“We’re on a mission from God.”: The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death
It would be one thing if all Dirty Pair did was ramble through different film and literary genres parodying and riffing over them in the process. It’s reliance on Long 1980s postmodern cinematography notwithstanding, that would not be an especially novel concept. What Dirty Pair needs to do is to carve its own niche within the televisual landscape of the era: Not just making witty commentary, but delivering its own unique message about what science fiction means in this day and age. The books are very upfront about declaring that it’s Kei and Yuri’s purpose to usher humanity into a new era, by fire if necessary, but the anime does seem to prefer building to this ultimate revelation a bit more methodically.
We will, of course, eventually get there, and sooner rather than later. And while “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” at first seems like a complete romp, this episode is in truth another step towards that (I mean, it is a complete romp too, but it’s more than that). This is another great example of how postmodern cinematography and knowing constructed artifice can be used to emphasize different narrative truths, and be a bloody fantastic evening of entertainment to boot. The comparisons…Well, they’re obvious, aren’t they? There’s no way this is anything other than a knowingly wry and comprehensive send-up of The Blues Brothers. For those unaware of that particular movie (for shame), The Blues Brothers is a 1980 comedy film by John Landis, John Belushi and Dan Akroyd based on their Saturday Night Live sketch of the same name. Both concern the titular Blues Brothers, a blues revivalist band fronted by Belushi’s and Akroyd’s characters Jake and Elwood, who grew up in a Catholic orphanage and form a blood pact by cutting their fingers with a guitar string said to belong to Elmore James after being introduced to the genre by the orphanage’s janitor.
The film sees Jake and Elwood breaking parole to reunite their band to perform a benefit concert at the orphanage they grew up in, which is facing foreclosure. They go on a cross-country quest, which Jake constantly reminds us is “a mission from God”, to locate their old bandmates, all the while being hunted by the police as part of a ludicrous car chase that lasts essentially the entire movie. The climax is a thing to behold, with Jake and Elwood screaming through a downtown metropolitan area in the “Bluesmobile” trying to shake their pursuers, whose ranks have been bolstered by the addition of a Neo-Nazi group and a country band, whom the brothers somehow managed to also arouse the ire of.
And, true to form, “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” is about three-quarters car chases throughout the neon canyons of Elenore City, with Jake and Elwood replaced by Kei and Yuri and the Bluesmobile replaced by two slick motorcycles. Dirty Pair even manages to *one up* The Blues Brothers in this respect because the police here have futuristic hovercars and go after the girls in *three-dimensional traffic* before the epic showdown on an incomplete section of bridge held aloft by a helicopter. That climax, by the way, is an absolute comic and narrative triumph: It manages to have three simultaneous fight scenes, choreographed synchronized car crashes across five lanes of traffic and at least three different subplots coming to a head all at the same time in the span of a few minutes. It is nothing short of poetry in motion.
And it’s not just that one scene: The whole episode is a work of art. Consider the sequence near the beginning of the episode, when Yuri returns to the apartment with the groceries. The TV show doesn’t make as big a deal of the girls’ psychic connection as the books do, barely even mentioning it, but this scene conveys it loud and clear without words through visual symbolism alone. Watch how Yuri tosses Kei the apple, which she catches backhanded, and then notice how this is mirrored a few seconds later when Kei throws away the apple core and Yuri intercepts it with the dustbin without having to even look. Kei and Yuri are so in sync they can anticipate each other’s moves before they even act. Aside from the beautifully elegant framing and structure, I just think its delightful that we get to open on the girls chilling in their apartment talking about their favourite TV shows, hobbies and love lives: It’s a fantastic moment that proves the Gods of Destruction are people too and while (sometimes literal) world-shattering catastrophe is just another Tuesday, there’s more in the girls’ day than just that.
This sublime, effortless tightness and sense of playfulness is everywhere in “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death”. It can hit us with a brilliantly mad concept practically every single cut that somehow manages to top the last brilliantly mad concept it hit us with each time without missing a single beat: Runaway house cat infused with an experimental anabolic steroid that can level buildings and has a penchant for cheesecake? Check. Mughi’s intelligence network of alley cat contacts? Well, that’s just to be expected, isn’t it? A literal hair bank where patrons can store samples of their hair follicles for posterity? Why not? At this point anything goes, and yet never once does the show’s constructed universe seem to lose focus or coherence. As random and bizarre as all of this is, it never feels like randomness for the sake of randomness: Somehow, it all seems to fit together through its own unique sense of internal logic. The show simply bounds from peak to peak never once letting up its stream of bonkers genius or tripping up in its pacing.
(Also note how the framing and timing work together to tag Kei and Yuri as in some sense outsiders: The opening scene with the construction workers goes on even as Yuri jogs by oblivious to their conversation. Kei and Yuri exist on a separate narrative plane from the world they’re interacting with.)
But although the basic structure of this episode immediately calls to mind The Blues Brothers (as well it should-The bad guys’ henchman are even the spitting image of Jake and Elwood, I mean it’s exact), this story is nothing so mundane as a parody of The Blues Brothers with Kei and Yuri. If that’s not what it is though, what is it? And why invoke The Blues Brothers so heavily in the first place? Well, our first clue is that while the imagery is very John Belushi, the actual humour is more John Cleese. Cleese’s famous and groundbreaking sitcom Fawlty Towers, which he co-wrote with Connie Booth, is particularly well-remembered for its intricate and meticulous structure: Each episode would have a multitude of seemingly minor and irrelevant subplots woven through the fabric of the main plot, ever-so-slowly and methodically growing in severity before they all join together in a gigantic comedic title wave that crashes down on the characters in a spectacular fashion. Fawlty Towers also derives much of its comedy from misunderstandings, people talking past each other and situations snowballing to such a degree they become completely out of anyone’s control. It’s also worth noting how the show has basically one sympathetic character, Connie Booth’s Polly (Basil Fawlty fans, remember “sympathetic” is not equivalent to “likable” or “fun to watch”), whose commendable and endearing efforts at keeping the peace tend to be met with even more disaster.
While The Blues Brothers uses a similar “seemingly minor events snowball to the point they’re uncontrollable” structure to Fawlty Towers, it’s nowhere near as drum-tight about this. That Jake and Elwood start out as convicts has always puzzled me a bit, as it gives the police a reason to be after them from the beginning, whereas I think it would be funnier if it was another misunderstanding. Also, I’ve always found the way the film builds to its climax to be almost *too* logical-It never quite reaches that peak of sublime comic exaggeration for me. In this regard, “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” is far closer to the Fawlty Towers style of snowballing plot then the Blues Brothers one. Though she poses an imminent threat, Malatesta is ultimately a very minor project for the girls: I mean, rescuing a lost cat is *the* cliche activity for public servants to do. But, because this is Dirty Pair, it becomes this epic, overblown disaster that entangles the entire city. This is *especially* clear in the wedding scene, which, is, as far as I’m concerned, an utterly flawless series of sitcom gags that’s on par with anything John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote. It’s a masterpiece.
And yet it’s not entirely accurate to call this a pure Fawlty Towers plot, or even a Fawlty Towers plot mashed up with The Blues Brothers. What this episode is in truth is something that, while it invokes both works, is utterly unique unto itself. Why would Dirty Pair be doing this? Because it’s making the claim that this is an intellectual tradition it can be a part of. It’s taking a look at what defines a Dirty Pair story, drawing comparisons to other works the audience might be familiar with, and showing them not only how Dirty Pair is the same kind of thing, but how it can do this kind of story in a science fiction setting and what unique advantages that science fiction setting can bring to it. And there are some: Being able to effortlessly leap between completely bonkers concepts without giving us too much time to think about them gives “The Chase Smells Like Cheesecake and Death” a huge advantage over The Blues Brothers as it can take that basic structure and kick it into warp drive, making it potentially infinitely more funny than it would be if it was constrained by real-world logic and physics. Just as it’s been doing for the past few weeks then, this is another example of the show defining itself and coming into its own.
But in my experience, humour tends to work best if its targeted at something, preferably an authoritarian and hegemonic structure. Dirty Pair knows this too, and while it’s still having fun, it’s fun with a purpose. And this is why the villains need to be Kei’s professional wrestling idols. Their name, the Elegants, carries an obvious double meaning: They’re not only the evil mirror counterparts of Kei and Yuri, the Dirty Pair, but they’re also an evil version of the real-life Beauty Pair, who were the original inspiration for the Angels themselves. With this, the show takes its first real step forward from the series’ original conception: Because as beneficial as our Soda Pop Art heroes can be, the fact remains they’re always going to belong to a capitalistic, corporatist system that’s not really working for the benefit of humanity. The Elegants only care about themselves, and would betray their own family and fans for their own desire for more power and fame And that’s a betrayal that’s at once cuttingly brutal to Kei and Yuri, even if it is a betrayal that they, like us, knew was always a possibility in the world of Soda Pop Art. But even so, it’s a betrayal they can not and will not stand for.
This is also the final level on which the Elegants become an evil mirror of the Angels: Lan and Jerry (whose names even sound like “Kei” and “Yuri”) are “elegant” because they hire a bunch of henchman to do their dirty work for them. They always stay offscreen, unwilling to get their hands dirty until they don’t have any choice in the matter. Kei and Yuri, however, are, as we know, the Dirty Pair. They jump right into the fray. They make a mess. And, though things will inevitably appear to be superficially worse off after the girls show up, they always leave the universe a better place then they found it. They may be messy and not at all elegant, but they’re not only more fun than Lan and Jerry, they’re more sincere and demonstrably better people. And, in beating the Elegants in a wrestling match/action setpiece, literally beating them at their own game, the Angels attain the next stage of enlightenment by both acknowledging the form and place of their birth while also rejecting the shackles they would be burdened by had they stayed there.
Kei and Yuri have reclaimed themselves, and there’s absolutely limit to what they can do now.
July 10, 2014 @ 7:56 pm
Thanks again for a great reading. Yeah I really get the Blues Brothers subversion – this really improves on it, as I have really never gotten The Blues Brothers as the plot (what plot there is) never really hung together for me. Fawlty Towers is much more of a draw for me as I do have a real love for the comedy and chaos the can come out of misunderstandings, along with a skewed version of the English. Adored the crazy mash-up of this episode and the climax was quite special with that suspended bridge scene!
July 11, 2014 @ 4:29 pm
I guess I appreciate what The Blues Brothers was trying to do and I understand why so many people like it, but I agree that it doesn't really work.
This though is pitch-perfect. That climax is a work of art: I find it and the wedding scene absolutely unforgettable.
July 12, 2014 @ 11:09 pm
Yeah I guess I do appreciate it too in a way, as I know it's just meant to be a fun romp, which is cool. Totally agree that the climax on this is a sheer genius work of art!