A Little Context
For those of you out of the loop, Anime ABC’s is a series where I review an anime for each letter of the alphabet in order. Typically these are longer-form essays where I try something unique/different each time. This round should be Q, but instead I hosted a redemption round since there just aren’t a ton of Q anime. The winner of that vote was the famed Cowboy Bebop. Now that you know what’s going on, let’s dive right into the review.
When it came time to eventually sit down and write up this review for Cowboy Bebop I really struggled with what I wanted to cover. A lot has already been said regarding this series, and much of it far better than I could do. This anime is clearly worth your time, it is regarded extremely well in the community and is a staple for any fan. You likely don’t need me to tell you that’s the case, but you might be wondering why. That’s what I’d like to discuss today: What exactly makes Cowboy Bebop so worthwhile?
The best place to start with this discussion is at the beginning. Spring 1998, which brought us other classics like Trigun, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Initial D. All of these shows have their own following, and are pretty well respected in the community, however, none of these quite took off like Cowboy Bebop. It wasn’t until 2001 that things really took off for the series though.
In 2001 Cowboy Bebop was the first anime to broadcast on Adult Swim (later Toonami), a popular late-night television block in the US, which was met with huge success. As a result the series was put on regular rotation, even through to 2018. Despite being a later time slot, the program was enjoyed by many adults and younger audiences alike.
At the time, Cowboy Bebop was a stark contrast to shows that aired alongside it. Telling a serious adult oriented story with strong characters, writing, music, and direction in an animated medium was not yet common. Bolstered by its grade A dub, this lead to an eventual explosion of other anime to air on the same American network, even to this day.
For this reason, Cowboy Bebop plays a critical roll in anime’s eventual success in the Western market. However, there are yet more factors that I haven’t discussed that allowed the show to standout like it did. The reason I bring all this up though, is that the historical relevance is a reason so many fans point to this show as one to watch. Of course that also means it is clouded in nostalgia for some viewers, but in this case Cowboy Bebop definitely transcends that bias.
As I already mentioned, the show aired with a powerhouse dub. Up until this point, most dubs for anime were pretty bad. Not all of them, but a good majority. This is coming from a dub guy who has watched some older dubs, and they are nowhere near as good as even a contemporary “bad” dub is. For the first time really, a dub of high caliber was produced and released in a way that a ton of people got exposed to it, setting a sort of precedence for later productions.
Not only that, but Cowboy Bebop also feels very Western in the types of stories it tells. It follows a group of down-on-their-luck bounty hunters as they go about their lives. I’m really not the best one for explaining this, but the whole concept of the show is one that resonated with folks at the time, and even does so today.
Part of that lies in the themes. At its core, Cowboy Bebop is about a group of people all trying to outrun their past. They want to leave it behind, but we all know that your past eventually catches up to you. It’s in stark contrast to the futuristic sci-fi setting. This dichotomy would be something series creator, Shinichirō Watanabe would later go on to explore further in future works.
Finally, the last piece that played in concert with all this for the perfect storm of elements that practically guaranteed success was its soundtrack by famed composer, Yoko Kanno. Each track is a standout out by its own right, most of which are provocative jazz arrangements. Kanno even went as far as to form a band, The Seatbelts, for Bebop’s OP, “Tank!”.
Additionally, each episode was a title of a popular song which tied the music heavily to the thematic relevance of the series itself. Everything from the ground up was carefully crafted in a way that almost seemed to cater to a Western audience as opposed to a Japanese one. It really shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Cowboy Bebop actually didn’t perform that well in Japan initially.
Let’s move into some of the more specific reasons why folks often recommend you watch the show. Obviously, the history is fairly interesting and the show having a more Western appeal is part of it, but clearly there must be more to it than that because it almost feels like this is a mandatory item on every anime viewer’s list. I’ve already hinted at the strong presentation and how it all works together to tell the story, but let’s dive a bit deeper into that.
One particular aspect of the show is just how much variety there is. Throughout the 26 episodes you get a little bit of every genre filtered through an almost spaghetti western lens. You’re going to see tragedy, comedy, romance, completely serious episodes, totally random episodes, noir, and more. While this may seem like it’d make Cowboy Bebop totally inconsistent, it really doesn’t. There’s a level of consistency that is maintained throughout that keeps everything grounded.
With all that you do have an overarching narrative going on for each of the main characters that’s spaced out as you watch. It means that there is going to be something for everyone in here with little breaks in the more heavy moments, breathing room basically. It’s not the first, nor certainly the last show to have taken this approach, but there is a quality about how it is all executed that just really speaks to an audience that I don’t think many shows have mastered. The ones that do, are largely from the same director.
Speaking of characters, the cast is highly relevant to the kinds of folks who were watching the show originally. It’s almost a snap-shot in time, but still one of those things that has a fairly timeless appeal to it. Spike is your slick protagonist that is inspired by the likes of Jackie Chan, everything he does is the rule of cool while still being relatable. Faye seems to be your classic Femme Fatal, a common pairing to Spike’s archetype, but her character is largely a front.
Jet is probably the blandest of the bunch, but he is reminiscent of a lot of crime drama protagonists who had a fall from grace. It really doesn’t get more Western than that. We have so many of those (which I do like), so he’s probably the most familiar character initially. Lastly you have Ed, who is… well Ed. You could put Edward into the idiot savant category, but I wouldn’t necessarily do that.
Being honest, Ed easily has the least interesting arc of the bunch. The other cast members “grow” beyond their initial roles, by which I mean that they don’t really change on the whole but you learn the little nuances about them that make them so human.
Don’t even get me started on that iconic ending. Taking everything else aside, it is one of the stronger endings I’ve ever witnessed in my anime watching career. It really sticks with you, or to put it into show terms, “you’re gonna carry that weight”. Not trying to sound deep here, I just don’t have a better way to put it. When a show manages to stick with you like that, even decades later, you know you’ve done something special.
At the end of the day, all this is likely why Bebop was met with so much success here. The fact that things are coached in Western sensibility, phenomenal acting, great animation paired with music, and memorable cast. It is a big melting pot of all of these distinct mis-matched elements that when put together, become something so far beyond itself.
If you need more convincing, here is a video by Super Eyepatch Wolf
This isn’t to say that the anime is flawless, because it totally isn’t. Some individual episodes aren’t that great, pacing can be a bit too slow at times, and I already mentioned that Ed’s arc isn’t the best. However, it would be ludicrous to deny the leaps and bounds Cowboy Bebop took for anime, especially here in the West. So if you were wondering why so many people push this show, I hope you have a better understanding after reading this.
As promised, I’ll be taking a look at the film as well for this series. Expect to see that in a week or so. I’d love to hear why you think Cowboy Bebop has become such a staple for anime fans and why you would recommend it to folks in the comments below. If you feel like supporting my effort here, please utilize the donation button. Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful day!