3, 2, 1… Let’s Jam: Why ‘Cowboy Bebop’ Is So Iconic

Cowboy Bebop

It’s almost time to blow this scene. Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the classic anime Cowboy Bebop has nearly been released, the culmination of months and years of hype ever since the project was announced. 

Initial reactions to the trailers and title sequence have followed a predictable pattern; high levels of excitement topped with some hesitancy or even disapproval. All of these reactions however serve to remind you just how popular Shinichirō Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop remains with fans across the world. The series focuses on the crew of the Bebop—bounty hunters Spike and Faye and the captain Jet, who are later joined by hacker extraordinaire Ed and a hyper-intelligent corgi named Ein—as they try to carve out a living in a colourful but dangerous universe. It is rightly celebrated not only as one of the best anime to have come out of Japan, but one of the greatest animated television series produced anywhere in the world.

Cowboy Bebop’s release came at an important time for Japan. Anime’s popularity and production took a significant hit following the Japanese economic crash of the early 1990s. The release of Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) and Bebop, both of which introduced technical, artistic and narrative revolutions into anime that had not previously been possible, reinvigorated the medium’s popularity. Bebop’s aesthetic style combines the bleak urban futures of Blade Runner (1982) and Akira (1988) while adding splashes of hot rod pop art for good measure. An absolutely electric sense of colour helps to give the show’s entire universe an irresistible character. 

Although it proved controversial upon release, so much so that it was originally censored, Cowboy Bebop proved to be a hit. It also found its way across the world, becoming the first ever anime to be broadcast on Adult Swim in the USA (helped by the fact that its English dubbing is of a very high quality). Critics and audiences revere the show for its ingenuity, style, and thematic depth, elements that still stand out when watching the show today.

It’s incredible levels of success in Hollywood-dominated markets especially can be attributed not only to its outstanding quality, but also how it is one of the more ‘Western’ animes to be made in the last 30 years. This is due to some of the show’s creative choices; the names of all the characters are English names rather than Japanese ones. The show’s genre, interchanging from neo-noir to science fiction adventure, borrows heavily from American sources—most notably Star Trek, a shared DNA that is part of the reason why the show lasted only one season. Bebop music is American in origin, as is most of the music throughout the show, and the title song is in English. The episode titles meanwhile are inspired by classic US or British music acts. Finally, te title sequence too seems to take as much influence from classic James Bond opening montages and the work of artists like Roy Lichtenstein as much as any of its anime forebears.

Additionally, a number of the lead characters fall easily into categories inherited from classic Hollywood. Spike’s love interest Julia is a bona fida femme fatale (as is Faye in a different way), while Spike and Jet are the physically mismatched male lead duo that recurs again and again throughout American film and television. This familiarity, combined with a storyline and style offering something excitingly new, surely play a role not only in explaining the series’ success at the time, but also a reason why it remains so popular now. It is a creative infusion of cross-cultural references the likes of which isn’t seen all that often.

The central characters are especially memorable. They have attracted not only passionate fanaticism but also academic attention—a sign of how Bebop helped to raise anime’s cultural capital, especially outside of Japan. Spike’s erratic calls to action, troubled history, and casanova gloominess are offset by Jet, who is far more straightforward, gruff, and uncomplicated—“I don’t know and I don’t have an opinion,” as he puts it. Yet even he is afforded more detail and backstory than you would expect. Faye’s story is almost worthy of a show on its own, her superficial science fiction ‘babe’ status defying a fascinating past full of questions about memory, ageing, and the passage of time. Edward, meanwhile, is deliberately cast as gender ambiguous, from their clothing to the way they talk—so much so that even their own father mistakes them for a boy. For an animated show in 1995, the detail put into Cowboy Bebop’s characters is stunning. From questions of gender to realistic representations of wealth, the debates and ideas embedded into the Bebop’s crew have ensured they will remain timeless.

Bebop music itself is founded in improvisation and the idea of several distinctive elements somehow managing to gel together. It does far more than lend its name to the show’s title. It also perfectly sums up the actions of the main characters. At some point they all go rogue, with their unpredictable and erratic actions helping them to overcome to some of their most challenging foes. The way that the show frames its actions to music make for a seamless and irresistibly cool experience, somehow making the difficult existential and social questions asked by the show incredibly inviting. 

Animation is finally being taken seriously as an expressive, high-quality medium, helped by a number of incredible shows like BoJack Horseman. But it is Cowboy Bebop that helped to lay the foundations of what animation can do, both artistically and emotionally. Netflix’s reinvention of the show looks deliciously distinctive from its anime origins, an admittedly necessary update that forces you to remember how the original also diverged from anything else that came before. From its concept to its execution, Cowboy Bebop is a masterstroke. 

The original Cowboy Bebop is streaming now on Netflix and All 4. The live-action Cowboy Bebop is released on Netflix on 19 November.

Words by James Hanton

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