Spoiler Warning: The following review contains mild spoilers for the original Cowboy Bebop anime series – specifically, general references to some storyline elements, however exact spoilers are not given. The series’ climax is also not explained in any way. If you wish to go into this glorious series completely blind, perhaps stop reading now.
Cowboy Bebop is an anime series created by animation studio Sunrise, which aired originally from April to June of 1998. And in case the name sounds familiar to you – even if anime’s not your thing – that’s because it’s subsequently become arguably one of the genre’s biggest works of all time; eternally ranked in the top three of countless magazine rankings (usually taking the top spot, actually) and online articles. Its characters have become a part of mainstream animation culture, and quoted from YouTube comment threads to game series and comic-con panels. Immortalized in a sea of merch and fan art to this day. Hell, it got a Netflix live-action remake recently.
To put it simply, Cowboy Bebop is huge, and adored the world over, in part due to its fusion of countless genres of media, taking predominantly from the noir and western movies of old, mashing futuristic, science-fiction metropolises with leggy, chain-smoking detectives and goofy, outlandish humour you’ll only find in a ‘90s anime – all backed up with a jazz soundtrack.
But what’s it about? Well, in short, a group of ragtag bounty hunters who explore the reaches of space in a not-so-distant future (2071, though you couldn’t tell, with its spaceships, hyperspace gates and holograms) – aboard their trusty ship, the Bebop. The series’ protagonist is Spike Spiegel; a reckless maverick who’s somewhere between Casanova and Deckard from Blade Runner. He has a tragic backstory and wouldn’t look out of place jamming on the harmonica.
But then you have Jet Black, the burly pilot of the Bebop and voice of reason – though often ignored by everyone else – who used to serve in the police force. Faye Valentine, a beautiful, plain-talking gambler with no memory of her past and incredibly tight-fitting clothes. There’s Radical Ed, the esoteric teen-something that can hack into anything and remains the show’s comic relief, as well as Ein, a Welsh corgi with the intellect and sentience of a full human being.
Like I said, ragtag. The series – 26 episodes long – deals with their wacky and wild adventures, taking on bounties and getting into all sorts of trouble. There’s laughter, sadness, secrets revealed and questions unanswered. Gunfights, betrayals, hostage situations and coups. Crime syndicates, magic mushroom salesmen and, well, cowboys.
But as with all shows, there is at least some story arc weaving itself throughout – though, admittedly, in Bebop’s case, it’s pretty thin. We know that cigarette-toting Spike has a secret; some former flame named Julia he lost long ago. We know he has a vengeance against a guy named Vicious (complete with katana and immovable scowl). But for most of the show, that’s it. In fact, it’s only really in the last two episodes that we get any kind of exposition. And there it’s thrown at us all at once. A climactic finale that barely has space to get a breath in. In that regard, it’s not too dissimilar to another big anime from the 1990s, Neon Genesis Evangelion (though the finale of that anime is a bit less crystal-clear).
It can be hard to fully empathise with Spike, or any of the reminders of his past, when we see so little of it in an already short anime. Yet all these years later, it remains an ending that leaves you full of so many emotions. And questions. The fates of some characters are resolved, and some very much aren’t. What happened to Ed and Ein? Does Faye ever fully unlock the mysterious of her past? Will Andy the cowboy bounty hunter ever catch the right criminal?
To be fair to Bebop, it’s a show that at its core is about mystery, and that of its characters. You learn bits and pieces – scraps of the cast’s former lives, but it’s hardly pulled apart and shown in gruesome detail. It makes sense for the show to end on that same theme. It’s fitting. It’s a neo-noir; they like to be elusive.
But though you may think it’s all dark alleyways and half-shadowed faces, there’s a lot of laughter and general hijinks in the world of Cowboy Bebop. One aspect that really stood out to me was how much the episodes can change, from one to another. In one, it’s a nightmarish fever dream of a clown-like villain, set against the backdrop of a liminal space; the defunct ‘Spaceland’. It’s complete with animatronics, large, open spaces and creeping parades which move by their own. The next episode, it’s a fantastical quest for the ‘Sun Stone’. Then it’s a Clint Eastwood pastiche, then a plotline about a cult obsessed with uploading their souls to the digital world, abandoning their physical bodies. It’s Serial Experiments Lain meets real-life Heaven’s Gate (the culmination of which only happened a year prior to Bebop’s release).
And that’s what works. It’s never really a show that takes itself seriously. Even as Spike Siegel descends the stairs after his final fight, he shows us he’s playful by nature, indifferent to sincerity and finding flippancy in every moment. Not to say the climax doesn’t pack an emotional punch, but the journey there isn’t grim and gritty all the time.
In that vein, it must be compared to it’s more flamboyant, family-friendly cousin, Outlaw Star (a similar anime series also produced by Sunrise that aired around the same time – I reviewed that series a little while back). Star centres on the maverick bounty hunter, Gene Starwind – who loves women and, well, himself – with a rocky past he fears catching up with him. He has a younger brother, the voice of sensibility. And the two of them journey the stars, looking for bounties, with the help of an interesting cast of crewmates…
Yeah, they’re very similar. But Outlaw Star wasn’t half as successful as Bebop (though still received generally positive reviews), so it never really gets a mention. Bebop is certainly darker – Star’s colour palette is done up to ten and feels more like a Saturday morning show for the kids. It even got an edited broadcast on Cartoon Network.
Cowboy Bebop meanwhile feels a little more grown up. But very much only a little. Despite its legendary status, it is, at its core, a silly anime about a bunch of people who don’t get along (but really love eachother) encountering all sorts of weird, wonderful, wacky stuff. And that’s why you care so much about each and every character. They’re so human. How many shows can honestly lay claim to so many likable characters? They all have a certain charm about them. And that’s why, ultimately, you really care when they go through pain, heartbreak, and the odd battle with death.
There was even a subsequent movie release in 2001, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door/ Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (depending on territory), a welcome extension to the series that takes place between episodes 22 and 23 of the original anime. Once more we’re greeted to a flawless cast that shine in every moment. It has a captivating story, cerebral undertones and more moments of genius between Spike and, well, everyone else. None of it feels too long or too short, and it perfectly exhibits why we fall in love with the Bebop’s crew.
I could go on for hours and hours, but it wouldn’t change anything. Cowboy Bebop will always be seen as one of the best pieces of anime – nay, television – ever created. And I’d agree with that. If you’re new to anime, if you’ve never really given it a shot but are curious as to what all the hype’s about, it’s a stellar gateway into the genre. It’s funny, it’s serious, and every episode has a whole galaxy of depth to explore.
You care about our Spike, and his journey is one I’ll never get tired of. I might be late to the party, but I already know it’s a show I’ll think about for quite some time. It’s definitely one that warrants a rewatch every year, or sooner – falling in love with the characters all over again and smiling as they progress onwards to their final destination, wherever it may be.
I guess all there’s really left to say is: see you, space cowboy. I know we’ll meet again soon.