Sometimes, to get a winning formula, you gotta do what George Carlin suggested; glue two things together in a way that’s never been done before. Sunrise took that to the next level, and combined the wild west with sci-fi, then added a ton of nuanced detail nobody saw coming. The result? Cowboy Bebop, and it was a masterstroke. Batshit insane in its composition, but genius nonetheless.
So what we’re looking at is 26 episodes and a movie, and spans about as many genres. Truthfully, the show’s tagline that it is a new genre isn’t that big an exaggeration. You’ve got episodes stealing tropes from the old west, about bounty hunters after their targets, all in for the money. You’ve got an episode about space truckers. An episode about an AI, and so on and so forth. Sci fi, western, noir, action, comedy, this anime has it all. What’s so amazing is that, despite juggling so many balls, it drops none. Not one of the genre shifts is unbelievable, nor do any of them detract from the storyline.
The characters are expertly crafted, and follow their own paths through the show. You’ve got Spike, a bounty hunter hounded by his past working for a criminal syndicate. Spike feels like a man who’s lost his reason to live, who’s lost all hope for the future and is left in a state of constant spiritual lethargy, unable to really raise many emotions besides anger and snarkiness. His partner, Jet, is a man who lost faith in the system he used to uphold. An ex-cop that decided to become a bounty hunter to deal with the cynicism he feels about society’s plight. Faye is a confidence woman, with her emotions blocked off as much as you’d expect from that role. However, she shows cracks in her armor, and thus character development, as the series goes on. Then lastly, you have Ed. An eccentric genius, a computer hacker second to none, and around as crazy as it gets. Ed is a teenage girl, but you often find yourself confusing her for younger, due to the fact she’s very energetic and eccentric. She also only refers to herself in the third person, much as you expect any mad scientist would do.
While there is an overreaching plot, it tends to just be centered on the specific episode. Bounty heads are dealt with in the same episode they come about. Problems tend to get cleaned up (though rarely nicely) in the 20 or so minute span. In fact, there’s only a couple two-parter episodes; Jupiter Jazz about mid season and in the last two episodes of the show. This really helps with the way that genre is handled, as well. Each episode shifts slightly in genre, as well as shifting what is being focused on. One episode will be a campy western, then the next you’re seeing a slice of a space opera, with what appears to be a lot of influence from the 1981 animated movie Heavy Metal. You’d think there’d be a disconnect in the show, every episode, but there really isn’t. You just go from episode to episode, aware of the change in genre and focus, but the effect is a good one. Character doesn’t change, animation style doesn’t change. You’re aware this is the same series, but being very experimental.
The soundtrack to this series is quite amazing. Yoko Kanno formed this band of misfits, Seatbelts, just to perform the jazz and blues soundtrack to the series. There’s some very memorable numbers in there, from the opening song, “Tank!,” to the closing tune, “The Real Folk Blues.” There’s been numerous releases of the soundtrack, and each brings something new to the table. The numbers are snazzy, relaxed, excited even, and if you like jazz or the blues, the soundtracks bring almost as much an appeal as the show itself.
I’m going to put it flat-out, if you like anime, you should have already seen Cowboy Bebop. It is a legendary show, and it changed American perceptions of anime. Hell, a young Tom first watched the show when it was brought over, when he was but a teenager. Now, at 30, he’s watched it again, and let me tell you, it was still as fucking magical as it was at 16. On the off-chance you’ve not seen Cowboy Bebop, I implore you to pick up a copy and give it a go.
(Co-Authored by Tom and Chris King)
(A previous version of this article was published saying that there was only one two-part episodes on the series.)
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