“Cowboy Bebop”: 3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam!

romanticHappy Friday! I’ve been putting off this review for a while. I’ve started and paused many a sentence for a post like this, but was held back by the fear that I wouldn’t be able to do the show justice. Then I realized if I kept putting it off, it wouldn’t matter, so I bit the bullet and here we are.

We hear a lot about “gateway” stuff. It’s usually with a negative connotation, related to drugs, porn or alcohol, where the “gateway” thing will lead you down the forsaken path of no return. But in my opinion there are some positive “gateway” things.

“Cowboy Bebop” is one such thing: it’s what I’d like to call a gateway anime.

It can be argued that a lot anime feature films straight out of Japan can do the same thing; but if you have a friend who just won’t commit to a show, has an appreciation for good art, great characters, and a fantastic setting, I implore you to push “Cowboy Bebop” to them or yourself.

“Cowboy Bebop” was first introduced in America on [adult swim] on Cartoon Network in the early 2000s, and it still owns a slot in their lineup to this day! It’s a standalone show that doesn’t require any prior viewing or source material, and was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, one of the premier cinematic directors of our time. And I don’t just say cinematic like large-scale “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings”-size projects or something, no. Watanabe has an eye for fascinating stories that grip your imagination and don’t let go until the ride is over. With every project he does, he has this way of taking a story that looks small on paper, and making it feel like an epic to behold (if you don’t believe me, also take a look at “Samurai Champloo” and “Kids on the Slope,” two more fantastic anime projects of his that do this same thing).

“Cowboy Bebop” is his brain-child, a raucous blend of noir mystery, kooky characters, jazz music, western and science fiction homages. Let’s break down why this show is worth a watch and worth the hype.

The Music of Yoko Kanno

Before we delve too much into why this music weirdly works for this cross-genre, please watch the video below of the title sequence for the show. Go on. This post will still be here when you get back.

If you play the opening two seconds from that opening song for any anime fan, I can guarantee you 9 times out of 10 they will instantly know where that’s from, even if they’ve never seen the show. It’s one of the most unique title sequences for a TV show ever, very James Bond. The only other ones that have given me chills like that are the openings for “Samurai Champloo” and “Baccano!” (two other crazy genre-bending anime that defy belief).

Yoko Kanno is a composer that is beyond compare. I would dare to compare her work to Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Danny Elfman and more. Any film student can tell you that music sets the mood on the screen, and this woman has done more for anime/TV show soundtracks than some of Hollywood’s greats can do for films. A lot of shows I love, I started watching simply because I knew she was doing the soundtrack. She’s that fantastic and spot-on with her work.

Instead of the typical resounding sounds of space opera epics, like the horns in “Star Wars” or the BWAAAAAA of “Inception”, Yoko Kanno was able to convey Watanabe’s vision by crossing jazz, rock, and ballads with spaceships. And it works! Just like jazz itself, “Cowboy Bebop” is an unpredictable adventure of sight and sound. Kanno knew when to pump up the tempo with percussion, and when to wind down with a harmonica or a few plucks on the guitar.

No other genre of music could fit best with the shenanigans that ensue on this show. The soundtrack to this anime has somewhat of a cult following now, spanning multiple CDs by Yoko Kanno and her collaborated band, The Seatbelts. Give it a listen on YouTube!

Hollywood and Science Fiction Nods

IMG_1505What really engrossed me about this show was that in spite of its futuristic setting, it was narratively nostalgic. “Cowboy Bebop” draws inspiration from great science fiction tropes and old Hollywood films.

The main character, Spike, is a student of Bruce Lee’s style of martial arts, and his fight scenes are so beautifully animated and very reminiscent of Bruce Lee. There’s no repeat of the same five frames like in “Dragonball Z,” but fluid motions that keep the viewer engaged. For more detailed fight scenes, I recommend watching “Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” the stand-alone film that was released in 2001. It contains the best animated, mano a mano, fight scenes I’ve ever seen.

In terms of science fiction Hollywood that “Cowboy Bebop” pays homage to, there’s tons you can pick up, whether it was intentional on Watanabe’s part or not. Let’s take a look at a list I’ve compiled:

  • “Alien” – The episode titled “Toys in the Attic” is about a strange creature that’s loose on the ship and is infecting everyone. This episode was legitimately frightening at some points, as it ended with Spike having to search for the creature in the dark by himself.
  • “2001: A Space Odyssey” – One part of the Bebop ship is a rotational walkway, very reminiscent of the ship in “2001.” There is also at least one episode that delves into the questions of artificial intelligence.
  • “Star Wars” – From the deserts of Tatooine-like planets, to the personal ships shaped eerily like TIE Fighters, I dare say “Star Wars” must’ve been an influence somewhere.
  • “Mad Max” – Could just be me, but there’s a heck of a lot of desert planets in this show. And like Mad Max, our heroes are often the reluctant saviors of an unexpecting public.
  • Spaghetti Westerns – There’s one episode where the crew meet another bounty hunter who is, honest to God, trying to emulate a real-life cowboy with a horse, lasso, and everything. In space! It’s one or the more hilarious episodes in the show.

The Quintessential Quintet

This last point is what makes the show such a jewel: the characters, in this case Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed, and Ein the corgi. You can’t have a good show without characters who have interesting backstories and motivations. It’s rule number one in storytelling.

Take Spike for example: at the opening of the very first episode there’s a flashback to his past, and you don’t know what’s going on. But you can already tell that it has affected him in some way, and over the course of the episodes you slowly start piecing it together. Jet does not have flashbacks (not often, at least), and you learn about his past by the reconnections he makes with people that the crew runs into. Faye and Ed are practically a mystery for the entire show, but Faye gets her own story episodes that clear up a lot of questions about why she is the way she is. And Ein, well…Ein is a corgi with enhanced intelligence, and the sole reason that a lot of your friends want to name their dogs Ein.

This odd quintet of characters are exactly my cup of tea: different personalities haphazardly thrown together through fate and circumstance, and who stick together for great adventures. Put it to you this way: if you loved Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” and how that whole crew came together, I frickin’ guarantee that you will love the “Bebop” crew just as much.

Side Note: The English voice cast of “Cowboy Bebop” did a phenomenal job. A lot of die-hard otakus will poopoo on the English dubs, preferring the pure Japanese subs of any show. But most fans agree that the “Cowboy Bebop” English dub is one of the best, if not the best, cast that was pulled together. And you’ll definitely recognize Spike’s voice.

“You’re Gonna Carry That Weight”

If that wasn't enough, this damn show is now heralded on the back of my car.
If that wasn’t enough, this damn show is now heralded on the back of my car.

For those who have not seen the show yet, know that those words above are going to stay with you by the end of the show and long after. Summer is here, and folks have a lot of time to kill. But I implore you to please put the Netflix aside and give “Cowboy Bebop” a try. You can find a lot of the episodes on YouTube, Hulu, Funimation, or through other streaming services. Or if you’re a nut like me, you cough up the bucks for the Blu-Ray collection and salivate over every detail.

This is probably the longest blog I’ve written so far. But it was worth the rant.

“Cowboy Bebop”: the gateway anime and a cinematic experience like no other.

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