Cowboy Bebop

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Since being a critic means writing tons of words, people often think of us as pretentious assholes who can’t have fun. Some critics swallow that crap and then write meaningless bullcrap instead of admitting they enjoyed a stylish, flashy story. The easiest way to recognize it is when a series is said to be about ‘existentialism’. That’s so general, but so useful. After all, that stream of philosophy is huge and you can insert anything into it.

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Since I don’t care about my image, I’m not going to claim Cowboy Bebop is about ‘existentialism’ when I can’t back it up. I have no shame in admitting I love a story that’s all about flash, action and amusing characters. That’s what Cowboy Bebop is and it’s proof that mere storytelling is an art too. There are a few touching moments and the last episodes push for something more profound, but until then there isn’t any depth. Why should it have any when “Mushroom Samba” is one of the best anime episodes ever?

Watanabe taglined the show as “a new genre unto itself” and later called it an exaggeration. That’s like the fastest runner in the world saying he’s slow. Cowboy Bebop never runs out of steam or ideas. It always has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and always excited what other stories it can tell. Many of the tropes are recognizable, but nothing is a missed chance.

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The approach is akin to a band that tries a new genre with every song. People who complain about the episodic nature miss the point. The series has a wider reach than nearly every anime out there. Pretty much every episode is a whole different genre. The characters and art style are the same, but even the color schemes change. “Mushroom Samba” and “Cowboy Funk” are experiments with Comedy and have brighter colors. “Toys in the Attic” experiments with horror and is noticeably darker.

Even pacing and side-character design changes. The aforementioned “Mushroom Samba” has far wackier character design than “Speak Like a Child”, one of the more introspective episodes. The series doesn’t simply borrow a lot from Western fiction but distills it to one show. It had mass appeal because it had a wide reach – whoever you are, there’s something to like her.

Convincing the viewer that the world in your anime exists is difficult. Calling things ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’ isn’t enough, since you first have to know what reality is (or, more correctly, how people perceive reality). The solid blocks don’t define reality. Spaceships and cities on the moon aren’t automatically ‘unrealistic’. If you told people from 1000 years ago that anime will exist they’ll think you’re possessed by a devil.

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Reality and real life go deeper than this. Reality is, among things, confusing and has a lot of sides. If it didn’t we wouldn’t need to create art. The most realistic anime are the most far-reaching ones. An anime is more realistic the more it can contain different moods and different people. It doesn’t matter whether you live as a drifter or in a small community – life has all kinds of things going for it.

The show has bounty hunters in space, loud gunfights and a failed experiment that learned to fly. It’s still more realistic – and thus more alive than most anime out there. The variety in mood and texture of the events brings it to life. I couldn’t imagine a show having a fat balloon assassin feeling realistic.

The cast is also a prime example of how to have an ensemble. Spike isn’t the main character. They’re all are. Their personalities aren’t simply different but connected, there is chemistry here. Jet isn’t just a contrast to Spike’s apathy, but a more warm figure for the damaged Faye and the young Ed. Spike’s apathy and cockiness is what puts him at odds with Faye but their greed is what they share and what unites them. Ed herself is a sun in the group of depressed individuals. The characters don’t act out of convenience but on their inner drives, and each of their reactions is uniquely theirs.

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Variety itself isn’t enough, of course. You need more than the basics of having different episodes with different styles and moods. The narratives are always tightly focused. The world is full of great anime, but few deserve the award of ‘no useless shots’. Except for the plot-heavy episodes (which don’t really work anyway), every shot equals progress.

It’s worth noting that Cowboy Bebop isn’t a dialogue-heavy show. It borrowed this from the film noire genre. Unlike noire’s bad side, Bebop doesn’t rely on dark shots to let you things are dark. Rather, it doesn’t use a lot of dialogue because it doesn’t need to. The shots are informative enough, and so are never boring.

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The series’ only flaw is the grand story behind it focusing on Spike’s past. The series doesn’t exactly lose focus, but confidence. Up until then the defining trait was elegance. Everything was small, but it was enough that counted for a lot. Suddenly we have this huge backstory of broken hearts and smoking guns and overthrowing a criminal syndicate. The last two episodes, while having decent actions, end up mostly as a collection of serious dialogue and dark staring. It survives only on the show’s natural charm. This is one route that demanded a whole new way of storytelling. It’s nice of Watanabe to try but it didn’t work.

Cowboy Bebop is a great anime not because it’s philosophical, influential or borrows a lot from Western fiction. It’s brilliant because it’s a masterpiece of pure storytelling. There are no useless parts in these 23 or so episodes. Each story is different both in events, pacing and mood. People who are uncomfortable with this will make stuff up about ‘existentialism’ but it’s their loss. Regardless of who you are, there’s something to enjoy here.

4.5 trippy mushrooms out of 5

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Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5

Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook

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I kept postponing writing this review because I had no idea where to start. I hoped reading other reviews and another book might have helped me. It didn’t. I’m falling back on the technique of telling that I had no idea how to start the review and feminism. I, too, wish I had a more original approach.

Lessing said she didn’t view this as a ‘feminist work’. Others have agreed with. They pointed to Anna Wulf’s character, who is overflowing with flaws. Her whole mind is in fragments and she can’t help but be attracted to guys who have no problem cheating on their wives. Then there is Africa and communism and a story-within-a-story. It’s like someone took that Tove Lo concept album, mixed it with a Rage Against the Machine and Drums of Death record and didn’t trim the weaker tracks.

My interpretation of feminism is different than others. Many think feminism is giving a female character a gun and letting her shoot everyone down. You can teach a man to fish, but it doesn’t mean you know him. Whether we’re putting women in the kitchen, factories or in the front lines doesn’t matter. We’re still putting them in roles.

What Lessing does here is what many a male author did – Salinger, Bellow, Heller. She dumps all her problems and the ugliness inside on the page with hope of making sense of it all. These type of novels can be cathartic, but they can also lead to a lot of rambling if there’s no idea to bind them together.

Lessing at least attempts that. The whole structure is an attempt to look at every problem on its own. It means every album gets the spotlight for a considerable page-count. It also means that it takes a long time before we return to it, which forces the reader to re-focus, recall a lot of previous details and push back what he just read.

The problem is that Lessing has a lot to say about everything. Paragraphs stretch for pages. If this was a small novel that gave a brief taste of everything and asked us to focus on the big picture, it’d be fine. The problem is that you’re always zooming in. When you spend hours staring at a fifth of a painting, it becomes the painting itself. It’s full of big pictures.

There’s a reason connected novels are published separately. That’s because each has to be readable and be read on its own. It has to be a big picture, too. Chapters should also stand on their own, of course. However, they can’t be a big picture on their own. Cut them from the novel and you lose something.

Lessing reminds me of George Martin (only with far more writing skill). She has so much information to convey, but much of it is too separate to allow you to focus on it. Each of the sections could stand on their own as a novel. Maybe making this a series where the line between novels isn’t chronology but the subject would make it easier to read. It’d be a pretty cool idea that many others will imitate, too.

It’s a shame, because Lessing is otherwise a great author. She rambles, of course. Her labyrnith of thoughts doesn’t flow as well as Auster and is too big. Still, her ideas are fascinating. The section about communism is one of the more mature treatment of the subject I’ve seen. We often encounter either pro or con. We’re told that either communism failed or that it just wasn’t really tested. Sometimes there are even rational arguments to back these up, but Lessing has empathy for all sides. She critiques isn’t pointed at who’s right, but at what causes the discussions to fall.

Her writings about The Female Experience are even better. This is where the whole feminism thing rears its head, and where I find Anna Wulf’s dysfunctional character as feminist. If men are allowed to have their labyrniths of thought, so do women.

Lessing doesn’t care about empowerment. Like Atwood, she just thinks a woman’s life deserves as much attention as a man’s. If men are allowed to psychanalyze themselves using literature, so do women. If there is any conclusion here, it’s that men and women are more similar than they are different.

It seems there is no actual difference between men and women. They all have the same wants and needs. The problems are when we take gender seriously. The two gay men aren’t very different, but the fact they’re attracted to men rather than women casts a shadow over them. It’s this little thing that disgusts Anna Wulf, although they are otherwise fine.

It’s also interesting how the romantic struggle isn’t with loneliness, but with Bad Guys. That seems to be a common theme in any female work of art that deals with heartbreak. Males are trapped in loneliness. There is suffocating loneliness in songs like “Forget Her”. Then you read this, Atwood and listen to Tove Lo’s album and it’s a world where nobody is lonely. There is always someone giving you attention and wanting you. They just don’t want you in the way you want them to want you.

Me and a friend discussed this often. What’s worse? The unwanted attention or the loneliness? We haven’t found an answer yet. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe asking questions like these are what set up the barriers between men and women. Even if Lessing’s character and Tove Lo will never know the loneliness of being invisible, we somehow all end up with hearbreak and frustrated with the ideal of romance.

I wish Lessing was more brief and focused with these themes. Her labyrniths of thoughts are so dense that you’re too busy figuring out where you are to stop and enjoy the ideas she scattered around. I don’t want a literature of answers. I don’t mind it an author throws me to a maze full of ideas that I will never understand 100%. When an author makes you feel too lost, you give up looking.

There are also a bunch of interior monologues. I keep thinking that intenral monologues are either your whole story, or you don’t put them at all. She’s a bit more stylish, but the whole method goes against what she’s doing. She’s bringing her characters to life using interactions and sitations. There are plenty of these that are amusing enough. A monologue only serves to stop the story to tell us what’s happening. Interior monlogues only work if the whole story is supposed to trap us in the character’s head, like the film Pi. In books like this or the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the action is the core of the story.

Her character also lives a relatively good life. She just lives off royalties from a book she published and rent money. She ‘struggles with ideas’, but it feels like the typical struggle of a privileged person who got it all sort out. Anna even have guys falling for her all the time. I’ve had those ‘philosophical struggles’ too, and I also come from a privileged background. Just sitting around and thinking doesn’t help. It’s self-defeating. You won’t get anything resembling an answer if your questions aren’t directed at the world. My whole life right now is a ‘philosophical struggle’, trying to make sense of everything. I won’t get anywhere lying around like Anna though. That’s why I read all these books and write all these reviews. Maybe if Anna did something other than talk to herself her ‘philosophical struggle’ would have been more engrossing. Talking to yourself often becomes a sick cycle of self-affirmation.

Although it’s a deeply flawed work, it’s also one that’s overflowing with ideas, interesting situations and good writing. The word ‘overflowing’ is truly the best description. There is enough here to make it worth reading, and it is something I want to return to later. It’s too much, however. It lacks the elegance of a truly brilliant work, one with a focus that can’t be swayed.

3 cheating husbands out of 5