Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format — check out our other picks for the most important titles in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, which every library should own.
What’s it about?
Cowboy Bebop is an anime series that presents the exploits of intergalactic bounty hunters as they venture throughout Earth’s planetary colonies in search of wanted criminals and other unsavory individuals. Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, and Faye Valentine make up the crew of the Bebop, a weathered but dependable spaceship that serves as home for these space-faring guns for hire. They are assisted by Edward, an aloof master hacker, and a hyper intelligent Welsh corgi named Ein. Together, this ragtag band of mercenaries bounce around through space looking for work to satiate their empty bellies and bank accounts.
Cowboy Bebop earned its reputation as a critically acclaimed series because it showcases the depth and complexity of the main cast, building a fascinating and well developed world that these characters live in, and wrapping the experience together with a memorable soundtrack performed by a live jazz group. Each of these individual elements come together quite nicely, giving the show a significant amount of charm and a distinct identity.
The heroes and villains of Cowboy Bebop stand out as their individual beliefs and values are put to the test through a multitude of challenges that define their personalities. Out of the entire crew of the Bebop, Spike, Jet, and Faye prove to be the show’s most interesting characters. They are united by their own personal tragedies and shady histories. Each of them bring to the table a past that has left them emotionally, or in some cases, physically scarred and broken. Painful as those injuries are, it is those experiences that define them. Jet, an ex-cop who was injured in the line of duty by corrupt officers, has become a jack of all trades and near master of all. He uses his skills as a former cop to track down bounties, shows exceptional skill in games of strategy, and has a passion for bonsai. Faye Valentine, a femme fatale and amnesiac, lives a conflicted lifestyle. She is desperate for money in order to pay off a massive debt but has developed a gambling addiction, causing her to throw away reward money faster than she can earn it. Spike Spiegel, emerging as the real star of the show, is prone to laziness and chooses to ignore bounty opportunities that don’t interest him. An expert in gun warfare and martial arts, Spike has a tendency to be incredibly cocky, though his proficiency in combat has earned him that right. Spike is a true man of mystery, and very little is known about his past until he is forced to confront it. Coping with one’s past is a major theme in Cowboy Bebop. Faye is the only character who actively tries to find out what happened to her while Jet and Spike are comfortable to let sleeping dogs lie—that is, until they are forced into situations that reacquaint them with old ghosts.
The universe that Jet, Spike, Faye, Edward, and Ein play in is just as interesting as the characters themselves. Set in the distant future, mankind has moved away from Earth out of necessity. Earth has been battered and bruised after a hyperspace gate located near the moon malfunctions and explodes. Colonizing the solar system’s inner planets, humans live on in a new civilization that bears similarities to Joss Whedon’s Firefly television series. Although humans have mastered faster-than-light travel, they still use automobiles to get around and shoot at each other with standard firearms. Planets and moons closest to Mars are modern, comfortable, and technologically advanced while frontier worlds are governed by the old world sensibilities of the Wild West. Bounty hunters are colloquially known as “cowboys” who regularly tune into “Big Shot,” a light hearted, Western-themed version of America’s Most Wanted starring slick cowboy Punch and cute cowgirl Judy. Throughout the show, there is attention to every type of person trying to eke out an existence, from criminal syndicate enforcers to blue collar space truckers, giving the show’s universe a genuine “lived in” feeling.
No discussion of Cowboy Bebop is complete without addressing its soundtrack. Though the characters and world building drive the series forward, the music by Yoko Kanno and The Seatbelts gives it heart, soul, and a high sense of style. The music of Cowboy Bebop employs a variety of different musical styles, most notably blues and jazz as well as subgenres including bebop and fusion. In any anime series, there is much consideration for the opening and closing credits and the songs produced for both. I normally skip them after the first time, but not so with Cowboy Bebop. The music is so well done, so incredibly produced that it can easily be enjoyed by itself, making the purchase of the show’s numerous soundtracks a wise investment.
Cowboy Bebop remains one of the most popular anime series of all time, having earned top honors in many “Best Of” and “Top 10” lists from numerous print and online sources. The show ranked second in Newtype USA’s 2004 Top 25 Anime Of All Time and earned recognition in the 1999 and 2000 Anime Grand Prix awards. The success of Cowboy Bebop spawned a short-lived manga series, a feature film and video game. Besides its critical accolades, the influence of Shinichiro Watanabe’s slick direction has carried over into his other productions, Samurai Champloo and, more recently, Space Dandy.
Cowboy Bebop is the perfect gateway show for those looking to break into the world of Japanese animation as it is readily accessible and lacks some of the more notorious elements the format is known for. The show relies heavily on high quality animation, thoughtful storytelling, and deep, complex characters while simultaneously avoiding gratuitous violence and sexuality.
Why should you own this?
Cowboy Bebop has withstood the test of time, becoming the genre’s most talked about and revered television series and an essential addition to any personal or organizational library. With a long lasting and influential legacy, it is easily accessible to each and every type of anime fan.
Editor’s note: Sadly, Cowboy Bebop has long been unavailable for purchase, but Funimation has now acquired the rights and will be releasing the series on both DVD and Blu-Ray in 2014. Keep your eyes peeled for the official release date, and no doubt the Blu-Ray will be especially popular as it is the first time the series will be released in that format.
Funimation, forthcoming in 2014
Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe
650 minutes, Number of discs: 6, DVD
Company Age Rating: 13-up
Related media: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Sony Pictures)