebop is a genre mash-up road movie. Put five unlikely characters together, travelling through the cosmos, having adventures, and explore who they are through the episodes. These episodes riff off all the various genres and tropes that appealed to the creators in modern Western cinema, so there’s comedy, horror, romance, detective and action, all mixed up to create something wholly unexpected. So what you get in this collection are in essence 13 feature films, or rather 12 as episodes 12 and 13 comprise a 2-part story. 20-odd minutes isn’t enough time to make a movie, so Cowboy Bebop distils the story down to its essence, with the key intention to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. It’s not so much about the narrative as the emotional arc that the characters go on. The episodes often start in the middle of the story, and will end at the emotional zenith, not necessarily the narrative conclusion. But each instalment is a wholly satisfying and peerless ride.
Then there is the music. I don’t suppose “Wow!” is a sufficient exclamation. It’s like a lightning bolt of creativity struck when this series was created. The average show will have ten or maybe twelve themes that run through its entire run, with variations on them for different emotional moods. That’s usually enough variety to stop things getting stale. For Cowboy Bebop Yoko Kanno created something like four or five new songs for each episode, just as eclectic in genre as the show’s cinematic influences. You get full on orchestral pieces, rock and pop music, folk music, ethnic music, opera, choral pieces, funky bits of electronica, each episode becomes such a smorgasbord of sound design and music that you just sit there entranced.
Cowboy Bebop is anime’s perfect storm. It was that one time where all the ingredients, and the talent came together to form something that exploded into the world and fan consciousness in a way that no anime has managed since. It is just a spectacular series, and if you are going to buy just one anime in your life, make it this one. Cowboy Bebop is simply perfect. Cowboy Bebop on Blu-ray is perfect-er. See, it’s so good that I’ve lost the capacity to use grammar! Roll on Part 2!