Twenty years ago this Tuesday, one of the greatest television shows ever made premiered. That show was Cowboy Bebop, a gorgeously illustrated, fluidly animated, impeccably scored, and powerfully written Japanese anime series often held as a benchmark of the medium. Produced by Mobile Suit Gundam animation studio Sunrise, and directed by the now-legendary Shinichiro Watanabe (who would later also be known for Samurai Champloo and Space Dandy), the series follows the adventures of a ragtag group of bounty hunters (occasionally colloquially referred to as “cowboys”) on a spaceship called the Bebop, in a near-future setting where colonization of the solar system has made traditional law enforcement ineffective, creating the need for a return to wild-west-style bounty systems. Our “heroes” are former mob hitman Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet Black, femme fatale Faye Valentine, and hyperactive kid hacker Radical Edward, who hunt down bounties and face the specters of their past failures in twenty-six of the most satisfying television episodes you might ever watch, accompanied by what is, personally, perhaps my favorite soundtrack to anything, ever, composed by the unearthly talented Yoko Kanno, and performed by her jazz ensemble The Seatbelts.
But of course, if you’ve ever even considered for a fleeting moment the possibility of getting into anime beyond the child-targeted shows you might have watched on 4Kids or Toonami as a youngster, you most likely don’t need to hear me laud Cowboy Bebop‘s brilliance, as you’re probably already very familiar with its reputation, and it’s entirely probable that you’ve watched it already. But why was it, beyond the surface level appeals of its fantastic animation, engaging setting and characters, and near-perfect music (along with, for western fans, an English dub that, despite the high quality standards most English localizations are held to today, is still quite often considered the best English dub of all time) that Bebop connected so strongly with so many people?
Some have posited, and I would agree, that part of Bebop’s appeal is the general maturity of its storytelling. I most certainly don’t mean maturity in the sense of “mature content” (i.e. sex and violence), though Bebop, while not particularly grotesque or lewd compared to its peers, certainly doesn’t lack those features. Rather, as YouTube analyst Super Eyepatch Wolf pointed out in his video Why You Should Watch Cowboy Bebop, the success of Bebop might stem from the fact that its characters don’t tend to follow the same adolescent and “coming of age” tropes that are present in so many other anime series, and instead has fully adult characters running away from the sins of their pasts and just trying to survive and find meaning in day-to-day life. In a lesser series, storylines like Spike’s falling out with the mafia and his partner turned bitter enemy Vicious would be the plot of the show, but here, they serve to inform the changes and development of an already fully-realized character. One might describe this as a focus on character development and expansion, rather than character “progression”. That’s not to say that progression isn’t warranted or interesting in other series, or that adolescent tropes and coming of age stories can’t be done to great effect (most of my other favorite anime fall into those categories, though again that could easily be a matter of how many stories are being told in that mold). It’s just refreshing to see a truly adult narrative spun, without also having to resort to the idea that “adult” storytelling means throwing away fun, humor, and whimsy, or that “mature” storytelling needs to involve copious amounts of gory violence or nigh-explicit sexual material (neither of which I decry outright, to be clear) in order to appeal to a mass audience. And while that might not sound incredibly revolutionary by itself, taken in the context of the medium Bebop inhabits, it becomes a lot more clear just how different it is from its peers.
It’s honestly quite impressive that with the critical and commercial success that Cowboy Bebop has accrued, it hasn’t spawned a vast array of expanded material. A manga adaptation exists, but outside of that, the only official Bebop story material that is currently out there is the twenty-six episode series and the feature film. The film, known in Japan as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (unfortunately it had to lose that subtitle when it was brought over in favorite of simply The Movie), is worthy of just as much praise even divorced from the rest of the franchise, a standalone adventure that requires no real knowledge of the series to appreciate (though a very quick character and setting primer from a friend or the Internet is probably wise). With so many franchises always eager at the chance to infinitely expand upon a runaway success, it’s nice to see that Bebop hasn’t been diminished by the effects of sequel fatigue. Watanabe and his crew had a story to tell, they told it, and they left it alone for us to marvel at, even though it would have been so easy and so tempting to cash in.
That said…there is still apparently a live-action, western-produced television adaptation coming sometime in the near future. Personally, I hope for the best, as I feel that Bebop, while of course not requiring any sort of “Hollywood” adaptation (or indeed any adaptation of any kind) to legitimize it, is a property that could make the jump easier than many other anime. The decision to make a TV series rather than a theatrical film is, I think, a step in the right direction, one that shows at least some level of respect for the material. Sure, we can’t get Keanu Reeves as Spike as we were apparently planned to a decade or so ago (a casting many derided at the time, but seems near-perfect in hindsight), but as long as it’s made out of a place of genuine artistic merit and not just as a cash-in on a name (looking at you, Ghost in the Shell 2017), I’m on board.
Cowboy Bebop is one of the most respected pieces of animation and television ever made for a myriad of very good reasons, and if you haven’t experienced yourself, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The entire series is available on Blu-ray from FUNimation, and it’s going for under $30 on Amazon at the moment (with the movie going for $9.99). It’s also available on FUNimation’s website and app if you’re subscribed, as well as VRV if you’re subbed to FUNimation through them. You owe it to yourself to check out this absolute landmark of television and animation history.
See you, space cowboys.