[Synopsis]: In the year 2071, years after the hyperspace gateway on the moon exploded, humanity has scattered amongst the stars and colonized much of the solar system. In order to uphold the law, the Inter-Solar System Police established a contract system which gave way to the profession of bounty hunters referred to as ‘Cowboys’. Former-gangster Spike Spiegel (Yamadera Kouichi) and ex-policeman Jet Black (Ishizuka Unshou) are too such bounty hunters who make their living capturing criminals aboard their spaceship Bebop. In their journeys they are joined by Faye Valentine (Hayashibara Megumi), a con-artist on the run from considerable dept, Edward (Tada Aoi), a young girl and genius hacker, and a genetically-altered Corgi named Ein. Cowboy Bebop follows the unlikely crew’s adventures and mishaps as they pursue various bounties and struggle to come to terms with their respective pasts.
Where else to start but with the show’s extensive list of characters. Cowboy Bebop’s cast is massive. Between the show’s 4 or 5 protagonists and the numerous criminals, smugglers, gangsters, and fugitives they meet, the cast feels diverse and sprawling. While most of the characters appear only episodically, many manage to leave a lasting imprint on the show and though even the main crew lacks significant development, Cowboy Bebop isn’t really that kind of show. It’s not so much about change and transformation as it is about exploration and coming to terms with what’s already there. The entire cast of the show, even its supporting characters, feature the incredibly pervasive theme of moving forward from their own past and what results when they fail to do so. What’s more is these explorations of character are more story than individual investigations and this is where Cowboy Bebop propagates its narrative – in people.
The crew of the Bebop is a lot of fun and each character really brought something unique and relevant to the show. Spike’s lazy indifference, relaxed attitude, and affectionate comradery with Jet really speaks to the tone of the show. He smokes, he fights, and most importantly, he’s cool. This kind of style and audaciousness is what Cowboy Bebop is all about. Beneath it all he represents somebody severely haunted by his past and his inability to confront it further illustrates perhaps the show’s most ubiquitous theme. Jet in a lot of ways serves as a foil to Spike’s recklessness and indifferent nature but what really sells their chemistry is the ways in which they are similar. As a former member of the ISSP – the police force of the solar system – he fully embodies the mature and stern characteristics of the seasoned officer. His wise and considerate nature presents the kind of atmosphere Spike and Faye can return to despite their own demons.
Faye is the last main character I’ll make a note of but it’s important that I do because while Cowboy Bebop doesn’t present much in the way of character development, Faye is the greatest exception to this if only subtly. Faye is tough one to love. She is arrogant, self-centered, and distrustful though these extreme characteristics serve to better juxtapose the way in which she changes once boarding the Bebop. While she never truly loses her bitterness and sarcasm, she does over time learn to confide in her new friends and learn to trust them if only shallowly. Along with Spike, she is a major figure and component in the theme of facing one’s own past and her ultimate resolution and hanging questions contributed greatly to the atmosphere of the show.
The cast of the show was a lot of fun and while some characters were more memorable than others, they all lent themselves excellently to the world and attitude of the show. Backstories were a particularly important thing given Cowboy Bebops’s heavy focus on reflection and the past and the manner in which they are pieced together over time was artful and compelling. The show never approached a character so straightforwardly as with a single hazy flashback but rather with tentative information that charmingly never truly coalesced into a comprehensive understanding of the character. The one major negative thing I will say is in regards to the show’s most notable antagonist – Vicious. He was underexpored, cliche, and an absolute bore on screen. He spoke of nihilism but as far as what his motivation was for what he did or how he related to a number of characters, he remained completely inexplicable.
While the characters were good fun, the visuals were where I think the show succeeded most extravagantly. At the end of the day, I think Cowboy Bebop is an extreme case of style over substance. So much of its appeal and engaging material is grounded in its own presentation. The world for instance looks incredible – displayed through fantastic background art full of very distinctive settings and atmospheres that set each episode apart. Space isn’t something as dismal as a black backdrop peppered by stars but a grand canvas full of imaginative planets, gateways, and spaceships. The cityscapes were especially immersive, populated by stalls, tourists, and workers going about their business in a manner that really brought the show’s backdrop to life.
Then there are the action scenes. Absolute, visual chaos unfolds as the environment is torn to bits and explodes into the frame. If the fantastic fight choreography and animation wasn’t enough, the action sequences bring the backdrop into the foreground in an invigorating and visually impressive display of carnage and debris. This kind of action really lends a visceral and dangerous quality to the show’s firearms and the sequences feel all that more lively when the threat they represent is so legitimized. Cowboy Bebop’s visuals, along with its soundtrack, were absolutely integral in establishing its iconic tone and style and it’s engaging cinematography and fluid animation were very engaging.
While a good handful of stand-alone episodes were quite compelling, Cowboy Bebop’s issues primarily arise within its narrative. The show starts out quite strongly with its first episode. It introduces the viewer to Spike and Jet’s lifestyle as bounty hunters and immediately sets the tone for the show. It is boisterous and immersive yet tinted by a sense of melancholy which is important going forward in understanding the attitude of the show. Cowboy Bebop also references and pays homage to a vast myriad of western films, songs, and pop culture subjects through its cinematography, naming schemes, and even story-lines. Much of this accounts for its popularity and appeal to western audiences among other things and is additionally integral in establishing its own unique style of story – a cultural midpoint and melting pot of diverse ideas and subjects.
Though Cowboy Bebop focuses on a number of things within its space western subject matter and possesses a variety of themes, I think it is first and foremost about people. The show’s episodic format embodies this fact as we meet each new set of characters and learn of their struggles and their relationships – their dreams and their regrets. A decent number of the characters are just plain silly and the show is no stranger to lighthearted, humorous episodes but it also intermittently delves into something more personal and tragic especially in regards to Spike, Jet, and Faye.
Some episodes are definitely stronger than others within this format and while some come off as especially touching or well-written, there are just as many that seem tonally compromised or downright weird. Cowboy Bebop’s episodic approach is full of impressive highs and shallow lows but pervasive lows none the less. Spike’s backstory especially lacks particular context that might have salvaged certain scenes and interactions and Vicious was an absolutely terrible antagonist though he rarely makes an appearance. That being said, the atmosphere and style of the show carries the weaker episodes considerably well and it’s easy to find them enjoyable despite their individual shortcomings.
The other important story-element of Cowboy Bebop is its themes as I’ve eluded to above. Though the sentiment of not being consumed by your own past and learning to confront it is perhaps the most central and prevalent of the themes, there are a long list of topics that manifest within the show’s main cast and episodic characters that contribute to the show’s sorrowful yet hopeful introspection. What it means to live versus merely to survive. Living in the moment and finding something to believe in – giving life meaning and finding fulfillment. Themes of experiences as burdens, abandonment, and the absence of belief are also brought up. Punctuating these ideas are iconic and pertinent catch-phrases and quotes – “Whatever happens, happens”. “Instead of feeling alone in a group, it’s better to be alone in your solitude”. “You’re going to carry that weight”.
Alongside the show’s visuals, Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack is one of its most important elements in establishing its style and atmosphere. Composed by the legendary Kanno Yoko, the soundtrack is absolutely massive, featuring a variety of genres from jazz to classic rock and blues. The sheer diversity and variation of music from episode to episode is impressive enough but truly astonishing when juxtaposed to the show’s visuals and subject matter and the manner in which it reinforces its tone. Cowboy Bebop also presents a large number of insert songs which perpetuate its western influences even further. It’s hard to say where the show begins and the soundtrack ends as they are so effectively linked together.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Cowboy Bebop is unquestionably an iconic and illustrious show and the fashion in which its characters, settings, animation, themes, stories, and soundtrack all come together to form such a complete and tangible style is worthy of this status. In practically every category it has aged fantastically well. It has all the potential to become somebody’s favorite show and if it speaks to you then it speaks to you but I also think that some of the ideas and stories being told here aren’t entirely unique which is in part due to the show’s heavy usage of references and homages. The stand-alone episodes are rather hit or miss and while all of them are ultimately enjoyable, only a handful of them live up to the show’s uppermost potential and become truly memorable.
Cowboy Bebop is a fantastic example of style over substance and it succeeds extensively within this approach. Its characters, visuals, and soundtrack are all a ton of fun and it is only in the show’s narrative that it displays any real weakness. Despite excellent story telling, some episodes just feel out of place or slightly off-tone and not every episode is able to live up to the prodigious bar set by some of their fellows. It’s themes could have been fleshed out a little more however the show’s distant, idle musings about people and the world better fit the atmosphere. The show is certainly on the cusp of being an 8 and its easy to imagine it reaching as far as a 9 or a 10 for people who are more enthralled with its story or characters.
Because of its western influences and variety of musical styles, Cowboy Bebop certainly presents a vary wide appeal. I would recommend it to any fans of the space western genre as that subject matter is the heart and soul of the show and I can’t think of anywhere else it’s been done to the same degree. Those who find that they enjoy thoughtful, episodic shows will feel right at home as well as anybody looking for a truly explosive action show.