While on the surface, Carole & Tuesday — the latest anime series from Cowboy Bebop director and writer Shinichiro Watanabe — may look completely different, peer closer and you can see the influence other highlights in Watanabe’s illustrious career have had on the show.
The series, which hit Netflix at the end of August, mixes science-fiction and pop music together in a symphony of colorful animation and inimitable style. The story takes place on a partially terraformed version of Mars. Tuesday Simmons has run away from her life as a politician’s daughter, filled with plenty of privilege but little fulfillment, to chase a career in music. During her first day in the city, she meets struggling musician, Carole Stanley. Together, they form a musical duo that will change their lives forever.
Carole & Tuesday is much more interested in pop culture than many of Watanabe’s earlier works, focussing specifically on the music industry, but there are identifiable moments in his earlier series, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy, that resonate loudly in his new show — making Carole and Tuesday both a wonderful amalgam of his greatest hits, as well as something engagingly fresh.
Mirroring Cowboy Bebop’s Family Drama
The plot of Carole & Tuesday mainly focuses on the two young women protagonists becoming music sensations, but there is an underlying sadness to the story. In the episode “With or Without You”, we see how both girls have suffered when it comes to their family life and upbringing. Carole relocated to Mars as a refugee when she was a child, and isn’t even sure she has a family. Tuesday, meanwhile, has run away from home because she feels neglected on some level by her parents; like she doesn’t exist. The episode explores how both girls are struggling as a result of their troubled backgrounds, and how this defines their lives.
The theme of family also plays a major part in Cowboy Bebop. For Spike, his family is represented by the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate rather than biological parents — though it is certainly possible to postulate that his background, of which little is known, before coming to the Syndicate had an impact on his life and personality.
Tasked with doing the dirty work for the Syndicate, alongside a character named Vicious, everything was copacetic between the pair until their rivalry over the heart of a woman (Julia) shattered their brotherly relationship. The episode “Ballad of Fallen Angels” introduces the audience to Vicious for the first time, and the chapter still stands among the series’ best entries.
But it’s not just in the theme of family dysfunction alone where these two shows overlap. In “Ballad of Fallen Angels”, Spike confronts Vicious and members of the syndicate inside a cathedral in an effort to rescue a captured ally. The episode features some of the best action from the entire series, but, crucially, it also introduces a motif of uncertainty over the outcome of situations that recurs in Carole and Tuesday. In other words, Watanabe loves a cliffhanger.
In the episode in question from Cowboy Bebop, Spike is thrown through an ornate glass window by Vicious, and moments from his life seem to flash before his eyes as he falls, suggesting that this could be it for Spike. He hits the ground and the screen fades to black, leaving us in some doubt as to his fate. However, he comes to and finds himself wrapped in bandages and dressings, and that he’s being cared for. He is critically wounded — the confrontation with Vicious has taken its toll — but he’s still alive.
Similarly, in the Carole & Tuesday episode “River Deep, Mountain High“, Tuesday has a vindictive stalker who, unbeknownst to everyone, leaves an explosive in a package for Tuesday to open before a big performance. At the end of the episode, Carole opens the door to the dressing room to discover a roomful of smoke and a stunned Tuesday. The instalment ends at this point, before the next episode reveals the outcome, and the extent of the injuries to Tuesday’s hand — while they attempt to get to the bottom of the identity of the perpetrator.
Both series, therefore, have moments of high drama emanating from family trouble, and both use cliffhangers in similarly effective ways, as well as weaving in periods of recovery after injury into the plot. So far, so relatively subtly aligned.
Integrating Comedic Footnotes Like Samurai Champloo
Comedy has a way of taking center stage in Watanabe series, even when they’re largely drama-based. One of Watanabe’s signatures is to blend genres. Sometimes, his shows will randomly throw a farcical or absurd episode or moment that seems to come from nowhere into the mix (Samurai Champloo), which contrasts with the overall tone of the series. Others, meanwhile, weave humor throughout the entire series (Space Dandy), and lean far more into the comedy genre. Carole and Tuesday combines both approaches.
In one episode, “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Carole and Tuesday are trying to jump-start their career by creating a music video. Using a faulty AI robot as director, camera operator, editor and everything in between, the video comes out as a badly shot, often out of focus, incongruous clash of ideas that works horribly. Bogus for Carole and Tuesday; hilarious for us. This recalls Samurai Champloo, because of its similar fondness for the occasional insertion of farcical situations.
The Samurai Champloo episode “Baseball Blues” features the protagonists caught up in a game of baseball against American invaders. Here, Watanabe allows humor to take control of the narrative, pitting Japanese samurai against Americans in an absurd turn of events. Animals join the Japanese baseball team, a narrator details every element of the episode, and a simple game of baseball turns into a battle royale.
The journey to find “the man who smells of sunflower seeds” is the goal of the series, but here is an episode that doesn’t serve to move the story forward and really doesn’t help their mission in any particular way. It exists simply to play with tone, and to entertain.
Similarly, Carole and Tuesday spend an episode creating an outrageously awful music video, but it’s really just an opportunity to add some absurdism and to include an aside for the audience to enjoy. Like Samurai Champloo‘s baseball game, it becomes just a footnote to their journey.
Mimicking a Musical Interlude in Space Dandy
Given that music is at the forefront of Carole and Tuesday, there are plenty of opportunities for music to take over in the story. By this, we mean that sometimes the series will break into a full-on music video sequence, pushing the story aside for some time with the girls and their latest single.
In the third episode, “Fire and Rain”, the duo is inspired by watching their laundry, resulting in them penning their song “Round & Laundry“. When they start jamming in the laundromat, it becomes a standout moment in the series, more than justifying its inclusion as a consequence.
In other instances, though, the music works to emphasize the comedy of the series while also playing a role in advancing the story, just as it does in another of Watanabe’s shows. In the episode “Dancing Queen”, contestants are participating in a ‘Pop Idol’ show — a similar format to reality shows like American Idol and The Voice. A group known as Mermaid Sisters performs, and they proceed to sing a song made up entirely of expletives. The judges hate it; we think it’s hilarious.
Similarly, Space Dandy also features a music-based contest. In the episode “We’re All Fools, So Let’s All Dance, Baby”, Dandy and his crew of alien hunters travel to Planet Grease in the hope of winning a dance competition. Dandy is only interested in the reward, but the contest brings alien species from all over the galaxy. One of the aliens competes against Dandy, performing a dance that results in a big bang that destroys the universe. This musical moment serves to both further the plot, and make us laugh.
While Carole and Tuesday might not feature the conflict of Cowboy Bebop, the hip hop rhythms of Samurai Champloo, or the peculiarly crazy adventures of Space Dandy, it does contain other elements common to all three — including style, music, and, crucially, heart. It takes inspiration from specific moments in each show and incorporates elements into its own narrative, giving Carole and Tuesday that unmistakeable Watanabe stamp. His most grounded series to date (a simple story of two girls who want to be pop superstars who just happen to be on Mars), Carole and Tuesday is essential viewing, coming from one of anime’s greatest talents.