So a while ago I wrote about veteran Sound Director Katsuyoshi Kobayashi’s wizardly handling of Space Brothers’ audio. At the time, I had to look up his name on ann, but I didn’t check his specific creator page. The other day, I went back and finally did. It turns out this isn’t the only anime-of-the-decade candidate* he’s worked on with a director named Watanabe. In celebration of this individual who’s handled a number of sublime auditory anime experiences and yet has to date zero comments or favorites on his myanimelist page, I’m going to spend this column by talking about the musically crafted battle sequence to trump (almost) all others, the last 6 minutes of Cowboy Bebop.
(This post contains obvious ending spoilers for a 15-year-old show that you either have watched or will find yourself watching the moment you inform someone who has that you haven’t. So there.)
Before I start, it’s worth posing the question; what, exactly, does a sound director do? Well, it’s impossible to say everything for sure, but my hypothesis is that the sound director’s job is to take the soundtrack that exists and find the best way to incorporate it into the Chief Director’s creative vision as fluidly as possible. What I do know is that anime is a visual medium more so than an auditory one, so the best anime soundtracks are not necessarily the ones which sound the best, but rather the ones which most thoroughly enhance and compliment the visuals and dialogue while not distracting from them. I believe the sound director handles this process of integrating of the auditory elements with the rest of the show.
Cowboy Bebop was a show born from music and blessed with an awe-inspiring soundtrack. But more importantly, it’s a show about characters. And the ending is about two characters, Spike and Vicious, wrapping up their long-standing grudgematch. The Sound Direction in the minutes leading up to and during their face-off is a sublime feat, illustratrating the adrenaline and tension running through Spike’s head as he charges into a battle for something intangible and invaluable. Let’s break it down. Follow along in this clip if you’re meticulous.
[0:00-0:45] – The scene begins with Spike’s plane launching. As he flies, resolve set, Faye and Jet stand around in flavors of sadness and resignation. As this is happening, the music playing is the low-key opening of The Real Folk Blues, at a tempo that matches both Jet’s quiet resignation and Spike’s quiet resolve.
[0:45-1:40] – Spike strides into the syndicate lobby accompanied by a cleverly-kicked grenade. Mai Yamane’s voice doubles down on the raspiness to accompany the explosions and gunshots as they occur.
[1:40-2:35] – Spike is shot in the arm and rejoins Shin almost immediately thereafter. The combination of pain and the dilution of tension from the added companion are reflected in the drop in the energy and volume of the song.
[2:35-3:00] – Shin dies and imparts some final words to Spike. As Spike gets yet another reason on a mile-long list of ones to hate Vicious, Kobayashi rachets up the volume, matching up with the anger on Spike’s face. This volume keeps up as explosions rock the higher levels of the skyscraper.
[3:00] – At this point, Spike has reached Vicious. As he sharpens that rage into a cold, calm fury, the music fades out, leaving us with silence. This silence lasts throughout the fight, until both of them collapse. The silence aids the fight in a number of ways, mainly making it feel raw and bitterly fierce, again matching the exact mood Shinichiro Watanabe wanted that scene to have. After the fight, silence continues to add to the scenes where Spike reflects on the past one last time and stumbles towards the observers who have made it this far, collapsing and ending his struggle. Not even Yoko Kanno could write a song to go with “Bang.” better than that silence does.
This scene is amazing and I could devote another [five] thousand words to the other ways that it’s perfect, but this column is pointing out sound direction because it almost always goes without recognition. Just because some parts of anime are more important than others doesn’t mean you can neglect those others. The best works are those that pour measurable effort into reaching their viewers through as many paths as they can. So it’s important to notice what doing it right sounds or looks like, to better recognize anime capable of reaching that pinnacle of communication.
*The only two anime that are both accessible enough and well-made enough to be viable candidates from the 1990s are Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. There are other great shows from that decade, but nothing is realistically beating both of those in a serious poll. By my count, the (very preliminary) realistic contenders for the anime of the 2010s are Panty and Stocking, Steins Gate, Fate Zero, Attack on Titan, Madoka Magica, Tiger and Bunny, Usagi Drop, and Space Brothers at something approaching 20:1 odds apiece (handicapping the race in more detail at this point would be boneheaded, given there’s still about 6 years of unaired stuff left). I might get suckered into betting on Daily Lives of High School Boys, Katanagatari, Angel Beats, and Ano Hana at 100:1 odds. The remainder of memorable shows from this decade to date lack either the universal appeal (whether because they’re too experimental for general consensus** or they have themes that are too targeted at one demographic) or the frame-perfect build to have the necessary near-unanimous popularity in ten years the way Eva and CB do now. Any bets made on other aired things at this point are a waste of your Monopoly money I’d be happy to take.
**Before you get after me by saying that Eva is experimental, that’s only partially the case. Eva gets experimental in parts, and it has philosophical themes, but it executed them with the practiced precision of a Swiss watch and was also actually pretty high budget for its day, mixing its budget-saving philosophy with beautiful flashy action for most of the show. Shows like Tatami Galaxy or Natsuyuki Rondevous are 1)freaking great, 2) built too much around experimentalism to not turn off a large portion of their potential audience, and 3) trying things that are new enough that they miss their mark a non-negligible number of times. In contrast, Madoka’s on the list because it’s simultaneously experimental/trippy in parts and can throw the proverbial basic fastball straight across the plate when the situation calls for it.