SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY…
Welcome to my Late to The Party entry on Cowboy Bebop! Warning: Spoilers abound.
I consider myself a casual anime fan. I don’t keep up with the new shows every season, but a big part of my childhood was spent watching random anime on AXN (Asian channel) and Toonami, and I still watch a few anime a year. So I think I’m pretty aware of most, if not all, of the most common anime tropes. I watched Cowboy Bebop knowing I’ll be writing this, so I had a sort of “meta” mindset going in. How do I think of the characters and plots right now, compared to how I would have thought of them if I watched the show when it first aired in the late 90s and I was in middle school? Would the show have made the same decisions if it came out now versus two decades ago? What would have changed? What would have stayed the same?
Some background context: I knew that I would love Cowboy Bebop the moment I watched it. Sci-fi? Check. A beautifully-realized universe (that doesn’t really make sense if you think too hard) and amazing art/cinematography? Check. Multi-dimensional characters? Check. A deep and inescapable sense of ennui that permeates the actions of every single character on the show? Check, check, check. I kept putting it off because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. It didn’t help that I didn’t really like Samurai Champloo, which is another critically-acclaimed Watanabe joint. I got a few episodes into it before I gave up. It just felt… shallow, for lack of a better word. Maybe it got better in later episodes, but it just didn’t click with me.
Anyway, to nobody’s surprise, Cowboy Bebop was all that I expected and more. It strongly reminds me of my favorite show of all time, The X-Files. Both shows have the ability to shift genres seamlessly from episode to episode, from noir, to comedy, to horror, and so on. And both shows also have a strong cast of characters that have the ability to carry such an ambitious premise. Feel free to direct me to any articles that compare the two shows if I’m not the first person to make the comparison.
I’ll spend the rest of this entry writing out My Thoughts™ about different aspects of the show I think are worth talking about. I’m gonna be skipping huge parts about Cowboy Bebop that are probably important because I didn’t have much to write about them.
Tangentially, I watched Bebop on Tubi, a Roku app. It’s completely free and legal, and there were very minimal ads. So if you were looking for a way to watch the show, that’s an option you can look into!
SETTING AND ART
The show is set in 2071, 50 years after the Astral Gate accident caused an explosion that broke off part of the moon and sent the debris to Earth, permanently changing its atmosphere and topography and killing off most of the human population. The remaining humans either went underground or flew out into space, colonizing different planets.
It’s unrealistic that the current Cowboy Bebop universe is in such an advanced state after only 50 years, but I honestly don’t care. I’m more interested in how the show chose to portray the different worlds and how the accident itself still affects humanity to this day. I love the (probably not scientifically accurate?) ways that each world differs from each other, from dying planets to casinos to cities that look like a current-day Chinatown. And the art just makes everything so much more believable. The amount of detail and care that is visible in each frame is just astounding. This may make me sound like a cranky old fan, but I feel like most anime these days don’t really put much effort into making believable settings and atmospheres you can immerse yourself into anymore.
In any piece of pop culture, I usually find the lead character the least interesting of the cast. Any meaningful change to the lead means you can no longer return to the status quo, so the lead is doomed to remain static. Spike is definitely an outlier, because in a team of wildcards, he’s probably the wildcard-iest. He’s an archetypal brooding protagonist that hides his fucked up past with jokes and a devil-may-care attitude. Spike follows in the footsteps of thousands of protagonists before him, and thousands more have followed in his. But somehow, it works. And I find that any episode that doesn’t feature him suffers for it.
Jet might be my favorite of the crew. I’m always a sucker for grumpy characters with a secret heart of gold. I also wonder if Jet is Watanabe’s secret fave, because I feel like he got the most character-centric episodes. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of them were standouts.
Faye is such a good character. You can tell that she’s an extremely capable, dangerous woman who simultaneously yearns for and avoids affection. And it never felt inorganic. She could have been the stereotypical “flirty yet crazy/violent” anime female character, but her story was done with the same respect as the gradual unveiling of Jet and Spike’s pasts. I really appreciate that, but I could have done without the constant sexualization of her body. But anime’s gonna anime. I also wish that we could have found out more about her past, but that’s just a me thing. I think it’s fitting for Faye’s personality and story for her to have left it all behind once she discovered that there was nothing left but ashes.
… The token kid character in anime. It may be a disservice to Ed, but that’s basically what she is. I think the show did as well as they could to make Ed fit into the Bebop crew, but she still felt out of place to me. I just don’t know why anime insists on adding a token kid as the “relatable character” for children watching the show. I don’t know any child who ever related to the kid character over the way cooler older characters.
He is beautiful and perfect and without fault.
Vicious and Julia
I think these two suffer the most for being part of Spike’s noir storyline. While their impact reverberates throughout the show, they aren’t really given time to develop and are only there to move the plot along or give Spike angst. To be honest, I don’t really care about Vicious much and literally everyone else serves as a better foil for Spike. Julia’s the character that I KNOW 13-year-old me would have loved. I’ve always had a fondness for the “hated” female characters, and if I watched Cowboy Bebop then, I would have been in the front lines of anime forums defending Julia from rabid Spike/Faye fangirls. Not that there’s anything wrong with Spike/Faye, but more on that in the Ships section. Yes, this article will have a Ships section.
It may not seem like it, but I do believe fandom as a whole (at least the female contingent) has made a conscious effort to be aware of and move away from internalized misogyny. I definitely wouldn’t say it’s completely gone, but the anime fandom in the late 90s/early 2000s was terrible about its treatment of female characters who didn’t fit into the mold of the very narrow definition of “cool anime girl.” I wonder if Julia would have been given more agency/development if Watanabe made Bebop within the last few years, or if she would have been more well-received by the fandom if she remained unchanged but Bebop came out now. Anyway, her death sucked and I consider it one of the only disappointing parts of the show.
What can I say about the music that hasn’t already been covered elsewhere? The music of Bebop is baked into the DNA of the show. Yoko Kanno and her band are geniuses.
- Space Lion (played at the end of Session 13, Jupiter Jazz, Part II)
- The Real Folk Blues (probably my favorite anime ED of all time)
I can’t write about anime without talking about the romantic relationships in it. I just can’t.
I don’t really have an OTP (One True Pairing – basically a couple you’re heavily invested in), but maybe if Julia was more fleshed out, Spike/Julia could have been a contender. Instead, she was just a mysterious femme fatale figure that served as a vehicle for Spike’s angst, which is a very noir thing to do, I guess.
Spike/Faye is the most popular Bebop ship, but I’m not too big of a fan. I think Spike/Jet makes more sense, or even Jet/Faye. However, an OT3 would solve everything.
But hear me out… Faye/Julia. They would have been so great and I loved the one scene they shared. Please subscribe to my rarepair newsletter.
Was the ending well-received when it first aired? I can see how it might have been contentious, as all not-completely-happy endings usually are. I thought it was fitting end for the show, but I’m a sucker for characters to get their happy endings. All of them have been through so much and deserve some happiness.:( I don’t think Spike died — part of his journey is living with the burden of his past, and instead of lifting that burden, the finale only served to make it even heavier. As the final card said — You’re gonna carry that weight. But apparently the reluctant consensus among fans is that he did die, and the “You” in the ending card refers to the audience.
UPCOMING NETFLIX MOVIE
Aside from John Cho, I don’t think I’ve seen anything else the cast has been in. But I have high hopes, and I think the actors capture the “essence” of each character in the pictures I’ve seen, even if they don’t necessarily match in appearance. I won’t be too upset if they botch it, since we’ll always have the original anime.
- Jupiter Jazz, Part II – Gren is such a tragic figure. The transition of his dying body in his ship to the haunting beauty and vastness of space while Space Lion plays is one of my favorite sequences in all of visual media.
- Heavy Metal Queen – VT is the best. I thought this was one of the first episodes that showcased Spike as a person and not just walking, talking emotional baggage.
- Pierrot le Fou (The Clown’s Requiem) – Possibly my favorite episode? It was simultaneously creepy and nonsensical and tragic all at once.
- Sympathy for the Devil – The animation of the boy rapidly aging and dying is something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
- Waltz for Venus – Those damn siblings made me cry.
- Mushroom Samba – Again, why?? We finally get an Ed-centric episode, and this is the best they could come up with?
What do you all think about Cowboy Bebop? Do your opinions align with mine? I haven’t really delved into online discussions about the show, but I’m curious to know what you all think. The show is fresh on my mind, so I’d love to discuss it with everyone.