by Andrew Wright

Cowboy Bebop

dir. Watanabe

Opens Fri May 2

Cinema 21

A bit of irony, this: as the influence of Japanese animation becomes ever more prevalent in American pop culture (The Matrix, Powerpuff Girls, even a shelf or two at Blockbuster), it becomes harder and harder to find easily digestible examples of the source material. Brain-blowing milestones like Akira and Ghost in the Shell aside, the majority of anime that makes it to these shores seems to be mainly concerned with either inspiring Hello Kittenish insulin shock, or in depicting a never-ending variety of horny squid demons on the prowl for schoolgirls majoring in silicone.

A welcome exception is Cowboy Bebop, a 26-episode mix of film noir, screwball comedy, and giant robot buttstomping (currently airing on Cartoon Network) that consistently manages to tread the accessible middle ground between cute and chaos. Despite occasional moments of narrative bloat, the first feature, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' at Heaven's Door proudly continues this tradition: chock full of stylized exploding chopsocky for the veterans, yet quirky enough for the cautious newbie.

Falling somewhere between the latter episodes of the series, the plot concerns a deadbeat group of perpetually broke bounty hunters (lanky asskicker, hulking cyborg, babe in tight vinyl, Ritalin-deprived hacker, smart dog) who take it upon themselves to stop a faction of biological terrorists wreaking havoc on the highly commercialized Mars of 2071. The actions of said bad guys may strike a few uncomfortable 9-11/SARS echoes (the most rockin' action scene contains a more-or-less direct riff on the Tokyo Sarin gas disaster), but the hipster characterizations and gorgeously animated eye-candy manage to negate most of the sting.

Fully aware of his material's inherent absurdities, director Shinichiro Watanabe keeps the laughs and pathos coming fast and furious (even if 116 minutes does ultimately prove to be a little too long for this sort of thing). MVP props, though, go to composer Yoko Kanno, whose soundtrack selections run the gamut from rockabilly to operatic to wah-wah jazz. John Williams be damned; this is what the future should sound like.