As I wrote back in January, Cowboy Bebop is an anime I’ve had aspirations of watching for a long time now, and this year I put it on my official to-watch list as part of my New Year’s resolution. It’s now the second series from my three-item list that I’ve had the opportunity to watch so far (the first being Steins;Gate), and thus far it’s certainly lived up to the hype—though not always in the ways I expected.
The story opens in the year 2071. Earth has become uninhabitable, so humans have taken to the skies to build colonies throughout the galaxy. They aren’t the utopias their founders probably hoped they would be, though; the colonies are riddled with crime, and bounty hunters do a brisk business rounding up the perpetrators. Two such hunters, Spike Spiegel and his partner, Jet Black, roam the galaxy together, taking whatever jobs happen to come their way. But it’s not just the two of them for long—early in the series, they pick up a few extra crew members along the way. There’s Faye Valentine, a lovely young con artist whose past is a secret even to herself; Edward Wong, who’s already genius hacker despite the fact that she’s seemingly just a goofy young girl; and Ein, a genetically engineered, supersmart corgi. They come together out of necessity and stick with each other even as the dark secrets of their respective pasts are slowly revealed.
In my New Year’s article, I talked about how the description of Cowboy Bebop really reminded me of great space operas I’ve seen and loved, like Killjoys and Firefly (and even Star Wars to an extent), and that description proved true when I watched it. It’s got everything that makes those series great: a lovable band of misfits who come together by chance and end up forming a family; a world that’s been rebuilt among the stars after catastrophic events on Earth; a story with a sweeping, large-scale feel while still paying attention to the more run-of-the-mill, domestic details that bring the characters’ humanity to bear; some great bottle episodes; and a phenomenal soundtrack (more on that last one in a moment).
One of the best aspects of Cowboy Bebop is its characters. Beyond their fantastic, iconic names, they each have their own wildly unique way of doing things, and never once do they apologize for it. As the story develops and they get to know each other better, it’s easy to see how much each one truly cares about the others aboard the spaceship Bebop. They may be a ragtag bunch of jaded bounty hunters and ne’er-do-wells, but they’ll always come through when things get dicey. And despite what they think (and express out loud in snide remarks) about the checkered pasts of their crewmates, they treat each other with just as much respect as they did before the truth was revealed.
As I alluded to earlier, and as fans of the series and Yoko Kanno know, another of the key features of the series is its score. My favorite fun fact about Cowboy Bebop is that the music was the first part of the series to be created—the story, characters, and setting crystallized later on. In fact, the series’ writers would sometimes develop new scenes while listening to, and being inspired by, the score. As a result, even when the combination of the music with a particular scene of the show feels unexpected and avant-garde, or even a little dissonant in terms of what’s happening onscreen, I found it’s best not to ask too many questions as far as this aspect is concerned. If I let the scenes and the music play out, they bring to life all sorts of ideas and associations that wouldn’t have been apparent otherwise.
Much like the jazzy music that’s often featured in the series, the story doesn’t often clamor for your attention but instead takes on many different forms, leaving you to interpret them as you will. Sometimes, the story is arresting, and you don’t want to miss a moment; other times, it’s almost atmospheric, and you don’t so much watch it as let it wash over you. It’s a storytelling spectrum I did not expect from the series, but one that I really enjoy.
Like most things I’ve heard a lot about before experiencing for myself, Cowboy Bebop both is and isn’t what I thought it would be. On the one hand, it’s just as rough-and-tumble, irreverently humorous, and delightfully grungy as I predicted. But on the other, it has less fast-paced action and more depth than I would have thought. In short, it’s a series that keeps on surprising me, and one I’m glad to have had the chance to see at long last.