The Priceless Canvas Called Fujiko Mine

 

When Fujiko Mine first stepped onto the scene in Lupin III’s ‘Mystery Woman’, she knocked the master thief on his ass. She used her wits to best his plans, see through his disguises and utilized her ample feminine virtues to charm the arrogant womanizer into giving her everything she wanted. To celebrate the anniversary of Monkey Punch’s manga, ‘Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’ reimagines and updates the classic from her violent, sexy perspective, adding life to the series in ways unseen since the original hand drawn pages. Like the machine gun blonde beauty, the show is a healthy, vibrant form on a 40 year old body.

Cease what you are doing and gaze at me. Stop everything save for the throwing of your heart.

Much has happened in the decades since Lupin was first put into print and after hundreds of stories, numerous series and dozens of theatrical films, our rogue’s red coat was starting to fray at the hem. Many of Lupin’s adventures featured the unabashed nudity found in M. Punch’s work but few could capture its tawdry, dirty sexuality and Lupin’s borderline sexual predator proclivities. Part of that can be chalked up to the changing of The Times. What was passable in the seventies wasn’t in the nineties and is even more dangerous now. So the tiger was defanged, and turned into a kitten batting at string. The solution was to come at it from a different angle.

Fujiko is a stellar choice. The first Lupin release to be headed by a woman, director Sayo Yamamoto’s sophomore burlesque ran a colorful brush down the curves of our Lady Looter’s brash and confident canvas to paint the most sensual and feminine character portrait this side of Leiji Matsumoto. Ms. Mine will think nothing of disrobing to seduce a weak man or use her lips to poison a strong one.

In The Woman Called Fujiko, sex is free and alive one moment and manipulative and depraved in the next. There’s a frank openness here, a striking layer of honesty under a mound of dirt that doesn’t often pull its punches. Check out the sexually charged, surprisingly dark episode ‘Prison of Love’ to see how far this shows willing to go and what it’s willing to do to get there.

Reimagining meant reintroduction. By acting as the central force that brings the cunning Lupin together with the stoic gunslinger Daisuke Jigen and the honorable samurai Goemon Ishikawa as they elude Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata, Fujiko is witness to the relationships that developed between each and the versatility of content their archetypes bring to the table. Equally fascinating is the ways in which their individual personalities have been expanded out. I mean crap, Zenigata’s no longer the defacto heel but a smart, slightly bent cop more obsessed with capturing Lupin than administering justice.

From the severe shadows to thick lined pencilwork, the entire production is rendered with stylistic flair that impossibly captures the original illustrative panel work. The compositions are fresh and new while realizing the slick and lurid voice that’s been missing from the series since its hand drawn pages. I’m not sure if it’s the shading lines or the intentional choppy frames or the occasional hyper accentuated details but the animations look like they fell out of a worm hole from the nineteen seventies. This is where I say it’s probably all those elements. It’s beautiful and sketchy and harsh and clean and abstract. The art design goes a long way to communicating the twisted fantasy version of real life in which it’s set but no ordinary people exist.

LUPIN THE THIRD- THE WOMAN CALLED FUJIKO MINEIt’s a fantasy birthed from European espionage films and French cartoons. Its aesthetic texturing allows the thirteen episodes to wildly differ from one to the next while retaining an integrity of tone. It easily jumps from Cold War paranoia to eastern mysticism to fine arts to science fiction to political drama without dropping a beat. It’s got lost treasure and megalomaniacal villainy and doped-up cults and masked phantoms and a Che Guevara stand-in. All that’s missing are the space westerns.

Yamamoto’s direction is top notch. Aside from a few moments that seem sloppy in comparison, the imagery always properly communicates the action and dramatizes the visual cues. It’s Cowboy Bebop via Fooly Cooly. It’s a bombastic and electric visual expression that only anime has ever achieved and that chaos cinema can aspire to but will never realize.

It’s not surprising given a legacy so long reaching that even Bebop, inarguably the pinnacle of human creation, was more than a little influenced by it. That Bebop’s creative backbone, Shinichiro Watanabe, is credited as Music Producer is the universe clearing its debts. Lupin’s music is great: it’s varied, appropriate for the context and playfully composed. Watanabe is joined by Takeshi Koike as character designer and head animator, whose Redline is a sensory Big Bang. The shows got chops and I’m not talking about the ones tacked onto Senor Tres’ face.

If there’s anything disappointing about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, it’s in the episodes that bookend its progression. While never bad, the first ventures into the absurd when Lupin rides a giant narcotics statue strapped to rockets. The progression also chunks up in the final third when it focuses its narrative on a central thread and every episode starts blurring into the next, expecting you to remember specific details from the beginning that seemed innocuous at the time. As a friend observed, it changes from being a show into a film. But that sweet spot in the middle? So so good.

But it deserves credit for how it distills her relationship with the men in her life to their basic compounds. The bandit looking to steal her, the sharpshooter trying to keep her at arm’s length, the samurai who wants to earn her and the inspector who thinks he already has. The series also introduces the young Oscar as Zenigata’s loyal lieutenant. He doesn’t perfectly blend into the cast, but Oscar’s well defined and his animosity towards our heroine properly balances the ensembles dynamic. The Lupin/Fujiko chemistry is easily the most interesting of the lot; a master thief who steals for the thrill and the Femme Fatale who would gladly drape herself in nothing but jewels. One is the pleasure of getting, the other the pleasure of having.

Little boy there is nothing more I can steal from you. You’ve long been an empty shell, just as I have.

Though men dominate the cast, Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is ultimately a story about women through a woman’s eyes. It knows that they can be beautiful, they can be ugly, they can be caring and hateful. Clad in gold, guns and heels Fujiko Mine is a woman who knows who she is and what she wants and won’t let Man, Woman or God keep her from it.

The Bebop Sessions 02: Freestylin’

 

Know what the key fictional difference between a bounty hunter and a private detective is? A bounty hunter hunts, a detective solves mysteries. One moves forward, the other looks back. Yeah, there are similarities- both live somewhat laterally to the law and use leads to track criminals for profit- but the bounty hunters open-ended lifestyle doesn’t accommodate sitting in an office and waiting for a client. Time’s money and he’s got a fistful to make.

Understanding that a story’s potential starts with its character archetypes is crucial to identifying why Cowboy Bebop was able to tell 26 wonderful stories. By laying its foundations on space bounty hunters, Bebop gave itself the tools to create a wide range of rich stories and build a series whose every episode exists independent from each other.

The second part of the Bebop Sessions is about those characters and the storytelling opportunities they provide, so we’re gonna start with two that are integral: Punch and Judy.

Despite the fact that the gun-slingin’ hosts of ‘Big Shots For Bounty Hunters’ aren’t complexly-defined, they are fundamental to the shows structural freedom. With a hearty ‘Hi, amigos!’, this team’s low-budget daily broadcast informs all three hundred thousand bounty hunters on the latest and biggest-paying jobs. They are characters with a practical use- they are regularly appearing mechanisms to start and update the majority of the stories and give information on the bounty heads in a way that doesn’t feel forced. They allow the characters to be anywhere in the solar system and still be on the clock.

Though it takes a couple slaps and a kick for Spike to get his old beater tv working, we tune into their show for the first time in Session # 2, Stray Dog Strut. The two flash the mugshot of pet kidnapper Abdul Hakim, the man worth 8M woolongs for breaking into a lab and stealing an experimental animal. In an attempt to shake off the men on his trail, he’s undergone extreme facial reconstruction. With fresh intel from the doctor that had performed the plastic surgery, Spike goes after the bounty.

Stray Dog Strut is a fast, fun episode that features three separate chase scenes with progressively more exotic animals and an antagonist who looks like Kareem Abdul Jabar. It also introduces the first new addition to the Bebop’s crew. Ein, the young welsh corgi.

Ein is a data dog and if you know what that is then both of you is smarter than I. Here, that apparently means he has a passable grasp on the English language and understands that pushing buttons makes things happen. The Lab Security Guards chasing Hakim (chasing Ein) race finishes with the first running the second directly through the front door of Police Headquarters. Punch and Judy tell us that no one gets paid when the bounties turn themselves in.

Stray Dog Strut is the first example of Bebop’s naming conventions, a riff on the Stray Cats 1981 song ‘Stray Cat Strut’. Look at a list of the series episodes, you’ll notice that all the titles either have musical vocabulary or directly reference real songs.

Honky Tonk Women starts with a purple-haired woman with a penchant for yellow clothes and a red blouse walking coolly into a smoke filled head shop. Spotting the silhouettes of a couple men tailing her outside, she pulls an uzi from her grocery bag and unloads the clip. Some claim that with her unbelievable luck, this woman is the legendary Poker Alice, but when the thugs casino-running boss pulls out the Ace of Hearts from her shorts, he proves that here ‘luck’ is just good ol’ fashioned ‘cheating’. He needs those talents, so makes her a deal- relieve a target of the weight of his wallet or the debt that’s put her on the lam will put her behind bars. Faye Valentine is a woman who knows when to bluff. But when the simple exchange for a mythical hacking program lands on its head, Faye hitches a ride with our bounty hunting heroes. With a sparkly new 6 million woolong bounty on her head care of Big Shots, ends up handcuffed to the Bebop’s toilet.

Faye is played by the great Wendee Lee. Lee, like David Lucas/Steven Blume, would go on to appear in virtually every other voice over dub for a more than decade, but both would do their best work here. Lee’s Faye is cocky to cover uncertainty, brash but emotionally cautious.

For its scope, Honky Tonk Women is a slickly directed quasi-Vegas heist flick full of flashing lights and clacking coins. It’s so well styled that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the ethereal hollowness of the song playing over the establishing shots. When Spike and Jet’s luck goes tits up and Faye steals the bounty money they had chanced into, it’s hard to not respect the way the episode plays with the here today, gone tomorrow rollercoaster of gambling. For their troubles, the two come out the end exactly one chip richer. They head back to the casino to place a last bet.

All right, let me come clean. You know how I’ve been talking up and down about how separate from each other all the episodes are? There’re two times bookmarking the entire series where a pair of episodes is chronologically connected without sharing a common title. It first happens with Honky Tonk Women and Gateway Shuffle.

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always found the matriarchal crime family dynamic to be cult levels of creepy. Why do the grown men of the Space Warriors need to call their eco-terrorist leader Twinkle Maria Murdock ‘Mother’? I think my discomfort comes from my belief that misfits who need obedience and the overwhelming sense of kinship could easily be duped into becoming violent fanatics. When they gun down a restaurant for serving Ganymede Sea Rat while their protectors-of-the-weak rhetoric plays over the sea of dead bodies, I have to entertain the thought that maybe I’m right.

Floating aimlessly through space at the exact moment is the food-less Faye in her gas-less Red Tail, hopelessly sending out an SOS to any passerby. She drifts within range of a destroyed shuttle and because she’s just that way Faye ends up disregarding its critically injured government agents last wish and opens the case he died protecting. He had infiltrated the Space Warriors ranks and stolen a vial of Monkey Business, a retrovirus they were using to hold the Ganymede in terror until the moon instigated new ecological protections for the Sea Rat. The room full of screaming ape men trapped in test chambers tells us Ganymede should be very afraid of what will happen if they don’t comply with the demands. The episode ends with Faye forcing her way onto the Bebop to the quiet protests of the others.

Bebop is like Jazz: there’s an underlying structure but its flexible enough to allow for improvisation. On the surface, these stories have few similarities. We’ve got a light-hearted chase, a cool high stakes game of 21 and dark social commentary on terrorism. They’re different, but, by design, they all fit within the context of the show. What’s more, aside from a few exceptions, every episode can be viewed in any order, jumping from 10 to 22 to 6 without damaging the larger narrative that a few key episode beautifully construct. That’s true versatility. And it’s all thanks to a misfit crew of bounty hunters living aboard a beat up old fishing boat flying through space. Like its characters, Cowboy Bebop is really cool but it’s the sort of cool that comes from being really smart.

See You Space Cowboy…

Part 01- Prelude

Kavinsky’s ‘Outrun’

 

Full Throttle into the Night

To a gravelly voiced narrator and strobing electronics, ‘Outrun’s ‘Prelude’ jumpstarts the legend of the Dead Cruiser, the Testarossa-charged phantom trapped in a time of black shades and high tops and then splits the night in the thunderous crack of lightning. It’s the perfect way for Kavisnky’s 80’s-film-inspired synth-rock ballad to put pedal to metal and throw fire from all twelve cylinders.

But it only sets the stage. With its ambient instrumentation and pulsing beats, ‘Blizzard’ is the cry of tortured souls calling you from the ether. If ‘Blizzard’ is seduction, ‘Protovision’ is salvation. A song that starts with the strong rumble of a motor tearing road towards you, it’s chrome etched in lasers shining under the passing city lights. It’s the theme of a pale rider.

It’s evocative. Through its thick and grimy sounds, only half of the fourteen tracks speak a word but all say a thousand. Listen to ‘Testarrossa Autodrive’, a machinegun spitting race that is every bit as awesome as its name confers or to the digitally-off-kilter vocals of ‘Odd Look’ to see a selection that is varied, thematically consistent but compositionally divergent. As a cohesive work, it’s an album whose every song is another scene in a well-paced movie.

Despite tones dripping with atmosphere, some of its standout songs are the ones with the most explicit messages. ‘Suburbia’ is a laid back rap set against the beeps and bloops of future computers that never came to bear, with winking lyrics including the awesome ‘cut these fools like pizza pies with extra cheese’. ‘First Blood’ stands out as well, with its Rockette-on-a-smoky-stage vibe that could be something straight out of glam rock-opera Streets of Fire.

While the majority of the tracks are exclusive to this album, several have been available since 2007 on Kavinsky’s 1986 LP. They’re great songs rich with texture that shows that his Dead Cruiser concept had been prowling the streets for quite some time. Strangely the only place where it hitches is with ‘Nightcall’, an otherwise excellent song made famous for its appearance in the opening credits of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ that feels like a congested highway compared to the open-road flow of the rest.

At its most superficial level, Outrun is the soundtrack to a movie that never existed, set in a time that has become more fiction than reality. The truth is really deeper than that. In more ways than one, Outrun- like the red-eyed teen at its center- is a specter from long ago, haunting the asphalt of today.

The Bebop Sessions 01: Prelude

There’s nothing quite like a great story brilliantly told. They can make you laugh, make you cry and enrich your soul. Sometimes, a story can do all that in 21 minutes and change. Rarely you will find story a arc that will do that a dozen times. And only once will there be Cowboy Bebop.

The credits tell us that Bebop was created by the legendary ideas man Hajime Yadate. Of course, Yadate would contribute little to Bebop outside of giving the shows true mastermind Shinichiro Watanabe the idea for a story about space bounty hunters. Watanabe would reunite with many of the principle talent behind the four-part Macross Plus OVA, acting as a spiritual successor to the classic space opera with many of the same thematic and stylistic motifs. It was Watanabe’s excellent and diverse universe filled with the stories of series writer Keiko Nobumoto, characters designed and animated by Toshihiro Kawamoto and the amazing musical works of the ‘Goddess of Anime’ Yoko Kanno that defines Cowboy Bebop’s twenty six episode run.

They gave us the story of the Bebop, the fishing boat fitted to be space worthy, and her crew of perpetually broke and hungry cowboys just looking to earn some woolongs by bringing down the galaxy’s most (incompetently) dangerous criminals. Bebop is cool.

Let’s talk about the music, get it out of the way first. Bebops love of music is found all over the place, from the way the US DVD’s were designed to look like records to how the episodes are called ‘sessions’. The series opens with a rain drenched day bathed in frosty blue. A music box plays and we see a man in a long coat, holding a bundle of roses and standing over a mound of cigarette stubs. As he walks away, a rose falls into a puddle. We stare at that rose as the scene intercuts with a gunfight- bullets, blood and a smile. The rose turns red as we watch. It was haunting.

Then the title theme ‘Tank’ explodes with a brass fanfare, beats with drums and plucks at a funky bass before turning into ‘I think it’s time we blow this scene, get everybody and their stuff together…O.K., 3-2-1, lets jam’ and moves your feet for you. It’s got that pulpy adventure feel to it- a series of brandished guns, fast spaceships and silhouettes dancing in color.

It’s got jazz, it’s got rock, it’s got western. First time I ever experienced honest music variety in a show; ‘til that point, everything worked in tidy little themes for samey nothing scenes. I stopped being a child.

In session #1 we meet Spike. Even if he didn’t have one of the greatest names ever, Spike Spiegel would be the motherfuckin’ man; a spindly red-eyed 27 year old with the fluffy-haired look of Bob Dylan and the hands-in-pockets-while-hunched-forward-walk of Lupin the III, Spike is calm, he’s reserved, he’s brash, he’s smart, he’s dumb, he’s a master of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. I have friends that mean less to me than Spike does. This was the first time I’d ever taken notice of the silver-tongued David Lucas (Steve Blum), the English dub voice of the Mars native.

It’s also where we met his beefy partner, former detective Jet ‘The Black Dog’ Black and his cybernetic arm played by the gravelly yet wise voice of Beau Billingslea. The first time we see him, the dopest bald man that isn’t Patrick Stewart is wearing an apron, making Bell Peppers and Beef but too broke to afford one of the main ingredients.

These two are living their lives when we find them, just trying to get by. They’re not out to save the world, but they might be able to fill their stomachs and fix their ships. The world doesn’t exist for them, their stories aren’t told for our benefit. I was 17 and hadn’t ever seen anything like that before in a television show and certainly not in an anime. Their actions tell you everything you need to know about who they are. ‘Asteroid Blues’ is where it starts.

As a way to finally get off space Tijuana and make it to Mars with his girlfriend, Asimov Solensan stole a valuable shipment of Bloody Eye from his syndicate. In between setting up deals, he’s fighting off his pursuers by juicing from his own product, giving him superhuman speed and reaction time and leaving a sea of corpses in his wake. Spike goes after the cash bounty on his head. It’s a sad tale of a man who loves a woman and gets lost in his drug-fueled quest to be with her only to lose everything because of it.

The episode does a great job of showing how well put together the entire aesthetic is. Aside from capturing the sleepy TJ feel in the dry brown environments, the animation is superbly crafted, offering quick motions full of personality and pizazz. You especially see it in the fight scenes, the best of which has Spike using a restaurant table to spin around, gain momentum and bury his heel directly into Asimov’s side. It’s well-choreographed, perfectly directed and full of energy. The animation is particularly remarkable for the fact that the majority of the cells were hand drawn in a time when CG was becoming the predominant cost effective technique giving many shows generic, awkward movements. Bebop uses CG smartly to accentuate rather than relying whole cloth.

Asteroid Blues is a western drama that takes inspiration from several entries of the genre. The episodes two antagonists are essentially the Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek characters from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and when he tries to set up a fake drug buy to catch them, Spike’s disguised in the same poncho that Clint Eastwood made famous in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. These sorts of film homages are crammed into every episode of Cowboy Bebop. They’re all good.

The credits return to the washed out blue from the opening and the red rose sitting in a vase at a window. ‘The Real Folk Blues’ starts and we are given a series of still images: Spike, a blonde woman and a man with long white hair playing through the streets; the blonde finding Spike face down on a sidewalk; the two of them caught off guard by the white haired man. It closes on the red rose in the puddle. There’s so much about this sequence we can’t know.

But by looking into Cowboy Bebop, maybe we’ll discover it’s story.

See You Space Cowboy…