Nineteen years ago, during the year 1998, a Space Western anime was released by the name of Cowboy Bebop, an anime that would go on to become one of the finest pieces of animation ever made. Adapted and completely redesigned from its manga counterpart, with direction by Shinichirō Watanabe, this 26-episode long, seinen neo-noir anime series would continue to astound fans of the medium for decades to come.
While this is going to be a review on the anime series in its entirety, I want to point out that this may not be like my other reviews. I don’t just want to prattle about how good the animation is, or how fantastic the music composition is. I may briefly touch on the standard characteristics that usually go into my reviews for the medium, however, today I want to discuss with you guys a few of the facets that truly makes Cowboy Bebop an astounding artistic masterpiece; a true classic for even more decades to come.
Cowboy Bebop follows the exploits of a ragtag crew of bounty hunters that end up coming together through various circumstances on the ship known simply as Bebop. We get to watch them manoeuvre their way through a mine field of galactic criminals that are ripe (and occasionally not so ripe at all) with woolongs (currency), awkward interactions with each another as well as blasts from their pasts, and plenty of blazing space and bullet-infused battles.
The episodes for the show tend to be very episodic in nature, usually in two-parts, with stunning fluidity from one space romp to the next. Even though most of the episodes are unrelated, there’s never a disjointed feeling of randomness, or having any kinds of fillers simply to bulk out the serial. It all fits wonderfully. Everything just belongs, nothing more and nothing less. When we do have story-specific arcs, they are laced with emotional intensity and the complexities that go with having a past you’re not so fond of. There’s so much grey in between the black and white that each character is portrayed to be multidimensional and so much more than a pretty face, or an intellectual genius.
The chemistry between all of the members of Bebop is one of my absolute favourite elements. They are flawed as fuck human beings, with quirks that cause a lot of grating disagreements and vexing (for them, not the audience) interactions. Nonetheless, they all have a key component in common that holds them together like a dysfunctional family. No matter how many times they try to walk away, eventually they find themselves back home. This is realistic. It’s believable. It’s something to connect with. Some will have a much more intimate relation to it than others. It’s comforting.
As I mentioned earlier, the animation, regardless of being almost 20 years old, still holds up really damn well. The power is in the details, literally. There are so many details that went into establishing the environments within the series that the best way to describe it is breath-taking. Whether the setting is the interior (or even exterior) of a ship, space itself, planets with crumbling or bustling cities, the characters themselves and the expressions that they make—it’s all extremely astounding. These little soft lines and harsh curves with unique shades of red, blue, and orange all create the mood and tone for which makes Bebop a bona-fide neo-noir experience.
Even with all of these awesome traits, none of it really means anything if you can’t look beyond the animation and the cast to see just how far ahead of its time Cowboy Bebop truly was.
It’s 1998 and gender roles are getting less defined. This show broke gender moulds back then, and it continues to do so in the modern age. You have women, beautiful women and average women and women from all walks of life in regards to race, ethnicity, etc., who are never judged for being just that. They are portrayed as very strong, independent ass-kickers. It didn’t matter if they were criminals, heroes, or in between somewhere. The women in the show are some of the most intelligent people, and it’s never questioned or treated like it’s some kind of phenomenon. Good examples of badass ladies include Faye Valentine, Julia, and a very special bartender who’s a good friend of Spike’s (name’s not given to avoid spoilers).
One of our main characters, Edward, is a teenage girl, but it’s rarely brought up. Hell, her name is Edward. People don’t really care if she’s a she. Ed is a genius and eccentric as all fuck, and quite androgynous. Her brilliance is what makes her a compelling character. Yes, some people do gander at her gender, but it’s more of a passing curiosity. Her ability to do what she does is never doubted or questioned because of her being a girl. Most of the doubt stems from her sensationally unique persona and young age. We have another character in one of the episodes that’s a hermaphrodite. While it’s a bit uncommon, it never becomes the focal point of who he is or what he does. He’s just another person in the galaxy who’s got his own burden to bear.
So, yeah, gender roles and our ridiculous pre-conceived notions of what gender means doesn’t mean shit in this anime. I fucking love it.
A more common motif in the series is the belief that you are always a master of your own choices and leader of your own fate. Life is something to do with what you will, which is clearly exhibited by the decisions taken by our motley crew of criminal hunters, especially as their pasts begin to surface and reveal itself. Allowing yourself to be held back by some predetermined ideals that you may not even believe in isn’t living. The idea of having “obligations” and that there’s always an inherent “right” and “wrong,” is utterly false in the grand scheme of things and don’t account for jack shit if you’re going to be miserable in the end. This motif is beautifully complimented and further ingrained by the music…
Something else that gives the series loads and loads of depth is… the music. I’m sure that anyone reading this review that’s already had a chance to watch this anime was probably wondering when I’d bring this up. Well, here it comes. Hold on to your butts, my friends.
Yōko Kanno is quite possibly one of the most brilliant composers of the modern age. Her work has made appearances in many anime serials across the board from Wolf’s Rain to Terror in Resonance and a few others; each one a magnificent and stellar feat of musical capacities. Yet, I don’t think she can ever really top what she’s accomplished with Cowboy Bebop.
The Seatbelts is the fictitious Japanese space jazz band led by Kanno. The name derives from how the performers wear seatbelts to be safe as they participate in some serious hard-core jam sessions. This band, put together by Kanno, is responsible for all of the music in Cowboy Bebop.
The styles of music utilised is enthrallingly diverse and ranges from straight big band jazz to blues, acoustic ballads, hard rock, and country to funk and electronic. Hip-hop and experimental compositional elements also make their appearances. Aside from sounding extraordinary, the music in and of itself speaks volumes of what the show is about. If you look at most, if not all, of these genres, they began during periods of history where a voice of rebellion needed to rise. It was a means for people to expel their frustrations at life and all of the bullshit that they had to endure. Blues is a very depressing genre, originally created to voice the hardships that came from slavery and oppression. Jazz became a significant boom during the 1920s when war was looming and young folks were forced to fight or choose a side; when a passionate desire for independence was boiling to its peak. This included the rise of women’s empowerment and freedom of choice.
Every genre used to create the tunes began as a fight against being oppressed and having severely limited rights, if you had any to begin with. The music was about growing up and facing your fears and your monsters, to make life what you wanted of it. These genres were all born out of necessity to have something powerful and positive to believe in; a way to share the pain so you could stop it from continuing onwards.
As I mentioned earlier, this theme is apparent in all four members of our cast—Faye Valentine, Jet Black, Spike Spiegel, and even Edward. They all had something they were fighting for and some strong personal beliefs that drove them to become the people that they became; changes that needed to be made so they could be the stronger, better versions of their old selves.
Cowboy Bebop has so much more to it than the few things I’ve mentioned in this insanely long ass review. To be blunt, I wish I could talk about all of them because that’s how much I loved this series. I’m so passionate about it and what it means and what it stands for. But if I chat about everything, then you guys may not want to pick it up (if you haven’t already). I know that hype can have a negative effect on me; look at how long it took me to pick up the series.
While I do regret not picking it up sooner, I’m supremely satisfied with the fact that I waited so long. The world is a terribly different place now than it was in 1998. Not only was I just a child, there honestly wasn’t much that I could’ve related to the show back then as there is now, at least for me as an individual watcher. Maturity aside, I feel like the messages that are shared so passionately and so brilliantly in this anime are far more superior and relevant in 2021 than they would’ve been in 1998. But the fact that is was made 20 years ago, just goes to show you how far ahead of its time it truly was, which further intensifies my love for the science-fiction genre, no matter the medium.
In conclusion, I want to make one thing very clear: Cowboy Bebop is what it is, is as powerful and as remarkable as it is, because everything fits together so nicely. If you remove even one small facet of the show, it would’ve fallen completely apart. The music, any one of the characters (including minor ones), the animation, the motifs—anything at all and it wouldn’t be a work of art. It’s complex and intricate because every single piece makes it so; they’ve all got their place. Lose a single one and you’ve got nothing but a mediocre space western. Details are what create a masterpiece, especially when they’re subtle and natural. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Genre: Space Western, Neo-Noir
Season: Spring 1998
Director: Shinichirō Watanabe
Content Warnings: Strong violence including gun violence, fisticuffs, and space battles. Mild blood. Murders. Deaths. Kidnapping. Suicide ideation and suicide. Alcohol and drug consumption. Smoking. Government corruption. Animal abuse and brief animal death. Sexism and misogyny. Sexual innuendo. Some strong language. Preparation and consumption of food.
AniList: Cowboy Bebop
Streaming: Funimation, Hulu, Anime Lab (Aus), Adult Swim, Tubi