There are some things that nerds just enjoy. Robots, space ships, blasters that go “Pew pew!”, smart people talking over the heads of the “cool” and attractive – or better yet, being the cool and attractive – winning the girl/guy and saving the day. These are things that we just want to see in TV shows. Put all of them together and we will literally give you all of the money (but not literally because that would be just crazy). Firefly, Joss Whedon’s brain baby (yes, that Firefly, just to be sure), gives us a good portion of these. And I just. Don’t. Like it. I tried. And I can’t.
Disclaimer: I know that Firefly is over 10 years old, and the anime listed even older, so this argument has probably been dumped back and forth, but as another friend of mine just proclaimed his deep and abiding affection for this show, I want to lay out exactly why it strikes me as stale.
It’s not a terrible show, granted. The characters are good and the world is built nicely. But let’s put this all into perspective from my point of view. I’ve been watching anime since I was in… 2nd grade, when Dragon Ball Z was airing early Saturday morning. I’ve been watching giant robotic ships blast each other into oblivion near since I can remember. My 90s were filled with scenes like these:
Now look at the scenes below. Any of them seem a little familiar?
Notice the round, orange sunglasses.
The callback to the signature pose of our favorite anime space cowboy/ship captain/bounty hunter/does anything for a meal bad-ass with a mysterious and haunted back story.
…does this need any explaining?
So the homages to anime are obvious. What about the plot points?
-Several anime are more or less “episodic” like Firefly. Most of the series doesn’t cover a specific arc, but the arc is divided sparsely between episodes before coming to a dramatic conclusion. See: Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star.
-Features anti-heroes with a history as part of some kind of organized violence; men that are soulful and damaged who don’t trust easily but wouldn’t betray a crew mate. Clever in combat and tricky in dealings, even if not part of intelligentsia. Smugglers and bounty hunters with rascally charms just trying to get by. See: Spike Spiegel, Gene Starwind, Lupin III, Vash the Stampede.
-Shepherd Book – a minister formerly of a deadly profession. See: Nicholas D. Wolfwood.
-The “special”/”gifted” girl – usually one that has undergone some kind of experimentation – and an ongoing investigation into her background, i.e. what caused her to be special and pursued by enemies. River Tam was abducted for being so fantastically special that the government just had to have her as their uber special super-soldier. Melfina from Outlaw Star, the character whose pose River Tam borrowed in the picture above, is a special biosynthetic android created by scientists to find the Galactic Leyline. Both girls are hunted by various organizations but are protected by their ragtag crew mates because, as you might’ve guessed, they’re just so damned special. (An even even features River “becoming one with the ship.” While a prank, was this a purposeful allusion to her influences?).
Obviously, it’s not a carbon copy of any particular anime. The plot specifics differ completely and the characters themselves unique. Indeed, the settings differ: where Japanese media depict crime syndicates ruling the roost and weak governments unable to protect their citizens, American media like Firefly often depict a heavy-handed, oppressive government keeping the masses suppressed while “the little guy” squeaks by on petty crime, just trying to get by. Clearly cultural viewpoints have somewhat reversed the respective roles of government/organized crime, and the series reflect that.
I’m just saying that the elements are definitely there. Firefly feels inspired by the anime/manga mediums but is unable to fully convey the essence due to the constraints of its own medium. And considering what a nerd Joss Whedon is – what, a comic book writer and all – and the fact that he makes it a point to include Asian-inspired motifs – I would not be surprised at all if he’d watched anime or read manga himself. Or at least was aware of the space cowboy subgenre at the time of creating Firefly and used that as a launch point to create something that Western audiences haven’t given much of a chance.
In fact, his later project Dollhouse shares a lot of similarity with the fantastic and iconic Ghost in the Shell. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, likewise treads in the magical girl genre (and though entirely different series, there’s something to be said for the immature, boy-crazed, popularity-seeking, blond Usagi/Sailor Moon growing into a butt-kicking, sacrifice-making heroine and the basically-fits-the-same-description Buffy Summers. Oh and the appearances of Dawn/Chibiusa. And exploring alternative sexualities through secondary characters).
It’s completely possible that Joss Whedon simply had all these good ideas on his own, independent of the boom of stories that happened to manga in Japan in the 90s. In fact, from what I’ve read, he lamented that the show was viewed merely as a “live-action anime.” But then damn: why would you make it so close?
Honestly, all the shots, the angles, the costume design, set aesthetic – all of it from the pilot onward just reminded me of my well-loved anime. Except that anime is drawn, so it doesn’t need to worry about budgetary constraints or technological limitations. If you want to show a pants-crappingly scary monster, draw one. If you want to show incredible maneuvering by a space ship, animate it. If you want your hero to have super-human fighting ability, well, ok! And so all the callbacks to anime that I noticed in this otherwise original series simply reminded me of all the things it was missing: action, visible and creative enemies, cool visuals. Instead we got Reevers, which until the movie were boring, faceless crews of ships with blood spattered on them – and dry-as-can-be Alliance military (although I enjoyed the plot linking the two).
It’s not that I can’t enjoy Firefly because I think it’s bad or anything. It’s just all-too-familiar when I had a decade of watching action-packed anime before Firefly ever made it on TV. As for fans’ claims that Firefly was… like… the most creative, original sci-fi basically in the history of ever, a lot of them don’t watch anime – because if they did, the themes would be instantly recognizable and familiar. In fact, by the time I got around to watching it, everything Western audiences felt was incredibly original to me felt tired and used. I don’t think anyone born and bred on manga/anime would find Firefly particularly groundbreaking – maybe just cool because it’s live action and Whedon-esque. And to fans that did watch Cowboy Bebop and like to claim that Firefly was “done better”, well – geez: I guess it’s just like how I like Chipotle better than Moe’s and probably always will. Chipotle introduced me to this style of food and set the standard for me. Chipotle also came first. And has better-seasoned chicken. Moe’s will therefore always play second fiddle, despite their provision of wonderful sweet tea and a salsa bar. I’m sure that people who tried Moe’s first might have a similar feeling, just like people who prefer Firefly and think that Cowboy Bebop‘s plot is “simplistic” can be excused for their poor taste due to a lack of proper culturing.
What do you think? Am I being fair to Firefly? Which side of the debate do you take?