A western, a noir, and a space opera walk into a bar . . .
The crew of a spaceship called the Bebop are bounty hunters who travel the solar system to hunt criminals and make some money. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan.
Cowboy Bebop is a combination of multiple genres: space opera, noir (complete with the misogyny), and western. It’s episodic which gives it its pulp feel. The characters’ pasts are hinted at and sometimes given their own episodes. Any overarching story is centered around Spike and his past–these episodes happen once every five episodes. Enough to keep you interested but not enough to be overwhelming. There is some humor in the show, and it usually comes from the leads being the overconfident assholes they are.
Episode plots vary from a traveling outlaw who comes and makes a brief but meaningful impression on a couple characters (Waltz for Venus) to capturing eco-terrorists and eventually saving the day (Gateway Shuffle) to uncovering the mystery behind a mysterious immortal kid (Sympathy for the Devil). One episode even played with horror (Toys in the Attic), even then, there was a noir twist with character voice overs throughout the episode. The variety of episode plots is the backbone behind the pulpiness of Cowboy Bebop.
The best way to build a world is to keep it in the background. Cowboy Bebop’s focus is on the action of catching bounty hunters, so the world building happens in the background like it should. The things I noticed the most are signs with multiple languages: English and Japanese of course but also French and Chinese and others. Additionally, secondary and background characters are given a wide range of different skin tones and features and name origins. Even the main characters are hinted at being different races.
Though not seen as often, there are various sexual identities that pop up once in a while. In Ballad of Fallen Angels, Faye runs into a room where two men are in bed (and totally surprised a rando burst into their private moment). Later on, in Jupiter Jazz, Spike asks a man in drag for some information. In the same episode, Faye befriends a man with the body of a woman, later revealed to be the product of a highly addictive hormonal drug. None of these characters are looked down upon for their sexual identity, which is a huge relief considering this show is from the late 1990s.
Cowboy Bebop spans most of the solar system, from Venus to as far out as Saturn. Travel between the planets is made quick by hyperspace portals. The crew of the Bebop encounter a range of people involved in different scams that showcase how far science has progressed since humanity reached the stars. Most of these scientific developments are spotlighted by the adventure of the week.
The world building gives the show its space opera component with spaceships and faster than light travel and terraformed moons of Jupiter.
Our main character is Spike, overconfident and grumpy with a past that’s slowly revealed throughout the show. He’s capable and skillful and the wet dream of every male geek in my generation. Think James Bond if James Bond was poor and working outside the law to make his living.
His partner is Jet, an ex-cop gone rogue after an as-yet-unknown event in his life. Jet looks tough but he’s the one cooking meals in the galley and the keeper of a couple bonsai trees in his room. He has a mechanical arm from the shoulder to his fingers and we have yet to see how he got that. Jet’s the resident parental unit of the Bebop, but he’s not afraid to kill to make a meal.
They’re joined first by Ein, a welsh corgi who was experimented on in a lab and saved by Spike in lieu of capturing the criminal that stole Ein from the science lab. Ein is a data dog, which is a term that was never explained. He’s smart and adorable and, after joining the Bebop, mostly stays on the ship.
Next is Faye, a card shark who blows all her money either on pampering herself or at the casino. She’s got an attitude and a rocky friendship with Spike. I remember seeing an episode that explained her past, and I thought it was in the first half of the series, but maybe it happens in the second half. If I remember correctly, she was a law-abiding citizen before meeting conned into cryostasis for two hundred years by the love of her life. A much more interesting backstory than Spike, in my opinion, but nonetheless sidelined.
Finally, there’s my favorite character, Edward, a hacker from Earth who is actually a girl despite the male name. Edward joined the ship in exchange for helping the crew of the Bebop on a bounty hunt. Faye agreed to the deal without consulting Spike or Jet and so the Bebop got itself a hacker.
The characters’ interactions make the show as much as the noir-inspired episode plots.
Overall, the animation is smooth and deliberate. Characters don’t make unnecessary movements and the action isn’t too choppy. Some of the earlier episodes had great stills with sloppy movements, but those were smoothed over fairly quick.
The visuals is what gives the show its western feel. From the fonts of signs to the design of wanted posters with the biggest contributor being the show Big Shot, a recurring show announcing current potential bounties for bounty hunters. Of course, each occurrence of Big Shot is relevant to the plot–it’d be poor storytelling if it were any other way.
Is fantastic and just as varied as the episode plots. A little bit of jazz, some blues, and one episode featuring heavy metal. The soundtrack on its own is excellent. I’ve used it to accompany me on my way to and from work, as I write at my desk, and even as I make dinner in the kitchen. In the show, it helps create the noir atmosphere with melancholic tunes and pumps you up for action sequences.
Let’s not forget the timelessness of the opening sequence, a high energy big band tune I’ll most likely play at my wedding. It sets the stage for the entire show, no matter the episode.
Cowboy Bebop is considered a classic animated television series and for good reason. The plots withstand the test of time, the world isn’t too dated, and the characters are spot on. I wish Faye wasn’t so obviously the show’s fan service, but the characters never comment on her body and the show has yet to mention rape of any kind, so it’s forgivable.
Cowboy Bebop is highly recommended to old-school anime fans, novice anime watchers, and science fiction buffs of any kind.