Every single time I get introduced to a new sci-fi anime series that’s hailed as the next groundbreaking touchstone of the medium, be it from friends or colleagues, I always have to ask the following:
Is it as good as Cowboy Bebop?
And why shouldn’t I? Any show that can top the 1997 classic anime is a show worth investing in.
Long story short: Cowboy Bebop is the anime that made me believe that a genre can exuberance style and substance that transcends borders & cultures while also convert people to give the medium a chance. People who see anime as nothing more than panties, schoolgirls, harems, tentacles, mechas, and excess violence/explosions will change their tune after viewing a well-thought-out show like Cowboy Bebop.
Call it anime’s best gateway drug, if you will. It just works as both a high calibre show for fans of the genre and the best entry point for people not even remotely into anime.
20 years later, it still holds up as the best damn anime on the planet. But why? What makes this 26-episode anime special? Well, we can factor in a couple key points:
Genre-Blending That Comes Out Cohesive
Not in the sense of Bravestar and talking horses, no. You have bounty hunters Spike and Jet, the young and the old, working together to capture bounties while dealing with money and gear problems. Standard anime sci-fi with stellar production values.
And even then it’s apeing different genres while maintaining a consistent tone. Noir, spaghetti westerns, urban thrillers, samurai films; all for the sake of telling its off-kilter space tale.
This mash-up of style and substance influenced a TON of animes and shows made after the late 90s. I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
It Breaks Anime Stereotypes. Kinda
No anime or TV series can survive without a well-written cast & well planned-out narrative beats, and Cowboy Bebop delivers on both fronts.
Your heroes are anything but anime archetypes, but they are spins on the Hollywood action genre. Spike Spiegel is the main hero, but he’s an enigma. He’s a laid-back kung-fu-savvy hero with a few secrets; you can’t tell until later in the series that he’s got quite a sad backstory. We get to see him at his most confounded in the episode “Pierrot Le Fou”. We get to see his broken side in “Ballad of the Fallen Angels”. And you see it come full circle in the final few episodes of the series.
And yes, I was one of those kids back then who emulated the “walking away and waving goodbye without turning” schtick.
Jet “I’m too old for this” Black is an ageing mercenary with wisdom and grit; though to be frank, his wisdom is quoting Sun Tzu’s Art of War too often and at odds with Spike with certain semantics & misinformation. He gets a few episodes of his own that flesh out his past as a former lawman like “Ganymede Elegy”. When he’s not trimming his bonsais, he’s helping Spike out with his piloting skills.
Faye Valentine is also an oddity. She’s a sexy suspender-wearing conniving bombshell who hides her intelligence & sad story with her aloofness. You’ll see a more melodramatic side of her when you eventually reach “Hard Luck Woman” later on the show.
Ed the hacker and Ein the corgi go well together during a number of episodes focused on the duo like “Mushroom Samba” -I can never get that “Mushroom Hunting” ditty out of my head. Time and again the duo are the ones who usually help fix things when the other adults can’t do squat.
The crew here on the Bebop ship are a tight crew, with each of them showing camaraderie and chemistry like one big dysfunctional family. Sure, you get your serious and fight-savvy storylines fleshing out their backstories. But then you get goofy episodes like “Toys in the Attic” that encapsulates the peppy side of the show. Not a single character, main or side, and story beat was wasted.
The Friggin’ Music & Visual Harmony
Chord changes, improv, and rapid progressions are the key to Cowboy Bebop’s ever-evolving soundtrack. It’s all sorts of awesome jazz and bebop, but more than that.
From the catchy intro music (3, 2, 1, Let’s jam!) to the sombre Real Folk Blues, to even the one-time peppy tunes and catchy beats from the later episodes and even the movie, Cowboy Bebop is a fantastic aural voyage. Unless you really REALLY hate music in sync with your anime, you’ll fall in love as soon as you’re done with the intro.
It made music mattered even more in the span of a 26-episode series. It focuses heavily on jazz and blues, so naturally the colours, the shots, and the narrative revolve around that. Except with a space and out-of-Earth setting.
Its Stand-Alone-Esque Nature
The beauty of this show is the fact that most of its episodes are self-contained. With the exception of the last few episodes, the majority of a Cowboy Bebop episode can be watched without much knowledge about its cast.
And even so, why would you watch it halfway? The first few episodes reel you in with its world, the banter and teamwork between Spike and Jet, and the marks they have to chase for their bounty.
Watching it as a kid or teen is great, but watching it as an adult; it’s a show about sad people getting by while action gets thrown in the way. It’s a really depressing future with a hip aesthetic.
There’s a story arc involving Spike that eventually pays off big, but most Cowboy Bebop episodes can be digested at face value. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll get a soulful bunch of stories ranging from the moody to the quirky.
The show’s length is just right, and leaves a few questions as is: up for interpretation. It treats its audience with respect by starting big and finishing even bigger, with the middle portions encapsulating what it means to be a bounty hunter in such a messed-up-but-hilarious future.
Man, now I feel like watching this series again. See you, space cowboy.