Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bang: Sessions 23-26

I have long maintained that the last four episodes of Bebop might just be the best sequential four episodes of any anime I have yet seen. But after recently seeing episodes 23 and 24 of Bebop, for what has to be at least the 7th time, I am inclined to say that it just doesn't get any better, and might never.

Warning: Before you go any further; this post contains heavy, heavy plot revealing, and world ending spoilers for Cowboy Bebop episodes 23-26, and subsequently, the end of the series. I also wrote this with the assumption that you will at least know the characters I reference. You have been warned.

One of the first things I find interesting about episodes 23 and 24 is that, on a show often predicated on action, these two episodes are almost entirely action free. Episode 23, for all intents and purposes, is.

For those who need a quick brain jog; episode 23 - or should I say Session 23 - is Brain Scratch. Let me begin by posting the opening dialogue, a statement by one Dr. Londes.

"What is a physical body? The body is merely an object. It is an existence all too impure to store the gods within us called souls. Now you will remember. The blood stained history! Material desire. Hunger. Sexual drive. Desire to dominate. Desire for fame. As long as there is a body, desires will be born. As long as there is desire, human ego will not disappear. Humans will continue to fight to fulfill their bodies' desires, and it will never end. At this rate, there is no future! Now awaken your soul! Now be rid of that filthy body!"

Cowboy Bebop is a lot of things; classy, sleek, well-produced. But it is rarely anything more than a really, really well-done space western. Brain Scratch changes all of that, for at least one 24 minute segment.

Dr. Londes is modeled in part after Marshall Applewhite, the, for lack of better ways to describe him, batshit crazy founder and leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that led to the mass suicide of 39 people in 1997.

I don't want to paint a black and white picture here, and neither does Cowboy Bebop. Dr. Londes, in this session, is the leader of a religious cult that seeks to essentially "digitize" the human brain as data and upload it to the internet, allowing the human soul to exist forever, free of the confines of the human body. He is not exactly a role model. But while Marshall Applewhite is totally batshit crazy, Londes has moments where you can sympathize... almost. Maybe.

Being a Japanese animation, and considering the influence Buddhism has had on Japanese society, it's easy to see some carry over. Notice the reference to "human ego" in the opening statement by Londes. Portraying desire as flaws. While the latter is not exclusively Buddhist, the idea of an unchanging ego mostly is. Buddhism holds that an unchanging ego (Ä€tman) is a direct result of ignorance. Ignorance is, in turn, a source of suffering. An enlightened person, one who's ego or self is highly developed, is no longer at the mercy of desire; desire being another root cause of suffering.

And yet, there is also something deeply humanist about the SCRATCH cult Londes founds. Mortality is something we all have to face at some point, and the idea of transcending it is incredibly appealing to many, many people. Uploading a person to the net is something that was also explored in later anime, like Ghost in the Shell. It's an interesting study in what makes us human; could we theoretically take our brain - memories, experiences, thoughts, etc. - and "code" it in a way so that it can be downloaded again?

In this day and age, it's also easy to seen some comparisons to Scientology; the aggressive recruiting, the steps taken to be admitted, etc. But I don't think that SCRATCH is as crude or criminal. To an extent. When Dr. Londes is asked about why so many members of SCRATCH are committing suicide, he falls back on the argument that he is not forcing anyone to do anything. And he isn't. But it doesn't take a PhD to recognize the persuasive power of religion on people (later on, we do learn that he has essentially murdered people in an unrelated case, which basically casts any sympathy for him aside).

This is a wonderful episode though, and the technology aspect is great too. The "brain uploading" I alluded to earlier is done through, of all things, a brand new virtual reality gaming system. But this is one that directly "taps" into your brain; you are in the game, your thoughts control it. This is something we have also seen in other works, perhaps most famously in the realm of cyberpunk literature and "Snow Crash." It is something that we are, in real life, aggressively pursuing, so that we can remove the need of the somewhat clumsy controller that works as a bit of a barrier to a fully engrossing experience.

The mix of internet recruiting, video games, and savvy marketing of SCRATCH portrayed by Cowboy Bebop seems way ahead of its time, considering the show is a 20th century production.

Londes is also a bit of an odd-one... well, duh. But his SCRATCH group has a couple statements on various religious beliefs:

"What lies beyond that [death]? Heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Such things cannot possibly exist. Those are mere excuses..."

"Why do you think people believe in God? It's because they want to. It's not easy living in this rotten world. There is nothing certain while living on in this world. Do you get it? God didn't create humans. Humans created God."

Londes' biggest beef is actually, though, television, which he claims has become a religion. His rant about television isn't particularly new or revolutionary, but it's just one part of Londes. And, considering the end, it becomes a facet of a complex case.

You see, Dr Londes isn't "real." That is, he is not a person. He never was. Dr. Londes is the creation, or dream, of a 15 year old boy in a constant vegetative state for two years after a medical accident, a former hacker who was hooked up to a brain reading device much like the aforementioned video game. He then used this to create Dr. Londes and put forth his ideals through the creation of SCRATCH.

Dr. Londes is eventually "shut down," screaming for life, ironically, as his existence is erased.

Session 23 ends up being an incredible mix of religion, technology, mortality, self-doubt, and some good old fashioned soul searching. It evolves Bebop, for a moment, into a much more reflective, introspective show.

Sessions 24-26 are a remarkable example of character investment. They are conclusions; conclusions to a story that is nearing it's end. Session 24 once again forgoes action, but packs an emotional punch, with a satisfying end to Ed's story. And that's about it. Really. Faye Valentine begins to wonder where she belongs. As "Call Me, Call Me" blazes out from the speakers, you can't help but feel a deep sadness well up when Spike and Jet look on at Ed's "Bye Bye" message. Ed is one of my favorite characters of all time; a goofy, original antidote to sexualization and stereotypes, a tomboyish girl, sometimes a boy, with a flair for technology and hacking. Her leaving begins the somersault of emotions that is the end of Cowboy Bebop.

But, it wouldn't be Bebop without one last bit of class. Let's fast forward to the final Session. Spike is telling Faye that he has to go to Vicious, the head antagonist of sorts. Both Spike and Faye know that Spike will likely die. There's a tense moment of dialogue where both characters are standing close to one another, face to face, discussing it. If this was Hollywood, Spike would instantly grab Faye and make out with her, as trumpets blared from the soundtrack and tears welled up in her eyes. But it's not. So he simply walks away, and Faye, frustrated, shoots her gun into the air. We never really know what, exactly, was there. Was it love? Friendship? Simple self-interested worry? Spike is, afterall, part of Faye's family now, one that's already lost now Ed.

So, we're left with Spike, seeking to end Vicious and start again with his long lost love, Julia. He's searching for something he once had, something that he has lost. Maybe he is doomed to fulfill this life of searching and illusion, of endless pain (perhaps tying in to Buddhist philosophy again). It is an action packed, guns blazing charge into Spike's eventual demise. And yet, as the blood sprays, the body count rises, and Spike makes one last fight for his life, we realize that Bebop was never about the action, or the technology, or the martial arts. Those may have been parts of the show, but it was always, always about the characters and the lives they lead. At the heart of the science fiction western is the beat of a character study or slice-of-life so successful, that it is impossible not to feel something at the end. I recall when I watched Bebop for the first time, going into it completely unspoiled, seeing the last Session unfold before my very eyes. As Spike hit the ground, saying "Bang," near the end of the final Session, and the camera started to pan up, I knew it would cut to the Bebop; with Spike in bandages, a faint grin on his face, as Faye and Jet ribbed him for almost losing, as they flew away into the distance, happy forever.

But it never did. There was no happy ending, no family reunion of sorts, just one lone star blinking out of existence.

That is how I felt when Cowboy Bebop ended; we lost a star, and there's something sad about knowing that we may never see these characters again.

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