‘The work which becomes a new genre itself will be called COWBOY BEBOP’
(No spoilers, really as much pitch as review)
I finally did it. My first anime, my first TV show at all in months: Cowboy Bebop, 1998, one season, untold influence.
This is probably the most objectively cool thing I’ve ever watched, which is funny as before I just sought out this knowledge directly from the right people in my life, I had something drafted to post here that ran essentially "Alright, which of you nerds can tell me what version of Cowboy Bebop I’m supposed to watch."
Because if you’re in the non Japanese-speaking world, you’ve got options: the original Japanese voice cast with subtitles, or a dubbed version with American voice actors. Watching a dub goes against every one of my instincts, but as one friend told me with charmingly abrupt solemnity in a park: “It’s considered the best English anime dub of all time.” Well, that’s something. And as my local advisor @starlingshrike elaborated, the American cast also appreciably includes Black actors, appropriately reflecting the 1990s anime rarity of Cowboy Bebop’s racial diversity.
All that said though, there’s just something about an original isn’t there, watching a piece of art as it was first created, with an Asian cast that is also highly regarded. Really selling herself as my Bebop Virgil right from the start, Katie concluded that they’re tonally really similar, so one could definitely ping between the two editions to compare. And after four episodes, I knew I was just going to metronome through the whole thing like that—both worlds, baby!
Okay sure but what IS this show?, you’re asking. Well let’s give that a whirl: Cowboy Bebop (カウボーイビバップ) is an experimental space western jazz noir, following a gradually expanding crew of perpetually broke and hungry misfit bounty hunters in the 2070s. Their ship is called the Bebop, the structure is episodic, and while there’s seemingly no genre type the show can’t ably fold into their riff, at the core there’s always this distinctive, casually forlorn vibe to it all, maybe best conveyed by the most frequent end title card, which you’ve probably seen before:
You see what I mean? It’s cool, it’s just…it’s cool.
The opening credits are to a song called ‘Tank!’, which just sounds like a song that should be called ‘Tank!’, and I was grateful this was all on Hulu in the U.S. so I never had to be insulted by Netflix asking if I wanted to skip them. No I do not, 3, 2, 1 let’s jam. The sharp, kinetic vibrancy of the opening evenly slides into the way the show can be violent at times, which is exactly as a Watchman-esque graphic novel is violent: that ropey look to blood spray, the way a face might go smooshy at an impact, stylized close-ups, very storyboarded.
The closing credits, meanwhile, are to a song called ‘The Real Folk Blues’, a big & mournful Japanese track where just the title is crooned in English, forever tricking me into trying to sing along. I listened to it play over its hazy, watercolor-y black & white backstory montage a thousand times as I always wanted to catch both takes of the next episode previews, which much like this ending montage, also never clearly reveal anything, though that’s because the Cowboy Bebop promos are the greatest submission to the art form I’ve seen since Mad Men.
These ones are deliberately fucking with you though, most including several of the characters just going on squabbling tangents and never getting to any real information, or in some cases straight up lying to you. One of them is nearly entirely in dog barks. Another soon devolves into a character delivering this literal VO, which honestly I should have recognized as a sign that episode would turn out to be one of my very favorites: “...Well, actually the story doesn’t go anywhere. At first glance, it’s pointless. The actions are on a small scale, and the ending is forced. But then again, what conclusions will you draw from it?”
Which brings me to my next point about the tone: it’s so…elliptical. Little of this show’s overarching mythologies are ever really explained, and yet, you still get it. In this and other ways, I do think what director Shinichirō Watanabe was doing with Cowboy Bebop is much closer to David Lynch than a lot of things that try to claim that nearness. As something like Lynch's Twin Peaks, it works in symbolism and half-understood touchstones, and this kind of storytelling of introspection. Dreamy, individual, shared with us but not spelled out. So many of these episodes feel sort of like a dream, like a sort of vignette, where you aren’t always certain how you’ve gotten here, and you aren’t quite sure what this important thing this character just said means exactly, but it has still hit you like a seismic shift in the emotional landscape of this world.
Meanwhile, anchoring its spot in its sci-fi show lineage, Cowboy Bebop fully embraces the scrappy workaday fantasy of space domesticity, a top tier enchantment for me. They also maintain even in entirely unconstrained animated form the original Star Trek precedent that 50% of other planets just look like the desert outside of Los Angeles—tradition! It's certainly not all stars and deserts though, as the style pulls from so many different artistic traditions across both the East and the West. I am not a designer yet I want to be a designer and be assigned just one specific episode of Cowboy Bebop I get to work on. The little drifting spores falling on the minarets on terraformed Venus...the high contrast Batman metropolis of 'Pierrot Le Fou'...that empty city back on shattered Earth with the lion fountain and the palms...
I mean this show is so visually striking. We see a lot of different environments, but they all feel lived in, like there really are people there, getting their clutter places. And the people themselves! They all have such looks. This could likely be an anime thing I’m just now being introduced to, but the proportions here are just so incredibly ambling to look at. Everyone’s legs are like 1.75 times the length of the rest of their body, which really lands somewhere between sexy and dorky.
Oh here’s the Bebop crew by the way, which comes together over the first nine episodes:
Jet / Jetto
In spaceship show function and demeanor, Jet Black is both Bones and Scotty poured into the mold of Papa Bear, and obviously I love that. It’s his ship, and when not chasing bounties he’s usually either cooking, patching Spike up, tending to his bonsais, or grousing at Faye for bringing her little fighter jet back all smashed up for him to fix. At one point he describes himself as having to "raise Ein," the dog, and I about lost it at how Dad that phrasing was. Please bring that dog up well.
Voice cast preference: I’m pretty even on this one! American Jet is grumbly rumbly and that’s good, but Japanese Jetto has more drawn-out melody, and that’s very good as well. I can tell you I do like hearing characters call him Jetto better 100 percent—love an o.
Spike / Supaiku
Our Romantic lead and titular Space Cowboy of the end card, Spike Spiegel is a talented fighter and lackadaisically lonely bastard who in nearly every other episode finds himself in some fatalistic scenario where he just rests a cigarette in his mouth and shrugs, welp, guess I’ll die. He frequently complains to Jet that their ship has been overrun by dogs, children, and women with attitudes. Yes Spike & Jet are space roommates. Do with that what you will—please.
Voice cast preference: I think I’m gonna give the edge to American Spike, that is uh, a good voice. “Yup American Spike hot,” as I updated Katie. I do like Japanese Supaiku very much as well though, who has this smooth, river rock woefulness that really anchors some of my favorite Spike episodes, many of which I spent with him.
Faye / Fei
Haha well I’ve written myself into a trap here, because the point of Faye Valentine is that we really don’t know what her deal is at first, especially as it seems she keeps changing her story. She’s aloof, but also keeps hanging around anyway—I’m inclined to describe her as like a stray cat with money problems. I really love that the grungy ship bathroom becomes like, *her* space. Most of the best character growth is Faye stuff.
Voice cast preference: It’s Japanese Fei no contest. An endearingly improvisational quality to her delivery, she feels very much like a real girl, which is wild given how, well, wild her character and circumstances are. American Faye’s hot girl sass took longer to grow on me, though eventually she did too as her performance deepened with the character.
Ed / Edo
I’m looking forward to how this sentence is gonna go: so the gang has an episode about a new addition to the Nazca lines that leads them to tracking down an infamous hacker named Radical Edward—who turns out to be a nonbinary 13-year-old with the full chosen name of Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivruski the IV. “Ed made up that name for Ed, isn’t it cool?” As befalls Spike & Jet with every member of their forced-family, they can’t manage to shake this weirdo off, so Ed joins the ship as well, where she takes to floating along behind Jet loosely latched to his shoulders like a zero-gravity buoy, and no actually I never did figure out the rules for how the artificial gravity works on the Bebop. It works on aesthetic principles, I think.
Voice cast preference: It’s tipping toward Japanese Edo for me, though I actually feel these two voice actors might be hitting the most similar cadence in their respective performances, which is like, BIG whimsy.
Ein / Ain
Ein is an outrageously valuable scientifically enhanced Welsh corgi, and this may be a slight spoiler for the second episode, but none of them know this, they just think he’s a dog they’ve ended up with with no greater importance, and this is the kind of joke in this show that makes me laugh for days.
Voice cast preference: I swear they have different voice actors for the barks but Wikipedia is not backing me up here.
And then there’s also these recurring Red Dragon Syndicate characters, all Spike's constellation, who show up in a handful of episodes over the course of the season, but I think those are best just doled out to you as they come. The fifth episode in particular is worth it to just suddenly ~experience~ everything that's going on with its particular genre swing.
Besides, while the Syndicate stuff does form the most overarching backbone in terms of plot, also like, does it though? I’d honestly argue that the more philosophical concept of the past’s influence on the present has more bearing on the manner and material of this show than anything specific that happened with Vicious or Julia. One of the most interesting things to me about how this show works that it would be possible to totally change the details of Spike’s backstory and still have the series run pretty much the same way, because what matters is how his haunting works in the present, not actually sorting out what created it in the past. Katie proposes, and I think she’s dead on here, that the true emotional climax of the series is actually the end of the episode that comes right before the two-part finale. The reason why I think this is so right, is that moment is all to do with how the characters’ grappling with the past is affecting each other right now, and for really the first time seems to turn forward-looking, to ask them to now grapple with what they see in front of them. It’s an incredible moment, transformative and open-ended, open-ended because it's transformative.
All of which is not to say that the actual finale of the series isn’t a huge tune as well. A different conclusion style, there’s a resolving sense of cosmic closure to it, with an all-timer of a final note.
Wow I have written so much about the ending of this show just now all without touching the plot, huh! Well hey hopefully this will work on people—join me in anime outer space.
See You Cowgirl, Someday, Somewhere!
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