During this time of self-isolation in light of the global pandemic that is COVID-19 (stay safe, wash your hands, etc.), we are looking for ways to keep ourselves occupied. Whether it is work, staying fit or consuming as much entertainment as possible, the need has to be met. In regards to the latter, I can offer what of the arts to check out. With more use of streaming services, binge-watching is so common, whether it is discovering new programming or re-watching beloved classics. For myself, I recently re-watched for the umpteenth time what I consider to be the greatest piece of TV anime, which I’m going to talk about. 3, 2, 1, let’s jam!
My gateway into Cowboy Bebop was an odd one, as despite having some awareness of the show, I was introduced to the futuristic space antics of the Bebop crew through the 2001 movie on DVD. Knowing nothing at all about the characters before going in, the movie as a standalone feature was a fun and kinetic experience. Despite its sci-fi exterior featuring a colonized Mars and cool space battles, it had a cool retro feel that would please those who watched the films of Quentin Tarantino. This included stylish characters to its unique mixture of music genres such as western and jazz. After watching the movie, I never paid much notice to the world of Bebop and pursued other anime.
A few years later, the show Cowboy Bebop was showing on a random British channel and things started to change. Airing two episodes every weekday night, I jumped into the show on a random episode – not the first one – and suddenly I became hooked. It wasn’t an ongoing story that was built on mystery, but instead the adventures of bounty hunters travelling through our solar system in the year 2071. Each episode functioned as its own narrative, and wass resolved by the end. Our flawed heroes move on to the next adventure, most likely without any money and/or food.
Prior to Cowboy Bebop, which originally aired in Japan in 1998, anime was already in a good place as we had Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The latter of which led to a rebirth of the anime industry, receiving critical acclaim but also garnering controversy. Initially originated with Bandai’s toy division as a sponsor and with the goal of selling spacecraft toys, director Shinichirō Watanabe and his crew from animation studio Sunrise were given the keys to do whatever they want. It just needed to have a spaceship in it even if Bandai wasn’t entirely on board with the uncompromising vision that Watanabe and Co. set out to make. Against all odds – including a cancellation during mid-season – Sunrise stuck to their guns and completed the show with 26 episodes. The show found success domestically and overseas. In the West, Cowboy Bebop found an audience through Cartoon Network’s late-night block Adult Swim, being the first anime shown on the block.
So, why does the show still strike a chord to this day? There are many reasons and fans themselves will have their own interpretation about why the show works for them. Let’s start with Shinichirō Watanabe. Previously co-directed Macross Plus, a precursor to Bebop in terms of visual and musical aesthetics. Watanabe is known for incorporating multiple genres into his anime creations and in the case of Bebop, the director blends classic cowboy western with 1960s/1970s New York City film noir, jazz/blues music and Hong Kong action movies. This meshing of genres is not too dissimilar to what the Wachowskis would eventually do with The Matrix, a property that Watanabe would participate in as he directed two shorts for 2003’s The Animatrix.
Watanabe’s shows have always been musically-orientated, such as Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy and Netflix’s Carole & Tuesday. Initially collaborating with the director on Macross Plus, composer Yoko Kanno formed the blues and jazz band Seatbelts to perform the music of the series. With a variety of artists contributing to the diverse range of music, the soundtrack spawned multiple studio recorded albums. As the episodes are referred to as “sessions”, each episode has its own rhythm. This is based on the kind of story as well as the supporting characters that interact with the Bebop crew. Thus, the music changes to fit into whatever narrative. As I write these words, I have the extensive soundtrack playing on my headphones; proving that the music stays with you after watching the show.
Now what about the Bebop crew themselves? What can I say about Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV or their genetically-engineered Pembroke Welsh Corgi Ein? For starters, all the characters are voiced to perfection by the best English dub to be recorded for anime. And this is coming from someone who often watches anime through the original Japanese recording. This is no disrespect to the Japanese cast of the show, but when I hear the banter between the Bebop crew, I hear the vocals of Steve Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee and Melissa Fahn.
All four of the main characters (five, if you count Ein) have their story to tell, but what’s most fascinating about the show, is that the characters have been through their individual arc before the first episode. There are episodes where the characters confront their past, but you only get glimpses, never the full picture, through the show’s unconventional use of editing. Their troubling pasts may define them, but that’s not what Bebop is about. At its heart, it’s about the relationship they all have with each other.
At the beginning, the Bebop has been just Spike and Jet, whose partnership is similar to that of a buddy cop show. Then came Ein in the second episode as the show’s pet mascot. In the third episode, Faye, the deceptive woman with attitude, steps into the picture. She joins the crew despite Spike and Jet’s previously conflicted relationship with women. By the time you get to the ninth episode in which the very strange somewhat androgynous teenage girl Ed literally hacks her way to be part of the Bebop, an unlikely family is suddenly formed. Dysfunctional they may be, and even though most of them wouldn’t admit it, these outsiders had each other. Which is why as the show slowly approaches its end, the family does part ways, going back to confront the past. The joy of re-watching this show is spending time with the company of these characters, any one of which would be my spirit animal.
Despite the limitations of animation at the time compared to today’s standards, the action is still exhilarating from the impressive space battles to Spike fighting in the style of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. However, what is most striking about the animation is in the stillness of characters and environments and how they show a vibrancy through its coloring. Like the main characters, we get a better understanding of the world-building as the show progresses. A number of episodes briefly explore the history of the Astral Gate, a device that allows spaceships to travel through hyperspace. It may be set in the future where space travel is common and humanity is spread across the galaxy, but life is depicted just like our present normalcy, showing the highs and lows we go through every day. The future may be dystopian, but the show embraces diversity, whether it is class, ethnicity or sexual orientation. In 1998, Cowboy Bebop was ahead of its time.
Watching the movie (subtitled Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door) after the show adds a new perspective. Taking place in between the latter episodes, you can absolutely see this as an extended episode. Certainly for the Bebop crew, life continues on as if nothing has changed as seen during the end credits. However, not only does Watanabe show off how cinematic the world of Bebop can be with a movie budget, but it gives more insight into Spike’s emotional state. The movie does relegate Jet, Faye and Ed as supporting roles, though they get their moment to shine. But this is Spike’s story and how it evokes his role in the show’s two-part finale, leading to one of the most heartbreaking endings I’ve seen in a show.
Twenty two years have passed since the initial airing and although I came to it late, Cowboy Bebop remains timeless with only 26 episodes and a film spin-off. There have other space westerns like Firefly and The Mandalorian – both of which are great. But this show reigns supreme with its distinct style of cool characters, pumping soundtrack, and complex themes about humanity. For myself, the show has become ritualistic in that I watch it annually and most likely will go through the experience next year.
Share the love and binge-watch this masterpiece. See You, Space Cowboy…
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