Happy 20th birthday, Cowboy Bebop: how does the iconic anime hold up?

Contributed by
Apr 3, 2018

It may be hard to believe, but it really has been twenty years since Cowboy Bebop premiered. Shinichirō Watanabe's ground-breaking anime series wasn't just a critical and commercial smash upon its premiere; after it became the first anime broadcast on Adult Swim in 2001, it became the gateway drug to an entire medium for many Westerners.

Even people who dismiss anime without a second thought tend to enjoy Cowboy Bebop. Its genius transcends all those preconceptions and its timeless approach puts most Hollywood productions to shame. As overused as the term "masterpiece" is, one can't deny that it's a label Cowboy Bebop thoroughly deserves.

Image from Giphy.

Revisiting the show a few years after my last re-watch, I was once again struck by how fresh it is. It could have been released recently, with few to no changes, and still hold up against its competitors. Then again, half of the anime on air today has Cowboy Bebop’s fingerprints all over it; its influence is immeasurable both in anime and modern cinema. From Tarantino to Firefly and beyond, everyone seems to have borrowed a little from the series.

Set in 2071, after humanity has moved beyond Earth and through the galaxy thanks to the invention of lightning-fast interstellar travel, the series follows the exploits of the spaceship Bebop and its ragtag crew of bounty hunters: Spike Spiegel, the effortlessly cool hero with a dark past; former cop Jet Black; sardonic sparkplug Faye Valentine; exceptionally hyper genius hacker Radical Edward; and Ein, the universe's smartest corgi. Together — and apart — they scour the solar system for criminals with big money on their head, although their efforts are seldom truly successful.

Distilling Cowboy Bebop down to a mere paragraph of plot does little to convey the sheer scope and ambition of its production. It’s undeniably science-fiction, but the tone and characters feel more suited to a Spaghetti Western than Star Trek. There are few shows as achingly cool as Cowboy Bebop, but to reduce it to mere aesthetics would never do it justice (as wonderful as said aesthetics are). The melding of style and substance is near labyrinthine in its execution, particularly regarding the music. The legendary composer Yoko Kanno's soundtrack is a dazzling mish-mash of musical genres, so varied and sophisticated that you're left stunned by the knowledge that one woman managed to pull it all off (with help from her band, The Seatbelts).

The series is confident enough to veer between goofy comedy and gut-wrenching pathos, with episodes diving deep into themes of poverty, betrayal, the failures of the justice system, rampant consumerism, overreliance on technology, and much more. Visually, the familiar cues are all there, yet it still manages to look quite unlike anything else in the genre. Various cultures have melded together and made their stamp across the planets, but the stark reality of income inequality is inescapable. This is a futuristic world where poverty is still rampant and most people across the Solar System live in crumbling buildings and drink out of retro-style dive bars. The richer residents gamble freely and revel in their wealth, but most people, including the crew of the Bebop, struggle to get by and often go days without food. This is no intergalactic utopia; even with the freedom of the stars, money is still what speaks the loudest.

This deceptively simple tale of space cowboys is a mere façade for some of the most sophisticated storytelling in the medium. What could be throwaway adventures or mere fluff is spun into something far more affecting. For example, in one episode, Brain Scratch, Faye infiltrates an increasingly popular cult named SCRATCH who believes humans will be able to leave their bodies and join a collective online hive. Lead by the mysterious Dr. Londes, the cult has attracted thousands of devoted followers and encouraged a number of them to commit suicide. Spike and company’s trail to uncover this enigmatic figure, one whose powers are seemingly hypnotic, reveals a truth sadder than its already insidious setup could anticipate. This infallible religious idol is merely the computer generation of a comatose boy. He took on the form of Londes, controlling it in his current vegetative state, to make others understand the experience of living as he does, a complete soul trapped in a lifeless body, closed off from the world. As satire, it’s effective enough, but as an emotional story, it’s masterful. Cowboy Bebop doesn’t do that just once or twice during its run — it happens in nearly every episode, and it’s brilliant for it.

The more I re-watch the show – and believe me, it doesn’t take much convincing for me to give it another run – the more I latch onto the series’ female characters. Faye is the femme fatale of old school Hollywood noir turned space rebel, albeit with far more conflict and personality than such a description suggests. She’s stubborn, loud-mouthed and seldom plays well with others. For the first third of the series, Spike and Jet view Faye as a nuisance to be disposed of (if only she’d get out of their hair already). Eventually, she proves herself to be an adept member of the team and forms sibling-like relationships with the crew – constantly bickering, but you always feel the love.

Radical Edward, or Ed for short, is a more divisive figure. You either love her hyper mania or you find it just a bit too much. She’s a familiar trope from anime – the wacky sidekick who seems to be inhabiting another plain of existence – but with greater shades than her predecessors. Yes, she’s ceaselessly weird and that can be off-putting, but she’s also easily the smartest person on the planet at any given time. Not only does she know that, but she takes giddy joy in showing it off to those who underestimate her. There’s no malice in Ed—only squee.

Image from Giphy.

The other feminine shadow that looms overhead in every episode is that of Julia, the enigmatic lost love of Spike’s life. Little is revealed about her until the latter third of the series, when the overriding plot about the crime syndicate Red Dragon comes to a climax. She is simply, to the rest of the crew, the mysterious ex-lover who disappeared after Spike tried to split from the syndicate and his former partner Vicious. Characters like this are tough to talk about. They're designed to be inherently vague, to be impenetrable enigmas that drive plot and character but are seldom offered much in the way of development themselves. For the most part, all we know of Julia is what we see from Spike’s point-of-view; she's beautiful, and the mere memory of her dominates his life. Once we are treated to scenes with her in the present, we get a greater insight into both Julia and Spike. She’s sharp, quick with a gun, unafraid of danger and utterly torn between reality and her emotions. For the viewer, Julia is a double-edged sword, an intriguing presence whose potential is never fully realized.

In the two decades since its premiere, Cowboy Bebop has gone on to become legendary. Hollywood keeps threatening to adapt it into a live-action blockbuster (for a long time, Keanu Reeves was set to play Spike, which wouldn't be the worst idea, in all honesty). As interesting as it would be to see the Bebop and crew in the flesh, it would feel unnecessary to remake something that has not only stood the rest of time but feels light years ahead of it. No matter how many times I watch it, it’s still exciting to see these space cowboys go on the most exhilarating adventures. There can be no greater compliment to a piece of pop culture than how feverishly its audience protects it, and Cowboy Bebop has that devotion in spades. I truly envy those who get to watch the show for the very first time and experience its genius. If you’re one of those people, I hope you enjoy the ride. If not, then don’t you owe yourself another re-watch?

Image from Giphy.