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Reaper's Reviews: 'Cowboy Bebop'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: Sunrise
Genre: Action/Drama/Comedy
Format: 26 episodes
Release: October 24, 1998 – April 24, 1999
Source: Original

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Anime had a very rocky start over here in the West, as most people invested in the medium would know.

Despite anime’s growing popularity in the late 2010s, back when the internet was still in its infancy, cassettes were a thing and anime was still a niche, experimental sub-'genre' of animation. It didn’t have the best of reputations.

Movies such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll helped establish the broader appeal and potential of anime alongside tamer yet heartfelt experiences such as Ghibli productions. And then you had demography-defining works such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z to help popularize the medium alongside hardened classics such as Berserk, Trigun, Outlaw Star, Evangelion and Serial Experiment Lain, which helped solidifying sub-genres within anime in and out of Japan.

And one series towered above all. Even if it wasn’t the most watched or cash-milked series around, it was the one that solidified just how capable anime can be when it comes to storytelling and sheer style that not even the most accomplished live-action movies could replicate. All of that on top of being the series to define English dub direction for years to come.

Cowboy Bebop honestly doesn’t require any introduction. Even the most casual anime fans know the series, even if it’s only by name. As tiresome as it can be to hear old school anime fans gushing over Bebop, this remains a well-deserved admiration. If there is one anime series that comes so close to the concept of “masterpiece” (in my opinion), it would be Monster. And Cowboy Bebop.

I could just stop the review right here because it is just so damn obvious, which only furthers my statement from the previous paragraph. But at the same time, Bebop is also one of those series that really deserve to be talked about in detail. It deserves to be analyzed and discussed as a piece of work, a quintessential example of animation's prowess as a storytelling tool and artistic expression.

And so, let us discuss the legendary 1998-1999 anime series directed by Shinichiro Watanabe and produced by studio Sunrise of Gundam fame: Cowboy Bebop.

Story & Setting

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Cowboy Bebop takes place in 2071, in a universe where mankind has invented interstellar travel and colonized the solar system after an accident that left earth uninhabitable. A chief element of Bebop’s world is the heavy reliance on bounty hunters - sometimes referred to as “Cowboys” - who take down space’s worst criminals.

One such bounty hunter group is the crew of the eponymous Bebop, consisting of seasoned bounty hunter Spike, the stern but fatherly Jet, the beautiful Faye, the eccentric hacker Ed and the highly intelligent dog Ein. Together, they have a lot of adventures and bounty hunting quests - though, usually not as successful as they would have liked to be.

While on surface Cowboy Bebop is easy to describe, its deeper mechanisms are not limited solely to its premise or genre.

Cowboy Bebop is an adventure series. It’s also a sci-fi flick. And a gritty action serial. And a space western. And a comedy of bizarre shenanigans. It can even pull off a detective story every once in a while.

And on top of that, it also dips its hands in character drama, period piece-esque tales, a bit of post-apocalyptic literature, seemingly supernatural mystery, gang wars, terrorism, horror and noir tales in some way or capacity.

One of Bebop’s biggest strengths is its versatility with its setting and storytelling. The retro-futuristic, cyberpunk world of the series is as laidback and open-minded as its protagonists, and this allows Bebop to explore an impressive array of genres and plotlines with each new episode.

The series is largely episodic in nature, though a few myth arcs do exist throughout and shine through every few stand-alone stories. The most important of those concerns the past demons of Spike, and their inevitable return to haunt him until the end.

The other big storylines focus respectively on Jet’s police career and Faye’s origins, while a few episodes also serve to expand the history of Bebop’s world as well as give the spotlight to Ed. This mixture of overarching story arcs and short adventures turn Bebop into something special; it’s easy to pick it up and watch absentmindedly, but the show also turns into a rewarding, potentially-endlessly rewatchable adventure by the end of the journey.

Every episode, every story, every new location - Bebop gradually builds an exciting and meticulous retro-futuristic world inhabited by countless smaller tales and anecdotes for viewers to indulge in, both amusing and bittersweet. Small details and subtle transitions over the course of twenty-six episodes reward those who go back and notice new details they may have missed on the previous watch.

Despite its own sense of fun and relaxed demeanor, Bebop does have a fairly extensive amount of world-building, featuring space bounty hunters and countless organizations both big and small, numerous game-changing incidents both on personal and galactic scale, and other finer traditions and hobbies scattered in the background.

If you enjoy digging deep into settings of shows and movies, Bebop will not disappoint you with its dense mythology and varied culture.

Not every single episode is a complete winner, especially during the second half of the show where the more plot-sensitive episodes take precedence as the series begins to tackle loose ends, but even then they are often amusing, light-hearted affairs that may contain some poignant messages or let the viewer to have a well-deserved break between more hectic or dramatic stories.

An episode like Sympathy for the Devil might feel a bit heavy-handed with its mystery elements and lackluster villain, but it’s still a solid, melancholic adventure mostly let down by the generally high bar of the show. Another episode is a rather surreal take on cults and media consumption that at times feel out of place, but it’s a fun romp before the show’s grand finale, and its themes curiously resonate with today’s social influence by entertainment.

But for every less than amazing episode, there are a handful others to make up for it. From the somber pilot episode about a tragic love destroyed by crime and drugs, to the amusing episodes about the Bebop crew being stuck in an Alien-esque scenario with some mutated food, to the thrilling pursuit of a deadly assassin after Spike. Bebop always has something new and exciting to share with its audience, masterfully going through unique set-ups while maintaining a strong sense of coherence.

And of course special mention goes to the aforementioned overarching arc episodes, the ones that deal with Jet, Faye and especially Spike. Those are character-driven epics, tragic and bitterly ironic adventures that deserve your utmost attention. Bebop is a legendary series with fun, relatable narratives, but it’s those episodes that push the series into its almost mythical status.

Ballad of Fallen Angels, the fifth episode of Bebop and the first episode in Spike’s character arc, is perhaps one of the best episodes in every anime series. It captures everything you’ll grow to love about the show: style, development, complexity and above all, emotion. It’s almost disappointing that this episode is so early in the series, but words cannot describe what a self-contained masterpiece it is.

Talking so much about Bebop’s style, setting and structure surprises me when I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to explaining Bebop’s appeal from a story standpoint, but do know that there is so, so much more to dissect about this series.

From its ever-present themes of loneliness, chasing the past and existentialism, to the little fact that Bebop as a whole is ultimately more of an epilogue to a long, bittersweet multi-part story we might never see materialize, Bebop - like its unassuming protagonists - is more than meets the eyes.

Bebop’s examination of the past in particular deserves a closer inspection, and the show uses its different leads to show several possible outcomes and progressions to people, and even an entire species, dealing with times long gone.

The underlying message of Bebop, at least from my perspective, is that you should never deny your past, but accept it; both the wins, and the losses. Various characters throughout the shows end up either coming to terms with their personal skeletons in the closet - be it a lost loved-one or a horrible accident - and come on top. In contrast, some are constantly haunted by it and eventually fall prey to their skeletons and demons.

Bebop often takes a slow, subtle approach to this, building to generally painful but inspiring conclusions, and it’s the different ways a lot of the show’s players take that make the majority of these memorable, especially when it comes to our main trio - a group of broken, disillusioned adults who range from feverishly chasing any lingering connections to desperately trying to reduce those into bad dreams.

And all this concludes in one terrific finale, one that takes everything Bebop built from its very first episode, and brings it full circle. And dear god, few shows have managed to conclude themselves so beautifully, vividly and elegantly as Watanabe’s career-making series.

The Characters

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As a mostly episodic series, the vast majority of the cast in Bebop is one-off, and with the exception of about four-five characters, even the recurring cast outside the crew has little to do in the grand scheme of things.

The main cast of Bebop is fairly small, and consists of five characters: Spike Spiegel, a 27 years old bounty hunter and a former mobster; Jet Black, a former police officer who captains the titular Bebop; Faye Valentine, an amnesiac 23-year-old femme fatale and a con-woman; “Radical” Edward, a zany young hacker; and Ein, a genetically enhanced dog.

Despite chronicling through multiple adventures and characters, these five (or rather, three - we’ll get there) serve as the emotional core of the show, and they each provide something interesting to balance the rest. So let’s begin with Spike.

Spike is essentially the main protagonist of Bebop, and despite that role, he is also the most enigmatic member of the crew; even in episodes led by him, Spike is often more of a supporting protagonist to the actual episode. In addition, he might as well be the trope codifier for the cool, laid-back, rough but ultimately good-natured ace guy in anime. With his smooth voice and sharp looks, Spike is a charismatic and devilishly slick man who excels in almost everything he does.

At the same time, however, Spike is a pretty broken man. Without delving too much into spoilers, he is our first indicator that Bebop is not all about style, but about substance as well. From his former ties to powerful crime syndicates to his tragic romance life, Spike is not everything he seems.

Beneath his hypnotizing aura and confident smile, Spike is a cynical, tired wreck wishing to end his miserable existence. And when the past comes knocking on his door, it’s hard not to sympathize with him as he pushes his physical and mental condition to the limit.

This structure of a broken, aimless person haunted by past events is also carefully reused and revamped for Jet and Faye, the series’ two other most important characters.

In Jet’s case, his tough love-like, fatherly demeanor hides years of experience as a veteran police officer, with scars and a lost arm to prove it. While also burdened by unfinished business from his early life, Jet still resigns himself to be the crew’s responsible and mature leader, and he is more often that not the reason why the Bebop crew doesn’t get themselves killed at the end of each episode.

And that’s when we see how beneath his own rugged exterior, Jet is a caring and loving friend who does his best to keep the crew afloat - even if Spike and Faye tire the hell out of him. While admittedly his character doesn’t get as much development or spotlight as his friends, Jet - in many ways - feels like an anchor. A voice of reason in the middle of a raging storm.

It’s also saying something when his myth arc episodes end in the most satisfying way, at least from his perspective. In contrast to Spike or Faye, Jet manages to confront his past once it knocks on his door and comes to full terms with it in a more positive manner.

And moving unto Faye, she is the unique one among the trio, as instead of ignoring, escaping or unwittingly getting sucked into her past demons, she actively tries to find out more about her life and identity.

As with Spike, Faye can be fairly snarky and relaxed, and is quite sassy and mischievous to boot. Being the series’ Mrs. fanservice, Faye deliberately uses her good looks and sultry facade to fool people and targets for her own ends, though this usually doesn’t affect her colleagues much.

Introduced in the third episode, Faye’s awkward yet endearing bond with Spike and Jet and this friendship (as well with Ed) slowly helps us the viewers see that beneath her attitude and impulsive, sometimes selfish nature, there is a sweet, nice and a bit broken person inside her heart who simply begs to find her place in the universe.

Those similarities and differences between the three might be the reason for their gradual binding with each other, though usually each one of them prefers to deal with their past on their own. All three are broken and troubled adults haunted by their history one way or another, but their approach to this diverts greatly.

This is where my aforementioned mention regarding the series’ exploration of the past’s influence shines through. In those episodes and those stories where our unlikely heroes have to digest that their pasts are out there, waiting to contact.

The same goes to a good chunk of the one-time cast members, who usually either bond with Spike, Jet or Faye due to their own haunting ghosts, or serve as foils and darker counterparts. Some may be of a more comedic tone, being petty crooks or amusing con-men on the run.

Others vary but tend to be more complex and serious, ranging from tired widows trying to get over their husbands’ deaths to optimistic and desperate ex-criminals collecting money to help their siblings. Nearly all of them are featured for only one episode, but are complex and layered enough to have memorable character arcs.

And back to conclude the main cast, we have Edward. Ed, known also as Radical Ed or by her made-up name Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, is the Bebop’s resident tech expert and zany hacker.

Introduced near the end of the show’s first half, Ed serves as Cowboy Bebop’s plucky comic relief character and lighthearted sidekick. Given her age, she is fittingly childish and gleefully cheerful, and even joins the Bebop solely because it sounds fun. She often serves as an aid to Jet in mission control, and at crucial times might provide an unexpected solution.

Overall her character serves as a contrast to Spike, Jet and Faye. Unlike the aforementioned trio she is ultimately almost entirely apathetic to caring about her backstory, despite the fact that she was more or less neglected and left in an orphanage. She is the goofy child sidekick that lights up the mood on the spaceship and cares more about fun and adventure than profit or answers.

Perhaps this is all her character needs to be, but at the same time Ed feels like one of the show’s weaker points. Her characterization more or less ends until well into the show’s final forth, by then the series focuses more on tying some loose ends. Aside from her introduction episode, she only has one actual story-heavy episode to herself (shared with Faye) and only about one or two episodes that give her considerable roles.

Despite being one of the main characters, she is arguably less developed than some of the one-shot characters in the series, whose timescreens might be less than third of Ed’s total time on the screen. Her presence also begins to somewhat decline only a few episodes after her introduction, and she is often reduced to just a few funny shots.

To me Ed is a likable character thanks to her eccentric nature and humorous mannerisms, but at the same time she feels like a wasted opportunity. Again, perhaps this is all she was ever needed to be. But I believe that she could receive more attention than what we got.

Now finally, we have our recurring characters, which includes the presenters of an in-universe Bounty Hunting show called “Big Shot”, the three old men who seem to find themselves hanging out whenever the Bebop crew goes, Jet’s police informant friend who reluctantly gives him tip-offs and an enigmatic shaman who seems to follow Spike’s fate.

Now those characters, in the grand scheme of things and even in most specific episodes, don’t really have much of importance or impact on the show - well, Laughing Bull the shaman does have - but they do serve to form some sense of familiarity with the world of Cowboy Bebop. Their presence tends to be minimal, but very welcome and most of the time amusing.

There are two recurring characters, however, that are more relevant to the story than anyone else. For this review, I shall only focus on one due to his less spoiler-y nature, and it is Vicious.

A former associate of Spike, Vicious is more or less the show’s main antagonist - in spite of the fact that his total appearances in the show can be counted on one hand. But don’t let this fool you, because apparently that is all the time he needs to leave a mark.

Vicious is, well… vicious. A ruthless, stoic and incredibly deadly killer. In a world filled with skilled sharpshooters and swift spaceships, he prefers to dominate his enemies with a long katana and a pet vulture. And coupled with his murderous intent and slick design, he is an effective rival to Spike.

I will admit that his four subsequent appearances pale somewhat in comparison to his introduction, but he still remains a very threatening villain who unlike a lot of the show’s other enemies, doesn’t play around. Whenever Vicious is around, you can be sure that things won’t end easily.

Animation & Art

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Cowboy Bebop was produced by studio Sunrise, best known for their work on the long-running Gundam series, as well as Code Geass, The Vision of Escaflowne and Tiger & Bunny. And if you know Sunrise, you would know they are one of the best anime studios in Japan, boasting impressive production values and complex yet elegant tech designs that put most other studios to shame.

And if you are into some delicious anime “lore”, then you will know that a notable amount of Sunrise veterans left the studio sometime after Cowboy Bebop to start their own studio: Bones. It was in fact founded by three core members of Bebop’s production team: producer Masahiko Minami (current president of Bones), the late animation director Hiroshi Osaka, and character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto.

And as with Sunrise, Bones (which also co-produced the movie, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door) are known for their high-production values, crisp character designs and fluid action scenes. And Cowboy Bebop beautifully shows the immense talent of both studios.

Cowboy Bebop is notably one of the last big-budget anime that were mostly produced with traditional animation before the rise of digital animation, something which both of its studios began to use to great effect. Bebop itself does have some… poorly-aged CGI sections here and there, but as a whole, the series aged gracefully.

Cowboy Bebop’s aesthetics from a variety of cultures and locations. Most of the time it is influenced by 1970’s and 1980’s United States elements, but there are also influences of anything from a mixture of Arabian and Turkish architecture to landscapes and cities modeled after Russian settlements and buildings taking cues from Chinese designs.

This is mixed into more then-modern weapon designs and futuristic spaceships, creating the series’ iconic retro-futuristic visuals. The designs of the starships and space stations, in particular those of the titular Bebop and Spike and Faye’s personal aircraft, are vividly complex, angularly shaped and distinctive.

This also bleeds into the character designs, which are varied and unique between one another. No two characters feel ‘samey’ in appearance, and if they do, there is usually a good explanation or reason behind it. The character designs simultaneously feel both amusingly flamboyant at times but also remarkably grounded and down-to-earth.

Moving to the actual animation of the show, I would say that Cowboy Bebop aged incredibly well and remains one of the most fluid and well-animated shows of its time and animation style. All this despite airing all the way back in 1998 - at the time of this writing, this show is over two decades old.

There are some less-than-impressing shots in here with less detailed characters or awkward movements, but even then Bebop rarely ventures into off-model moments or rough artworks and its quieter moments can be just beautifully animated as its more action-packed scenes. And speaking of action scenes…

The set-pieces in Bebop remain some of the best animated action sequences I’ve watched in an anime, or even animation in general. Spike’s fistfights are influenced by fighting choreography pioneered in 1970s martial arts films, gunfights are furious shootouts that fly gracefully on the screen and carefully depict the destruction caused by them, and dogfights are slick and dynamic affairs of a large scale.

The level of fluidity and detail in this show is ridiculously masterful, from the finer pieces of debris and stone smashing into dust to the quirky and numerous facial expressions from so many characters, it’s nothing short of mind-blowing when you remember that this is a show done almost completely through traditional animation, and that even newer shows struggle to maintain such quality.

Audio & Sound

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Cowboy Bebop’s highly acclaimed soundtrack was composed by the famous Yoko Kanno, who, if you know your anime community well, is one of, if not the most well-regarded composer in the medium. While Bebop was not her first work as a composer, it was definitely the one that solidified her status as one of the greatest composers in the medium.

One of Bebop’s biggest selling points is its variety and versatility, and this extends to the music as well. As the series’ title implies, jazz plays a large role in defining the series and its musical taste, particularly its central subgenre, the titular bebop music.

Tracks vary from bombastic yet upbeat pieces such as the beloved “Rushed” or the chaotically whimsical “Bad dog no biscuits” to the remarkably mundane “Spokey dokey” that decorates comically dead scenes, to more melancholic stuff such as “Cosmos” and “Space Lion”, the latter which makes uses of some evocative wails and tunes as well. Not to mention the tragically sounding “Memory” and its noir-esque vibes.

Graceful drums, a shy harmonica, touches of clarinets and a glorious saxophone blend together to create such a stylish soundtrack filled with character and passion, that you’ll be hard-pressed to find tracks getting recycled too much. This is without touching some of the soundtrack’s highlights like the iconic “Greenbird”, the unforgettable “Goodnight Julia” or the sweetly bitter “Wo Qui Non Coin”.

The crown jewel of the entire experience, however, is the combined masterpiece of Bebop’s opening and ending songs. If “Greenbird” is an iconic track, then “Tank” is a bonafide classic of an opening theme, with its energetic tune and instantly-recognizable beats. On the other side of the series, “The Real Folk Blues” is a beautiful, inspiring and simply powerful song that caps off almost every episode with an emotional hit. And dare I say it’s my favorite ending theme song of all time.

And finally let’s talk about one of Bebop’s most ground-breaking elements and the reason it’s so revered in the western anime community: the English dub.

The English is, in a word, phenomenal. Prior to Bebop, anime with English dub were characterized with either flat, phoned-in performances that lacked emotion and passion, or outrageous, over-the-top voice acting that similarly wasted the potential emotional depth of the series. And more often than not, they also had vastly different scripts to appeal to American audiences.

Bebop changed that, with nuanced performances and a consistent tone that respected both the audiences and the original Japanese work. Sure, nowadays, a lot of anime can reach that level. But Bebop’s contribution to English dubbing in anime cannot be overstated, and the dub itself still sounds smooth, energetic and savvy, all thanks to the work of talented voice actors and the direction of ADR director Mary Elizabeth McGlynn.

Steve Blum forever cemented himself as the ultimate “cool guy” with his portrayal of Spike, with a deep, gentle but charismatic voice that subtly adjusts itself to Spike’s emotional state. Beau Billingslea’s similarly deep but more fatherly tone as Jack helped define the character to audiences as a stern yet compassionate character.

Wendy Lee’s performance as Faye manages to consistently present both her confident, charming front and her more emotional side with an incredible range of feelings. And Melissa Fahn’s maniacal portrayal of Ed brought levity and tons of humor to an otherwise increasingly dark show.

Many people hold disdain for English dubbing of anime, and I can understand why. But if there is one show that deserves to be watched English dubbed, it is Cowboy Bebop.

Final Verdict

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Cowboy Bebop is often regarded as a masterpiece of the anime medium, and while I often refrain from using this word due to my personal belief that nothing is perfect nor should be considered perfect, Bebop is one anime that comes very close to this idea, at least from my subjective point of view. Director Shinchiro Watanabe and the production team in Sunrise/Bones crafted a remarkably polished, inventive and refreshing experience that even now, years after its initial airing all the way back in 1998, remains a unique, complex and nuanced work of art that demonstrates the potential of animation as for storytelling and characterization.

To many people, Cowboy Bebop is more than another anime series. More than just another classic. Cowboy Bebop is truly a one-of-a-kind experience that blends detailed aesthetics, swift action, humor and human drama into an unbelievable package that is filled to the brim with substance in addition to style. So much so, that I personally believe that even its creator has yet to surpass his name-making work. If you haven’t watched Bebop for whatever reason, you have some serious homework to do, and as said time and again by others: Bebop has something to offer for everyone, be it action, music, characters, emotion, fun or just some nice animation to look at. It stands as one of my favorite anime of all-time, and it has high chances to become one to you, too.

See you around, space cowboys and cowgirls.

The Good:

  • An immersive, multi-layered setting that rewards the viewer upon every new rewatch with its details and foreshadowing
  • Smartly-written, three-dimensional characters with distinguished personalities and well-explored motivations; both main cast and minor characters
  • Traditional animation holds up well with some terrific action sequences and colorful aesthetics
  • Standout Yoko Kanno soundtrack and an excellent English dub

The Bad:

  • A few episodes can't keep up with the rest of show's quality, especially in the second half of the series
  • Ed is relatively thin as a character in comparison to her companions

& the Ugly:

  • The Outlaw Star crew is more successful at being bounty hunters in one episode than the Bebop crew in the entire run of the show

© 2020 Raziel Reaper