Watson Watches: Cowboy Bebop

cowboy bebop
Back in 2014, a friend and I collaborated on a series of interview-style articles called Watson Watches. The idea was to introduce Watson, who knew very little about anime and had seen only bits of a couple of shows in passing, to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. Rather than attempt to get him to love or even like anime, the overall goal was simply to see how the medium appeared to someone who did not have any prior knowledge or involvement.

The articles ended up pretty fun to write both on Watson’s end as well as mine, and since plenty of readers likewise seemed to enjoy them, we’ve decided to revive the series – but with a twist. Since Watson now naturally has some familiarity with anime, the titles chosen for him to watch will all have something in common: they’re all going to have been produced and aired before the year 2000. Oh, and just for fun, we’ll be tackling the shows in reverse chronological order.

(Note that we’ve also decided to exclude all films and OVAs in order to focus solely on shows that were originally televised. Yep, that means no Akira or early Ghibli, sorry guys.)

As always, Watson and I will be watching everything separately so that his opinions remain as independent as possible. He’s also been instructed not to look up the titles online beforehand for the same reason. The interview questions for each anime will be given to him after viewing.

First up: 1998’s Cowboy Bebop.

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As you’re aware, Cowboy Bebop is a pre-2000s anime; it first began airing in 1998. Do you think you would you have been able to guess that just from watching, and do you feel that it’s a series that has aged well in terms of production values?

If I had to guess I would have said it was from early in the 21st century, so I think it has held up pretty well. The aspect that dates it most is the video resolution. While perfectly acceptable it’s obviously not made for wide, high definition screens. But this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism: rather it shows quite well a point I’ve been banging on about for more than a decade now, that visuals are NOT the be-all and end-all. It is my belief that a good show – or movie, or game, or whatever – will still be good no matter what level of technology is used for the visuals. There comes a point where they are “good enough” not to detract from the experience, and after that we’re plunging deep into diminishing returns territory. Yes, I know there is the occasional exception to this – the detailed water effects in Free, for example, did genuinely add to the show. In general though, I wish the creators who get all excited about pushing the bleeding edge of graphical technology would sit down and breathe into a paper bag for a while, because this sort of Red Queen’s Race doesn’t do us any favours. But I digress.

Anyway, the production values in general seem very solid. The technical aspects work well to complement each other, and the end result is a very competent show. They are good enough, in fact, that the creators could include several “pacing” scenes – there’s no dialogue, no action, nothing of any import happens in them. And yet they still round out the episodes they occur in beautifully. It’s not often that the creators of a show are confident enough to do that AND have it work for them. So yes, I feel Cowboy Bebop has aged very well in terms of production values.

How about with regards to story, characters, and themes?

For some reason Cowboy Bebop does have a bit of a 90s feel to it in these respects. I’m not sure why, there’s nothing I can point at specifically that does that. The closest I can get is that there’s a certain vision of the future that it draws from for these things, and that for whatever reason it’s a vision I associate with the 90s. Maybe it’s just that it isn’t as depressing as more recent ideas of the future. In any case, while it does feel noticeably different from them I don’t think it has been dated as such. The story, characters, and themes are such that their essential elements could exist in other settings quite well, and this universal applicability stands the show in good stead. It’s been nearly 20 years since the show aired, and it still provides something that many people can connect with. I see no reason the same should not be true in another 20.

cowboy bebop background
Many, perhaps even a majority of long-time anime fans and professional critics, see Cowboy Bebop as a classic of the medium. Do you agree and if so, what aspects of the show make it a classic?

Since the first Watson Watches series I have seen a few more shows, it’s true, but I doubt I could truthfully be called either an anime fan or a professional critic. So just keep in mind that this is an amateur opinion at best. With that out of the way, however, I have mixed feelings on the subject.

I can see several reasons why people might think of it in such a way. Most of the characters are well-portrayed, not heroes but regular and flawed people doing their best to get by and coping with what the world throws at them. They’re not trying to fix anything, just make it through another day. The music is also very good: moody at times, exuberant at others, but always appropriate. It genuinely adds to the scenes and the show as a whole. There aren’t many series where I actually want to listen to the opening credits every time it comes on. Another reason it might deserve that status is the contrast it provides. It draws heavily from western (and Western) pop culture to produce a show that is quite unlike both western animated shows and most anime I’ve seen. In part this is because it seems to be the end of something, rather than a beginning – Spike and Jet, and perhaps even Faye, have mostly already had their big adventures and are now coping with the aftereffects. This is a technique I’m not sure I’ve seen used before, and the way in which it leaves a lot of questions unanswered works well in the main.

But not always. I suspect that the conscious decision not to explore the background encouraged the creators to play fast and loose at times, secure in the knowledge that they would never have to explain it. And for a show that usually does so well in terms of suspension of disbelief, this is very jarring when it occurs. In several cases, implausibility’s were piled up deep enough to pull me out of my immersion. And as I’ve mentioned previously, the more often this happens the lower my tolerance for it becomes.

One point I’m undecided about is the episodes which didn’t relate to the “central plot” of the show (scare-quotes intentional since I’m not quite sure Cowboy Bebop has one in the conventional sense). The show has a generally episodic nature, which I usually like, but the episodes themselves were a little hit-and-miss. When they focused on a specific character they generally worked well, when they were played simply for comedic value… not so much. Some of them seemed completely pointless and could have been removed without harm. Swapping those for a bit more background exposition might not have been a bad idea.

On balance though, I think Cowboy Bebop does deserve to be called a classic. The aesthetics are excellent, the characters are mostly very good, the direction is solid, and its episodic and meandering nature helped make it more human. What really pushes it over the edge is the way the characters react to their pasts. That thoughtful and at times almost nostalgic theme to the show makes all the difference.

Music, particularly jazz, obviously plays a big part in the series. In fact, according to composer Kanno Yoko, the music was one of the first aspects of the series to begin production before even most of the characters. Moreover, the director has also said that he took inspiration from Kanno’s music and created new scenes for the show after listening to it. What do you think about that?

I’m very pleased to hear it. I think that the smooth integration of writing, pacing, and audio-visual elements is one of the hallmarks of a great production and more attention should be paid to it in general. In the case of Cowboy Bebop, the amount of care taken with the music and how it interacts with the rest of the show is very apparent. It’s one of the most obviously distinctive aspects of the show, and it pays dividends in engaging the audience. I always associate this management of the different aspects of a show as the work of the director, so if they can pay such attention to these things that’s a big mark in their favour.

Do you have a favourite and least favourite character?

Favourite? Ein, obviously. The data-dog is clearly the brains of the outfit, and although he receives a shamefully low amount of character development, his innate wit and charm ensures he steals every scene he appears in… although, if you insist on a human character, I’d most likely go for Jet. He’s probably the most grounded and empathetic of them, and is arguably the only one coping with their past in a way that isn’t self-destructive. He looks after the others and is remarkably tolerant of having uninvited guests in his ship. I guess those bonsai trees do a lot for his mental stability.

cowboy bebop jet
Least favourite? Not a difficult choice. Faye can be irritating at times, especially the way she has somehow become an expert pilot, card-shark and martial artist in the few years since waking up in a hospital bed, but her multi-competence is balanced by flaws and characterisation that make her human. Ed, on the other hand, is just annoying. I’m frankly surprised to see her in a show like this, because she seems like an author-inserted Mary Sue character of the first water. Oh look! A child genius who has no redeeming weaknesses, is pivotal to solving most problems, and generally makes everyone else looks like superfluous bumbling idiots. She appears to have an author-mandated immunity to pretty much everything as well as being the designated cuteness object and success-story. I suppose her mannerisms are meant to be endearing, but they really tick me off.

The director has said that the only character to have a real-life model was Ed, who was based on Kanno’s behaviour as observed by him when they first met. Does that make you think of Ed any differently?

A little. The main effect it has is to make me even more surprised that a character like Ed made it into the show in the first place, since real people tend to have a mix of traits that is somewhat less unequivocally aggravating. It also makes me wonder what Kanno is like in person… I have to presume that some characteristics were exaggerated and others downplayed in order to end up with the Ed that graces our screens.

Generally I don’t think it’s a good idea to base characters too closely on real-life individuals, especially in a medium like anime. Due to the limited opportunities to get to know the characters you’re going to end up with a caricature anyway, so it might as well be one that fits the artistic vision of the piece. I can see that real people can offer a more nuanced basis for the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make a character human, so there is certainly scope to use such an approach, but presumably in Ed’s case it was taken way, WAY too far.

cowboy bebop ed
Final question. Unlike the previous Watson Watches articles, you watched all of Cowboy Bebop before seeing these questions rather than just a handful. Do you think any of your answers would have changed dramatically if you had only seen, say, the first nine of them (at which point all main characters have been introduced)?

Yes, I’m pretty sure they would. At that point all the characters may have been introduced, but characterisation in Cowboy Bebop is an ongoing thing. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have the same feeling about them as I would later on, especially in the cases of Ed and Faye. The other thing is that Bebop is a show about the past in a lot of ways, and the audience’s understanding of that past is something else that is gradually developed. I feel that Cowboy Bebop is a complex show, and there are many layers of thought that could be applied to aspects that only start to appear as the show progresses. But why am I talking about that, when the show itself tells us all we need to know?

“The bounty hunters, who are gathering in the spaceship “BEBOP”, will play freely without fear of risky things. They must create new dreams and films by breaking traditional styles. The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called… “COWBOY BEBOP”.”

You’re gonna carry that weight.

Question of the post: Any other questions for Watson, or comments in general? As per usual, Watson himself will be replying to anything aimed specifically at him.

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35 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Cowboy Bebop

  1. For Watson: as I’m aware, this series is based on the notion, that you are not an anime regular, which gives you a vastly different outlook on various shows.

    This question has 2 tiers. Tier 1: Assuming you watched it in dub (who doesn’t?!) would you have known this is anime, if you just caught it on a Blu-ray sale, and bought it on a whim, and popped it into your player, even without reading the worded previews? What would tip you off or trick you into thinking it is anime, or it’s not?

    Tier 2: After how many shows, depending on what genres, do you think this series would be forced to end? In other words, how many shows (and what shows) can you watch, before you (think of this as you personally) ‘stop’ being an outside observer of anime?

    Very interesting read by the way, considering how strikingly similar your responses are to mine, when I watched it with no less than 50 anime titles under my belt already (I consider myself a regular after having that number on my ‘finished’ list). Except I freaking loved Ed.

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    • Answering the questions in order, I don’t know if I would have known it was anime until the main antagonist for Spike showed up. Katana are always a giveaway that something is anime. Cowboy Bebop, on the other hand, draws from so many western traditions that I think it could have concealed its origin for quite some time. I’m aware that anime fans are quite intense about the point that anime is something uniquely different to western animation styles, but personally I’ve never worked out why that is perceived to be the case.

      As for the second question, that’s a tough one. I have no idea at all about what shows may trigger that transition and I don’t want to try and put a number to it either (although if anyone else wants to have a go at these questions feel free). As you’ll be aware from my blog I have watched a few other titles, but I still feel pretty much like an outsider.
      I suppose part of it is how I approach the anime I watch. Anime isn’t something I automatically search for when I want to watch something, and generally I only go for specific titles that have been recommended to me. That means the frequency with which I watch anime is fairly low, and any time I hear meta-commentary about a show it leaves me fairly bewildered. So I think the regularity of watching might have something to do with that status, and as long as anime is only an occasional thing the series might still have some life left in it. But I would be interested to hear others opinions about this.

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      • (By the way, I would love Artemis to chime in on this, both in this conversation and in private with Watson, as I will be referencing some titles’ significances that only anime regulars will appreciate or understand).

        Regarding your first response: I agree, that the visual ‘tips’ between anime and western animation are starting to blur at points, especially with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Korra still fresh and fondly recent in my mind. In fact, listening to some filmmakers commentary on some of my favourite DreamWorks franchises: Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, I realised, both instances had the creators citing anime as their thematic and animation influence (geological and thematic storytelling influences from Miyazaki films for HTTYD during the definitive ‘Forbidden Friendship’ sequence, for instance). In fact, even I don’t see how an anime fan can distinguish the 2D opening dream sequence of Kung Fu Panda from ‘Japanese’ animation, since it draws so much from the static posing and dramatic character framing, that anime are known for (a notable anime influence cited by the KFP directors). Hope my more western animation reference poles help you understand my above examples.

        As for your far more interesting second response…I see anime consumption as an experience that acuminates over time, rather than something that only affects your cultural currency when you consume it regularly: You may watch anime shows, years apart, but eventually…you start to pick up on things: references, character tropes, clichés (good and bad), plotlines that run through every genre, and jokes that only anime fans will get (ie. if you sit next to the window in your classroom, you are probably a main character). The moment you start to pick up on these things, you slowly lose your position of observation from the outside of this translucent anime bubble. Cowboy Bebop is a show that doesn’t deal with anime-isms like tsunderes or Shonen tropes, which is why watching THIS series might not…truly ‘advance’ you closer into this otaku land. This is ALL personal experience, by the way, being a self-proclaimed anime regular for only a year.

        In fact, this is evident WITHIN the multilayered anime bubble as well (i.e casuals, regulars, asshole elites): Take me, for instance. There’s this show called Lucky Star: a rather polarising title amongst anime fans, since its main pull is your ability to recognise parodies and anime references pre-2007. I watched this when I just completed about a dozen anime titles, so I found it rather boring. But I recently returned to it a few weeks ago: mundane conversations, seemingly random sequences and even the actors’ VOICES now carried weight in the form of ‘Oh I what you did there…wait…HARUHI is voicing this girl? Why did Kyon get a cameo here?’ Lucky Star is almost like a period piece: the more you know about the shows pre-2007, the more references you will latch onto, and hopefully, the more enjoyable the show will be: you need to have watched or read Haruhi Suzumiya, in order to realise the above callbacks, for example. As of now, Lucky Star re-watches has become a yearly event for me: just to see how many more references I will get on the next re-watch.

        I bet you laughed, when a Star Wars episode of the Simpsons had Luke Skywalker muttering “The forks, Homer, use the forks.”

        Just my 2 50 Australian cent coins. (i.e. they are freaking HUGE…you would know this, if you’re an Aussie :p)

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        • Duly chiming in. 🙂

          I certainly agree with you that anime, like almost any other medium, is an accumulative experience – the more you watch both in terms of number and variety, the more knowledge you pick up (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) and are able to use to identify tropes in other titles. Also as you point out, Cowboy Bebop is one of those somewhat rare anime shows that doesn’t have a lot of conventional ‘anime-isms’, which is one of the many reasons I personally love it so much. I’m not saying that I’m by any means opposed to these ‘anime-isms’ (incidentally, I quite enjoyed Lucky Star myself, or at least parts of it), but I think the conspicuous lack of this type of content in Cowboy Bebop is one of the aspects that keeps the series extremely fresh… despite it now being nearly two decades old.

          Talking about Lucky Star more specifically, I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate it at all had I not already had a decent grounding in anime back when I first watched it. Not just anime either, but also Japanese pop culture in general – there are a lot of references packed in there, from J-pop icons to video games. I doubt even a Japanese person would have been able to understand every single pop culture reference used in Lucky Star, there are just so many of them (and not even all from Japan). I should probably jump on that re-watch bandwagon just to see how many much more I’ll be able to pick up now that it’s been a few years since my last viewing.

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        • Since I don’t have the distinction of being from the West Island, I’ll defer to your expert judgement on the matter :p.
          If anime knowledge is something that accumulates over time, does it degrade over time also? If, hypothetically, you only watched one show a year would you still end up as one of the “asshole elite” eventually?

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          • Probably, but the degrading will never be faster than accumulating, unless you watch shows DECADES apart (and even then, it’s unlikely)

            Also, ‘asshole elite’ is not the compulsory destination for an anime fan: it’s a choice of identity and method of interaction within the fan base: you can watch thousands of shows for decades, but if you keep your foot in reality and retain a sense of decency, you won’t become scum 🙂

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            • Good to know. I’ll do my best to remain grounded as time goes by.
              I still feel like one’s attitude towards anime has some bearing on the process, but I’ll leave it to wiser heads than mine to debate that one.

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        • The idea of different spectrums of anime fans is so true, and one that can at times annoy. I know most “serious otaku” insist the only way to watch anime is subbed. If it’s not subbed, you aren’t a real fan.

          I can understand some of their points. For instance, the voice actor cameos in Lucky Star that you mentioned (and that’s one I haven’t seen) wouldn’t work in dubs with the actor being spread around different companies.

          But I prefer dubs, and I tend to think my reasoning is good. I’m not able to read subs and appreciate the art at the same time. Since a large part of the experience is the beauty and symbolism in the art, I want to be able to appreciate it. So very rare is the occasion I end up watching subs.

          Now, I’m not saying watching there’s anything wrong with watching subs. But it’s no discredit to my fandom level to watch dubs!

          That turned into a rant…oops. Um…(here’s where I should frantically throw in an anime trope to save my arse, right?) I swear I’m not a pink haired character with a fiery temper to match said vibrant hair color… >_>

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          • Personally speaking, I honestly don’t care what form people choose to watch anime in. It’s their choice, and both subs and dubs are perfectly valid ones. I tend to watch a mixture of both, depending mostly on whose voices I prefer. I have favourite voice actors for both English and Japanese language tracks, and whenever I buy DVDs, I always at least try out both.

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  2. One of the first animes I ever watched. However I was too young to understand it. We have a copy of the competed anime here at home, so maybe I’ll re-watch it when I find the time. Good review.

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    • It was probably one of the first anime I ever watched as well – or at least, one of the first anime I ever watched while knowing what anime was. In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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      • Bebop was one of the anime I watched when i was in the process of getting into anime. Although I liked it back then it didn’t really blow me away either. So now I’ve got the nagging feeling that I’d appreciate it a lot more on a rewatch, but that might just be the everyones nostalgia affecting me.

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        • Nostalgia can certainly count for a lot when it comes to watching anime, or indeed any other method of storytelling. That said, I still very much enjoy this series for its own sake – it’s no less impactful now that I’ve watched hundreds of titles over the past decade or so than it was when I first watched it as someone not particularly familiar with the medium.

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  3. I love Cowboy Bebop! But the one who drew my attention was Vicious. If there isn’t an interesting bad guy, the anime is just plain. Vicious was really nice. And Gren’s story made me so sad. I still watch Bebop with pleasure, in much the same way I watch Blade Runner. And I’m a big fan of Kanno.
    A question to Watson: what is your opinion on Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door?

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    • I don’t remember an episode called that, and a quick google is only turning up a movie by that name. For this article I was only tasked to watch the show, so I’m a little out of my depth here if that’s what you’re talking about.
      In general, though, I think it’s a good idea. I think Cowboy Bebop’s episodic nature worked in its favour, and so if it was treated as as essentially a long episode – say with a self-contained plot, inserted at a convenient point in the series – I think it could work really well. Having a movie length episode would let the creators go into more detail than they usually do… although given how they felt about it at other points in the series, they might not take advantage of that opportunity. Still, it sounds like an interesting idea.
      What’s YOUR opinion of it?

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      • Well, the movie was a nice addition to the series, just one more chance to see Spike and the rest in action. But the story wasn’t so fresh as it was showing another consequence of Titan war. There’s also a special episode called Mish-Mash Blues but I haven’t seen it.

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        • I enjoyed the movie myself. I agree that the story was just okay, but it a nice way to go back and see the cast all doing their thing again; I wouldn’t change the ending of the series, but it was good to watch something a little less grim and depressing afterwards.
          Mish-Mash Blues is probably worth the watch for major Bebop fans, but there’s no new material as such – it’s all footage pieced together from the series and overlaid with character narration.

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    • As far as the serious and more plot-focused story arcs in Bebop go, my favourite was definitely Gren’s as well. I do like Vicious as a villain, but things tend to get more on the melodramatic side where he’s concerned. Gren’s story, by comparison, felt a great deal quieter and subtle (though no less emotionally impactful).

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      • Oddly enough Vicious was one of the characters I disliked. We never seemed to find out much about him, and as a result he was evil solely because of reasons, apparently. Also the sword… what is it with anime and swords?!?

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          • To be fair…I was half referencing the act of ritual suicide (not even sure if it’s commuted with a sword or dagger)…but I suppose that doesn’t really apply to modern Japanese culture anymore, does it?

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            • Seppuku? Technically it was done with a particular kind of short sword, but most people refer to it as a knife or dagger, so I’m not sure the distinction matters too much. As to whether seppeku applies to modern Japanese culture… officially no, since the act as a form of punishment was outlawed back in the 1870s. Unofficially, I’m sure it’s a great deal more complicated than that.

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  4. I’m not annoyed much by Ed, but I do agree that she’s the weakest link in the group. Regardless of Kanno connection, everything about her would’ve worked a lot better if they tone down her quirkiness… even by a little bit.

    I also watched Bebop the first time with certain heightened expectation (Best Anime Ever and all that), and appreciation for the technical craft and world-building aside, I wasn’t really taken by the first ten episodes or so. But it’s a show that took some time to grow on me, and once I’m comfortable with the characters and their subtly shifting dynamics, everything they do just become a lot more compelling. Also, in regards of the comedic episodes, there are hidden layers of meaning in them that adds depth to the characters and hints on their past, present, and future. They may look superficial and inconsequential, and some of them also didn’t click with me initially, but I did spot new things and gain new appreciation on my second watch (related: it’s an extremely re-watchable show). Watanabe really likes his symbolism and foreshadowing.

    So, favorite episodes and tunes for you two? (mine are the final episode+Toys in The Attic+Speak Like A Child, and ELM+Call Me+Space Lion respectively).

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    • There’s no episode that I dislike, but there are a lot that I love! I don’t know if I could pick just one to be honest… I guess for more serious stuff, I like the two-part Jupiter Jazz episodes and Hard Luck Woman the most. For more lighthearted fare, my favourites are probably Mushroom Samba and Speak Like a Child.

      Asking me to say my favourite musical track though is just too hard! I love them all – the whole soundtrack is truly excellent, so I can’t even narrow it down that much. For what it’s worth though, I get the best feeling just from listening to that OP, even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times before.

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  5. I think my favourite episodes would be Ganymede Elegy and Bohemian Rhapsody. But as Artemis says, picking a single favourite is very difficult. I’m not even going to attempt to choose a favourite song, most of them I don’t know the names either. All of it was very good, so let’s leave it at that.

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  6. I’m glad to see some of the classics introduced, not just older shows, but shows that shaped what came after, in terms of other shows, or anime fans, or anime discourse in the west. I can already guess two of the upcoming shows in the project.

    I’m also especially happy since I originally felt some of the shows went directly against part of what I brought up before this came up, and went directly to shows predicated on people having watched other shows and bought into the animanga fandom. Well, I’m still enjoying the series, and eagerly await seeing what Watson will think of NGE 😉

    A question! Why did you have Watson watch the whole series and not just a handful of episodes before fielding questions? Did he like it so much he wanted to keep watching? That this sort of show needs one to watch it all before giving summary judgment, or something else?

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    • I’m glad you’re enjoying this article series. And you correctly predict that NGE will make an appearance… probably. I’m still in the process of narrowing shows down.

      I can’t speak for Watson, but since I never asked him to watch the whole series for the article, I can only assume he did so because he liked it enough to do so. I believe the same thing happened for the very first Watson Watches article where we covered Azumanga Daioh. Typically though, I ask him just to watch the first handful of episodes and keep from asking questions specifically about events that occur later on in the shows.

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  7. Pingback: Watson Watches: Neon Genesis Evangelion | OTAKU LOUNGE

  8. Ed’s one of my favorite characters…because she has flaws that include being too smart and annoying the crap out of everyone with he eccentric behaviour. That amuses me. She’s weird and I love it!

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  9. Pingback: Watson Watches: retro wrap-up party | OTAKU LOUNGE

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