Written by Richard Brown
Cowboy Bebop is one of the all time greats, an undisputed classic. However, it’s fair to question, why? What made it a success? Read on to find out.
Beating up Fantasia
When you get right down to it, the thing which everybody will mention and praise in this series, without fail, is the music. Just about every episode features a smoothly animated musical sequence, not a Disney style song and dance act, but a beautiful tune to accompany a character as they move or chase their goal. It’s an eclectic and superior selection, in many different languages and styles, and the soundtrack is strong enough to stand on its own. The animation is of the same quality, consistently excellent, and a match for any TV series you can care to mention. Even the obvious CG effects have aged gracefully. Factor in pleasing character designs, and a very well-realised setting, and Cowboy Bebop is frankly brilliant, to both the eyes and ears. But what is it actually like to watch? Well, that’s a difficult one, as Cowboy Bebop stubbornly refuses to stick to a single genre. The first episode plays out like a John Woo film, and is quite violent. The second, which introduces the mascot character Ein, is entirely humorous, and the tone continues to fluctuate throughout the 26 episodes. Each new bounty brings something new to the feel of series; convention is flouted on a regular basis. The series is best described as an action-comedy, but going in fresh, it can be difficult to judge just what an episode will be like each time. The only things certain are that it will entertain, and that it will have truly cracking music.
What keeps this all under control is a tight cast of five, who seem to fit into conventional archetypes, but ultimately prove to be more complex. Its something which Spike, the lead character does especially well; never has a character so easily switched between goofy, smooth and cold blooded, and still be recognisable as the same person. While he is something of a lovable rogue and anti-hero, Spike stands out as individual. Jet fulfils the big guy slot, but instead of hitting things hard, he’s the nearest thing to an authority figure on the Bebop, and spends no small amount of time bickering with the other characters as a result. Radical Edward almost defies description, but I shall attempt to do so anyway. Edward is a tomboy, and behaves in manner that suggests genius or insanity. Faye has an abrasive personality to balance out her role as a fan service character, but becomes rather more that, for a reason I will explain later. The fifth member, Ein the dog, acts as Edward’s partner in daftness, but may just be the most sensible character in the series. By having such as small main cast, the series can make the best of them, and more easily tie the independent episodes together.
Slightly sad, but not Emo
A side effect of this genre hopping is that that series doesn’t really have an ongoing plot, and is almost entirely episodic. What there is instead is a recurring theme in the episodes, the way people are haunted by their own pasts. Time and again, characters run into things they have put behind them, or things they thought they had. There is often an undercurrent of sadness to events; Spike is clearly pining for his girl, Jet has a sense of nostalgia from his time as police detective, though the reality is somewhat different, and even Edward proves to have something in her history a little tragic. Characterisation is flawless, in both the main cast and the supporting characters, but it’s more a case of irregular background episodes than actual growth. Spike’s rivalry with his former associate Vicious (who most definitely, IS,) forms the nearest thing to an on-going storyline, although the how’s and why’s of this are kept ambiguous. While no means a weakness, the lack of building plot threads is probably the most significant way Cowboy Bebop differs from the anime norm. In fact, because there’s little overriding story, the series can experiment more, as the series does not have to devote much time to tying threads, or at least the audience expectation of such.
There is however a surprising exception, Faye Valentine. While the episodic nature of the series means that character development is limited, she gets far more than you might expect. Faye could easily have been just a fan service character, but she gets a full blown arc, arguably more than the rest of the cast. Initially, she’s just an immoral opportunist, but gradually her time spent on the Bebop makes her a better person. The theme of addressing your own past is especially important to her character, but the resolution she seeks is ultimately bittersweet, in keeping with the rest of the series. It’s an unexpected find in a character who dresses like a prostitute, and that sense of surprise is both typical of the anime and one of its biggest strengths.
Cowboy Bebop is a hugely difficult anime for me to review, as I cannot think of anything negative to say about it, and negatives make for interesting reading. It’s impossible for me not to sound like a fanboy when I write about it.
The best description I ever read of this series was that it was the embodiment of the Blues, the laidback, cool, occasionally comical, but ultimately sad style of jazz. Completely compelling, blessed with both style and substance, and with an identity all of its own, Cowboy Bebop is as close to perfection as any anime can claim to be.