Cowboy Bebop

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”).

Left to right: Jet, Spike, Faye, Edward, and Ein.

The initial protagonists are Jet Black, a former ISSP officer, and Spike Spiegel, a former hit man for a major crime syndicate.

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.))

Edward (front center) hacking some computer system while watched by Faye, Jet, and Spike (rear left to right).

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 Bebop. Atmosphere capable and can even land on water.

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:

  1. Asteroid Blues
  2. Stray Dog Strut (where they meet Ein)
  3. Honky Tonk Women (where they meet Faye)
  4. Jamming with Edward (where they meet Ed)
  5. Jupiter Jazz
  6. Bohemian Rhapsody
  7. 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.)

Spike’s one-person spaceship, Swordfish II. (Note orbiting Moon rock.)

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 three old geezers who keep reappearing in different contexts.

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.

Jet’s personal spaceship, the Hammerhead.

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.

Faye’s personal spaceship, the Red Tail.

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.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

35 responses to “Cowboy Bebop

  • Wyrd Smythe

    There is a live-action version of Cowboy Bebop that should be released on Netflix this year. I’m not encouraged that it stands a chance of being any good, because it’s hard, if not impossible, to capture the dream-like quality of the original.

    It’ll star John Cho as Spike, Mustafa Shakir as Jet, and Daniella Pineda as Faye. I’m already a bit iffy on John Cho as Spike.

    I’m also wondering why Vicious and Julia are billed as main characters while Ed is hardly mentioned even as a recurring character. I suspect the live-action will change a lot, and I’m not sure such a classic series should even be attempted.

    But it’s on Netflix (which could be good or, more likely, could be bad), so at least it’ll be “free” to watch.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s the opening sequence and the tune Tank!

    Love that sax sting at the end!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And here’s the closing tune, The Real Folk Blues:

    (It keeps getting stuck in my head.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This bit, from the series, really sums up the tone and dream-like quality:

    “There once was a tiger-striped cat. This cat died a million deaths, revived & lived a million lives, and he was owned by various people who he really didn’t care for. The cat wasn’t afraid to die. Then one day the cat became a stray cat which meant he was free. He met a white female cat & the two of them spent their days together happily. Well, years passed & the white cat grew weak & died of old age. The tiger-striped cat cried a million times, & then he died too. Except this time, he didn’t come back to life.”

    Very Japanese.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Based on many recommendations, I watched a number of episodes of this series several years ago. I think it was during the Netflix DVD days, and it was one of those situations where I got stuck because the next DVD stayed unavailable. By the time it became available, I had lost interest, although it stayed in my queue until I canceled the DVD plan. It might be time for me to take another shot at it. I struggle with most anime, but I keep feeling like I’m missing out because of it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      It’s available on Hulu, but it’s possible it’s not your cup of tea, especially if you struggle with most anime. The music and dream-like qualities are central, and the narrative can often leave one wondering. To some extent it may depend on how much you like the Japanese approach to storytelling and art; it’s notably different from the western approach.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        One friend was aghast when he found out I was watching them in dub mode. He insisted I would have enjoyed them much better with subtitles. Maybe that’s my issue. I just find subtitles to be a hassle, but I might enjoy a lot more of this stuff if I got over that.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        There’s a motivation for the subs-only point of view, but, as with any opinion, it can be seen as a law rather than an idea. Truth is, there are some very good dubs, and Cowboy Bebop is one of them. In any event, you’re the one watching; if you prefer the dub, watch the dub! Subtitle purity is more appropriate for those who are really into anime.

        Subtitles are natural for me because I’ve always used Closed Captions due to my hearing. I use subs even with dubs! 😉

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually watched the first episode again last night. Hulu didn’t appear to have an option to turn off the dub (at least in the Roku version), but it did let me turn on subtitles. It allowed me to catch some nuances I think I might have missed before. We’ll see if it helps this time around.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I don’t know about the Roku version, but if possible check the list of episodes. In the Hulu apps as well as in the web I/F each episode is listed twice: once as a dubbed version; once as a subtitled version. (It makes the episode list twice as long as it should be, so the episodes remaining count gets goofed up.) Once you start watching one version or the other Hulu seems to figure it out and feeds you the next episode in that version. At least on the apps and web.

        From what I’ve seen Hulu is pretty good about either doing it that way or offering two different versions. It tends to hand you one or the other in general lists, but searches for the show will turn up both if they exist. Prime I’ve noticed seems to offer mainly dubs. I haven’t watched enough anime on Netflix to have a sense of what they offer.

        It seems uncommon on streaming to see the DVD mode of one show having selectable language tracks and separate multi-language subtitle tracks. The latter is usually on or off; I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the former. DVDs were kinda cool how you could switch around.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks! Sure enough, when I checked, Hulu does list both versions of each episode. That said, the dub version with subtitles is working for me, so I’ll stay on that for a while. I recall years ago when I did switch on the DVDs, the change in character voices was pretty disconcerting.

        The biggest thing I miss from DVDs is the direct access to the different scenes, although some Bluray UIs were so elaborate, it wasn’t as good a thing by the end anyway. But the language options were cool too.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, usually different actors of different nationalities, so it can be a big jump. Cowboy Bebop earned praise for the quality of the dub actors. Some are very good. In part it’s because anime has grown, so they put more effort into any dubs. It need not be something quickly tacked on later.

        Part of why I bought so many DVDs was easy access to things that came up in conversation!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a recent redoing of The Real Folk Blues that includes, among others, the original Seatbelts:

    Very nice!!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Here’s a similar modern internet version of Tank! (the opening tune):

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Just finished it. Not bad. Since I’m a music philistine, that aspect didn’t do too much for me. But some of the episodes were pretty interesting. I think the ending left enough room for a sequel, if they had wanted to do one. (Since it’s been over twenty years, I guess they didn’t.)

    It’ll be interesting to see what the live action adaptation does. The track record on those doesn’t appear to be great.

    Hulu is pushing Attack on Titan for my next watch, so I may give it a try. Or try one of the other classics instead.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, it’s not certain that Spike dies at the end, but the series is framed as a tragedy, so it’s a good assumption. (There is also that with Julia out of the picture — no lack of certainty there — his life has lost meaning now.)

      I do not have high hopes for the live action version. As you say, the track record isn’t good, and, as I’ve said before, I think it can be a mistake in principle to bring animation into live action. It’s one reason I find little to like in most superhero movies. In my eyes, there is too much absurdity in the stories for serious live action. (Except as comedy or deconstruction of the superhero tropes. I watched half of season one of Invincible on Amazon last night. It’s an animation, something of a comedy, but also a bit of a deconstruction, although not as much of one as I thought based on the description and trailer. Worthy enough that I’ll definitely watch the other four episodes.)

      I’ve been eyeing Attack on Titan for a while now. Might be what I’ll check out next once I finish Fairy Tail (only 75 episodes to go). Speaking of classics, have you ever seen Akira?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I watched the first two episodes of Attack on Titan. The emotion of the characters seem overwrought, but the premise is interesting, so I’ll probably watch more.

        I haven’t seen Akira. Looks interesting. Thanks! I’ll check it out.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve noticed that anime can sometimes be a bit overwrought. Drama, I guess. Cultural differences that can make anime a bit opaque to westerners sometimes. Mostly what I look for is that interesting premise and some style of execution. I most like the stuff with a hard-ish SF angle of some kind. (My favorite is still Assassination Classroom, which I’ve blogged about before. Akira is another example of that sort of thing.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Just finished Akira. Now that was a good movie. It felt like a cross between standard anime and Heavy Metal. The characters all came alive to me and I found myself really rooting for them, even many of the ones that initially seemed unsympathetic. And it had some pretty cool concepts. I definitely would like to find more like this!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        There’s good reason it’s such an enduring classic — it’s an outstanding piece of work! Heavy Metal came out in the early 1980s, and no doubt there was some influence there (likewise, no doubt anime influenced the various artists that appeared in Heavy Metal magazine).

        Anime is like all art forms. Sturgeon’s Rule applies, and only a tiny fraction is truly excellent. (And taste always applies.) I do think you might like Assassination Classroom. It’s definitely engaging, has that quality of justifying the “villains” and their motivations, and is ultimately pretty hard SF.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks. I’ll have to add Assassination Classroom to the list. One of my issues with a lot of anime is the premises often don’t draw me in. Might be something I’ll just have to get over.

        I’ve also dabbled in manga a little bit. (I struggled initially because no one told me I needed to read the panels, captions, and bubbles in right to left order.) Just recently noticed that there’s a good amount included in Amazon Unlimited. Might have to spend some time looking at it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I never did get into manga. A lot of it is black and white artwork, which doesn’t do much for me. Part of the fun of comics for me is the color. It is weird how you have to read them “backwards” — I did check out the first Fairy Tail manga issue from the library just to see what it was like, and it cracked me up that the ebook opened to the last page. There is also that trying to read comics on a mobile device doesn’t really work for me, which is a pity; even Amazon Prime has a lot of comics available. (I seem to be out of my graphic novel phase, anyway.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m attracted to manga since it’s the source material for a lot of anime.

        The black and white format actually reminds me of the situation when I first became interested in comics back in the 70s. All the regular comic books were in color and on the comic rack, but the really good stuff was on the magazine shelf, and it was all in b&w. The color comics all followed the CCA standards, but the b&w magazine comics could veer into more adult territory (although still mild by modern standards, PG rather than R). For example, Conan stories in the b&w magazines included near-nudity and gore. I think the b&w format was to avoid the appearance of appealing to young kids.

        Reading comics on mobile devices was really rough in the early years, but it’s gotten better, particularly when the content is optimized for it, as most of the new stuff is. Although I can’t imagine doing it with anything less than a regular sized iPad.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s possible those B&W comics were that way, at least in part, due to budget constraints. Not being mainstream they might not have the funding for color printing which, back then, was significantly more expensive. Many years ago I was excited to find low-priced but thick volumes gathering early Spiderman comics. Turned out the reason for the low price was that they were just the inks — no color shading. I was a bit disappointed. As I mentioned, the color is a big part of the enjoyment of comics for me. (Always did love the color Sunday newspaper comics better.)

        I do know that comics work better on screens than they used to, but I still don’t care for it. Totally agree the screen needs to be pad-size or bigger. This may change as screens become more the standard mode, but many comic artists compose the page as well as the panels (Watchmen is a great example) and it’s hard to get a sense of the page on a screen. That said, I do like the ability to enlarge panels and study the artwork.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think I read somewhere that the b&w of the mangas are definitely related to budget. And a lot of magazines in general in the old days were b&w, I’m sure for that same reason. Although the b&w magazine comics were actually more expensive than the color comics. (75 cents vs 30 cents for the period I’m thinking of.) But half of the pages in the color comics were ads. The ratio might have been less in the magazines, which might explain the difference.

        Budget was probably what created that low cost magazine market segment. But I think the publishers took advantage of the b&w format to show things that probably would have gotten them in trouble if in color, and that they certainly couldn’t have shown under the CCA. So budget might have dictated the format, but then the artists found a way to turn the constraints into an asset.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        No doubt! I don’t know if you’ve read any of Frank Miller’s Sin City, but Miller draws it using only solid black and solid white — no half-tone shading or grays. Sometimes a third solid color is added for accents. It’s kind of astonishing what Miller accomplishes. Very striking. Anyway, the series is fairly violent and gory, and blood usually ends up being solid white against the solid black used to draw the figures. It really does alter the perception of the gore; that blood-red color is hugely evocative for us — some seriously deep programming there.

        FWIW, the higher price of those comics may be, at least in part, due to being more niche so commodity pricing wasn’t an option. It’s interesting what you note about the ads. I can imagine that it’s harder to sell ad space in more niche publications — especially those without CCA blessing. Ad revenue can be a big part of what a publication earns, so it all conspires to keep outsiders outside. Even today advertisers can be leery about associating their product with anything controversial. (Actually, I wonder if it isn’t worse in today’s interweb-amplified #cancelculture.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Good point about niche markets. I’m sure economies of scale contributed to it. And the point about advertiser association reminds me that when the Heavy Metal magazine started, which was in color, it was expensive and very niche. I can’t recall how many ads it might have had in it, but whatever was there would have been very different from everything else, given that the story content included full frontal nudity, gore, and a lot of other explicit stuff.

        Of course, these days all comics are niche, a very different market from the one we grew up reading.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heavy Metal kinda stands out as unique. It was always very much about the artwork, plus it started off running by doing translations of the French version, Métal hurlant, which started several years before it. Somewhere I’ve got a box of most issues of Heavy Metal, at least up to the point it went quarterly. At first it had a huge body of existing work to draw from, and the early years were awesome — cream of the cream. Over time they became more dependent on currently produced work and Sturgeon’s Law kicked in. I stopped buying it around then.

        But it was a barrier breaker and brought a lot of stuff up from underground!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I remember being impressed by the HM artwork. The fact that it was all in color didn’t hurt. But I was 13 or so when I first encountered it, so the draw for me was forbidden fruit, particularly the nudity and sex. I actually found the stories weird and unsatisfying at the time, so I didn’t buy very many issues. The price was also a bit much for my limited allowance. That, and you couldn’t get them from the convenience stores I had access to. You had to actually visit a real bookstore. (Comic shops didn’t exist yet, at least not in Baton Rouge.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I can imagine. There were a lot of advantages to living in Los Angeles!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Finally reached the ninth, and final, season of Fairy Tail! The season has 51 episodes, so there’s still a ways to go. (Season eight was unexpectedly short: only 12 episodes. The first and last episodes are “modern day” but the bulk of the season is an origin tale about how the Fairy Tail guild was formed by Mavis and friends.)

    Not being a teenaged boy, in many ways Fairy Tail isn’t really my thing, but it has had enough creativity and good storytelling to keep me interested.

  • Catching up on anime – SelfAwarePatterns

    […] I always knew I was missing out on rich stories. Recently Wyrd Smythe did a post on his rewatch of Cowboy Bebop, which rekindled my interest. I had attempted to watch this show years ago, but struggled with it. […]

  • Tons of TV | Logos con carne

    […] really seeing the tone change here. I want to watch the dubbed version of Cowboy Bebop sometime soon to compare it with the subs version. (The dubbed version of that one is […]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I stopped following the Wisecrack channel (the lame-meaty ratio went over my threshold), and this video reminds me a bit of why, but it still has some good bits:

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