Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Cowboy Bebop vs. Black Lagoon

I should preface this discussion by saying these are two of the best shows I've ever watched. Both are incredibly written, the characters are absolutely unforgettable, and even the animation of an older series like Cowboy Bebop still holds up very well. They're great for different reasons but are also very similar in many regards.

It's because of this similarity that I got to wondering which show is actually supreme? Then I got to thinking that it might actually be more appropriate to judge this next to Samurai Champloo because of the jazz-theme infused in both, but I really feel that Cowboy Bebop has a more Western-type feeling to it regarding the characters, their motivation, and the stories at play.

Black Lagoon, too, is also something of a Western story with its characters, but that is a downplayed much more in that series as the characters are clearly more along the lines of pirates than, well, cowboys.

Let's start by giving a basic intro of both shows for those who may be unaware.

Cowboy Bebop is an anime that started in 1998 and has never been forgotten since. It features a crew of misfit bounty hunters in the year 2071 where most of the Milky Way is accessible. Along their adventures they meet many strange faces and hunt even stranger targets. Our main character is Spike Spiegel, a bounty hunter with a dark past and incredible martial art skills. He is somewhat commanded by Jet, the man who runs the Bebop. They are joined by femme fatale Faye Valentine, who always knows, or at least tries, to play the odds in her favor, as well as young genius Edward and even smarter corgie, Ein. Together the Bebop scours the galaxy in search of money, gas, food, and answers to their mysterious past, all culminating in a hilarious, exciting, and at most times, fascinating series.

Black Lagoon spawned in the late 2000s and is unforgettable because of how high-octaine it is. Watching this series is like taking a shot of adrenaline and just letting it pump for half an hour. Most of the time. The other times the show can get very dramatic and really knows how to develop its characters. Our lead is Roc, a former Japanese businessman who joins with the Lagoon Company once he finds himself down on his luck. The company is led by Dutch, a man with nothing to lose and everything to gain, knowing all the right people in the business. They too have a tech geek, Bennie, an American who's in it for the cold hard cash and the adventure. The final member of the Lagoon company? None other than Two-Hands herself, Revy, a potty-mouthed femme fatale who always gets her way, and that way is often paved by her twin Cutlass pistols.

Both series feature a group scouring just for a day's pay and we are taken along the ride, watching as the groups come closer together, or grow so much farther apart.

Where I think the two series are incredibly similar are not in what it is advertised to us normally. Recently, in an anime community page I'm a part of, a member asked the question of if there are certain traits to an anime that I prefer rather than what is previewed? In the case of both Cowboy Bebop and Black Lagoon, I found my answer was the same. It's not the action or the story. What story really is there with both series?

No, it's the character play. When the crews are together on their ships is when the show is at its finest. Be it them sitting around wondering what they're supposed to do without their money or preparing to jump into a bounty, the shows were at their best when it was simply the characters talking. Both have their fair share of quieter moments where we can let the setting settle in and become one with the world they are apart of.

That's not to say that those other traits are negligible. The action in Cowboy Bebop is certainly exciting and with Black Lagoon it's just insane, always taking a step up to make things more insane. At some points, it doesn't even seem possible. Like I said, though, there really isn't much in terms of "story" that both shows present. With "Bebop" we're presented a few episodes that come together in the end but the series is like 75% episodic, and it works well. "Lagoon" is split into a myriad of different arcs, few of them spilling over into the next one but each one building on the characters of Roc and Revy, mostly Revy by the end.

That, though, is where I think the winner is determined, by the "story" element. The casts of the two groups are incredibly different but work so well together that they're essentially perfect. The Lagoon Company is a dysfunctional pirate ship and like a ship, each part functions to benefit the exact. The crew of the Bebop is a dysfunctional family, with the stern father, rebellious teenager, hot-headed young adult, and crazy kid...and pet.

Cowboy Bebop is a better series because it relies so little on its story element to carry the characters. The show is what we make of it. Many of the episodes are left open to interpretation. Episodes 20 and 23 in particular are like that while we are given a great foreshadowing in the "Jupiter Jazz" two-parter that can speak of really any character, or even any part of the show.

With Black Lagoon, we are given smaller sequential stories that never really feed into one another, except for the character growth of our two main leads. "Bebop" suffers less from this as the writing just continues to improve as the show moves along so we don't need to see story, we just know that the crew is getting along much better with each passing mission or bounty. Sure, the dramatic tension of Black Lagoon is always on the rise, but there is little more than that to continue the series. It drops its comedic aspect in a few regards for that as well.

Plus, to be honest, there are some moments where Black Lagoon can get extremely dark. The "Hansel and Grettel" arc in particular is almost outright disturbing in how it is carried out, and the ending of the second season is also pretty dark and grim. With Cowboy Bebop, the show carries out its level of darkness perfectly. Each story like this is almost Shakespearean as it spins tales of tragedy, revenge, and seeking justice. The episode where we see Jet's backstory is one such example, and the series finale two parter "The Real Folk Blues" is just like that. Black Lagoon does have its tragedy but those tragedies are meant to serve as an impact on the viewer rather than the characters in some respects.

That's not to say that Cowboy Bebop always has the leg up in that department. The best episode of Black Lagoon, in my opinion, is the episode in which Roc and Revy go off to run errands having just had a serious conversation about Revy's past, where we get our first glimpse at the demon Revy is hiding. It ends on a perfect note, with the two saying, "screw that noise" and just going about their lives because they've chosen to no longer let the past dictate how they will work together. From there, it's clear that the two have had a revolution in their dynamic. Cowboy Bebop rarely has a heart-to-heart moment like that, but it just feels as if the whole show is because of the consistent quiet moments that the characters take part in.

Many of the best anime in the late 1990s relied on such moments of quietness. No music, just the characters and letting the atmosphere settle in. The problem with Black Lagoon is that there aren't enough quiet moments for it to really feel like us connecting with the characters. There are a few, don't get me wrong, but they are sometimes far and few between.

Just don't get me wrong here. Cowboy Bebop may be the better series, but that doesn't mean Black Lagoon is supremely inferior. Not at all. Like I said, both shows are incredible, and worth a watch this instant. It's like having your pick between ice cream with or without sprinkles. The difference is visibly small but it's still there.

Cowboy Bebop is also slightly more accessible to audiences, whereas Black Lagoon requires a mature viewer to get through it. It's not your ma or pa's anime series, that's for sure. But, then again, it's still pretty darn cool.

Oh, and since we're talking about good ol' "Bebop," there's only one proper way to send this post off.

See you, space cowboy...

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