Cowboy Bebop: The Most Western of Eastern Animation

Cowboy Bebop: The Most Western of Eastern Animation

I was thirteen years old. It was 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, and after countless attempts to fall asleep, I fumbled my way out of bed and navigated my way through the darkened hallways of my house, plopping myself in front of my television screen. 

My parents weren’t awake, so I decided to watch the late-night block of the Cartoon Network because finally, I get to see those edgy “adult cartoons” I’ve heard the older high schoolers prattle on about. 

I changed the channel to 73 and saw a man slowly falling out of a church window as bits and pieces of shattered glass flew everywhere. 

It was dark and violent, but not in that humorous and immature South Park type of way, which was what I was expecting. What I saw was something different. Something dramatic. Something cinematic. Something hypnotizing. 

A few minutes later, the words “See You Later, Space Cowboy” flashed on the screen, the credits rolled, and the episode ended. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea what it was, but did it even matter? It was so absorbing and surprising that I couldn’t have been bothered to care. 

If you are a millennial in his or her late 20’s like me, then this experience should sound familiar to you. It might be how you discovered Cowboy Bebop, and perhaps even anime in general. In this era of digital streaming and on-demand video where anime is so easily accessible, it feels like I’m talking ancient history here. For the zoomers out there not getting what I’m saying, let me start this story by taking you back to the bygone known as the late 90’s.

The Origins

Fresh out of serving as the assistant director on Macross Plus and storyboarder on a few episodes of The Vision of Escaflowne, Sunrise animator Shinichiro Watanabe was given his first opportunity to shine as the main director of an anime. 

As a veteran animator of sci-fi anime, Watanabe wanted to make what would become Cowboy Bebop “cool” and “80% serious, 20% funny.” 

Even though he was given sponsorship from Bandai to develop toys and model spaceships for promotional purposes, Watanabe did what he could to ensure that his vision was a bit more adult-oriented than typical anime.

Despite the best of artistic intentions, Japanese television was clearly not ready for what Watanabe had in store. Because of its controversial content involving crime and drugs, TV Tokyo could air only so many episodes. The station then proceeded to cancel it after dismal ratings. 

Cowboy Bebop was given another shot when it aired on another television station, but with no success. For a while, it seemed that the show would be dead, buried, and forgotten. 

That was until…

A New Hope

Cartoon Network’s late-night line-up, Adult Swim, bought the show’s airing rights in early 2001. The first episode aired on September 2nd, becoming the first anime to be aired on Adult Swim. It was there that the show finally found its audience, and after repeated viewings, it became a staple of the Adult Swim line-up.

It’s easy to see why this was the case. It’s an often-said and overstated thing, but Cowboy Bebop isn’t your average anime. It lacks the Eastern identity that something like Dragon Ball Z or Mobile Suit Gundam has, and more so falls in line with Hollywood movies like Star Wars or Unforgiven. The show is also mostly episodic and can be watched in practically any given order, granting it an accessibility that most other anime lack.

Finally, with it being a Shinichiro Watanabe work, it is inspired by music, specifically that of the 60s and 70s. The soundtrack is chock full of original jazz and blues music, and the show contains more references to the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin than your average karaoke night at Applebee’s. 

All Aboard The Bebop

Spike Spiegel…But Some People Call Him The Space Cowboy

Despite what the show’s title and end card may imply, Spike Spiegel is not your do-gooder John Wayne cowboy figure. Spike Spiegel is a young, carefree, lazy bounty hunter, which is the closest thing to a detective in Bebop’s universe. But he isn’t a crime-fighting champion of justice either, as his need to purge the seedy underside of outer space is purely for the money.

Not much is known about Spike at the start, and remains a bit of a mystery throughout the majority of the series. What we do know of him is that he has a bit of a troubled past that he constantly tries to duck and dodge. It seemed that he faked his death to save the one he loved, and that he was a former member of a violent crime organization. 

Jet Black, A Man As Bold As The Sergeant Major

Jet is the oldest, most mature, and obvious leader of the Bebop crew, donning a somber, muscular look and a serious personality. He’s famous for his scar on his arm and having a large, mechanical arm that replaced his regular arm from when he was brutally shot. Yet for having such an intimidating demeanor, Jet is a fatherly figure to the crew, with a warm personality buried underneath the cold exterior. 

Jet personifies the classic cop-on-the-edge, albeit more of a Frank Serpico than a Dirty Harry. Jet was a former police officer who, upon learning crime and corruption amongst his squadron, abandoned it to become a bounty hunter. Somewhere along the way, he met Spike and decided to pair with him, allowing the two to become the most notorious bounty hunters in the galaxy.

Faye Valentine, The Hard Luck Honky Tonk Woman

Every pulp fiction has to have a femme fatale, and Faye more than fits the bill for that. She enjoys all of the “finer” vices in life, such as gambling, booze, and smoking, which, of course, are all (un)admirable traits for a woman of her stature. She’s also a wanted con artist who has scammed and schemed her way to riches and infamy.

Or at least she’d like to be. In truth, she has amassed more debt than one can imagine, which is why she chose to be on the lam to begin with. All of her attempts to pay it back were through illegal means, and when we first met her, she had already incurred a bounty the size of Texas. To make matters more complicated, she’s also an amnesiac, which makes her criminal origins unknown even to her.

Edward, A Child In Time

A weird alien, a six-foot-tall basketball player, a drag queen…who “radical” Edward is always changed depending on who you talk to. In truth, she is a frantic, eccentric, tomboyish little girl who loves to hack computers. She also seems to live in her own world, often referring to herself in the third person and displaying many verbal and physical idiosyncrasies when talking to others.

Edward was abandoned by her workaholic father at a young age and taken to a religious orphanage. She later escaped it to become the maniacal computer hacker that would earn her notoriety. However, she had nobody to turn to, so she mostly operated alone. It didn’t seem to damper her spirits, as she remains carefree and happy-go-lucky throughout the course of the show. 

The Movie(s)

Cowboy Bebop ended its run in late April of 1999 at 26 episodes. But that was far from the end of the show, as a feature-length film taking place between its 22nd and 23rd episode was released in 2001. Despite receiving only lukewarm reception from mainstream critics, it was widely praised by anime fans, who have since placed it amongst classics like The End of Evangelion.

There was also talk of an American live-action film for a long time, with Keanu Reeves rumored to star as Spike Spiegel. After years of rumors and speculation, Netflix announced last year that a live-action film would finally take place, with John Cho taking the starring role.

You can watch Cowboy Bebop on Funimation and Hulu.

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