When I first sat down to watch “Cowboy Bebop” in 2001, a friend of mine described it to me as, “A show about a group of interplanetary bounty-hunters in the year 2071 who travel the solar system tracking down and locking up the baddest criminals the future has to offer.”
As someone who’s always held a kind of soft spot in my heart for science fiction, I agreed to sit down and watch the show with my friend, thinking it would be a pleasant way to kill some time.
What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t know, was that by the time I had finished watching the series, I would come to regard it not as just another fun fantastical action/adventure sci-fi anime series (although it certainly was all those things) but rather as one of the most powerful, moving, intelligent, imaginative, well-paced, visionary television shows I’d ever seen in my entire life.
Even all these years later, I still list Cowboy Bebop as a prime example of something that rises above ordinary entertainment (and in fact I would say it rises above extraordinary entertainment) to become one of those special series that deserves the classification: “Anime As Art.” A series that truly reveals what spectacular heights can be reached, emotionally, narratively, and visually using the artistic medium of animation.
Why is Cowboy Bebop such an amazing series? Why has it won so many awards and why does it deserve such acclaim?
Well…the short answer is…lots of reasons.
Some people are drawn to the show’s visual style, pioneered by the incredibly talented Director Shinichiro Watanabe. A visual style that not only uses light, shadow, color, creative camera angles, background art, and jaw-droppingly detailed fight choreography to spectacular effect, but also paints a unique vision of a future that…for lack of a better term…doesn’t get high on itself over being the future.
A future that doesn’t go out of its way to try and dazzle audiences with spectacular hyper-advanced technological contraptions at every turn the way so many other sci-fi shows do.
True, advanced technology does exist in the year 2071. But in the world of Cowboy Bebop, it’s treated as mundane and ordinary, the same way people today treat computers and smart-phones, even though such devices would seem like miraculous magic to humans from previous eras.
Advanced interplanetary starships are cleaned with buckets of water and scrub brushes, the same way people clean their cars today. If an advanced interplanetary holographic television set that can broadcast across millions of miles begins to lose reception, the protagonists will likely try to repair it by kicking it (as most people in the future, just like most people today, are not accredited electronic experts and do not automatically know how to fix complex machines when they start to break down.) Advanced weapons such as laser canons exist in the future, but for the most part when people try to kill each other they find it simpler, easier, faster, and cheaper to just stick with good old fashioned guns. And speaking of cheap, the most realistic statement Cowboy Bebop makes about the future is that no matter what spectacular awe-inspiring scientific advancements may exist in 2071 (or in any time period for that matter) if you don’t have money, you won’t be enjoying them, and just like the protagonists of the show, you’ll have to do your best to get by on what you’ve got, and stretch a dollar out of a dime, just like ordinary people have always done since the dawn of civilization.
This is ultimately one of the points Cowboy Bebop focuses on again and again, which sets it apart from so many other science-fiction stories: No matter what time period human-beings are living in, or what scientific achievements may exist, people are people, and there are certain human emotions (love, hate, greed, jealousy, fear, friendship) that motivate people to kill, save, abandon, search for, and impact the lives of one another. That’s what it always has meant, and always will mean to be human, and that’s what always has, and always will connect us, in the past, present, future, or in any era.
That Cowboy Bebop chooses to focus on this element of…humanity, of emotional realism, of certain universal experiences that transcend time, and that this artistic choice is represented over and over again in countless subtle visual cues Cowboy Bebop makes, is one reason so many fans are drawn to the show. But only one.
Some people are drawn to the stellar voice-acting in both the Japanese version of the series and the English version where Steven Blum (the voice of the show’s male lead Spike Spiegel) and Wendee Lee (the voice of the show’s female lead Faye Valentine) gave star-making performances that would send both their careers soaring to new heights and earn each of them new levels of fame and success which are still going strong as of the writing of this review over a decade after the show first premiered.
Some people are drawn to the prolific soundtrack. 101 Original songs (not just catchy background melodies or minor ditties, 101 full-fledged songs!) composed by musical prodigy Yoko Kanno. A woman who may be the only composer on this Earth who could decide that the best way to honor the show’s wild, unpredictable 2070s setting was with a wild, unpredictable 1970s jazz soundtrack…and make it work!
As for myself, while it’s true I appreciate all the aforementioned aspects of the show, what has always most impressed me about Cowboy Bebop is the storytelling.
As I said before, when my friend first described Cowboy Bebop to me, he told me it was about “A group of interplanetary bounty hunters.” But as I sat down to watch the series, and I learned about the show’s main characters:
-Spike Spiegel, who used to be one of the deadliest assassins in the Red Dragon Mafia, nearly lost his life trying to escape the criminal underworld, and who now works as a bounty-hunter, balancing the karmic scales by arresting the very same types of horrible criminals he himself used to be during the dark days of his past.
-Jet Black, a cop who left the force due to the disgust he felt at the overwhelming corruption in the I.S.S.P. police department, and who now wears a cynical and world-weary exterior, but has secretly never given up his belief in honor and justice.
-Faye Valentine, a beautiful but hard-hearted woman who appears on the surface to be greedy, selfish, and motivated entirely by money. But after learning more about her, (how she lost her past, lost her family, was lied to and betrayed by the only man she ever loved, and has been hurt by life in so many different ways), it becomes clear that her exterior is just a hard shell she’s built up around herself. Some secret part of her wants let people in. But after the wall has been up for so long, even Faye herself doesn’t exactly know how to bring it down.
-Ed, a young girl hacker who joined Spike Jet and Faye because they’re the only real family she’s ever known.
And Ein, the adorable team dog.
I came to realize that what I was watching wasn’t a show about a group. It was a show about a family. Or at least, a collection of unusual people learning to become a family. And yes they could be dysfunctional at times. And they could even be hostile at times. But the way they brought out the best in each other over the course of the series…the way they challenged each other, the way they learned to come together and cooperate with each other, the way they learned to trust each other and rely on each other and form real bonds of loyalty (almost in spite of themselves) was so enjoyable I almost don’t know how to describe it.
The villains also deserve special mention. Even though most of the people who had bounties on their heads were stand alone characters who would each only appear in a single episode, EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM positively lit up the screen and made a lasting impression. Some (like the deranged Kung-Fu geologist) were hilariously harmless. Some (like the genetically enhanced superhuman hit-man) were horrifying. Some (like the poor two-bit thief who stole a rare valuable plant to make medicine for his sick sister) were tragic. But everyone one of them, in one way or another, managed to strike a chord on some emotional level.
So…after saying all this, about the visual design of the show, about the acting, about the music, about the characters, about the story…how does the new Funimation DVD release hold up? In a word: Great.
(Seriously. That’s my actual review of the Cowboy Bebop DVD series. “Great.” One-word. Shortest review I’ve ever done.)
The show has aged remarkably well and is still fun to watch after all this time. And the DVD release upholds and maintains all the things I loved about the series when I first saw it in 2001, and presents them with new digital crispness and clarity to anyone who might want to watch the series now.
If you have not yet seen Cowboy Bebop (first off, shame on you. Second off) I urge you in the strongest possible terms to go out and start watching the series THIS INSTANT. If you should happen to have disposable income in these trying economic times, I recommend that you buy the DVDs (if only to give the hard-working creators in Japan some royalty money).
If you have seen Cowboy Bebop, then show the series to a friend, and allow them to experience the same joy that you, I, and all Bebop fans felt when we saw the series for the first time.
That’s my two cents (or should I say “Woolongs”) on the matter, plain and simple. Keep it here on AnimeVice for more reviews. And until next time: See You Space Cowboy.
Watch “Cowboy Bebop” on FUNimation's site and decide for yourself.
Kaita Mpambara works every day to try and create shows, stories, and characters that are as exciting, energizing, and entertaining as the very best works that have been given to the world by both the western and eastern animation industries. Keep up with his musings on life, the universe and everything by following him on Facebook.