Yeah, this was kinda a given.
Okay, so, why pick Cowboy Bebop, instead of any of a large number of other sci fi animes to talk about? Especially when there’s been so many other, better, and self proclaimed better, people cover this show already? Given that I haven’t covered Evangelion for the very reason that it’s been so heavily covered, it might seem odd to most of you.
The reason is super simple, though. I just really love the crap out of this show.
Cowboy Bebop was not my first anime experience. That goes to Robotech and Voltron. Despite being heavily altered from their original format and story structure to be what they were, there were things about both, Robotech especially, that instilled in me a deep love of anime.
In fact, I didn’t even see Cowboy Bebop until about ten years ago, which isn’t saying much, as the show is only nineteen years old. Still, I missed out on the craze for about nine years before I got a chance to check it out and see what all the fuss was about.
There was a fuss, too. Lordy, was there ever a fuss.
As you guys know, I tend to avoid things which generate a fuss until such time as I feel I can watch a show, movie, or read a book without having the expectations of said fuss in my head. People tend to throw around terms like mind blowing, or life altering, and I generally find such verbose phrases to be incredibly exaggerated, leading to anything from mild disappointment, to outright irritation.
Log Horizon, anyone? Geeze, that show sucked. So hard.
So, by the time I sat down to watch Cowboy Bebop, it was with the knowledge that it was suppose to be this huge, world changing series, but I could keep that distant enough to just enjoy the show for whatever it was going to be. Which turned out to not be world changing, life altering, or mind blowing. Just really damn enjoyable.
Like, incredibly enjoyable. Funny, snarky, and self aware, Cowboy Bebop does earn its place as one of the great animes of all time. Just not for the reasons people often attribute to it.
Which is where this review comes in. With Evangelion, I don’t have anything to add to the discussion. The show really is as brilliant as everyone claims, though it affected me a lot less than it did others, simply because I was already too old, jaded, cynical, and bitter to fully appreciate what it had to say. Also, I had already figured all of it out, and just found Shinji to be a whiny little shithead who needed to get over his daddy issues, at least long enough to, ya know, save the human race from extinction and stuff.
Bitter, jaded, and cynical. Yes. I know.
Cowboy Bebop is a bit of a different animal, however. There’s been tons of reviews, and loads of discussions about the show, and what it all means. The whole existential side has been dissected to death. What a lot of people don’t really talk about, though, in their mad rush to sound important, is that Cowboy Bebop is funny as hell.
I have no delusions of being important, so I figured I’d write a review that focused on what a wild, wacky, fun, and enjoyable series this is, once you get past the existentialism. Cause that’s totally an option.
I could get into a discussion about how people, in general, have forgotten how to have fun, and have become far too concerned with sounding self important, but that’d be a tangent, and I don’t do those. Much. Today.
Keep your whacky stick over there, Weekend Otaku. No tangents today.
Right, so, first off, let’s do the usual bit.
Cowboy Bebop is a 1998, 26 episode series from legendary studio, Sunrise. If you aren’t overly familiar with Sunrise, then you should feel deeply ashamed of yourself right now. Even your mom knows Sunrise, for crying out loud. The studio has been steadily producing anime series since the 1970’s, many of which are almost as legendary as the studio itself. Witch Hunter Robin, Planetes, InuYasha, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Vision of Escaflowne, and Gin Tama are just a few of the massively successful series Sunrise created.
You know your mom loves InuYasha. Stop lying. That body pillow of Sesshomaru didn’t just magically appear, ya know.
Anyway, Cowboy Bebop is set in the year 2071, after the Earth has rendered nearly unlivable, not by climate change, but by a bunch of idiots accidentally blowing the moon apart by dicking around with a hyperspace gate. As humanity colonized everything in the solar system they could terraform, crime spread as well, leading to the need for the cops to ask for help from bounty hunters, who are called cowboys.
There’s a whole tv show in the tv show that explains it all.
The crew of the Bebop are cowboys, hence the title. Jet, the owner of the Bebop, is a former cop, and his primary partner, Spike, is a former mafia hitman. As they travel around the solar system trying, and usually failing, to capture wanted criminals, they pick up a few other weirdos. Faye Valentine, who was recently awakened from cryogenic sleep, and immediately got conned, turning her into a con artist in her own right as she decides the future sucks ass. Edward, the young and brilliant hacker with a decidedly eccentric personality. Then there’s Ein, the genius Corgi.
Yup. There’s a genius Corgi in this show. He doesn’t talk or anything, but he’s still the smartest person on the ship. Corgi’s are like that.
Now, to be perfectly fair, as the misfit crew of the Bebop bounces around the solar system just trying to earn a decent living, there is a lot of exploration of ennui, karma, existential matters, and loneliness, as each character is running from a past they know, sooner or later, is going to catch up with them. This is a central theme of the show, and its explored extremely well across pretty much every episode.
Then, there’s episode 17, “Mushroom Samba”, which sees most of the crew blitzed out of their gourds on shrooms. Or episode 11, “Toys In The Attic”, which is a straight up parody of “Alien”, except it comes about because Spike never cleans out his fridge. (Which is later referenced in Space Dandy, by the way.) Or as early as episode 4, “Gateway Shuffle”, which sees a group of bio-terrorists, who are comical in their own right, trying to unleash a plague that turns humans into monkeys. Then there’s my personal favorite, episode 22, “Cowboy Funk”, which features a guest star that actually drives Spike up the wall in the funniest way possible. By being too much like him.
My point here is that as often as Cowboy Bebop dives into the darkness, it also spends just as much time being a light hearted, and funny series. The recurring characters of the three old timers, always bitching about how kids today don’t know nothing, and bragging on what they did when they were young is adorable. Especially as I get older and see kids today not knowing anything.
Especially about music. Their music sucks. What we had when I was young was better. That’s just science.
What was I talking about again?
That was not a tangent. Hush, you.
Another aspect of the show that rarely gets discussed is that, while the characters are certainly dark, dreary people, they often have a lot of fun. Pretty much every fist fight Spike gets in, he’s grinning like a idiot, because he’s honestly having fun. Jet’s sense of humor is often sarcastic, but he’s really a pretty funny guy when you get down to it. Edward, of course, is a non-stop laugh riot, as her antics frequently drive everyone around her crazy, and amuse the hell out of the viewer.
Fun fact, the character of Edward was actually based on the composer of the shows music, Yoko Kanno. Yes, really. Edward was voiced, in the original Japanese, by Tada Aoi, who would alter go on to sing the closing song for Angel Beats, also known as the Five Finger Death Punch To Your Feelings.
Okay, fine, Edward is a world changing character. Stop arguing with me now. I’m trying to write.
Amidst the exploration of loneliness and extensional dread, the characters of Cowboy Bebop lived. That’s what I’m getting at with all this. They lead vibrant, meaningful lives, whether they were trying to scrape together enough money to just by some food, or saving the entire human race from a biological weapon. Even when they faced their past, and dealt with what came not just from it, but with it, they did so by living with everything they had.
They were complex characters, both sad and happy, lonely and loved, all at once. Which is what really hit me the first time I watched the show, because as I’ve said before, science fiction is about exploring humanity, and Cowboy Bebop, despite what the main plot line was, manged to do that in a way very few other things ever has.
By being ordinary.
Spike, Jet, Faye, Edward, and Ein, they just went about their lives. The took the good and the bad as it came, and did the best they could with it all. They laughed, and they cried, they way ordinary people do. They were normal folks, just like us.
When you get down to it, that’s really what draws people in to Cowboy Bebop. It isn’t the extensional exploration. That’s interesting, but not what most people are really there for. It’s the connection the show builds, with average people, just like us. It’s that experience of watching the series, and being able to see ourselves in their shoes, and really believe that we could be. Because the characters aren’t superheroes. They are fuck ups.
Just like all of us. Just doing the best they can, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and mostly just drawing even.
They even cope with the cancellation of their favorite tv show at one point. How much more normal can you get?
Sure, you ask anybody, and they’ll say that they love Cowboy Bebop for the artistic exploration of big ideas. That’s what everybody says. Because that’s what they all know they are suppose to say. It’s what anybody asking the question, what do you love about Cowboy Bebop is expecting to hear.
Really, though, we all love it because the characters are just ordinary people, like us. Even former hitman Spike. That’s the real draw. That’s what really invests folks. That’s what really makes the show such a runaway hit.
Good, solid characters.
Hey, it’s almost like that’s a thing I keep harping about, ain’t it?
That aside, let’s talk specifics.
The animation, despite going on twenty years old, is still damn good. That’s a trademark of Sunrise, however, so it’s hardly surprising. Everything moves beautifully, even now, with a grace and fluidity that even modern anime struggles to surpass. The character designs are simply brilliant, with each character being such a standout, they are iconic, and easily the most recognizable in almost the entire anime industry.
The only thing that comes close to outshining that is the mechanical design. Every ship feels thought out, functional, and real. Older ships are dingy, dirty, and worn out. Newer ships are brighter, and prettier. There’s a dizzying variety of designs, each one obviously intended to serve a purpose, and in some cases, that purpose is even obvious. Such as the Bebop formerly being a fishing ship. Everything about the design implies it.
Overall, the visual appeal of the show survives after almost twenty years, which really, is pretty damn amazing.
The show was primarily created, and entirely directed, by Shinichiro Watanabe, who is probably, and rightfully, one of the greatest anime directors of all time. Cowboy Bebop was his first solo project, however, and really, that kind of sets the stage for greatness when it comes out like this.
Which it almost didn’t. Originally, Bandi’s toy division had put the money up as a sponsor, with the intent of doing a spaceship toy line tie in. However, as Watanabe’s story came together, Bandi grew more and more unsure about their involvement, eventually pulling out completely. That was almost the end right there, until sister division Bandi Visual stepped in and funded things. Up to that point, Watanabe had been working under some restrictions, due to the tie in deal. With Bandi Visual taking over, however, he suddenly had free reign to whatever he wanted.
Which he promptly did. The result was Cowboy Bebop.
While many directors would go through a bit of down turn after such a huge first success, Watanabe kept right on knocking it out of the park with shows like Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy, earning his reputation as one of the greatest directors in anime history.
While Watanabe was definitely the creative force behind the show, most of the scripts were actually written by Keiko Nobumoto, who also did the script work things like Wolf’s Rain, Macross Plus, Space Dandy, and this little video game almost nobody has heard of, Kingdom Hearts.
Oh, you’ve heard of Kingdom Hearts? Huh. What are the odds?
Yes. Sarcasm. I know.
After all that, pretty much any writer could call it a successful career and retire. Like Watanabe, Nobumoto is pretty picky about the projects she works on, so her list of credits isn’t much longer than Watanabe’s. However, with both, it isn’t about the quantity, as the quality pretty well speaks for itself.
The music was handled by the legendary Yoko Kanno, composer behind shows like Darker Than Black, Macross Plus, The Vision of Escaflowne, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Wolf’s Rain, and gods know how many others. Basically, the woman is a living legend when it comes to anime soundtracks, going all the way back to her composition for the Miyazaki film, Porco Rosso, in 1992.
While working on Cowboy Bebop, however, she formed the band that performs the opening theme, The Seatbelts, which she still tours with today. Watanabe also recounted what it was like working with her, saying that she was an integral part of the production. She would often bring in music that nobody had asked for, but she felt the show needed. Watanabe would then find himself inspired by the music, and build around it, which sent her back to write more music. In a very real way, the music Kanno composed helped shape the story and structure of the series.
What I’ve always found interesting about this is that, as I often say when I talk about music on Friday’s, music is an integral part of any filmed product. Watanabe gets that, from the jazz flavored music of Cowboy Bebop, to the hip hop inspired soundtrack of Samurai Champloo. Watanabe really gets how music is a key part of the storytelling process, as does Kanno, which in no small part really helped make Cowboy Bebop the viewing experience it became.
Well, that and you got a whole lot of incredible talent working at their very best. That’s probably helped a little, too.
Only a little, though.
Overall, Cowboy Bebop is every inch the legendary series it is made out to be. Not just because it explores philosophical ideas with incredible skill and subtly, but because it presents relatable, realistic characters who directly drive the plot, and has a soundtrack that very few series can ever touch. As a piece of science fiction, it offers us a look at humanity through a lens we rarely see, as well. One that offers not to show us what we can become, but one that invites us to examine ourselves as we are.
That’s a pretty damn clever thing, no matter how you cut it.