Twenty years ago, Cowboy Bebop blasted onto televisions across the planet, redefining the anime genre with its unique approach. Creator Shinichirō Watanabe melded film noir aesthetics and classic western elements with science fiction, pairing it with an unforgettable soundtrack stuffed to the gills with jazz and blue. The alchemy doesn’t make sense on paper, but it certainly holds up on screen. What he gifted to animation fans everywhere was a love letter to multiple genres that continues to hold up.
In an age where Philip K. Dick is seeing a surge in popularity and movies like Mute and the Pacific Rim: Uprising generate a great deal of buzz, it’s no wonder that something that shares so much of its DNA with classic sci-fi continues to speak to us. Cowboy Bebop might not be quite old enough to drink yet, but in animation terms, it’s ancient, yet nowhere near as stale or creaky as other shows and concepts many years its junior.
The series would see its United States debut in 2001 through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. The show had already garnered wide acclaim and is credited with offering a gateway into the world of anime. Watanabe’s exaggerated tagline of “a new genre unto itself” was tongue in cheek, but not far from the concept, which blended sci-fi, comedy and detective stories with a hefty dose of action.
The episodes have an arc, but the stories themselves are largely stand-alone, making it easily approachable for newcomers to the genre. This was unlike many other shows, such as Dragonball Z, where entire weeks went by waiting for Goku to finish powering up. Seriously, guy. The characters are not the two-dimensional affairs of franchises like Gundam or the original Voltron; each character has a compelling story of their own, and the world built by Watanabe is peopled with highly memorable minor characters and sight gags.
Yokko Kano and the Seatbelts
From the opening credits’ five-count percussive blare of horns and cracking drums, Bebop announces its presence with authority. While the visuals are arresting, they wouldn’t be nearly as timeless without Yoko Kanno’s music. Hot and sweet jazz, slow and roots-ey harmonica jams, twinkling, sad piano ballads, and multiple musical tropes from classic western film are all doing heavy lifting. Kanno and her band, The Seatbelts, would create several albums’ worth of material for the series.
The visuals and sounds still influence creators today, with Chillwave mixes like this sampling both visuals and sounds from Bebop. One of the most important factors that would prove to help Bebop stand out was the fact that Kanno and Watanabe played, as he put it, “a game of catch”, where they would pitch back and forth themes and music, even while the show was being written. Musical retroscripting is a tough magic trick to pull off, and it’s not surprising this style isn’t more common.
As youtube channel Cartoon Cipher points out in this video, the voice acting in Cowboy Bebop is unique for anime in that it’s arguably better watched dubbed in English. The understated delivery of the characters compliments the sometimes glacial pacing of certain scenes. It helps underpin the tension and allows the story to unspool though at times the dialogue is sparse. The quiet/loud vocal dynamics compliment the dramatic highs and meditative lows we see the characters go through. Especially in the slower scenes, this understatement really brings elements like cigarette smoke, a spinning fan or dripping liquid into sharp focus, placing the characters as supporting cast to the scenery itself.
While at its core, Cowboy Bebop is a story about bounty hunters in a post-Earth multi-planet society, it thematically addresses just about every issue imaginable. Conservation and Animal Rights are lampooned by heavily armed militant conservation zealots. Climate change and the potential pitfalls are plot points in stories on Venus and Mars. Pollution is very much at the center of Bebop’s universe, as Earth is rendered uninhabitable by a massive industrial disaster that destroyed most of the moon, resulting in the Earth’s surface being bathed in constant meteor strikes.
One character’s amnesia and lack of a discernible past presents a terrific existential conundrum. There’s a zen balance to dialogue and scenes, bringing a distinct Eastern philosophical bent, especially when a character instructs another in martial arts; “Be like water”. The mismatched mutts that make up the crew are an atypical family unit, but it’s the fact that they are a family that brings that theme into focus.
Everyone loves an underdog. The Bebop family ends just about every episode exactly where they started or a few steps behind. Easy come, easy go is a way of life for those living on the edge, and the storylines handle this in a way that isn’t repetitive or cliche. It’s relatable. Our lives are defined by the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. While the crew of the Bebop more than often engages in extralegal activities, they’re no less honor-bound or compelling than any other hero.
Even watching episodes two decades later, knowing full well it’s not going to happen, I really want Spike and Jet to just once successfully nab a bounty without incident. There’s no lack of hard work or risk in what they’re doing, but they come up short on so many occasions, it makes the viewer feel a little better about their own bad day. We’re not screwups any more than the crew of the Bebop. The good guys don’t always win, but they don’t always lose, either. Sometimes things just don’t work out, but we, and the crew of the Bebop, keep trying for those big scores.