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Archive for January 22nd, 2011

By Bob Clark

There’s something about the loneliness of space that begs for a family. Like mariners out to sea or pioneers trailblazing in padded wagons, the sheer emptiness of all those wide open spaces can’t help but stir a hungry longing for human connection, prompting us to look for whatever den we can fall into and call it home, no matter if it’s thick with thieves. There’s little wonder why so many space-operas all center their orbits around some kind of family unit– Captains Kirk or Picard on their Enterprises, where the needs of the many only outweigh the needs of the few until one of their own falls into bad luck; the rises and falls of the Skywalker clan and all the assorted knights errant, rebel scum and fussy droids that followed along in their wake; even the motley crew of the Serenity, souls on the losing sides of war, faith and the law who band together just to keep flying in their sky a little longer. In all of those cases, our desire as an audience for the warming confines of a comforting social unit is mirrored by the vagabond travelers on-screen, each of them bonding together like so many strands of yarn in a knitting circle, each with their own stories to add to the tapestry of patch-work narratives as they journey amidst the stars. But knitting is always at its strongest in the marrow of a bone that’s broken into pieces, and more often than not the families we watch tracing their paths among the constellations happen to be dysfunctional ones, by some measure. Even the Robinson crew of Lost in Space had to reconcile their differences with the traitorous Dr. Smith, and adopt him into the very band he’d tried to sabotage. Whether forged by genetics or bad circumstances (blood’s a part of the picture either way), a family’s a family because you can’t choose them. Sooner or later, like the gravitational pull of a heavenly body, they’ll always draw you back in.

This all has something to do with the crew of the Bebop, somehow, but I’m not quite sure. Oh, they’re certainly a family of some crazy sort, but you’d never know it to watch most moments of it. After all, like many a classic anime, the major cast of Cowboy Bebop never assembles in full until nine episodes in, out of twenty-six– that’s how long it takes for hipster bounty-hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black to team up with con-artist Faye Valentine, master-hacktress Radical Edward and smarter-than-the-average-dog Ein. And even when everybody’s on board for their rollicking adventures throughout a colonized solar-system only several decades hence (Isn’t it lovely how quickly the best sci-fi outlives its own dating?), hardly anybody ever gets along with each other long enough for you to think there’s anything keeping these people together other than bad luck and worse habits. For a ship-full of would-be heroes-for-hire, they manage to do an almost uniformly terrible job about the actual business of catching criminals for top-dollar rewards– if Chuck Jones’ classic cartoons with Wile E. Coyote were best understood as all the best ways not to catch a Road Runner, then Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop might easily be described as twenty-seven lessons (including the movie) in how not to be a bounty hunter. And yet somehow it endures as something more, just as the the travelers on the Bebop find ways against all odds to put up with each other and live together, even when they weren’t earning a living. The fact that they spend most of their time arguing, betraying or weirding one another out only helps to strengthen those bonds all the more– it’s what also makes that slow descent into seeing them break apart feel so much more sad and inevitable. In space, there may be no one to hear you scream, but that only makes you want someone’s shoulder to cry on that much harder.

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