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Cowboy Bebop: Tengoku no tobira

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Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away having spirited away this year's Oscar for feature-length animation, we may be seeing more anime on the big screen in the near future. Or not. A mass medium in Japan, anime remains something of an acquired taste on this side of the Pacific, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans have acquired it. Raised on Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, we seem to resist the idea that animation might also speak to grownups. (Witness the other Oscar nominees: Ice Age, Treasure Planet, Lilo & Stitch and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.) And although Cowboy Bebop: The Movie won't do much to dispel that notion, I must confess that watching it sure beat going on yet another kiddie ride.

Instead of a Saturday-morning cartoon, Cowboy Bebop is more of a Saturday-afternoon cartoon ' for mature audiences, but not that mature. Based on a popular Japanese television series that's been getting airtime on the Cartoon Network, it's a sci-fi action-adventure about the end of the world. But no one, on or off the screen, really expects the world to end. So we can sit back and enjoy both the story, which features a motley collection of late-21st-century bounty hunters on Mars, and the imagery, which rivals that of the best comic books. Using only line and color, director Shinichiro Watanabe and his collaborators have created a vast metropolis that encompasses New York City, Tokyo, Paris and a few more decades of urban development.

Think Blade Runner. Except this time, the multinational corporations aren't running everything, the crime syndicates are. And the closest things to police officers are bounty hunters, who don't give a damn about the scales of justice unless the metal's worth something on the open market. That's how our heroes feel, anyway. The A-Team without the camaraderie, these guys always get their man, but mostly they get on each other's nerves. Luckily, they're charmingly annoying ' Spike, for example, who dresses like Elvis in the early days and says things like "I love the kind of woman who can kick my ass." Then there's Faye, who, although Spike isn't in love with her, can probably kick his ass. And Jet, a father figure whose kids never listen to him. And Edward, an idiot savant on computers who happens to be a little girl.

Oh, I almost forgot Ein, a genetically enhanced "data dog" that, to the untutored eye, looks just like a corgi. This kind of why-a-corgi-of-all-things surreality seems to be a feature of anime. (Remember the Radish Spirit in Spirited Away?) Here, it provides some much-needed comic relief, since the plot's built around an attempt to destroy all signs of intelligent life on Mars using nanobots. There's also a movie-opening explosion of hazardous materials ' Armageddon-lite. Chemical and biological terrorism may have temporarily lost their ability to entertain us, but you have to credit Cowboy Bebop for drawing us a picture of how bad things could get. I only wish the picture had a little more fluidity of motion. There's a herky-jerkiness to the animation, like a flip-book flapping by.

Where's Disney when you need them?

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