Retro Romp: Cowboy Bebop Review

A long time ago, before there were dandies in space, there were cowboys, and Space Westerns never looked so cool!

Thanks to AnimeLab, our days can be filled with an endless stream of anime old and new. But is it worth looking back when there are so many new releases? I took the time to watch a series that has influenced pop culture and film since its debut in 1998 and I was not disappointed.

Soon to be celebrating its 20th Anniversary, Cowboy Bebop has inspired many an adventure in space, including Firefly and modern comical-counterpart, Space Dandy. For those who are yet to discover the Bebop and her crew, let me give you a rundown on what made Cowboy Bebop a cult hit and why you should revisit it today.

Characters

What antics can occur when you place an ex-cop, amnesic con artist and carefree drifter in space? The limit doesn’t exist apparently as Spike, Jet and Faye (Cowboy Bebop’s main players) find themselves in increasingly absurd situations traveling the stars in the dilapidated Bebop.

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Utilising a sitcom formula, each adventure is an examination of character interaction, revealing complexities in personality and motivations. Superficially, crew additions Ed and Ein provide comic relief to the series, but look closer and you will discover a deeper connection forming as the crews’ mannerisms and feelings towards each other change.

This transition from self-centered misfits to a family unit occurs gradually across the series’ twenty-six episodes, driven by brilliant multidimensional characterisations. It isn’t until the final moments that you realise the impact each character has had on the others’ lives, reminding the audience what it means to be human and our ways of coping with loss.

Story

Don’t expect a continuous story arc in Cowboy Bebop. Each episode follows a different bounty, focusing more on characterisation than story progression. Think Space Dandy, but a little more serious, with some episodes dedicated to unraveling the secrets of a character’s past. For instance, one of my favourites, Speak Like a Child, examines Faye’s history whilst Jet and Spike track down an old Betamax player. The episode pokes fun at the VHS/Betamax rivalry, hitting some truths that still apply today about protecting memories on outdated media.

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A double episode at the end of each season reveals answers to Spike’s past and the opening scene of Episode One. This is the very loose story arc that shapes the series, providing closure, but not necessarily a compelling reason to watch. Instead, like any good Tarantino film (THEY’RE ALL GOOD!) it is the character actions, from heartfelt to comical, that make Cowboy Bebop a classic.

Style

90s anime was typified by rich colours and angular designs. Looking at the characters and scenery, you will notice everything appears quite linear and clean cut.

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Whilst this style was present in most anime of the generation, it is particularly effective in conveying the harsh environment of space, giving set pieces a rough, gritty tone. Combine this with the collapse of Earth and you have a slick way of presenting the everyday struggle of humanity in a Neo-Noir society.

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Another interesting choice in design was the use of CGI for certain segments of the series. Although it was not the first to utilise CG animation, Cowboy Bebop was one of the earliest anime to integrate segments of CGI that didn’t look like a bowl of porridge assaulting your eyes. Reserved for the astral gates, space stations and a few planetary rotations, less was definitely more in this era. Surprisingly, it still looks great; the gates and planets spin hypnotically, inviting you to enter the void.

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Pacing & Action

Like a gene-splice made in heaven, Cowboy Bebop inherits the best parts of Mama Western and Papa Noir. Episodes balance comedy, tragedy and action to perfection, leaving you with the satisfaction of emotional cardio-training. One episode in particular, Ganymede Elegy, mixes emotions like your local bartender as a chase scene plays out to a delicate backing melody. The effect is literally breathtaking as your heart adjusts to the action and counteracting music.

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Unlike modern action anime, most combat in Cowboy Bebop has a slight pause when a limb connects, or is shown in close-up shots. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it gels with the style and pacing of the series. Noir-styled action tends to be more intimate, emphasising the power struggle between combatants.

Sure it doesn’t pack the same testosterone-inducing punch as some other series of the generation (*cough* Dragon Ball), but for those who like a good yarn with their Mexican standoff, this one’s for you!

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Music

It’s no secret I’m passionate about music of any kind, which is why Cowboy Bebop is a muso’s dream! Each episode is named after a musical style, incorporating a small portion of that genre in the soundtrack, ranging from classical to heavy metal. Like a cryptic crossword, some of the titles may have you guessing the music connection, but that just makes it all the more brilliant!

For instance, another of my favourite episodes, Toys in the Attic, is equal parts Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a gentle side of classical music. Where’s the pun in the title? The music is from The Nutcracker Suite, hence “Toys”. The final moments are choreographed perfectly, matching movement to music into what can only be described as a mesmerising space ballet. So captivating was the performance, I missed my train stop and was late for work. WORTH IT!

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Music fanatics will get a kick out of the soundtrack, particularly from the jazz-blues that play over the credits and the series finale. Even if you are not at all musically inclined, chances are you’ll be tapping along to a tune or two during your time aboard the Bebop.

Verdict

Cowboy Bebop’s complex characters and music dedication has set a bar few anime have been able to challenge. Serving up laughs, sighs, and the occasional cry, Cowboy Bebop is an emotional journey in gunslingers clothing. When you’ve caught up on all the latest simulcasts, rewind to 1998 and discover how episodic storytelling should be done.

I rate Cowboy Bebop 4 out 5 video cassettes!

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What are your favourite moments in Cowboy Bebop?

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