Show: Cowboy Bebop
Studio(Network)/years aired: Sunrise (Cartoon Network), 1998-1999
AniB’s thoughts: When I first started watching anime far more intensely (both for my own enjoyment, and ultimately, to become an expert with it), Cowboy Bebop was high on the list of priorities. As it turns out, it is another one of the shows considered highly influential in growing the medium’s popularity in the West, alongside another familiar show I already reviewed that also features a black, spiky haired protagonist. But I’m guessing plenty of people might have already known that. What’s more interesting is the why of Cowboy Bebop; the fact that it’s a sort of noir space steampunk western with the freewheeling soul of jazz imbued in its very core (the episodes themselves are referred to as sessions); the emptiness that each individual character on the crew of the titular ship seeks to fill; and despite all the seriousness, a playful sense of humor and comedy still emerges from the wild adventures of Spike Spiegel and company. For myself, I reveled in the slice of life moments that really showed off the true depth of Bebop’s crew: the aformentioned Spike’s brushes with disaster and death, with everything from red-eye drug dealers, to Mad Pierrot, a horrifying assassin with terrifying origins; Faye’s stubborn attitude and pension for gambling belying a deep connection to home for her; Ed’s escapades with everything from hijacking the Bebop to playing intergalactic chess with the wizened old creator of the hyperspace gate systems in the show (and who could forget the mushrooms episode?), and Jet’s moonlighting of his days as a cop, reminding us all that he and Spike are truly the unlikeliest of friends, considering their backstories…
Of course, everyone who has watched this show seems to have an opinion on the show’s ending (SPOILERS)- the intentionally ambiguous outcome of Spike and Vicious’ final showdown; an ending that is essentially left to the viewer to decide what happens to the show’s main character after his Pyrrhic victory. Spike essentially is the final character to have his outcome decided, and the ambiguity really does fit in this scenario. His love interest, Julia, who was his main focus and dream though the entire show, is finally reunited with him, only to be taken away once again in his battle against the Red Dragon Syndicate, and it’s curious, if not natural to wonder if death was indeed a better option for him at this point, as the crew of the Bebop– who essentially had become the galaxy’s oddest family, had split apart over story resolutions and natural endings to character arcs. Personally, I believed Spike died in the aftermath of the battle, but there is room for the other outcome; that given his chance to finally resolve the murkiness of his past, Spike might seize a sort of rebirth. But Cowboy Bebop ended right where it meant to.
Speaking of Spike, the character was the launching pad for Steve Blum’s voice acting career, as Cowboy Bebop’s dub is considered to be excellent to this day, and even preferable for many anime fans who would normally stick to subs. It is an excellent gateway show for those looking to find their way into Eastern animation (in other words, Japanese anime), but even on its own, it’s one of the finest anime out there in terms of the themes it explores, the unique cast and character arcs, and the settings that it takes place in across what is clearly a re-imagining of our solar system. (Oh, and you’ll also wind up listening for hours to Tank!– the catchy theme song that really embodies the show quite well.) As for the more gritty details, I’ll delve into that now.
Animation Quality: Traditional 2-D anime, hand-drawn towards the end of an era. The scenes are full of detail, the characters pop, the environments are varied, and the action sequences are satisfying. From an anime, you can’t really ask for much more, and the animation serves to enhance the story. 5 points.
Characterization: Cowboy Bebop is absolutely terrific in the development of its characters. Seemingly unrelated at first, the ragtag crew of the Bebop are drawn together by their different pasts and similar goals to find that what they seek. To that end, the majority of the series focuses on the bounties they share, but the final 3 episodes show that the bounty hunting was always a secondary pursuit to the aims the characters really had.
Spike is a terrific protagonist- cool and calm (not to mention, remarkably lazy) demeanor hiding a dark and troubled past with an entity only known as “the Syndicate.” He is a highly skilled martial artist; his preferred weapon is a pistol which he demonstrates remarkably good markmanship with through the series. (If that wasn’t enough, Spike also is a proficient pilot and has his own space fighter.) While often distant in his interactions with the crew, he has a quiet fondness for them, particularly Faye, which is often masked by their constant bickering.
Faye is truly a lost soul in a different time and place from where she originated. She hides her insecurities with a lot of gambling and lip, rarely if every showing her more vulnerable self to Spike and Jet in particular. Faye is a remarkably good space pilot and dogfighter who actually joins the crew officially 4 episodes in, largely because her craft ran out of gas. (She’s also got a good body- but that’s anime 101 with many a female character, isn’t it?)
Jet Black has his past as a cop; he is a man with genuinely strong morals and convictions, and the best friend of Spike. How he came to have a mechanical arm is a major spoiler, but it does involve his past in the ISSP (the police on Ganymede, the moon he came from) and a broken heart… Tough, reliable and respected, Jet is the captain of the Bebop and a tough fighter in his own right as a ex-cop turned bounty hunter.
Ed is an eccentric hacker and genius from Earth who is known as “Radical Edward,” but is actually a young girl who seeks to find her father. With a somewhat strange way of speaking, Ed loves adventure and is naively fearless (not to mention, extremely funny.) She also strikes up a relationship with the Bebop’s dog- Ein, to the point where she’s also the official caretaker of him.
Finally, I will mention Vicious, the archrival and enemy of Spike who plays a key role in the story, specifically in Spike’s character arc. It took a little long for two of the main characters to appear, but it works in terms of story progression quite well. There are also plenty of one off characters with interesting personalities and thought-provoking origins (boy with the harmonica anyone?) 5/5 points.
Story quality: Bebop at first seems to be episodic, and it is on many levels, each session encompassing a different adventure for the crew. But ultimately it is a overarching story with continuity, complete with fantastic character arcs for all the main cast. Mostly serious, with a good sense of humor, it keeps you wanting to know how it will all end. The story pacing is fantastic (26 episodes), especially for an anime. 5/5 points.
Themes: The major theme of the entire show is finding your place in life; resolving an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and as a result, giving life meaning. Other themes tie in to assist the central tenet of that them, which included friendship and camaraderie, a sense of family, and a good deal of violence and struggle that fit the show’s motif. The show’s not really for anyone under 15, but that’s not just due to the themes, but also the story (which really requires a very thoughtful watch.) 4.25/5 points.
Don’t insult the viewer: Bebop is a show which set the tone for many animes that came after it and primed Western audiences for the medium; it was intelligent with thoughtful, smart writing, and never made me cringe in any particular way. The show’s jazzy themes and creative tracks were also an absolute joy to listen to; they often see the atmosphere in a convincing way that synergized with the action on the screen. 5/5 points.
Total Score: 24.25/25 (97%). The trendsetter for many animes, Cowboy Bebop is a masterpiece of character development, snappy pacing, tremendous action, and one of the catchiest openings anyone can remember. It is a masterpiece that few shows either in the West or East can hope to touch. See you, space cowboy…
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