TL;DR – Its music, story, animation, worldbuilding, and characters that you really care for even though they are all broken in some way
A while back I took a moment to write about Why I loved Star Trek DS9 and since it was a great time of writing I have been meaning to get back at it again. I had a couple of choices but with the announcement that Netflix is producing a ten-episode live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop, well I got instantly dragged back in time to my high school days when the show rippled through my life with every beat of those conga drums, and well I instantly knew what to do next. Why Cowboy Bebop? Well, there are a lot of reasons, the music, story, animation, characters, but more than anything, it was the way it shaped how I viewed television and animation as a medium and got me more and more interested with how it is all made. It is also one of the go-to shows, as well as Samurai Champloo (サムライチャンプル), that I recommend whenever someone want to start exploring animation. So with that in mind let us dive into the neo-noir space-western from Shinichirō Watanabe (渡辺 信一郎) all about trying to escape the past and then realising that you can’t, and then also Ed, hello Ed.
In the Cowboy Bebop world, the human race has expanded out into the Solar System when the first Astral Gate (a faster than light transport system) exploded next to The Moon raining down Luna debris on Earth. The world had one choice escape or die on Earth and so they expanded out terraforming the Moons of Jupiter, Venus, creating the crater cities of Mars, and also Asteroid outposts across the Solar System like Tijuana (TJ). By 2071, because the human race is spread out across such a large region of space it has meant that enforcing law and order has become a challenge, so the powers at be implemented a bounty system and so Cowboys spread out chasing bounties and bringing back criminals to face justice … for a fee of course. This is where we meet our crew of the Bebop the ship they travel around the Solar System catching criminals while trying not to have to spend all its bounty on repairs.
The first area we need to look at is the world building because it is here where it stands out from a lot of its peers. A lot of shows present a future world that is very mono-cultural, weather that be American, British, or in the case of Anime Japanese. However, the one thing you see right off the bat is how just multi-cultural the world is. In the first episode, or session as the show calls them, Asteroid Blues (アステロイド・ブルース) is set on the asteroid Tijuana that draws inspiration from Mexican, Persian, and Turkish sources, as well as having signs in English, Chinese, Russian, and more. It is this mix of cultures and people, that makes sense in the show’s lore, but also makes the show more dynamic and reflective of the world we currently live in. It also gives the animators a much larger palate to draw from when creating the worlds, and characters. This gives every place a character and texture and makes it feel like a real place. This grounding of the world and place is important because without it some of the more fantastical elements or high-drama set pieces could have derailed the whole process.
The world-building brings you in, but it is the characters that keep you engaged with the whole thing as the series builds and then starts to unravel around them all. We start of course with Spike Spiegel (Kōichi Yamadera/Steve Blum) a man running from his past so fast he loops back around and smashes into it a full force. Spike’s former life was working for the Red Dragon crime syndicate where he was betrayed by his former partner Vicious (Norio Wakamoto/Skip Stellrecht) after trying to escape the syndicate with Julia (Gara Takashima/Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) his current and Vicious’ former lover. Assumed dead he becomes a bounty hunter or cowboy but all that pain and loss continues to mark who he is. Spike is an embodiment of dichotomy, he is a slob but also fluid with his fighting, he is charismatic but also can’t help but push people away, he is caring but then also just out for the money. This creates someone that is neither a traditional hero nor even an anti-hero but something a little different. It is this complexity that makes him so engaging to watch and makes you feel for him when it all goes wrong.
As well as Spike the Bebop is filled with all sorts of fascinating characters that make every episode a joy to watch. There is Jet Black (Unshō Ishizuka/Beau Billingslea) who is the unofficial leader/dad of the group by virtue of him owning the Bebop. There is very little that Jet can’t do as he is a mechanic, cook, pilot, fighter, also a bonsai enthusiast. Jet is also running from a past, as there is a reason that he has an artificial arm but he uses that to bring people together (reluctantly) rather than push them away. Then there is Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara/Wendee Lee) who could have been a very one-note character with her very fan-service style character design. However, this is all a mask that she uses after learning some hard (and maybe wrong) lessons through betrayal. She is also someone that is unstuck from this time and trying then to find herself within it. Of course, we have Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV or Radical Edward or just Ed (Aoi Tada/Melissa Fahn). Ed is the chaotic element of the crew who helps with their excellent hacking skills, but also not above testing some mushrooms on the crew before they had some. Oh, and of course there is Ein (Kōichi Yamadera) who is the goodest of boys.
It is fascinating that they were able to pack so much in what was only one season of 26 sessions (episodes). The season is split between one-off ‘capture-of-the-week’ plotlines and then the overarching storyline that pops up throughout the season. It is a formula that suits Science Fiction really well and you see it used for effect in shows like Fringe, Farscape, and The 4400. Here it gives us the ability to travel across the Solar System visiting new places each week without getting bogged down. It also allows for more time spent building the characters as we get to see what drives them, with many of the big story arc episodes being more about finding out about their past than driving us forward to the future. It also helps that from the nature of the show, quite often like the characters, you don’t know when you are about to walk into a big set-piece moment, or if it is going to be a bit of a lighter episode. Which means that you can get the infectious laughter of Mushroom Samba (マッシュルーム・サンバ) and the deeply emotional Speak Like a Child (スピーク・ライク・ア・チャイルド) back to back.
Now as I said right back at the start, one of the reasons I wanted to write about this show is how it influenced me in how I viewed television and animation as a medium. Well, how Cowboy Bebop did this was through one of its most powerful mediums, music. Shinichirō Watanabe has always incorporated music deeply into his works as a way of reinforcing the story through providing convergence that speaks across cultural divides, or in the case of Samurai Champloo to highlight the juxtaposition of the story and tone. Whatever the situation, music is at the core of his works and the power of that shows in every beat of the drum, every rhythm track, and in every vocal power ballad. In Cowboy Bebop, much of the show’s music comes from the genius mind of Yoko Kanno (菅野 よう子) a prolific and wonderful composer in the anime genre. For the show, she assembled an ensemble group called Seatbelts (シートベルツ) to perform many of the different types of music used throughout the show. What sort of music do they play? Well, the internal mythology of the band is that they are called Seatbelts because they need to use them to keep them safe during their jamming sessions and that is not the best thing you heard today then what was it because it must be great news.
At the core of the music in the show is an embrace of the many different types of Jazz, the show is called Bebob after all. For this, you can get some good old fashioned blues with The Real Folk Blues, haunting uses of the saxophone in Cosmos, and a good old fashioned jam with Don’t Bother None. But it is not just jazz, this show covers nearly the whole gamete of musical sound. You can get lounge singing with Adieu performed by Emily Bindiger, renditions of British Brass Ensembles with Waste Land, Classical Guitar work from Pierre Bensusan in ELM, Harmonica dirges like Digging My Potato, some more J-Pop sounds with Cats on Mars by Gabriela Robin, Classical Japanese instrumental work in Eyeball, Country and Western, well more western than country, with Go Go Cactus Man, we dive into Heavy Metal with Masaaki Endoh & Gabriela Robin’s Live in Baghdad, heck there is even chiptune with Old School Game. I can’t remember a series that can have such wildly divergent musical themes and sources where you can be in a piano bar in one minute and rave in the next and it still all works together. And you betta believe that I had the soundtrack on blast as I wrote this article, which may not have been good for productivity but was great for my soul.
The eclectic mix of music is not just part of the musical soundscape, it is baked into every aspect of the show. Every episode title is a reference to a style of music or a particular song, and there are echoes of these styles throughout the episodes themselves in the musical motifs but in the story moments. I mean they call each of the episodes sessions as if they were making an album and you feel that in the shows DNA. You feel it in the flow of the animation, you feel it in the flow of the story, and you hear it in your heart as it breaks at the same time as the characters. In much of modern media these days, the soundtrack is almost designed to fall into the background and that is not the case here. Indeed, the opening credit song Tank slaps you in the face with a trumpet barrage before bringing in some soulful double basses to mellow your heart before sliding into my DMs with a saxophone chorus. Or there is the joy that comes from watching Ed and Ein chase down a bad guy on their motorized scooter as Tulivu-Donna Cumberbatch blasts out the names for different asteroid colonies (Africa, Mexico, Sicily, Tijuana, India, Osaka, Indonesia) in the truly delightful Mushroom Hunting.
However, more than just being good song choices, the music in Cowboy Bebop goes deeper than that. Which we can see by looking at one of the first episodes to real crystalize the direction on the series Ballad of Fallen Angels (堕天使たちのバラッド). In the Session, we get to find out a lot about Spike’s past, including hints as to why he was left dead with a rose. But we also hear that musically throughout the episode, as the slow reveal as to what is happening comes into play. We get this first felling of oncoming dread with the use of Ave Maria, in an opera setting, one of the few times the show used an already established musical piece but boy does it work as it immediately puts you on edge. While this is happening Spike is visiting someone from his past and it is here that we get Waltz for Zizi. In that classic ¾ time, we get a song that is wistful for a lost past, a comforting want that we hope we can reclaim, but there is a knowledge that the past is the past with its bittersweet ending. All of this is leading to the first big confrontation between Spike and Vicious and as we are all feeling that trepidation that something big is about to go down we get the haunting Rain performed by Mai Yamane (山根 麻以). With its pulsating organ chords offsetting some evocative vocals by Yamane, you have this feeling that all is about to be changed and there is no going back. Finally, as Spike has been thrown out of the large stained glass window we get Green Bird, a song in the tradition of a Latin Church hymn, though it is not actually sung in Latin. With the hymn, there is this feeling of longing for the past but also a sense of closure in what has happened. This is matched with Spike taking the few moments as he falls to his probable death to think about how he got to where he is today. It is both the musical and the story climax of the episode. This depth can be found in just about every episode of the series and it can’t help but suck you into this world.
Without a doubt, Cowboy Bebop is a show that will always be with me. It is one of those first shows that taught me that there was more to animation, more to TV than just the usual. You could be bold, you could be brash, you could be sexy, you could be vulnerable, you could be attached to your past without realising it, you could be learning the wrong lessons from your hardship, you could be a chaotic ball of energy, you could flow like you were water, you could be the goodest of boys, and you could be smashed off your face on bad mushrooms if you are not careful. It is a joy to watch, a joy to listen to, and it will always have a place in my heart.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Cowboy Bebop
Directed by – Kunihiro Mori, Ikurô Satô, Yoshiyuki Takei, Shinichirō Watanabe, Tetsuya Watanabe & Hirokazu Yamada
Written by – Akihiko Inari, Keiko Nobumoto, Sadayuki Murai, Dai Satô, Ryôta Yamaguchi, Michiko Yokote & Shinichirō Watanabe
Created by – Hajime Yatate
Showrunner – Shinichirō Watanabe
Music by – Yôko Kanno & The Seatbelts
Japanese Cast – Kôichi Yamadera, Unshô Ishizuka, Megumi Hayashibara & Aoi Tada with Gara Takashima & Norio Wakamoto
English Cast – Steve Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee & Melissa Fahn with Mary Elizabeth McGlynn & Skip Stellrecht