I first heard of this anime about four years ago when, at a friend’s house gathering, the question was discussed about what shows would be great to recommend for someone who would like to get started in anime – to be more specific, someone’s girlfriend at the time – and it developed into “What flick would be appropriate to show that’ll leave a good first impression of the genre on them?”. Some answers included the numerous Fate series, Death Note, Ghibli movies, and the main presentation, Cowboy Bebop. (No, don’t even think of recommending Neon Genesis Evangelion to a complete newbie) Once more was this series brought to my attention when an online mutual of mine, who I have been chatting much with on many topics – anime, society, and Catholic going-ons in particular, which also re-ignited my desire to check it out.
I must admit, I misjudged it from its premise as a space-western story, thinking because of that, it would seem to be another buddy-cowboy type of show set in the astronautical outlands (like Django or Shanghai Noon mixed with Star Trek). It turns out that there was something more valuable to witness beneath its intergalactic hijinks and commonalities, which made me understand more why people valued it with a distinguished and praiseworthy manner.
Cowboy Bebop is a production of Sunrise Inc., an animation studio that is now under the control of famous video game corporation Bandai Namco. Apparently, it’s one of the most well-known studios out there; chances are you might have stumbled upon one of their works: some examples which include the Mobile Suit Gundam stories, City Hunter, Inuyasha, Code Geass, and believe it or not, Love Live: School Idol Project. If you have, congratulations – you’ve drunk a soup courtesy of Sunrise Inc. It is the brainchild of an inside job of their employees operating under the pseudonym Hajime Yatate, in tandem with director Shinchiro Watanabe, who took his inspiration from a popular 1960s crime-inspired series, Lupin III, adding a touch of space-age cyberpunk elements and martial arts moves embedded into it. His serious-oriented vision of the story initially clashed with the company’s vision of how it would look, and led to a brief period in development hell before it finally aired only a few segments in April 1998, and fully six months later.
Watanabe’s experience directing this led to it becoming one of the most highly praised anime out there, with Japanese and North American anime outlets singling out its jazz-themed soundtrack, character development and its unique blend of storytelling. Its music, characters, and voice actors were recognized for their roles at the 1999-2000 Anime Grand Prix awards ceremony, and this series continues to be among one of the top must-watch anime lists to this day. Watanabe himself, as well as series composer Yoko Kanno both are known to look back at their role in this with fondness and even pride for what they had made: and even had a small role to play in making the 2021 Netflix adaptation of the series, which, judging by its lack of a sequel, you can guess how that probably turned out.
In the year 2022 (hmmmmm!), a lunar accident involving a hyperspace travel gateway causes a worldwide disaster on Earth, turning it into an uninhabitable wasteland, while the survivors have colonized the galaxy to start their life anew. Two of these are Spike Spiegel and his partner and friend Jet Black, bounty hunters aboard the Bebop spaceship, who make their living by scouring through the galaxy for outlaws to subdue and collect funds to sustain a meager lifestyle and support their luxurious needs. They are later joined in this endeavour by Faye Valentine, an on-the-run debtor with a hot-tempered attitude, and an Earthling named Edward Wong, who specializes in technology and is easily the most high-spirited, expressive, and carefree member of the group. To accompany them in their downtime is Ein, a genetically modified Welsh Corgi of superior intelligence.
Throughout the story we focus on their exploits across multiple planets, chasing criminals ranging from small-time drug dealers and angry environmentalists to the bizarre, like androgynous spies, a prepubescent-looking killer, terrorists bent on depopulation, and reclusive hackers, which often end with the groups engaging in bombastic fight and chase scenes with one another. All the while, they are locked in an internal struggle with their former lives: Jet and his days as a law-abiding police officer, Edward trying to find her biological father, Faye seeking to uncover secrets behind her real identity, and most prominently, Spike’s quest for vengeance towards his former friend, Vicious, and search for his missing girlfriend, Julia.
What I Liked
- There was a lot of variety when it came to the types of villains that we come across, and the manner in which they are dealt (be it a space shootout, a raucous gunfight, or a martial arts bout). I particularly enjoyed that it didn’t resort to the same old victory trick and made the characters find different ways to tackle the episode’s resolution, even if it results in some very cool finishes – such as when Jet takes down a cult leader who turns out to be a comatose kid with anger at life, or when Spike duels the hypopituitary crime boss Wen. Yeah, it’s got a lot of surprises coming along with it.
- The ambience aboard the Bebop was perfectly rendered. There’s hardly any music strumming along, only the sound of dialogue and the wind blowing across is enough to set the stage. I can’t help but think back to how similar it feels to NERV from Evangelion: calming and eerie with an industrial touch to it, but also mysterious just like space can be at times. Moreover, this lack of music also enforces the seriousness of this show, and works at grabbing our full attention towards what’s going on.
- The gradual shift in deconstructing the characters, starting with episode 5 when Spike first meets his former partner-in-crime Vicious, goes through examining the memories of their lives beforehand and challenging their actions and sense of identity, with that being the arbiter of deciding whether to become a slave to their pasts, or renew themselves, as well as the consequences beforehand. It was really nice to have this spiritual element give depth to the story and the characters, beneath its cops-and-robbers externals, and the result of this development no less than satisfying and well-rounded: Faye’s, most especially, was one that was most emotional and sad to watch, considering her circumstances of being the only one left from her generation.
- There’s not many funny moments to boot, but when it does, it’s worth every minute. The way Spike and Cowboy Andy from episode 22 interacted with each other was one of the best moments of humour I could find from it, and it was a well-deserved, entertaining one. I LOL’d at their relentless banter and how they keep getting in each other’s way, like some Rush Hour parody on crack! Speaking of which, I also got the same reaction from episode 16 in Jet’s LSD-induced ravings to his bonsai trees, or Spike talking to Mr. Frog on the endless stairs.
What I Didn’t Like
- Be prepared to trudge through the first quarter of the series because it takes a while before you figure out what exactly the show’s true premise is all about: the repetitive format of the episodes can also, admittedly, be a drag to realizing this. I personally found my mind wandering into different places before having to flip back a few seconds to recall certain moments.
- I found the “Big Shot” segments, featuring eccentric hosts Punch and Judy talking about the next criminal of the day to be rather unfunny, distracting from the plot and being of little value other than a 30-second gimmick. Although I do like that Punch quipping “AMIGO!” at the start: that won’t ever get old.
Arguably the characters, namely the protagonists, are the coolest part of Cowboy Bebop, and some of the most memorable even. It succeeded in a balanced showcasing of all the good and bad parts about them; none, save maybe Edward or Ein in their curious and childlike identities, could even be considered shallow in any sense of the word. Spike is determined, suave, brave and gentlemanly; although leaning more on the introverted side, he is a man of action – sometimes taking this to rather extreme levels. Faye’s versatility and goal-oriented philosophy makes up for her lazy, snarky and annoying side aboard the Bebop. Finally, Jet displays both a strong intelligence and loyalty that a friend can put much value in – quick to learn, but also to anger, gruffness, and bouts of impatience: the foil to Spike.
Together these characters livened things through their interactions and made for a great team. Spike and Jet’s relationship was wholesome and resembles that of best friends rather than purely teammates, being always there to support each other’s backs, while Faye’s is like that of an annoying sister to them, as her ideals of gambling and begging for money clash with the former’s hard-working, no-nonsense attitude. Their nice chemistry, akin to that of well-acquainted college roommates, also touched upon our inherent nature to form communal bonds with one another and calls us to cherish that aspect of life. I also like how their dialogue is clean and very true-to-life, making me feel as if I’m really there with them to see their bond develop, their thoughts unravel, and integrate with the atmosphere.
The only complaint I have was that Julia’s appearance in episodes 25-26 and felt underhanded and pointless. I honestly thought she had died prior to the series just by the backstory, and her meeting with Spike in the series’ last two episodes felt so barren that it was a forgettable footnote. Gren from episodes 12-13 literally served no purpose other than being outed as having some collaborative role with Vicious, which didn’t really help matters much, and, speaking of which, Vicious was tackily written and could have been expanded further. Edward and Ein could have benefited from having a larger role in the story: the latter especially, whose role as a super-dog that can drive cars, play shogi effectively and analyze data felt slighted in its role as being a mascot. while Faye’s great backstory was unfortunately overshadowed by her reduced involvement in the action sequences, as opposed to her male comrades.
I’m hardly the biggest appreciator of jazz music (except, maybe, when I’m playing one of the thousands of ways to play solitaire in the peace of night). But I found comfort in listening to some of the tracks in that style, including its famous opening and ending songs, or for instance, the ones at the end of episodes 1 and 3, Jet meeting his ex-girlfriend Alisa in episode 10, Gren’s theme in episodes 12-13, and the waterfront scene in episode 22. Fortunately, the show also makes use of other musical styles, such as, fittingly, a Wild West, or techno motif to spice up different scenes and their respective moods. There’s no shortage of vocal songs too, the most notable ones I found being Rain and Green Bird from episode 5, and the melodramatic ballads Call Me, Call Me and Blue from the last three episodes.
After many consecutive series which either relied on orchestral tunes, pop idol songs, or light-hearted guitar themes, I have to say that Cowboy Bebop‘s soundtrack was a new experience with plenty of high points. I found myself enjoying what it had to offer and refreshed to step back and have an anime take a different, more refined approach to its music.
Favourite character: Spike Spiegel is the perfect representative for Cowboy Bebop‘s cast. He’s got a great personality: cool, level-headed, strong, and full of lit comic relief faces. But most of all his backstory was my favourite and the reason for what I remember this series for today.
Favourite battle: The explosive battle putting Spike, Faye and Vicious plus his disciples inside the abandoned cathedral was one of the first non-Digimon anime scenes I recall watching on YouTube’s heyday, and seeing it again in full context, I have to say: it was intense, and the setup was exciting. Close to it would be the battle with Mad Pierrot at the amusement park in episode 20: no dialogue or exposition, just one big boss fight that Spike gets a close win at, amidst very chilling circumstances.
Favourite non-battle scene: In episode 18, Spike and Jet visit an electronics dealer in town to pick up a video cassette and player. As the tape plays (showing a young Faye in the distance), it begins to muck up, and even more when Spike’s attempts at what we in the computer industry call “percussive maintenance” with the player machine causes it to fall apart. Cue the shop owner having a wide-eyed shock face of LOL caliber, and a very uncomfortable beat.
Favourite OST tracks: Doubling with how episode 5’s fight ended is Green Bird being my preferred vocal track, while 23 Hanashi from episode 23 was a soothing, heavenly, and beautiful piece that I connected best with; its melody filled me with a sense of longing that I cannot put into words. (Oh, and the Russian tsarist anthem makes a cameo appearance here, of all places – so bonus points for that)
Favourite quote: This comes in the form of Spike and Faye discussing how Hex changed from a vengeful persona in his younger days to the calm, affable and yet senile chess lover. I feel like, after Jet explains the transformation further moments before his death, it’s a beautiful, yet haunting way to mark the story’s theme about finding closure and immersion in the past versus self-improvement and redemption.
Faye: So… we going to do anything about this guy? He literally doesn’t remember anything from yesterday, let alone 50 years ago!
Spike: Leave him be. The Hex we know now is just an old man who loves playing chess – nothing to do with his sins from before.
Jet: Back then, Hex was riled up for revenge, and planned this all out so that this incident would happen 50 years later during the one moment that the Gate program gets automatically updated… Well, 50 years went by, and all that waiting eventually drew his patience thin and made him go senile. All you’ve got is a shell of that man from all those years ago – senile and with no memory about anything from that plot…
Executive: What do you want? Money? Or are you planning to leak this information to the press?
Jet: No, never mind that. Let him be. It’s a good deal, isn’t it? After all, my shipmate Ed would get lonely if she lost her chess partner.
Edward: No! I lost!! All that hard work this past week, for nothing…Spike, Faye, Jet and Edward’s examination of Hex in episode 14
I must admit, it was hard to review this anime: not because it was boring, confusing or chock full of many cringeworthy scenes to sift through, but because there wasn’t many negatives that I could say about it. Probably the worst thing I could think of was the blatant fanservice, such as Faye and Judy’s lack of modesty or a prolonged shot of an adult magazine being held by Jet’s cop colleague at episode 4’s halfway mark. Story-wise though, whatever flaws it had were relatively minor at best, and even I could excuse the slow plot development as no more than being a common theme of the “first few episodes” rather than a major show-breaking inconvenience. They were overcome, however, with a candid atmosphere, interesting characters, and a diverse set of stories; not to mention, I was blown away by how the show’s theme came together by the time of Spike’s last “Bang”, solidifying its reputation in my mind. I have nothing but respect for Cowboy Bebop‘s overall formulation, and I think I can side with those who declare this as a highlight of anime from the last three decades.