EDITOR’S NOTE: What Are You Watching? is a feature series that dives deep into why we love the anime we love. You told us what you were watching, and now we’ll dig into why.
By Sean Aitchison
Is there anything cooler than Cowboy Bebop? And by “cool” I don’t just mean a stand-in for any positive adjective—Cowboy Bebop isn’t specifically awesome or badass or neat, it’s cool. It is a combination of stylistic and aesthetic choices that culminate in characters, ideas, settings or bottle narratives that are just plain cool.
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Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop is a timeless classic, a series that can be watched at any time and still have just as much of an impact. It’s one that I watch over and over again—the quintessential high mark for stylish anime, and it’s one of my favorite series of all time. Why? Let me tell you.
3, 2, 1…let’s jam!
The premise of Cowboy Bebop is a simple one: Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are spacefaring bounty hunters attempting to make ends meet by trying (and often failing) to take in dangerous bounties. Eventually joined by femme fatale Faye Valentine, supersmart corgi Ein and hacker prodigy Edward, the crew of the Bebop do their best to chase after high-price criminals as each of their pasts are explored and/or come back to haunt them. Simple.
That’s the long and short of it, but Cowboy Bebop is much more than its premise—it’s about the vibe of it all, the powerful and potent combination of the influences, elements and genres that make up the series’ feel and aesthetic. At its core, Cowboy Bebop is a space Western: Spike, Jet and the rest of the Bebop crew are cowboy bounty hunters, and humanity’s various planetary colonies serve as the Wild West frontier.
However, there are also strong elements of noir, sci-fi and a killer soundtrack that uniquely fuses this cowboy setting with jazz scoring. All of these elements together shouldn’t really work. They should create something unreadable, a mishmash of nonsense. And yet, they totally do, and this odd fusion not only results in an undeniable coolness, but it perfectly reflects the identities of each member of the Bebop crew. There’s an ex-cop, a former syndicate member, a woman unfrozen from decades prior, a supersmart dog and a young hacking genius.
They’re not exactly puzzle pieces, but their chemistry just works, and it makes for an anime that captures you instantly. Like, within 10 seconds of any given episode.
See you, space cowboy…
Throughout Cowboy Bebop‘s binge-watchable 26-episode run, it explores the pasts of its main characters, giving context to how they found themselves as a member of the Bebop crew, or just before. And its final episodes—which culminate in Spike’s confrontation with his particularly checkered past—are masterful bouts of storytelling. But if I can be so bold, the best of Cowboy Bebop is the formulaic, day-to-day bounty hunting episodes.
Yes, the backstories and overarching narratives are interesting and well-done, but the fun of Cowboy Bebop, the core of what makes it so cool, is that this is a a story about a ragtag group of weirdos trying their hand at bounty hunting. Of course, it’s also that we all know these missions will either end up failing miserably or only making them enough cash to cover the damages they caused along the way.
But these more “bottle-like” episodes mean Spike gets to pull his “goofy walk into badass Bruce Lee martial arts” transitions, Faye gets to go full femme fatale, Edward gets weird (go figure), and Jet is at his most endearing “uptight crew dad.”
Not to mention Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack is at its best when the chase for a bounty is on or when Spike gets into a crazy fight. The reason for these scenes being the coolest has to derive from the relationship between Kanno and Watanabe—who would inspire each other with animation sequences and tracks for the other to use or to make something cool. Talk about a partnership.
You’re gonna carry that weight
So much of what makes Cowboy Bebop great is that its core elements, amazing sequences and fantastic setting are a brilliant exploration and execution of pop culture or literary influences. Not to say the series lacks in depth, though, as it’s a powerful look into the philosophy of existentialism and the weight of one’s past.
If you’re anything like me (and I assume most other Cowboy Bebop lovers), you likely discovered the series on a late-night broadcast and were just immediately taken in by it all. It probably helped that the opening theme, “Tank!” by Kanno and the Seatbelts, is an absolute banger.
Cowboy Bebop sets out to be cool and ends up doing so much more, presenting layers of depth and world-building beneath a chilled exterior. I could do a lengthy analysis of everything from the series’ storytelling to perspective and musical cues, but it all comes back to how it makes me feel: pretty damn cool.
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