During the last two weeks I re-watched Cowboy Bebop, an award-winning Japanese science fiction anime classic created in 1998. In contrast with a lot of anime, the show is so adult in its themes that only 12 of the 26 episodes were aired when it premiered on TV Tokyo in 1998. The full series wasn’t aired in Japan until the following year on Wowow, a private, premium satellite network.
In 2001 it was the first anime title ever broadcast on Adult Swim, so it was the first experience many Americans had with Japanese anime. Since then, because of its visuals, music, and themes, it has earned international acclaim, both with critics and audiences.
It’s a definite must-see for any fan of anime or science fiction.
There is also a movie, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, produced in 2001. It’s set between episodes #22 and #23, because the 26 episodes of the series form a complete story arc, and sequels would be difficult. (Spoiler warning: I’ll be explaining why as the ending is integral to the series.)
The story takes place in 2071. Humanity has colonized Venus, Mars, and many of the moons of the Solar system. A hyperspace gateway technology allows fairly quick transport between the planets and their moons.
An important bit of backstory is that, roughly in 2021, an accident involving the gate near Earth released a massive amount of energy and cracked the Moon. Now the Earth is surrounded by orbiting rock which constantly rains down making the Earth’s surface mostly uninhabitable. Global warming has contributed; much of Earth is flooded.
The style of Cowboy Bebop is a dream-like combination of film noir and American western dressed up as hard science fiction. There is an element of the “wild, wild west” — crime, both petty and organized, is so rampant that the Inter Solar System Police (ISSP) have institutionalized a system of free-lance bounty hunters (called “cowboys”).
Jet lost his left arm on the job and, because of that and a lost love, quit his job. His arm is replaced by a mechanical one. Jet is the captain and owner of the spaceship Bebop.
Spike, over his love for a woman named Julia, faked his death in an attempt to escape the syndicate. It wasn’t successful, and the syndicate is hunting for him, especially Vicious, Spike’s aptly named former partner and Julia’s original boyfriend. Julia nursed Spike back to health after a bad gun battle and both fell in love with each other. Vicious gave her an ultimatum: kill Spike or be killed. Instead, she fled and has gone into hiding. This is all backstory; a key thread running through the series is Spike’s search for Julia.
Spike is arguably the central character, and the series ends with the deaths of Julia, Vicious, and finally Spike. (Hence the impossibility of sequels, although it’s just barely possible Spike didn’t actually die. (But probably.))
As the series progresses, three other characters join Jet and Spike on the Bebop. In the second episode, Jet and Spike encounter a Welsh corgi that scientists have illegally experimented on to increase its intellect. When both the scientists and the criminal who stole the dog are captured, Jet decides to keep the dog, which he names Ein. (Spike isn’t a fan.)
In the third episode Spike and Jet encounter a con artist named Faye Valentine. They encounter her again in the fourth episode, and she decides to join the crew and work with them as a bounty hunter. Faye, in many regards, is out only for herself, which causes problems for Jet and Spike, but she is nevertheless a very capable member of the crew.
In the ninth episode, while on Earth, they encounter an elite hacker known as “Radical Edward” (Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV) — in reality an androgynous teenaged girl claiming to be around 13. Both Faye and Ed, for very different reasons, have lost touch with their past. Later episodes reveal that past to both them and the viewer. Ed joins the crew, not as a bounty hunter but because of her hacking skills. She and Ein form a strong bond and are generally seen together.
The series is notable for its musical soundtrack and musical references. The title of most episodes (or “sessions” as the show calls them) contain some sort of musical reference:
- Asteroid Blues
- Stray Dog Strut (where they meet Ein)
- Honky Tonk Women (where they meet Faye)
- Jamming with Edward (where they meet Ed)
- Jupiter Jazz
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- The Real Folk Blues
To name a few. That last one names the two-part final episodes and is also the name of the closing credits song.
The music, by composer, arranger, musician Yoko Kanno, is a key aspect of the show. One could easily re-watch the series just to study the music. In some instances, Kanno’s work came first and actually inspires the show.
The opening and closing credits feature the same two tunes throughout the series. The former, Tank!, is an aggressive jazz piece (with a great saxophone sting at the end) while the latter is a rock blues ballad, The Real Folk Blues. Both are performed by the Seatbelts, a multi-genre group formed by Kanno for Cowboy Bebop.
The band was active until 2004 and then started up again in 2020 and is still active.
Each episode has its own musical style, which is why one could re-watch the series just to study the music. But the musicality goes beyond the variety and sheer quality on several levels.
The series is space opera, and never was that term more appropriate. As with many operas, the narrative can be somewhat vague and suggestive. There are gaps the viewer must attempt to fill in.
As with many narrative songs, that suggestive sense is even stronger. A song has only a few minutes to tell a story, and each “session” of Cowboy Bebop only has 24 minutes to tell a fairly complex tale. (Calling the episodes “sessions” — as in music recording session or, in particular, a jazz session — amplifies the musical connection.)
There is a pronounced dream-like quality to the series. The narrative gaps are very much like the jumps and gaps in a dream. The very quality of the story is dream-like and sometimes almost a bit surreal.
One episode, Mushroom Samba, features hallucinogenic mushrooms the crew eat because they’ve run out of food and gas and crash land on Io. The mushrooms are from a smuggler they encounter — the crew don’t realize what they are until too late.
Another example of the dream-like nature are the three old geezers who appear as background characters in very different locations and contexts. The series is also peppered with references to dreaming. One session directly involves someone causing major trouble due to network-amplified dreaming.
The show also involves quite a bit of humor. One rich wannabe bounty hunter dresses as a cowboy and rides a horse. The TV show for bounty hunters features “Punch” and “Judy” — two characters dressed as cowboy and (sexy) cowgirl. The show’s purpose is to announce new bounties and mention successful captures.
One characteristic of the show is that the crew of the Bebop aren’t very successful. Something always seems to go wrong, and they lose the bounty they were seeking. In some cases it’s through their own choice (for various reasons), but in most cases they’re just unlucky.
The show is filled with cute references to culture and science fiction.
One episode, Toys in the Attic (“Heavy Rock of the Dark Night”), involves a dangerous blob-like alien loose in the Bebop. Its bite causes Jet, then Faye, and finally Ein, to succumb to an unknown illness. It turns out to be food poisoning. The creature evolved from a lobster Spike hid in a fridge and then forgot about.
Another episode, Speak Like a Child, involves a mysterious Betamax tape addressed to Faye and sent to the Bebop. The crew go to great lengths trying to find a way to play the tape. They even go to Earth seeking a player, but after their trek through difficult and flooded underground tunnels, Spike and Jet find a VHS player.
They do finally manage to play the tape. It turns out to contain clues to Faye’s past. As it turns out, she’s a lot older than she looks. The accident with the Earth gate 50 years ago resulted in a major injury, so she was put in cryogenic storage and revived decades later.
There is also an episode, Wild Horses, featuring the Space Shuttle. Which is able to take off from Earth and achieve orbit on its own. (They tease its introduction early, but any fan of space flight will recognize the engines immediately.)
Perhaps the most directly comic part of the series is the “next episode” trailers at the end of each episode. They often break the fourth wall in one way or another. Sometimes they contain lies that we’re told are lies. Generally they are narrated by one or more of the characters.
I’m reminded of the “next episode” trailers for another Japanese anime series I’ve been watching (for years; it has 328 episodes, and I’ve been slowly working my way through them). It’s called Fairy Tail (yes, “tail”), and it’s a fantasy about wizards — male, female, and some animals.
In both cases the “next episode” trailer has a narration that is off kilter in one way or another, self-aware of the series, and which doesn’t match or really explain the quick cuts being shown. I’d be willing to bet Cowboy Bebop influenced Fairy Tail.
(That said, in most regards the two couldn’t be less alike. Fairy Tail is oriented towards teenage boys; Cowboy Bebop is extremely adult in its themes. It’s somewhat of a Star Wars vs Star Trek difference.)
Cowboy Bebop has strong unqualified Wow! rating in my book. As with Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and others, it’s a true science fiction anime classic as well as a major influence on other works.
And, along with Ghost in the Shell, its music is reason alone to watch it. I only wish there was some way I could end this post with that great sax sting. Da-da-da-da-da-da-DAH. Da-da-da-da-DAH. Da-da-da-da-DAAAAAAAH.
Stay bebopping, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.