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Cartoon Intro Cavalcade: "Cowboy Bebop"

The opening credits to Cowboy Bebop are like the best improvised jazz: it may seem spontaneous, but close analysis reveals powerful structure and intelligence underneath. While improv jazz is inherently free-form, the best improv jazz still uses structure and a few rules to make sure it sounds like music instead of meandering nonsense.

There’s a lot of stuff going on in this 1:30 opening, and it’s best to break it down by time segments for analysis. OK, 3…2…1, let’s jam:

0:00 – 0:13: The brass-driven opening fanfare is frantic and matched with a visual cacophony of text that can never be read clearly. The text is one of the unifying design elements in the opening credits, used as backdrop and for texture (click here if you want to know what it says). Soon, drums muscle the fanfare out of the way, while the chaotic visuals are replaced by an extremely simple line structure that pushes the screen to black. This makes room for a much simpler bass line of two triplets, which is highly syncopated to 4/4 time of the theme song. It’s a very distinctive musical structure that instantly sets it apart from the norm.

The introduction of the bass line is also our introduction to Spike Spiegel, who we see in a perfect film noir introduction as a silhouette illuminated only briefly by the flick of a cigarette lighter. Everything about Spike’s introduction exudes cool and calm: the unaccompanied bass line; the low-key vocal (“I think it’s time we blow this scene…”); Spike’s relaxed, unhurried movements and the leisurely cloud of smoke he exhales; and the cool, soothing blue background.

0:13 – 0:20: The main theme steps in over the bass line: a fast-paced nine-note figure dominated by saxophones in lower registers. This theme is also syncopated from 4/4 time, but at a different, complimentary rhythm than the bass line. The dominating color shifts from the cool blue to a very hot red, matched by Spike’s long, lanky run cycle. The music, the dominant color, and the action combine to create a sharp sense of urgency from the cool, slow introduction. Spike skids to a perfect stop for main theme’s first repeat, and then turns to face the camera before we get a glimpse of some machinery, which will be revealed later. Notice the extremely subtle and gradual downshift — after the hot, fast, and exciting opening, Spike first becomes still, but the hot red dominates a little longer before fading out to cooler grays and greens.

0:20 – 0:27: The chord change in the main theme and a color shift to a medium-hot yellow introduce Faye Valentine. If the music and the color change wasn’t enough to set her apart from Spike, her unhurried pace and impossibly high heels certainly will. We first see Spike moving near-frantically; Faye takes her time, and those high heels are an image drenched in feminine sex. At first glance, she seems to be walking out of step with the beat of the main theme, but if you listen very carefully, you’ll see that she’s actually walking more in time with the barely audible bass line instead. Even then, it’s not quite perfect, so that her fourth step is off both beats. Faye marches to her own drummer, thank you very much. Her introduction mirrors Spike’s: a hot color with movement that turns to stillness and shifts gradually to cooler colors and a view of futuristic-but-familiar hardware — in this case, Faye’s space pod in cool aqua overlaid over what looks like the chamber for a revolver.

0:27 – 0:32: We’re back to hot red, as Spike fires his pistol in time with the chord modulation. This shifts again to a cooler blue and a Jeet Kune Do hook kick for the closing repeat of the main theme. The viewpoint shifts with the music perfectly, with hot/fast again giving way to cool/slow. The sudden snap of Spike’s pistol slide is contrasted with the deliberately slowed-down, choppy kick.

0:32 – 0:44: Spike hits switches, pedals, and a throttle in perfect sync with the trumpet lead-in to the bridge. Spike’s actions nearly follow a traffic light, starting with a hot red that shifts to a cool green and ending on a medium yellow, before yielding to a very cool blue-purple. Instead of the staccato fast beats of the main theme, the bridge theme is mostly long, held notes in a higher register, pairing beautifully with the smooth, graceful flight of Spike’s Swordfish II.

0:44 – 0:47: The trumpets jump back in with an even greater sense of urgency, preparing for the return to the main theme. The hot red color palette is back, again perfectly matched to the dramatic trumpets. Instead of Spike’s smooth run cycle, we see him tripping and stumbling before falling flat on his ass, followed by his pained reaction shot. The segment shows that despite the veneer of cool he’s had up to this point in the credits, Spike can screw up very badly and suffer the consequences.

0:47 – 0:54: The main theme returns, but it’s turned into a call and response, with the call in the lower notes of the main theme contrasted with the higher notes of the free-form, spontaneous responses. The improvised musical responses (especially the second, ascending figure) start to build up tension, and the addition of this new musical structure ties in with the introduction of Jet Black, in a way that combines both Spike and Faye’s introductions and adds its own twist. Jet’s background is the same blue-purple used for the Swordfish II flight, linking him with Spike, but the way he’s smoking his cigarette ties him more closely with with Faye’s visual. Unlike Spike and Faye, Jet starts off with stillness before cutting to another running shot. He’s running with purpose, as Spike was, but we see it at an entirely different angle than the straight-on side shots of Spike and Faye. They’re the tiniest of clues, but they all subconsciously add up to make him distinct from the other two.

Now’s a good time to point out that all 3 of the main characters are introduced smoking cigarettes — something that would not fly in an American production, even if aimed at adults. On the one hand, cigarettes are definitely associated with being cool in this opening, which is the usual complaint against smoking scenes from the anti-smoking lobby. On the other hand, it’s a cartoon aimed at adults starring a cast of complete screw-ups with exceptionally short life expectancies. Smoking to take the edge off their hard-scrabble lives is perfectly in character for all of them. It’s true that “smoking = cool” in this introduction, but it doesn’t bother me for the same reason that I’m not bothered by James Bond smoking. Smoking is also equated with danger and a slight sense of seediness in both.

0:54 – 1:01: Panning body shots of Spike and Faye as the theme’s tension continues to build and the colors go from cooling purple to a hotter red. The only interesting point is that the visuals have been horizontally oriented up to now (other than one shot in the 0:27-0:32 segment), but shift to vertical camera movements here.

1:01 – 1:08: We sweep through each of the main characters, pairing a still image with a moving one, communicating character points about each of them. Jet raises his pistol over a hot yellow background — direct, no-nonsense, and not hard to figure out. Faye dances over a very hot red, melding a sense of fun and play with a strong sense of danger. It looks like Spike nearly stumbles again, but it turns into a deliberate (?) stutter step choreographed over a cool aqua. The credits also finally introduce Radical Edward (but not Ein), with a shot that’s incomprehensible until you see the show (you might think it’s still Faye dancing and not Edward preparing to work her magic on the computers). Radical Edward’s intro also uses a hot, neon pink background that has not been seen before in the credits and will not be seen again, making her unique among the four. Also, notice how the tension that has been building up since 00:47 ratchets up almost unbearably in this sequence, seemingly stuttering along with Spike’s “stumble” and getting nearly derailed with Radical Edward.

1:08 – 1:14: That building tension finally gets released, sort of. The trumpets go as high as they can go, carrying an overwhelming sense of frenzy like they’re about to explode, but musically the notes don’t resolve the way you expect them to. Also, notice how the sustained second note of the trumpet matches the takeoff of the Swordfish II, just as in the longer held notes of bridge theme in 0:32-0:44 were paired with images of flight.

1:14 – 1:18: Shinichiro Watanabe gets his director credit just as the theme uses a descending figure to come down from its explosive peak. He seems to have borrowed the eye of the super-computer from “Brain Scratch,” suggesting that the whole series was planned out a lot further ahead than you’d think and also hinting at Watanabe-san’s role on the show.

1:18 – 1:30: A squealing, fast staccato saxophone gives one last shot of energy to the theme as we see all 4 of the cast members on screen simultaneously for the first time. A quick drum figure fades them to black; notice how the fade is done in two steps perfectly synchronized with the drums. We cut to the title of the show in both English and Japanese kana as the trumpets can finally bleed off the remaining tension, being the true musical resolution to the sustained notes in the 1:08-1:14 segment. Meanwhile that squealing saxophone continues to improvise over the held trumpet notes. Even the closing “© 1998 Sunrise Inc.” appears in time with the beat.

Great music doesn’t just do one thing (John Lee Hooker and “Louie Louie” notwithstanding). The best music plays around with tempo, volume, chord modulations, and phrasing to make a statement too intricate and articulate for words to capture. The Cowboy Bebop theme song by Yoko Kanno exemplifies this principle beautifully, but the opening sequence does the same thing visually, and the audio and video work together seamlessly to become far more than the sum of their parts. Simply awesome.

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  1. [...] having an awesome theme song is 90% of the work in getting an awesome opening credits sequence. Cowboy Bebop, Batman Beyond, and ThunderCats are a handy examples of this phenomenon at work, but the opening [...]

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