The Observation Deck: Cowboy Bebop
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This is honestly a long time coming, by which I mean literally three years since I started the series with my dad back before the pandemic. Unfortunately, we never finished it together, but it was easy to tell even back then that this was indeed a special series, and one that, for the most part, deserved continued praise after all these years.
Luckily, though, a friend of mine from high school was willing to rewatch the series with me, which gave me a great opportunity to start over again and take it all in. So, what did this revolutionary space western have to offer?
Oh, right, my bad. For the uninitiated, Cowboy Bebop tells a story set in the early 2070s, when space travel has become a regular part of life. However, given the sheer volume that governments would have to cover, they have instead found it easier to police the endless bounds of space with private bounty hunters, of which our protagonists Spike and Jet are involved. The series explores their journey in a mostly episodic fashion, eventually picking up the dangerously beautiful Faye, a young computer genius in Edward, and a man’s best friend in Ein, a smarter-than-average dog.
Bebop’s Aesthetic and Storytelling
Critics in the past have talked about the so-called “rule of cool” in relation to Bebop, often defined as a show’s ability to generate a feeling of sustained badassery based on the combination of certain elements. While Bebop certainly is cool, and I do not disagree with that characterization, it does feel like it is selling the show short, in a way.
Part of the implication when invoking the “rule of cool” is that the coolness is making up for lackluster elements. In this case, it seems that criticism is most often directed at the show’s laid-back, episodic storytelling in a way that feels undeserved. After all, a show tending toward episodic elements does not automatically mean the writing is not there to support it.
Many of Bebop ‘s more self-contained moments could be argued as some of the best television of all time. Episode 20, “Pierrot le Fou” provides an incredibly transgressive story about the mind of a serial killer and implicitly comments on Spike’s willingness to die when he goes after the killer despite escaping from him previously. The imagery of the episode is as much psychedelic as it is psychological, contrasting the horrific imagery of a darkened amusement park with a sterile testing facility in Pierrot’s flashback.
“Hard Luck Woman,” the precursor to the show’s two-part finale, sees Faye dealing with finally understanding her past and remembering who she was before waking up from her preservation. It is an emotionally vulnerable, and at points lonely, episode that sets the tone for the conclusion to come.
Now, this is not to say every episode is perfect. For as cool as the concept of space truckers might sound, “Heavy Metal Queen” did not contribute as unique a feeling as some of the other episodes, and probably would not noticeably affect the show’s pacing if it were skipped. However, the episodic nature of Cowboy Bebop does fit its overall themes and ethos, where life is taken one journey at a time and is ultimately there to be enjoyed, despite the ragged conditions one must get through to do so.
Ok But Spike is Cool as Fuck
as is everyone else on the cast, and yes Edward is included in that. While she may be very obviously comic relief, she adds a dimension of quirkiness and even personal struggle toward the end of the series that helps balance the cast from being too laid back. If there’s one thing I have learned from listening to a lot of emo and trap-leaning hip-hop, it is that sounding deadpan and uncaring does not automatically equal cool.
Spike is indeed laid back in a lot of areas, but he is also fairly quick to anger. He tries to be suave and to most people probably comes off as quite the lady killer, but to the rest of the crew, he’s a bit of a dumbass with a past that often leaves a lot more questions than answers.
Faye often feels like his foil in that regard, positing herself as the sensual, mature woman of the group but is just as scared if not more so about the events surrounding her past. Her con-artistry makes her hard to trust from Spike and Jett’s perspective, at least at first. However, as the group collects more bounties together, it is clear that a bond of some kind forms, whether or not they want to admit it, and clearly they do not.
Jett, meanwhile, is the actual calm and collected one…most of the time. This is, in part, because he arguably gets the least developed in the series. Then again, that is not saying much because even the least developed character across this cast still contains metric tons more personality than your average isekai protagonist. His development, too, is often tied to elements of his past, such as reuniting with his ex Alissa in “Ganymede Elegy” or his daughter’s friend in “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui.”
I guess technically Ein is “the least developed character,” but even then, 1. he’s a dog that cannot communicate linguistically whatsoever, and 2. the series puts in enough effort that even his attachment to Edward before she leaves the ship becomes readily apparent. Overall, the cast exudes personality in a way that not only makes them feel like individuals but counterbalances them against everyone else.
Yoko Kano and The Seatbelts
Music is a big part of Cowboy Bebop. The episode titles which I have thus far been referencing, along with all of the series’s episode titles, reference either famous musical concepts or famous songs. Most recognizable of these are “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Honky Tonk Women.
The show pays tribute to a lot of different musical styles, not just in the episode titles but in the music itself. Yoko Kano has been dubbed one of the best anime composers but many, including myself, and one of the primary reasons for that is her work on Cowboy Bebop. Specifically, in her recruitment and formation of The Seatbelts, a Japanese jazz-rock band, specifically for this series.
The group is not only responsible for one of the best anime openings in “Tank,” but for many of the musical pieces found throughout. Of course, credit must also go to various other collaborators who contributed to the series’ musical success including Steve Conte and Mai Yamane.
Cowboy Bebop’s Animation Stands the Test of Time
It is easy enough to take a random show from the 90’s and compare it to something from now and say, “the 2023 anime looks better.” Sure, fair enough. I myself am pretty hypocritical in this way when it comes to video game graphics and not wanting to play “older-looking” series despite gameplay or storytelling being equally as good if not better than the stuff I am playing now.
Cowboy Bebop is the anime equivalent of that. Despite looking and feeling like a 90s anime, that is basically the worst one could say about it. The animation is fluid and fast-paced in a way that honestly could still go toe to toe with stuff coming out this year. However, characters and backgrounds also remain expressive even when not much is actually moving in any given scene.
The show also knows how to be experimental. The previously mentioned episode “Pierrot le Fou” has some of the most expressive animation of any series I have seen in a hot minute. Though a bit less experimental in terms of pure animation, the episode “Toys in the Attic” plays with horror in a similar way, one that incorporates common fears about space and aliens and makes the antagonist truly terrifying in its movement.
Look, I am not here to tell you that Cowboy Bebop is the best anime ever and that newer anime suck in comparison, far from it. In fact, because of how much hype the show had going into it, I was ready to be even more critical than I usually am. Still, some things are classics for a reason. It is by no means perfect, and definitely some more questionable storylines from a 2023 perspective. However, the parts that work do so incredibly well.
How do you all feel about Cowboy Bebop? Let me know in the comments below.
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