See you never again, Space Cowboy
I do not quite know what to write in this review. Therefore, apologies if I come across as massively scatterbrained as I make a futile attempt to understand how the oppressiveness of what this show represents completely eluded me when I first watched it as a kid.
I think, during my latest viewing of Cowboy Bebop, that I still enjoyed it as much as I did at the age of eleven. What's there not to like? It is a condensed, suave show of a gang of bounty hunters speeding across the solar system as they half-comically stumble through various stories while resolving the main characters' unaddressed past lives. A pretty exciting watch, isn't it?
Cowboy Bebop has one of the more oppressive and pointless plots in a show, cutting across all genres, I've ever seen. No wonder I consider it to be up there among one of the best anime of all time.
You see, Bebop makes no pretenses about what it is - a glorified, extended redemption/ rediscovery arc for all three of our protagonists (that is barring Radical Ed). Across a languorous, almost standstill storyline, all Bebop does is vacillate from one brief, stand-alone tale (usually contained within one episode) to another, hardly in the mood to let anything significant slip by about the characters' motivations.
We are introduced to Spike Spiegel, initially an almost hilariously one dimensional bounty hunter/hero; he knows the moves! He knows to groove! Oh, he's got a heart, but the past seems to have torn it apart!
Then we have Jet Black, the partner with an honourable past but a miserable present, trying to make do with what he's got. The stoic, sitting Shiva type.
Of course, we had to go and make things even more banal with the introduction of Faye Valentine, con-woman extraordinaire and on the run from an unknown "big bad" because of unpaid debts. Yes, the cast of Bebop were beginning to look all too familiar to me.
Just like every other cast of good-humoured champions, I made a premature and horribly wrong assumption. Because these cliched character sketches that I thought was being described to us lasted all of two episodes for each of them. Then, we plunged deep into what truly made Spike Spiegel, ya know, Spike Spiegel. What made the man with the metal arm tick. Why Faye Valentine made sure to come off as an untrustable jackass at all times while on the lam.
And Shinichiro Watanabe did not let up on the gas well after we crossed the finishing line.
Sure, Watanabe, even now, receives enormous amounts of (well deserved) praise heaped upon him for his role in propagating the wondrous world of anime to western audiences through Bebop. However, to me, he pioneered and delivered on a far more crucial aspect here: doing away with exposition almost entirely.
Bebop keeps us on tenterhooks by enticing us with little more than a trickle of information about our protagonists; enough to keep us intrigued about where the story is heading but never allowing us the leeway to make an educated guess about their past.
From just the first few episodes ("sessions"), we manage to glean quite a bit of both Spike and Jet's histories. We're even quite surprised by how these two are such polar opposites, judging from their backgrounds. And yet, how they ever ended up together isn't given even a passing mention throughout the duration of Bebop. It doesn't matter; this would be utterly trivial to the cause of furthering the plot. We're here to see how they exorcise the ghosts of a bygone time, remember?
Across the runtime of these episodes, we also find assortments of Faye's chronicles squeezed between the gaps. We understand her putting up a facade of being a stuck-up jerk as a means to cope with a harsh new life, having no memories of who she used to be. She is the polar opposite of both Spike and Jet, and, again, we have no clear idea how she ended up like this because she doesn't. Also, unimportant to the story! We're here to see how she finds and makes peace with her past, remember?
Also in a lead-ish role we have hackerboi (?) himself, Radical Ed. A computer genius to the core, Ed suffers from acute cases of one-dimensionalitis and not knowing what the hell is going on around him. Yet, there is a sense of tragedy lying just beneath the surface; the kid has never known love in life and is reduced to being nothing more than a wandering nomad, obtaining happiness from the simplest pleasures. We expect, almost instinctively that Ed gets some sort of purpose in this show beyond the archetypal tech guy role.
And then the third act of the show brings this elaborately constructed schematic of a plot, along with all of our hopes crashing down.
Jet? Well, he does find his lady love... only to realise that he has no choice but to move on. His life in the police, alongside his trusted partner? Turned to dust, once he realizes he was living a lie the whole time.
Faye? Oh, she regains her memories alright, only in the most painful manner possible. All of this only for her to realize that in the end, she maybe should have left the sleeping dog lie.
Poor, poor Ed. Just when we're finally given a glimpse at how Ed could be given a happier end to the tale, he decides that the life of a nomad is for him after all, and takes off with nothing more than his system and a trusty dog.
But it is Spike who's undoubtedly left with the short end of the stick here. After all of the events preceding the show, we're led to believe that he is finally on his way to reclaim what was his. After ending his past life, the monotony of being a bounty hunter was nothing more than being stuck in a dream. Spike desperately wanted out - anything to show him that he was awake again, truly alive again.
Well, to avoid spoilers, all I can say is nope. To me, I think the ending showed that while Spike did kill of what was plaguing him outside, deep down, he was still unsure as ever of what was happening. Even in the end, Spike never knew if he had woken up successfully. And, because how likable Watanabe made him, that truly broke my heart.
To dramatize suffering, humanity almost never has to be villainized; all you have to do is portray us exactly as we are, maybe with a few tweaks. It is so very easy to end up in such dire circumstances anyway. And while I hate Watanabe for how brutally he ripped off our collective band-aids, I will sorrowfully treasure this piece of insight.
Cowboy Bebop isn't slick, it is morbid and nebulous, if anything. I only wish I retained the naivete my eleven year old self possessed.
Strong Eight. While the underlying premise of Cowboy Bebop never fails to fascinate, an ungodly amount of filler certainly dampens the suspense to a certain extent. A pity, considering it isn't low-quality by any means, just that some of it isn't central enough to the show's principal themes.
(Japanese): Light Nine. Spike's effortless mannerisms and Jet's commanding presence are portrayed beautifully. Standard VA execution otherwise.
(English Dub): Strong Eight. Steve Blum, you treasure. Spike is brought very convincingly to life by the great man, but it isn't his best role ever (which isn't saying much).
Strong Eight. Apart from a stand-out and fantastically developed starring cast, the rest... well, they don't really sparkle as much. So many roles had such wasted potential, Vicious being a splendid instance.
Light Nine. The styling is par for the course for a Watanabe joint. Extremely slick and in keeping with the musical elements, it has only aged like a fine wine. Of course, subjective, as I'm a sucker for the 90s.
Decent Eight. While it hasn't aged nearly as well as the art, the animation impressed me far more considering how it still managed to blow me away a fair few times with its limited scope. The action sequences, as always, top-notch, even though keyframes did let them down rarely.
Strong Nine. Jazz. Jazz all the way. And then some more. God, that opening!
Overall Weighted Score: 9.03
Cowboy Bebop, I've heard more than a few times, is a pretty tough anime to really dig off the bat. I completely understand, and yet I beseech you: please give it (a full watch) a go, perhaps paying a little more attention to the plot unraveling behind the scenes. The payoff is well worth your effort.
Binge-worthy? You're damn right it is, but do you really want to be left with a concentrated sense of existential dread by the end of it all? Well, tough luck! You deserve it if you think you can consume all of what Cowboy Bebop has to offer in one sitting.