Premiering initially in the spring of 1998, Cowboy Bebop overcame a bumpy release to become one of the most significant and influential anime in the entire history of the genre. Here is the U.S., it was one of the first shows to air during Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim block in 2001, and has been airing at least once a year on the network almost ever since. Throughout the years, it has developed a cult following which has helped it to land a live action Netflix adaptation. The project was announced back in 2018 with recent news that it would make use of the talents of Yoko Kanno to compose the music, who worked on the original show.
All of this is fine and good, but what is the point? Well, any time there is a live action adaptation of an animated property, there are going to be questions of if it is really necessary. That question can be doubly applied to animated features coming out of Japan, as anime has such a unique and distinct fell and style, that it may not easily translate to live action. Bebop is also readily available, so it is an easy one to watch too.
So with all that in mind, one has to ask: is a live action adaptation of Cowboy Bebop even necessary?
In short: Hell no.
To call Cowboy Bebop one of the best anime of all time is a disservice, as even amidst the television revolution taking place at the end of the 20th century and throughout the 21st, Cowboy Bebop deserves to be recognized among them. The show takes place in the year 2071, where mankind has managed to occupy many other planets and moons throughout the solar system. This expansion out into space has placed nearly all of humanity back into the frontier, and so it relies on the work of millions of bounty hunters in order to help keep the peace.
The setting of the series is some combination of Sci-Fi, Westerns and American crime noir. This creates a show that is part Blade Runner, part The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and part Touch of Evil. This automatically creates an interesting dynamic, as it is an animated Japanese show that is most heavily inspired by film genres from the West. When taking into consideration that it still stands as one of the very best English ever, Cowboy Bebop becomes simultaneously one of the absolute best anime available, and also one of the most accessible.
One aspect of the show which is unlike many of the most critically acclaimed shows running today is that it is not purely serial. It is a mixture of an episodic structure and a serial one. One episode could be an important one for providing background for one of the main cast, or it could be just another fun romp through an outer space adventure. In some ways it is the aspect of the show which has aged the most, well, that and all the smoking. Yet it is still a vital aspect of the show as some of the most memorable in the entire run are from these standalone tales. The 11th episode, “Toys in the Attic” is one of the most fun in the series, as it is an homage to Alien with come touches of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek.
These episodic episodes are also the mad laboratory where genres can be mixed and blended even further than they already are. One of the best episodes in the entire series is the 20th episode, “Pierrot le Fou.” This episode injects horror into the mix while upping the noir to 11. The opening is rich with shade and almost total black which adorn the ultra-violent massacre which serves as the opening scene. The episode eventually gets downright experimental. In the episode, there is a mad man who had been a test subject whose goal was to create the ultimate killer, and we are given access to his suffering via a sequence unlike any other throughout the entire series. Its dark, twisted and haunting as we watch this man break down and become a monster.
The only aspect of the series which is better than the animation is the music, and its praise is apparent form the opening seconds of the first episode. The opening credits sequence from above is one of the best in television history. In fact, I challenge you to find an opening credit sequence that is more energetic, kinetic or captivating way to start a show. This credit sequence also works to set the tone for the entire series, as jazz is the most significant piece of the music which plays an immense role in the structure of Bebop. Jazz, rock and blues each combine to propel the music to a level of significance beyond simple score or background; it becomes an entire character unto itself as it lends a hand in defining the diverse cast of actual characters you encounter in each episode. Even the names of all the episodes is reliant on western musical genres, as each is named after a piece of blues, rock or jazz music.
The music is not all upbeat and energy, however. It can scale things down when it needs to, and set an entirely different tone. Take this scene from the 16th episode:
The music here is subdued and restrained, yet the pulsing drone coupled with the violence on the screen combines for a chilling score. This example returns throughout the episode and near the end of the series to accompany the main antagonist, and works in the same way to create another eerie vibe as the climax nears.
The tone set by the music goes a long way towards creating the strongest lasting impression of the series among fans and media folks alike: it’s cool. Coolness is a quality which is almost impossible to define, and even more difficult to obtain, yet through Bebop, creator, Shinichirō Watanabe become one of the rare ones who is able to tap into it and weaponized it.
The character’s ooze with coolness led by Spike Spiegel. The main character serves an homage to many characters, with his main influence coming from Bruce Lee- a fact he seems to be aware of when he has a chat with a fellow Lee fan in the second episode (which also features an homage to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s character in Lee’s incomplete final film, Game of Death). Spike is a bounty hunter aboard the titular space ship, Bebop, as well as a former member of the criminal organization, the Syndicate, which imposes its influence throughout the solar system. He spends much of the series kicking ass, smoking cigarettes and overall, just finding new and innovative ways to be cool.
The second character we’re introduced to is Jet Black, a former police officer who became a cowboy after being disillusioned with the bureaucracy of police work. He is the captain of the Bebop, and functions as a sort of father figure for the rest of the crew. He and Spike are joined aboard the Bebop first by Ein, a seemingly ordinary corgi who is actually a “data dog” and is secretly very smart and even has some nifty hacking skills. The fourth member of the Bebop crew is Fay Valentine, a femme fatal who spends much of the series scraping together every scene she can to pay off her mountains of debt before losing all of it gambling. The final member is Radical Edward, a carefree hacker prodigy who provides ample comedic moments for the series in between managing to solve most of the crew’s technical problems.
The crew of the Bebop: Jet, Spike, Faye, Ed and of course Ein, the greatest and most capable member of the gang.
The series follows this cast of misfits through all of their many mundane struggles, as well as their critical ones, and it is within those critical ones which Cowboy Bebop is able to flex its muscle and prove why it deserves recognition. For everything said about the show by its most ardent fans, and even some of the most glowing articles about the series about its mastery of cool, its seriousness is criminally overlooked. Cowboy Bebop is a show that is remarkably adult and mature, and even some of its most lighthearted episodes deal with heavier themes.
There are two major recurring themes throughout the series: the character’s inability to escape their pasts, and the inevitable departure of people from their lives. The crew of the Bebop each have a past that haunts them and follows them wherever they go. It comes in the form of suspended relationships, unfinished business and burdens which always find a way to catch up to them no matter how far or how fast they run.
Faye is one of the largest victims of this reality, as she lives in constant awareness of debt collectors and the need for a very large amount of fast cash. But her past also functions as a shadow which haunts her due to her lost memory. Her stint in cryogenic freezing made her forget almost everything, and she spends most of the series wondering who she is and if she even has a place to belong. Jet’s past a space-police officer frequently finds its way back into this life, and he even carries a memento of that past around with him in the form of his prosthetic arm. Spike’s past as a member of the Syndicate is the most impactful on the larger events of the series, as it is ever-present in his life, and plays a major role in defining who he is and his reason for pushing forward.
In nearly every single episode, new characters enter the lives of the main cast, but most crucially, they all exit almost without exception. Cowboy Bebop depicts these departures as an inevitable aspect of life, and nearly all of them involve death. From the opening episode, death takes up permanent residence aboard the Bebop and takes on an increasingly large role as the steaks are raised higher and higher throughout the 26 episodes. Death takes its toll on the series, as it rips people out of the lives of the main cast. This is most often the case for the episodically structured episodes which feature characters nearly the end of their life’s journey, and sees their stars fall from the sky.
This focus on departures leaves Cowboy Bebop with an underappreciated element of tragedy. It is rare for any departure to be pleasant or amicable. As previously noted, many of them end in death, and even those that don’t often result in heartache or disappointment. There are a few resolutions throughout the show, but in nearly every instance, a character is forced to leave prematurely. It leaves storylines unfinished, as that is an unfortunate fact of reality. Every person’s life is riddled with incomplete narratives, what-if’s, and could-have-been’s. Many of these stories aren’t even given a chance to properly get going and blossom into something real, and many others end in ways we would never chose.
The end has a role to play for each member aboard the Bebop. The end of a person- the end of their story has just an important an impact as their beginnings and their middles. In Cowboy Bebop, it is frequently the ends of stories which define the characters. It is the end of relationships, the end of comradery, the end of belonging and the end of people which define the main cast, and for the adult members, defines how they end the series. As their turbulent pasts take their toll, and as they continue to lose people in their lives, Spike, Jet and Faye are each faced with different challenges as the series ends, and different fates. Jet and Faye are tasked with picking up the remaining pieces of their lives and finding ways and reasons to move forward. As for Spike, though his fate is apparently uncertain, as it has never been officially stated, one need only to listen to the man himself and his tale of the tiger-striped cat to know how his story ends.
23 years after its initial airing in Japan, and nearly 20 years after its exposure to American audiences, Cowboy Bebop continues to assert its influence on anime, and to an entire generation of fans who decided to tune in late at night almost two decades ago. The adaptation by Netflix is certainly validation of the show and its importance in modern popular culture, but the original still has far more to offer than it is given credit for, as there are very few television shows which can boast its combination of style, fun, energy and knack for coolness in conjunction with recurring themes and aspects of the show which are as mature and adult as any other show available today. Indeed, the show was correct when it displays title cards between breaks with, “The work, which becomes a new genre itself, will be called Cowboy Bebop.” There had never been a show like Bebop before it aired, and there has yet to be a show like it since, and until the Netflix adaptation arrives, the only way to scratch that itch will be to return to the Bebop and rejoin the crew on their adventures.
See you space cowboy.
Love the ideas of departure you brought up. I never thought about that aspect of the show. You’ve given me a lot to reflect on!