Released three years after the conclusion of the series, the Cowboy Bebop movie could have easily gone wrong. The mysterious, melancholy anime show would go on to be considered a classic of the medium, renowned for its genre alchemy of sci-fi, noir, Western, Hong Kong action, and more into a jazzy style all its own. Though episodic enough to potentially spawn a pretty much endless series of adventures, the show wrapped at twenty-six episodes — more than enough time for viewers to get lost in the rusty, futuristic Bebop world yet short enough to want much more.
It's a tricky balance to maintain, and one that could easily be upset by the idea of a sequel film. The show's final episode is equal parts ambiguous and definitive: two members of the Bebop quintet have left for good, while the face of the series, the wiry and aloof Spike Spiegel, crumples to the floor to bleed out as the camera gazes skyward, then spaceward. "Never seen a bluer sky," a song goes as the credits begin. It's hardly difficult to imagine where a sequel could pick things up, but for twenty years director Shinichiro Watanabe has left things as they are, and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie wisely avoids any urge to show us the aftermath.
As a midquel that takes place before any of the crew parted ways, the movie slots neatly into the established storyline, without disturbing anything we already know to be true. While pursuing a bounty, Spike, Faye Valentine, Jet Black, Edward, and the dog Ein run afoul of a larger, more sinister bio-terrorism plot on Mars. The bad guy is Vincent, a new character with a beard and a trench coat who's been driven mad by the results of a military experiment.
In this, the Bebop movie echoes countless anime films as a disconnected entity, focused on new faces rather than the overarching plot of the parent series (to what extent the five episodes where Spike runs into his nemesis, Vicious, can be called an overarching plot). Trigun, Naruto, Bleach, one of the Fullmetal Alchemist movies, most of the Dragon Ball ones — there's a distinct template at work here, placing familiar characters into original storylines that are perfectly digestible even for people who have yet to catch every episode.
It's easy to dismiss such films as inconsequential given that they're designed to be that way, and their quality does vary wildly. But for Cowboy Bebop, that slightness is entirely appropriate. The episodic nature of the series is more than just a stylistic choice; it's a reflection of the show's themes. The characters are drifting from one place to the next, and how else to represent that than with disparate stories about hunting for bounties? They throw themselves into their work because it keeps them occupied, one eye always on the next meal ticket rather than the pain they've left behind.
In being episodic, the show offers only a snapshot of a place and the people in it. That's the secret to the way its world manages to feel so lived-in, apart from the grime and the ruin and the dim lighting and the way the cockpit of Spike's ship jostles as if the rickety thing is going to break apart and die. Backstories come in bits and pieces, with significant historical events like the devastation of the Earth's surface mentioned in passing. We never know everything about the characters or about the world they inhabit, and the show feels true in that way: no matter how much time you spend with someone, you'll never get to know everything.
Though the movie antagonist Vincent bears some similarities to the show's Vicious, he is not the key to decrypt the show's characters or their musings on dreams and listlessness. It would have been easy for the narrative to look backward just as easily as it might have looked forwards, literalizing the histories that have only been alluded to in flashbacks. It could've shown us Spike's time working for the Red Dragon Syndicate, or a fateful meeting between Spike and Jet.
But screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, responsible for much of the series as well as the movie, recognizes how contradictory it would be to look so directly into Bebop's past. During the show's final episode, Spike tells Faye about having one false eye (he never clarifies which) before he goes off to his probable death, and she asks him to stop explaining; he's never told her about himself before. To her, it feels wrong. That ambiguity is how the crew knows each other, and how we come to know them. To abandon it feels like a betrayal, and Nobumoto abides by crafting a film that's all but episodic itself.
Where the movie does build on the series, it does so like any episode. Vincent's preoccupation with dreams and morality supplements ideas the show frequently returns to, which adds to how we think about the main cast. The bustling rendition of a Martian city, meanwhile, is the most vivid locale the series has ever seen. The crowds are huge, and the movie has such a tangible love of depicting people that its opening credits sequence is devoted entirely to random bystanders on the street before it settles on Spike as the rhythmic song fades out.
Multiple scenes are dedicated to the characters simply walking around, asking for information. It's a massive, multicultural place that feels as alive as any sci-fi city ever has, blending hyper-realism with futuristic trappings so seamlessly integrated that it's easy to miss some of them altogether. Your perception of the Cowboy Bebop universe shifts by the simple knowledge that such a place even exists in the midst of a world that previously seemed sparse and even kind of desolate.
There are a handful of concessions to newcomers: the opening convenience store robbery is clearly meant to introduce us to Spike, Jet, and the idea of their lives as "cowboys" (bounty hunters) on an average job. The two further establish their personalities for the audience over a game of shogi, and Faye has her own intro music. From there, however, it's business as usual. Spike and Faye risk death, Edward coos nonsense while hacking and playing with Ein, Jet acts grumpy to mask his begrudging, fatherly worry about the crew. It could just as easily be another few episodes. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is a vital continuation of the show's dreamy themes and ambling attitude by not seeming vital at all.