Air Date: 24/10/1998
Director: Yoshiyuki Takei
Writer: Keiko Nobumoto
Synopsis: Desperately short of cash, bounty hunters Spike Spiegel and Jet Black of the Bebop travel to the asteroid settlement of Tijuana, hunting for a renegade ex-Syndicate member out to sell off a valuable cache of experimental drugs.
“Asteroid Blues” is the perfect introduction to what Cowboy Bebop is really: a very self-contained and entertaining story of a bounty hunter and a bounty, the latter with some serious wrinkles, all masking hidden depths of greater story and character. This “session” needs to introduce us to two key main characters, give us a little something on both of them to keep us interested, while at the same time executing a once-off plot with once-off characters that is worthy of an opener. That it manages to pass all of these tests with flying colours is a wonderful indication of the kind of quality we are in for in the next 25 episodes (and a movie!).
The story is about Spike and Jet insofar as it gives us some information about them and their characters, but “Asteroid Blues” is really about Asimov and (actually unnamed in the episode) Katerina. Watanabe took inspiration from a few different sources, but you don’t really need to have absorbed any of them to get behind this desperate tale of a mobster on the run with his girl, she dreaming of a better life in a half-imagined Elysium far away, and he so caught up in the violence of his trade that he can’t really get away from it (and, in fact, maybe he doesn’t really want to get away from it). Katerina spends a large part of the episode lacking much in the way of agency: at first she’s just a pretty face whose apparent pregnancy makes her a character in more-peril-than-usual when the bullets start flying, later she’s a means for Spike to get under the skin of Asimov, later still she becomes a target for Asimov’s rage as everything starts to turn against the pair. Asimov is a bit of a blank slate really, with limited lines and a penchant for slaughter at the drop of a hat: in Katerina we get the better part of the duo, as she takes control of her own story, grabs her own agency, but only in the act of essentially undertaking suicide by cop. In doing all of that, she takes over as the main character of the episode really, supplanting the animalistic Asimov. The crew of the Bebop, as they will be throughout the run of the show, are caught in the middle of mobsters and the police. It’s a tragic story, and the perfect introduction to the kind of ennui and regrets that will be a central part of Cowboy Bebop going forward. Right from the start, we are given a tale with the central ethos that it is impossible to escape from your past, and the efforts to do so will just lead to more problems: every member of the Bebop crew, those we have met and those we are still to meet, are going to learn that lesson all too well.
The episode is also a masterclass in telling us a great deal about Spike and Jet without even really saying so out loud. Spike initially appears to be an arrogant, uncaring buffoon, throwing a tantrum over the lack of beef in his beef with bell peppers, barely listening to Jet’s outline of the bounty and casually seeing a First Nations mystic instead of doing any actual investigation. But Spike is not some somnambulant waster prioritising looking cool over anything else, it’s just that he prefers the indirect approach to things, and he knows some of the ways you can really get at a person like Asimov. One of the best is to go after the people he loves, especially women, and “Asteroid Blues” does give us a few tantalising glimpses of Spike’s own past on that score, in that haunting prologue that is straight out of John Woo’s The Killer. In all of this, another recurring theme of the show is outlined: how women, or rather fleeing from the messy ending of a relationship with women, will be the downfall of men.
Spike has a knack of appearing to not be in control of a situation when he really is. He chooses not to confront Asimov in the bathroom in favour of trying to talk his girlfriend down. He chooses to use the apparent disadvantage of Asimov’s hands on his throat as the moment to sneak some red-eye from his jacket. He chooses the time and place to confront the two again, and on a more even keel is more than a match for Asimov, red-eye or no. He sees through peoples distortions about themselves with ease, and punctures their fantasies with similar laconic backtalk. The impression you get initially is of a man bored of his surroundings and his situation, but who finds something worth paying attention to with Katerina. He wants to be challenged, and the quandary of this mobster moll is a challenge, alongside the physical challenge of Asimov himself. But in the end Spike can’t control just what Katerina does to get out of her situation: that whole situation has parallels to Spike’s past too, and I think it’s telling that his reaction to getting choked into unconsciousness by Asimov is blasé to the extreme, while his reaction to seeing Katerina essentially end her life is far more fraught.
Jet gets less time, but we also learn some key details about him too. This is a more straightforward, direct sort of guy, and even if they don’t bring it up here it is easy to imagine at this point that he has some form of law enforcement background. He’s methodical in the way he hunts the bounty, grasping the details of the warrant, showing up at the scene of the shootout to investigate and generally goes about things in a fairly predictable way. But Jet is not without his subtleties either: he clearly knows how best to manipulate Spike to get engaged with a job, even if it through something as basic as an appeal to the stomach.
“Asteroid Blues” is also our introduction to the universe of course, and being in the sci-fi genre it has to get that aspect of things right. It does well: we don’t linger too long on any futuristic aspect of things, and whenever we do it is more to establish it as a humdrum routine than anything else (see below for more thoughts). Yes there are spaceships and FTL travel and people fly planes around like they are cars, but it’s nothing to any of these people and really just backdrop to the story being told, which is as it should be. One thing I was struck by watching “Asteroid Blues” this time was the sense of emptiness being projected though: the slow panning shot at the start showcases how deep into the black we are, the streets of “TJ” are curiously underpopulated, there can be a shootout in a bar and the police don’t even seem to bother showing up. In other words I feel like Cowboy Bebop is, right from the off, attempting to establish this future-set universe as one that is far more like the frontier of the Old West in many ways, where large groupings of people in the sticks are not going to be seen.
From a production standpoint, there are a lot of great visuals elements of “Asteroid Blues” worth talking about. In a few instances there is a clever use of quick cuts, such as in our introduction to Spike and Jet, we jumping between the kinetic rhythm of Spike’s practise kicks and Jet’s cooking. Tijuana is a great representation of an old world dung heap of a city mixed with that little bit of futurism. The red-eye sequences are a well-crafted thing, that emphasise the inhumanity of Asimov and the horror of his seemingly unstoppability. The various shoot-outs that occur are crisp and realistically violent, even if the animators have the time and space to enter in some small few fun elements, like the sight of Spike kicking mobsters from on top their own car.
And of course there is the music. Cowboy Bebop cannot be discussed without talking abut its music, since it seems to have been half the reason for the entire exercise. The sentimental tones of “Memory”, the rambunctiousness of “Tank!”, the inner sadness of “Spokey Dokey”, the fluid perfection of “Rush” before the first rendition of that most timeless of anime end pieces, “The Real Folk Blues”, this is a an episode that worms its way into your brain primarily through the ears a lot of the time, which is something that Cowboy Bebop will be repeating a fair bit. This is one of the key examples of music being attached to narrative and character in way that is truly symbiotic, either elevating the other. Cowboy Bebop is practically an instrumental musical, and “Asteroid Blues” is our introduction to that duality.
-We open on a Dutch angle, rain falling slanted on a nostalgia-imbued street, and it’s a hell of an opening image.
-The achingly simple tune that plays over this opening flashback is “Memory”, and it might be the second most important piece of music in the show. There’s nothing quite like it to capture the needed sense of nostalgia and regret.
-What a contrast it is in this opening, the depiction of savage violence and guns blaring, with absolutely no sound from those things present to interrupt “Memory”.
-There’s not much more I can add to the discourse about both “Tank!”, the utterly electric main theme of the show that lodges itself firmly in your eardrum the moment you hear those opening blasts, or the main titles themselves, a stylised look at the characters and the ships of Bebop in a pop art style. 3-2-1, let’s jam.
-The opening pan across the orbit of Mars will be a recurring thing, as will the use of the harmonica solo “Spokey Dokey” in such scenes. It’s a great combination to situate you in this vast new frontier.
-A great introduction to Spike Spiegel, plainly not listening to Jet’s outline of the bounty as he struggles to understand a beefless “beef with bell peppers”. The hardness of Jet is emphasised as he responds to the suggestion that you can’t grant the dish that title when it is missing such a key ingredient: “Yes, you can…you can when you’re broke”.
-Jet outlines how Spike’s actions “killed the dough” of the last job through property destruction and medical bills for an injured cop, making me think of the old hard-nosed cop cliché: “You’re a loose cannon Spiegel!”
-I like the depiction of FTL travel, insofar as this scientific wonder is remarkably routine. There are toll gates, floating ads to dazzle a ship passing through them, and a very automatic sense of business as usual. This is not a romantic universe.
-Our first glimpse at who I always called the “Three Amigos” occurs in the bar scene, a trio of curmudgeons waxing lyrical about past glories. How exactly does one “dig” an FTL gate though? They show up again later, also blundering into the scenes of violence.
-Quite the shot in this moment, of Katerina’s breasts balanced on the bar as she takes a sip of Asimov’s beer. Cowboy Bebop would rarely get as brazenly salacious.
-“Keep those eyes open!” Asimov screams as he embarks on his drug-fuelled destruction of the hit squad. Some remarkable visual moments here, most notably a brief flash of Asimov reflected in the eyes of a target just before he cuts them down. This whole sequence takes a fair bit of inspiration from Desperado.
-Spike’s apparent nickname of “Swimming Bird” calls to mind later episodes where his fighting style will be directly compared to movement and flow of water.
-Bull’s prophecy is the first instance of the quasi-supernatural element of the show, that will pop-up again a few times. Spike clearly puts a lot of faith in such things, and it is bang on the money this time.
-Love this shot of Jet grabbing the mob hoodlum in a stiff headlock, it’s like something out of Dragonball Z.
-I have always loved that first interaction between Spike and Asimov, Spike casually advising him to keep the tap running as he cleans himself up. It’s a great way to burst the balloon of a very tense moment, while still maintaining the narrative advantage to Spike.
-Another thing about Spike is that he’s effortlessly cheeky as we learn in the following scene, where he casually robs Katerina of some of her food, then laughs about it as a way of flirting.
-Spike tells Katerina that only the rich are really happy on Mars. “Then I’m sure we’ll be happy there” she replies, with a romantic smile. She has it all worked out in her head, but it’s a shallow dream all too easily blown up.
-The perfect contrast between Spike and Jet occurs after Jet finds an unconscious Spike. Jet outlines the facts as he has discovered them, and assumes that this particular bounty is a dead end. Spike all-too-casually announces that he has not only met the bounty, he knows where he has gone, and takes a bit of glee in trumping Jet.
-Gotta love Spike’s “disguise” for his final meeting with Asimov, straight out of Sergio Leone only pushed up to the max.
-The animators earn their keep big time with the subsequent fight, as Spike unleashes his Jeet Kune Do and bests the unhinged Asimov. It’s great because the time has been taken to show how powerful Asimov, when on red-eye, was earlier, but Spike’s manner of fighting accounts for him easily: “You can’t see everywhere at once!”. Oh, and not enough can be said about the musical accompaniment, “Rush”, which is just the perfect backdrop.
-The reveal that Katerina’s pregnancy is a cover for the hidden red-eye is great, not even this seemingly pure aspect of her being has a basis in truth: just like her dream of a happy life on Mars, it’s all a fantasy. I love Asimov’s anger as he realises what she almost lost, a real “man behind the curtain” moment for Katerina.
-The final chase is a more operatic sequence, as the two vessels whirl around, dipping over water and then ascending into the stars. The softer saxophone tune for it is “Road To The West”.
-In the end, Asimov becomes something of a monster, his eyes enlarged and bugging out of his face, breathing like a wild animal, totally intent on fighting his way out of Tijuana in a hopeless battle. It’s like his true self has been revealed.
-Katerina’s final moments are quiet ones. She’s taken control of her own life by essentially ending it, and she seems happy with the choice in the end. The episode chooses to showcase her actual death in an almost odd, symbolic way though, the red-eye canisters spilling out of her like a substitute for blood.
-For a recurrent segment, lets start a count of the various ways in which the Bebop’s bounties end up not being profitable. Right from the off, we have one bounty that is killed by the police before it can be claimed.
-In what you must assume is an intentional thing as it will re-occur throughout the series, it is a case of “as you were” at the end of the episode in so many ways. We start with Spike practising his martial arts and Jet cooking a meatless meal that should have meat, and that’s how we finish. It’s not one step forward, two steps back, it’s staying rigidly in place.
-The closing title of “See You Space Cowboy” will be repeated plenty of times. There’s something about it that really catches the eye, like the show itself is waving a temporary farewell to Spike.
-I could write entries and entries about “The Real Folk Blues” really. It’s a remarkable piece of music in its instrumentals and lyrics, and performed wonderfully by Mai Yamane.
Final Thoughts: While there is a lot more for Cowboy Bebop to introduce to us in terms of characters and concepts, “Asteroid Blues” couldn’t really do much more as a started point. We are given firm outlines of Spike and Jet in a very subtle fashion, the stand-alone plot is very strong, the production aspects of the episode, in visuals and music, are immense. The opening episode of any TV show has one primary goal really, and that is to hook people in and get them coming back: “Asteroid Blues” succeeds radically on that score. If you liked this episode, it’s a sure-fire thing that you were going to devour all that was left of Cowboy Bebop.