Good direction goes a long way in Cowboy Bebop. This might seem self-evident but it warrants emphasizing because here, because in “Black Dog Serenade,” style really matters. I wouldn’t this week’s episode as much as I do if it not for series unit director Shinichiro Watanabe’s keen eye for detail and, more importantly, the superb pace he set for the proceedings, which follow a prison transport ship that gets highjacked by inmates. Script writer Michiko Yokote’s script only becomes noticeably irritating at the end of “Black Dog Serenade,” when he doesn’t satisfactorily resolve some material that he set up earlier.
Then again, since Watanabe shows such a keen eye for visual detail throughout “Black Dog Serenade,” I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t take a more active hand in trimming the script down, cutting certain things out or ending certain scenes before they totally ran out of steam. There are singular images and sequences in “Black Dog Serenade” that are really impressive and it’s a damn sight better than “Ganymede Elegy,” the other Jet-centric episode. But I can’t help but feel that the episode falls apart in the end.
In “Black Dog Serenade,” Jet re-unites with Fad, an old cop from Jet’s past as a renegade policeman with a one-track mind. The two ex-partners come together after convicts take over a Pluto-bound prisoner transport vessel. Jet and Fad broke up years ago after after an incident, shown in a hazy flashback, where Jet was ambushed while chasing Udai, an evil-looking mercenary with a big leering grin. Udai’s responsible for making Jet loses one of his arms. Or so Jet thinks.
The vast majority of “Black Dog Serenade” is so action-oriented that it makes me want to forget that “Ganymede Elegy” even exists. Here, we’re shown so much of what’s important and are given a wealth of character-driven details, like when Udai slits a prisoner’s throat or has a nihilistic chat with a champagne-guzzling inmate, that it’s almost enough to overlook the way that Yokote drops the ball during the episode’s final few minutes. Here, Watanabe is almost in total control of the episode.
Take the flashback that serves as the episode’s big centerpiece. Watanabe does such a fantastic job here that I almost want to give the episode a free pass based on this sequence alone. I love that dazzlingly expressive sequence where Jet, after having broken away from Fad, is running after Udai on his own. There’s that great shot of Jet running where all we hear is the sound of his feet scuffling on the street and all we see is garish, bright yellow light streaming in through cracks of a porous wall’s surface.
Here, Watanabe proves that he knows exactly how to choreograph an action scene mostly just by pacing it properly. After Jet bursts through a wall to confront Udai, we get a shot of Udai leering at Jet. Then a reverse shot of Jet staring back at him with his pistol aimed right at Udai. We see him tensing, getting ready to squeeze the trigger. It’s not a close close-up so the fact that we can tell, just based on the pacing of the shot and the lack of diegetic sound in the sequence, that he’s about to pull the trigger is pretty extraordinary. It reminds me of the pacing of the duels in Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, a source of inspiration I’m sure Watanabe was drawing on here. I even thought of Kurosawa’s samurai films at the end of the episode when Watanabe holds the over-the-shoulder shot of Fad as he stands over Jet’s body and lets the deafening silence that follows the gunshot overwhelm the viewer. But back to the flashback: there’s an abrupt cut to a spotlight turning on and falling on Jet. He shields his eyes. “A trap?” And then a slow fade to white. Wonderful, taut storytelling; nothing to sneeze at here.
What I don’t like about “Black Dog Seranade” is the way that certain turns of phrase in the character’s dialogue eventually remind me that most of the episode’s narrative has been established by vague clichés. This only really starts to bother me after Jet tells Fad, “You know how I work better than anyone else, right?” Actually, I don’t because the flashback don’t give us a substantive hint about the pair’s former camaraderie. [Spoiler alert] Presumably, Jet’s alluding to the fact that Fad knew him well enough that he could have anticipated that Jet would have wanted to split up and chase Udai on his own, making it easy for Jet to walk right into Fad’s trap. Saying “You know how I work better than anyone else” is hackneyed writing, though again, it’s mostly bothersome because we haven’t been given any concrete indication of what Jet’s referring to.
I also don’t like the goofy banter Yokote sticks Jet with during his fight with Udai. He tells Udai that he “didn’t come here because I wanted to” and then Udai counters, “Don’t say that, I came out here just to greet you.” Jet, after being knocked to his knees, counters with, “I didn’t want to come but something else wanted to see you?” “What?” “The left arm that I lost!” Again, I would probably be okay with this cheesy banter if that line was built up to properly. While there’s an earlier scene where Jet snaps at Faye for bringing up his robotic arm and the episode is ostensibly about getting closure from the guy that made Jet lose his arm, I never get the sense that Jet is seriously thinking about his arm, not even momentarily. So when he says, “The left arm that I lost,” I don’t get the sense that the line really means anything.
And yet, for all of that, Watanabe’s direction really does work wonders this episode. The shoot-out with Fad is devastating, even though I should have seen it coming (especially since this isn’t my first time watching tonight’s episode). I didn’t though and it still hit me hard. Because good directing can make you suspend your disbelief, even when the material it’s fleshing out isn’t always as good as it should be.