Tentacle-Free Anime: "Cowboy Bebop" (1998) Review
- by Kazekun, 4 July 2016
I think it's time to blow this scene.
Get everybody and their stuff together.
Okay, three, two, one let's jam.
Cowboy Bebop, you've watched it, your mama's watched it, hell even your grandma-ma's watched it. It is one of the most iconic and fondly remembered anime in the west (note: I said west, the series never really caught on in Japan). Considered one of, if not the greatest anime of all time.
So why has it taken me so long to cover it? Well, in my defense there's already been so much said about this show since it first came out in 1998 that adding my voice to the mix just needed the right timing. Liking sitting down to re-watch it for the 3rd or 4th time as I ended up doing recently, showing it to my girlfriend for the first time. And, for the record, she quite liked it.
I also recently went to a local Cowboy Bebop themed art show in my home city that was filled with plenty of people, fans, and wonderful art on display and for sale. I bought some buttons. This is a show that's become so much more than just a show for many anime fans and it was really cool to get to go to something like and share the experience of this series with other people.
There's good reason for Bebop to be remembered so fondly for all it achieved for anime coming to the west. From the amazing dub, the incredible animation, the fun characters and the most eclectic soundtrack ever put to media. Like so many other anime before it, this series put out all the stops to be the best it could be. And though it never quite picked up in Japan, I'm so glad it became the smash hit that it did here in North America.
Buuuut Cowboy Bebop isn't perfect. It's close, it really is, and I know I'm committing reviewer seppuku by stating that, but really there are things I noticed this time around that I never noticed before and it's probably because I was finally looking at it through a reviewer’s lens.
At 26 episodes Bebop is in that sweet spot for anime storytelling that I prefer. I think 26 episodes is a tight enough space to tell a really well-knit story while giving it breathing room so you can get to know the characters and their histories, their personalities, what drives them, etc. So it was always interesting to me that only about 5 episodes actually deal with the main story. Which is the uncovering of Spike's past as it moves to retake his present.
Sprinkled throughout are more standalone stories, featuring many new side characters and a few episodes focusing on the other main members of the Bebop crew: Jet, Faye, Ed and Ein. Everyone gets their moment to shine and this is what makes Bebop so impressive because so many stories have problems balancing a single narrative and this one has tons.
However, not all episodes are alike - many are better than others. This is a problem with doing many short 20 minute standalone episodes, rather than telling one straight narrative where every episode leads into the next. Sometimes there will be episodes that just don't stand out narratively no matter how fun they are. I'm thinking one episode, Toys in the Attic which focuses on Spike hunting down a creature wreaking havoc in the ship that turns out to be outdated food turned sentient.
Also, the episode Mushroom Samba that sees Ed inadvertently get the rest of the crew members high as kites with mushrooms. Both of these episodes are purely standalone and really offer no character-building, no real tension for our characters to face - they're just fun. But Toys ultimately felt like a boring throwaway episode that didn't need to be in there because as fun as it is to see Spike running around dealing with this creature, the resolution isn't fun in my opinion.
It's not meant to be compelling, so I'm not looking for that, but it isn't fun either. It feels lazy finding out it was just old food that ends its tirade by getting eaten. Mushroom Samba is fun all the way through. Not just seeing the crew of the Bebop get high and how they react to that, but Ed and Ein (the ship's resident Corgi) are on a buddy adventure throughout the episode as well and that's hysterical. They're just effin' stuff up and ultimately they're caught by the police handling these druggy mushrooms and it turns out they grabbed the wrong ones. So they escape arrest, but we still get treated to them having had to have dealt with the side effects of the druggy shrooms earlier in the episode.
Another thing I noticed is that in the two part story Jupiter Jazz (which is fantastic two parter overall and the introduction to one of the strongest tracks of the series) Spike's old friend turned enemy, Vicious, just didn't need to be in the story. Ultimately he was pointless to that specific narrative and the role of antagonist could've been given to someone else. Plus, his exit from the episode is incredibly similar to his first appearance in the show, or at least how his exit in that first appearance went. Which is to say both ended with explosions and Vicious possibly dying. It's lazy writing for a villain we lated find out to be fascinating.
These seem like small things, but they're not because they prove to show that there are things this series could have and should have done differently. And I’m only mentioning a few of those.
I do not want to tear this series apart, because it doesn't deserve that. I LOVE Cowboy Bebop and as a whole there is just way more greatness to it than there is anything else - for its time it was groundbreaking and 18 years later it really holds up.
I mentioned this earlier, but the dub for Bebop is phenomenal. I would say it's probably better than the original Japanese dub. Steve Blum is Spike, Wendee Lee is Faye. The voice actors are just as iconic as these characters, and for Blum at least it was Spike that put his name on the map. And he's been is so much more since that.
The animation is so fluid and top notch, the action scenes are gorgeous and that's evident right from the very first episode when Spike takes on a drug smuggler and their fight is unfolding in what feels like seamless transition of motion. This carries over all the way through the series, with the epic space battles, the ships buzzing through the empty sky is just consistently phenomenal to watch. This is also apparent with the slower scenes as well. Characters are given depth just by how they move during quite scenes and that can't happen without flawless animation.
Also, if you pay attention, a lot of the episodes are animated differently as well. Sometimes it's more subtle than in others, but there really are differences throughout the series. It's really, really cool because of how seamless the different styles blend together to make this series work.
Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, Ed, Ein (a Corgi), and Jet Black make up the crew of the Bebop. All of them are filled with comedy, tragedy, history and character. We get whole episodes dedicated to each of them, so that we can understand how these people came to be who they are. Personally, I find Faye's story to be the most heart-breaking, Jet's baggage to be the more realistic, Ed's story to be the most innocent, and Spike's backstory to be the most exciting.
It's the focus on our characters, and plenty of side-characters as well throughout each episode that pushes the story forward, giving us insight into their lawless, dusty future where space travel is the everyday thing and people are still living in poverty. As criminals. Unable to pay for their sister's operation so they have to steal a high market plant that's very dangerous to handle, in order to sell it and use as medicine.
People who have undergone government experiments to become both a man and woman at once. An interstellar truck driver, who's caught up in a bounty hunter's adventure even though she hates them. This show is at its heart about two things: people, whether in the modern days of the far future are still people. Completely three-dimensional, victims of their own devices and the devices of others. Secondly, this story is about escaping the past. And how at some point all of our past's will catch up to us and bring us to the bitter reality.
There's some debate over whether Spike dies at the end after being inflicted with mortal wounds and then collapsing on a staircase after his fight with Vicious. Well, in my humble opinion there's no way around the fact that he has to die. His past caught up with him, a man who’s been trying to escape it for years. His old organization is decimated, the love of his life is killed, the one man responsible for all of it Spike then kills, and the beats of that same story set up Spike never returning to see Faye and Jet again, after he leaves them behind.
All the threads of his past that kept him going are gone. There's nothing left for Spike, who at the end of the day felt more for those he was fighting against than those who'd become his friends over the course of a few years – or in Ed and Faye's case, a year. The finale two-parter The Real Folk Blues is Spike's swansong. And it's a beautiful one at that.
Cowboy Bebop earned its place in history for not being afraid to show the universe at its most real, untampered way. Where bad things happen to good people and sometimes that is just how it is. All set to the backdrop of the future, and space, and tunes that will blow your mind.
The final thing I'll mention about Bebop before heading out of here is its soundtrack. Composed by Yoko Kanno, the music in this series ranges from jazz, to hip-hop, to country, to blues, to tribal and a myriad of more. It all works beautifully to being interwoven into the series at just the right moments. Jupiter Jazz two-parter ends on my favorite track of the series: Space Lion. Go listen to that nearly 8-minute masterpiece and you'll see why.
18 years later this series isn't a perfect one. There are things about it that I found I didn't like once I looked at it through a critical mind and yet it still holds up pretty evenly overall as a fantastic story ahead of its time. And a relic of days gone by in anime that we may never see again. Cowboy Bebop is an original story and tells the tale that those working on it wanted to tell. No strings attached, no original manga to adapt it from. Very rarely do original stories come out anymore as anime unless they're films.
Which isn't an outright terrible thing, but it's a missed thing. And Cowboy Bebop to me represents what one can achieve when a masterful storyteller is allowed to tell their own story with full trust from those around them. If you've never watched this show definitely check it out.
Final Score: 4.5 Space Cowboys out of 5
Have you seen "Cowboy Bebop"? Let us know how well do you think it holds up!