We touched on Cowboy Bebop briefly in one of our anime must-watch guides, but it’s about time to give this groundbreaking series its own proper due. From its modest 26 episode run, Cowboy Bebop has gained a steady cult following by the year, being renowned as one of the most influential anime series of all time as well as one of the few anime series to make IMDB’s top-rated TV viewer poll list.
Netflix has a live action series cooking and has already made plans to shoot season 2 before season 1 even releases. Now you’re all groaning “Ugh, Netflix live action anime!” We hear you, honestly, but Cowboy Bebop is the kind of formula that could withstand even the Netflix sausage grinder of mediocrity.
(A side bar about Netflix: Once upon a time, network-original television also sucked. Then the cable networks became more important on the entertainment sphere and got bigger production budgets. Now you all can’t stop raving about Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. This goes to show that network-original television can work. It will be Netflix’s turn someday too.)
“A story distinctly about being an adult.”
Anyway, let’s examine what it is about Cowboy Bebop that makes this anime series so special:
The cast of Cowboy Bebop is a nice balance for once
This show could have had a stereotyped Ninja-Turtles ensemble and still would have fans. Instead, it gives us a quirky retread of stock character archetypes remixed in ways that both meet and defy our expectations:
Spike Spiegel is the Ace – He has a bit of the action-hero jadedness, and an uncanny ability to come out on top of every fight. He also has the most kick-ass name we’ve heard in awhile. Spike is the Ace because in a show about bounty hunters you need one. But at the same time, he has hidden depths, with a completely burned-out attitude in life that turns out to be the residual of an angsty past. He’s so callous that he would make an easily-hated jerk, but always dials it back to show he really does still care. Even if his heart’s not in something, he goes through the motions anyway because it is the right thing to do.
Jet Black is the Dad – There’s an unspoken, but present, father figure in Jet. He’s the nominal shot-caller of the crew, an ex-cop who’s also badass in a fight, but also the most level-headed and idealistic of the crew. Jet Black has a strong moral compass which sometimes causes him to be insufferable to deal with, a flaw that has cost him happiness in the past. Tough as nails, he would make a good drill sergeant, and yet he has a surprising intellectual side and tends bonsai trees in between bounty gigs. He’s the heart and soul of the crew, but more importantly the Zen master whose streetwise parables bring everybody else back to reality.
Faye Valentine is the Anti-Bimbo – The name and her initial introduction to the crew triggers a gag reflex in experienced anime fans. Ooooh great, here comes the fan-service bimbo! Yet she turns out to be one of the best female characters in anime. She isn’t a dumbass in distress who needs rescuing all the time. She has her own skills, mostly involving cunning since she’s a manipulative con artist. She also isn’t a saccharine sweetheart. She isn’t the “mom” of the crew, nor does she trigger a sappy love story subplot. She’s a working grunt like everybody else. As soon as she cashes her check, she’s off to the casino to play away her wages, with her gambling addiction as a critical flaw that is pretty much the only thing tying her to the crew. Faye is the closest thing the series has to an amoral anti-hero, which is a pretty brilliant flip for the token chick of the crew.
Ed is the Whiz Kid – Even though she’s technically female, Ed doesn’t count as a chick so much as the comic relief. She’s a chattering, hyperactive whackball who’s so unplugged from reality that nobody can even guess what’s going on in her head. It’s heavily implied that she’s autistic, or at least has Asperger’s or something else along that spectrum. Her one skill is computer hacking, where she’s on such an advanced level that she can empathize with an emergent AI more easily than she can another human being. She is so feral that she can’t function while wearing shoes and socks, and is often seen imitating the dog because to her, all organic life forms are equal.
Ein is the Mascot – A Welsh Corgi who is introduced as a MacGuffin during a gig, he’s a “data dog” whose purpose is never explained. Ein’s deal is that he’s unusually intelligent for a dog, even though he doesn’t show any non-canine abilities. Since he’s genetically engineered, it’s implied that he could understand language and may even be the smartest member of the crew. Despite this, he’s largely in the background with only Ed to identify with.
The show is a brilliant combination of intersecting genres
I’ve compared Cowboy Bebop to a Quentin Tarantino work before. Like Tarantino, Cowboy Bebop borrows heavily from genres ranging from Kung-Fu (Spike is an avid Bruce Lee fan) to blockbuster sci-fi (the episode “Toys in the Attic” is little more than a tribute to Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982)). It’s been called a “space western,” which is reflected in its show-within-a-show Big Shots, which is a cowboy/girl duo reality TV series for bounty hunters. Cowboy Bebop is also a transparent homage to both 1960s British spy thrillers and 1940s American film noir. One episode will feel like part of the Mike Hammer universe, and then the next one could be a James Bond installment. Overlaying all this is the cyberpunk genre, with a gritty used future where we have technology wonders out the wazoo, and yet humans are the same scoundrels they always have been.
Oops, forgot to mention John Woo shout-outs:
But we’re not even close to listing all the cultural influences! For starters, the whole series is saturated with a love of jazz, lounge, classic rock, and blues music – “bebop” is right there in the title. Various episodes and random names in-show are named after songs by the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Queen, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Bob Dylan. Of course we needn’t again mention the series title theme song “Tank,” a contender for the most jazzed-out theme to any anime ever.
Within the framework of a crew of space-bound bounty hunters in a solar-system-wide Wild West, Cowboy Bebop is uniquely suited to both its original episodic nature and any number of spin-offs and expansions. It’s eerie how much this show borrows, and yet manages to hang together on its own. It’s equally surprising how lightly it takes itself, yet has deep and mature themes lurking just under the surface. First broadcast in Japan at the cusp of the turn of the century, it was billed as being a genre unto itself. Despite the amazing gall of that claim, it mostly lives up to it.
There’s no way we’ve heard the last of Cowboy Bebop!
For awhile there, it looked like Keanu Reeves would play Spike if a live film happened. He has at least said he’s a fan of the series, but the opportunity window has passed by and Reeves is no longer interested due to wanting to act roles more in his age range. For the record, Reeves is currently 55, but has been playing twenty-something Generation X slackers his whole career.
There has been one animated movie already, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (2001)(known outside Japan as merely “Cowboy Bebop : The Movie“). It’s well received, but little more than an extended episode. The current Netflix live-action revival may not live above the rock-bottom expectations we have given its source, but overall we still see interest in the franchise. Series director Shinichiro Watanabe and Studio Bones are still in business and obviously willing to make a deal…
Honestly, 26 episodes just doesn’t feel like it was enough for this series. Even though the story arcs played out by the end, there’s room to insert a lot more in the middle. Perhaps it is better to have a series leave you wanting more than it is to see it milked in franchise hell until it’s become another Simpsons, but Cowboy Bebop has a feel to it such that it can break any rule it wants to.