TITLE Cowboy Bebop
DIRECTOR Shinichiro Watanabe
YEAR 1998 - 1999
REVIEW by Natalie Belton
How does one even begin to describe Cowboy Bebop? It's one of the most critically acclaimed television series ever created. It's the Firefly of anime. It's one of the few shows that actually lives up to all of its hype. Cowboy Bebop was conceived during the late 1990s, a time during which the space operas and sci-fi dramas where exceptionally popular thanks to manga/anime series such as Crest of the Stars, Trigun, Outlaw Star, and, of course, Neon Genesis Evangelion. The production company Sunrise thus employed a team of talented industry veterans to create a show in similar vein to the above. The team consisted of: director Shinichiro Watanabe (Marcos Plus, Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy), screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto (Wolf's Rain, Tokyo Godfathers), character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, mechanical designer Kimitoshi Yamane, and talented jazz composer Yoko Kanno. The primary goal of this team was to create a show that would defy genres and appeal to adult audiences.
Cowboy Bebop is set in the future year of 2071. The entire solar system is now traversable through hyperspace gates. Several decades earlier, in 2022, an experimental hyperspace gate exploded, damaging Earth, causing most of the survivors to abandon Earth and colonize other planets and astroids in the Solar System. Mars has become the primary hub of civilization. Due to the Solar System's enormous size, law and order has become hard to enforce. Crime abounds. Thus, a bounty hunter system is set up, creating a similar situation to the American Old West. (Bounty hunters are commonly called 'cowboys.')
The show centers around the various exploits and misadventures of a group of bounty hunters on board the spacecraft Bebop. Each of which have their own unique and contrasting personalities and (often tragic) backstories. Spike Spiegel is a former member of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. A skilled gunman and pilot with a biting sense of humor (Think of Lupin III, but as less of a woman chaser and less of a goof.), Spike is constantly haunted by his past, particularly by a beautiful woman named Julia and his rivalry with his former partner, Vicious. Jet Black is the team's engineer and cook. Although he doesn't like being called old, he commonly acts as a supportive father figure to the rest of the crew. Jet is former cop with a strong sense of justice and is a jack of all trades. Faye Valentine is a femme fatale who uses her assets and skill with firearms to get what she wants. Faye is generally mistrusting towards others and frequently runs off to her own device. She is constantly on the run from the law due to the debts she inherited and is unable to pay off…which is certainly not helped by her gambling addiction. Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski (or Ed for short) is a thirteen year old hacking prodigy. She is a fairly strange, androgynous looking girl, who often speaks in rhyme, refers to herself in third person, and frequently drifts off from reality. Ed is the show's primary source of physical humor and comic relief. She is almost always seen with Ein, an intelligent Pembroke Welsh Corgi.
Who is the mysterious woman and what has she got to do with Spike's past?
The series is often billed as space adventure drama, but it is much more than that. While Cowboy Bebop is an anime program, its wide variety of influences and heavy references to Western culture make it very accessible to non-Japanese audiences. Cowboy Bebop certainly excelled at its goal of defying genres. It's a hodgepodge of Film Noir, Cyberpunk, intense drama and medium aware humor. Although set in space, many of the episodes take place in urban inner city areas. It avoids many of the cliches used in the sic-fi genre. There are no giant robots, space aliens, or laser guns. The environments in the film often look used or run down. The technology used in Cowboy Bebop is mixture of that advanced beyond our own and relics from the later half of the 20th century. The various colorful characters that appear throughout Cowboy Bebop's 26 episodes are ethically diverse. All of this gives the show a truly unique, somewhat strange, but truly inspired and relatable feel.
Welcome to the future, the used, gritty future.
Another big draw of this anime is its diverse musical score composed by the eccentric and brilliant Yoko Kanno. Reflecting the diversity of its cast and Western influences on screen, Cowboy Bebop sports a soundtrack consisting primarily of jazz and blues (It's called Bebop after all!), along with rock, heavy metal, rap, and even gospel like music. (Much of the music on display also originates from the fringes of society, reflecting the series's realistic, gritty style.)
Obligatory theme song post.
Shinichiro Watanabe certainly loves films and makes several parodies and homages throughout the series's run. Several of the less serious episodes focus on spoofing a specific genre or movie. For instance, the episode, "Toys in the Attic," involves Spike and his teammates being attacked by a unknown presence on their ship (which turns out to have originated from bad food kept in the fridge), which ends up incapacitating most of them before it is destroyed. The plot is quite similar to Ridley Scott's Alien and also references 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another episode, "Mushroom Samba," invokes the feel of 1970s Blaxploitation films. (It involves a starved Ed and Ein chasing down a hallucinogenic mushroom dealer. Yes, it's as crazy and hilarious as it sounds.)
Outside of all of these parodies and homages, much of the show's humor (and relatability) comes from its cast's conflicting interests and personalities and the situations they wind up in. Whereas Jet is ever calm and the most rational of the crew, his conservative views and dedication to truth and justice sometimes put him at odds with Spike and, especially, Faye. At first look, Spike and Faye seem to hate each other. (In one scene, an exasperated Spike asks Jet what the three things he particularly hates ['kids, dogs, and women with attitudes'] are doing on his ship.) Ironically though, both Spike and Faye have several similarities. They are both very stubborn and determined. They refuse to show each other's true feelings towards each other, unless in the most dire of situations. Little lifelike details appear in Cowboy Bebop that several other anime series either ignore or lack. Unlike many other 'animal mascots' / 'team pets' Ein is realistically drawn and behaves much like a real dog would. The crew constantly combats with hunger and starvation when they are out of work. Heck, we even get to see what the Bebop's bathroom stall looks like!
While certainly funny in places, Cowboy Bebop is even more well known for its sophisticated storytelling and dark, intricate plots. Indeed, while Watanabe admits that about 20% of the show is dedicated to humor, he also states the other 80% is centered around serious drama. Several heavy handed or controversial subjects are dealt with throughout Cowboy Bebop's run including: drug dealing, homosexuality, organized crime, terrorism, and religious cults. While some episodes contain little to no violence, others are quite brutal and feuds are often realistically depicted on screen. At times the anime has an existentialist and philosophical tone. Between all of the action sequences, many of the characters have quiet moments of solitude, as they contemplate about their pasts and the current state of their lives.
Spike, in particular, takes everything with a grain of salt. As he pushes forward towards an uncertain future, he simply states, "Whatever happens, happens." Themes of betrayal and self redemption also come into play. The anime's ending is left open ended. We are left uncertain if Spike has survived or not or what happens to the rest of the Bebop's crew. However, Spike has managed to make amends with his past and settle his score with Vicious. His (debatable) death is his redemption. Vicious can be essentially seen as Spike's shadow. Whereas Spike is able to contain his anger and remain cool and level headed, Vicious is unable to control his tendencies. When threatened, he always acts out with violence. Vicious is unable to comprehend mercy.
Faye, like most of the other characters in this show, faces crisis with her identity.
Really, I could go on talking even more about this show. However, several people already have and, like all good things, this review must eventually come to an end. For those who haven't seen Cowboy Bebop, GO WATCH IT NOW. Trust me, you have no idea what you're missing out on. Well, until then… See you Space Cowboy.
Seriously, this scene gives me chills every time I watch it
About the English Dub:
Unlike many other anime of its day, Cowboy Bebop has a stellar dub (by company Animaze), rivaling that of the dubs Disney gives Studio Ghibli's films. Some even consider it to be superior to the original Japanese voiceover. (In the case of Wendee Lee as Faye Valentine, I would probably agree with them.) The script follows the original cut very loyally and each character feels very real and three dimensional. Steven Blume (who was rewarded a 2012 Genius World Record for his prolific voice acting career) does an excellent job as Spike, being both subtle and volatile when needed. All of the other voice actors do a fine job as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Natalie Belton is currently a college student majoring in Anthropology and Geography with a passionate interest in culture, film, and art. Outside of writing for CDR, she also maintain her own animation and movie blog, The Animatorium. For any questions, Natalie may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.