What could I possibly say about Cowboy Bebop that hasn't been said already? It's been over two decades since the Western fandom's biggest gateway anime aired on television. Of course, a lot has changed in two decades. More and more anime air with each passing year, and one can say that the medium as a whole has progressed. So does Cowboy Bebop still hold up after all these years?
In many ways, yes.
The moment you fire up the first episode of Cowboy Bebop, it becomes rather apparent why it appealed so much to Western fans, even those who were sceptical of "Chinese cartoons". That opening song and sequence really hits you; I wouldn't expect anything less of a piece of music called "Tank!". I could write an entire review of this opening sequence alone. It is one of the most remarkable anime openings.
While Cowboy Bebop is most often categorised as a space opera, the opening drives home the point that it is first and foremost a film noir. The grainy filter, the judicious use of colour, the silhouette of a man lighting a cigar, the newspaper-like text in the background, a firing pistol: all classic noir conventions. Without even explicitly calling out the main cast, they are all there, corresponding to various noir archetypes: the troubled antihero, the wise veteran, the femme fatale, the mad hacker flailing their arms like a monkey (alright that last one is a bit less noir than the rest).
Only halfway through this opening do we see an indication that the setting is in space, in the form of a squadron of fighter jet-like spaceships.
All of this set to a thunderous explosion of brass instruments that slowly eases out into smooth jazz.
This. This is how you do an opening. At the time (some years ago), I knew nothing of this show, other than that it was beloved by all. By the end of the opening, I was physically applauding, before the actual show had even begun.
But before diving into the core of Cowboy Bebop, it is important to make it clear what to expect. If that heady opening sequence led you to expect some kind of gritty hard-boiled crime thriller set in space with a tough lead detective trying to piece together an interplanetary murder mystery, you'd be gloriously wrong. Cowboy Bebop is a much more down-to-earth story, concerning a duo of perpetually broke bounty hunters aboard the spaceship Bebop. Barring a couple of two-episode arcs, it is entirely episodic. We follow the Bebop's crew as they meet new characters, get into trouble, and generally go about their daily lives.
I was confused, slightly bored even, at the end of episode one, since it ended in rather low-key fashion and didn't establish any greater overarching plot or end on some cliffhanger to keep me going. Only a few episodes in did I realise that I was meant to focus on each episodic story individually. Cowboy Bebop is best watched at a slow pace of one or two episodes a day. There's no hurry; just relish the time you get to spend with these characters.
And what a great cast this is. Cowboy Bebop would simply not be worth your time if it weren't for these characters. They roughly correspond to the archetypes I mentioned earlier, but over time, particularly through dedicated focus episodes with mini character arcs, we get to see them on a deeper level.
You have Spike Spiegel, the smooth antihero, and one half of the original bounty hunter duo aboard the Bebop. Spike is nothing if not cool. He is an apathetic free spirit, who pretty much does his own thing. Over time, however, we get past his detached exterior and see him for the troubled character he is. Spike spends the entire series trying (futilely) to escape his past. He is the focus of whatever little overarching plot there is, and thus gets the most character development. He could've gotten away with just being the cool protagonist, but he has plenty of depth.
However, he wouldn't have worked half as well as he does if it weren't for the other half of the Bebop duo: grizzled former cop Jet Black. Jet is the gruff father figure of the Bebop, and is typically its voice of reason as well. He is a great foil to Spike. He is responsible for tying Spike down and preventing him from doing anything unreasonable (he owns and pilots the Bebop, after all). Again, he could've been left at that — would've worked just fine as part of this duo — but in what is a recurring theme of Cowboy Bebop, his past as a 'good cop' catches up with him too.
Early on, the crew picks up some new members: the genetically enhanced wonder-dog Ein (best mascot animal in anime), and the "Queen of Hearts", wanted bounty head Faye Valentine. Faye is probably my faye-vourite character of the show. Now, don't take this to mean that I enjoy ogling her, although Faye is undeniably sexy (in a mature way). Rather, it is for quite the opposite reason. Most anime characters of this type would be mere eye-candy, with each of their appearances constituting fanservice.
But Faye is not like that. Faye is not your waifu. Yes, she knows she's gorgeous, and yes, she's aware of your eyes boring into her. But, in her own words, she's "not as easy as you think". The real Faye has no romantic interest in anyone, owing to her severe trust issues. On the outside, it looks like she's being capricious ("damn woman," mutter both Spike and Jet, not the most progressive bunch), but in reality it's because she is accustomed to a life on the run. How can I trust these people, she thinks. But over time her more emotional core starts to emerge, and we start to see how much she actually cares for everyone. Like all characters, she has to eventually confront her past, and I found her backstory to be the most moving of everyone's.
Midway through the show, the crew picks up yet another member: nutty hacker extraordinaire Edward "Radical Ed" Wong. I initially hated this character. I found them quite annoying. Cowboy Bebop didn't strike me as the kind of show to have a comic relief character of this kind. Later, however, I slowly warmed up to Ed. I started to like their laid-back nature, and loved their pairing with Ein. Once I rewatched the series in English (Ed sounds a little annoyingly childish in Japanese), I found Ed truly endearing. They provide some much-needed levity to an otherwise brooding anime.
By the end of the series, what started off as a ragtag bunch of selfish individuals had slowly turned into a rather unusual family of sorts. And I was part of this family too. It was with much reluctance that I said goodbye to them at the end of episode 26.
While there is a particular focus on the main cast, we do see a wide variety of characters over the course of the series: mostly villains-of-the-week, but some old friends of our main crew as well. Most of these side characters are surprisingly distinctive and memorable. Only the big bad of the series, Spike's arch-nemesis Vicious, falls a little flat. He's menacing, but that's pretty much it. I'd have expected more from someone with five episodes dedicated to them, even if you want to keep them mysterious.
I should mention the setting, though. Cowboy Bebop's overall aesthetic is an eclectic mishmash of many different genres other than just film noir and space operas: spaghetti westerns, Hong-Kong action cinema, and classic sci-fi and cyberpunk. One of the first things that struck me was the presence of a ceiling fan inside the Bebop: seemingly useless, but perfectly fits the aesthetic. It would be easy to call Cowboy Bebop a strongly "Western" anime, but that wouldn't be telling the whole story. Director Shinichiro Watanabe envisioned a future that was "multinational rather than stateless", in contrast to the gloomy dystopia one often sees in space sci-fi. This diversity and multiculturalism is what makes the setting so vibrant. You can go from chasing drug smugglers in the slums of a futuristic Martian town to listening to the advice of a Native American shaman somewhere out in the badlands. The futuristic tech is likewise cool without dominating the scene; I particularly like the interplanetary toll gates.
And it would be completely amiss of me to say nothing about the thing that brings it all together: Yoko Kanno's brilliant, brilliant soundtrack, performed by The Seatbelts. You can't have the cowboy without the bebop. The music is what makes the show, not the other way round. Each episode is named after a musical style, genre, or a famous album/track. It's mostly jazz, fused with bebop (obviously), funk, 'Wild West', and opera and Western classical. You can watch the series for the music alone. It is one of the highlights of the show. (On a side note, Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts have been getting back together to stream some COVID-19 charity performances of classic Cowboy Bebop material, which are being put up for free on YouTube; check them out!)
In 1998, Cowboy Bebop changed anime, bringing in a flood of new fans from far beyond Japan. In 2020, as the world has grown smaller, and the international otaku fandom has grown larger, Cowboy Bebop has lost none of its relevance. It is still the gold standard in anime quality. Anime fans and writers alike still talk about the coming of "the next Cowboy Bebop": another series that will break the borders of fandoms and cultures, and bring in an influx of new fans to anime. In the internet era, where people consume a wider range of media than ever before, in a multinational world not unlike the one Watanabe envisioned, there are many anime that have emerged to fit this bill: Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer. In this world, we may never need another Cowboy Bebop. But we must be eternally grateful for its presence.
Art: A+. Cowboy Bebop's fantastic art belies its age. The 90s cel-shaded art does not feel dated at all, especially when compared to other works of the same time period. The art is sharp, but the cinematography of the shots elevates it beyond anything else. The slightly dated colouring actually works well with the show's moody nature, giving it a rather muted appearance. The character designs are distinctive and truly reflect the multicultural nature of the world(s) they belong to. No studio of the time could have possibly done better than what Sunrise did here. There's a reason fans say "Sunrise smooth".
Animation: A. Again, "Sunrise smooth". The framerate is good. The spacecraft are hand-drawn, but that does not make their movement any less fluid (a modern anime of lesser calibre would've had CGI spaceships that looked a tenth as good and didn't move any better). Speaking of CGI, it is integrated flawlessly, even in motion.
Music: A+++++++. LET'S JAM!!!!
Voice acting (Japanese): A. Very good voice acting, especially the legendary Megumi Hayashibara as Faye. I would not have had anyone else play Faye. She is made for the role. However, I found Ed's Japanese voice rather grating, which hampered my overall experience. Norio Wakamoto (the king of ham) as Vicious is surprisingly appropriate: sounds menacing.
Voice acting (English): A+. Anime dubs were something of a joke among the fanbase for how charmingly bad they were. And then came Cowboy Bebop. The dub is superlative. Steve Blum's portrayal of Spike is what cemented his status as one of the finest anime dub actors of all time. Beau Billingslea brings the gruff Jet to life. Veteran Wendee Lee is great as always as Faye (although I do prefer Japanese Faye). Melissa Fahn is FANTASTIC as Ed, entirely changing my appraisal of the character. If you are a dub sceptic, this one's for you.
Story: B+. An unlikely band of bounty hunters tries to make a living in space, all the while escaping the bitter truth of their pasts. A wonderful love letter to film noir, space operas, and cowboy westerns. I wouldn't have minded more of the overarching plot. It felt like it was trying to give more but didn't give enough. The episodic subplots, however, are fun and worth your time.
Characters: A+. An odd bunch that form an unlikely family. Great individual character arcs. It's a bitter pill to swallow that our journey with them is over, that we'll never see them again. Times like these are when I want Watanabe to make a sequel. (Then again, no, it's perfect as it is.)
There will never be another Cowboy Bebop. And that's okay. That's how things should be.