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Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)

It doesn’t happen that often, but every now and then there is an anime series or film that is more popular in the west than with the Japanese audience. Cowboy Bebop is basically the poster child for this phenomenon. The series (and accompanying movie) grew exponentially in popularity in the years after its original airing. This brought Hollywood sniffing around, and the series was picked up for an aborted live-action adaptation starring Keanu Reeves and then later as a live-action TV series which is finally arriving on Netflix in November 2021.

Cowboy Bebop was produced by Sunrise and originally aired on TV Tokyo in 1998. However, due to the introduction of tighter TV regulations in Japan following the controversy surrounding some parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion only 12 of the original 26 episodes were aired. The series would not screen in its entirety until an uncut broadcast on satellite later in  1998-99. The series is credited to Hajime Yatate, which is, in fact, a pseudonym for Sunrise’s internal brain trust, with Keiko Nobumoto (Macross Plus, Tokyo Godfathers) credited as writer. However, it is largely accepted that series director Shinichiro Watanabe was the real brains behind the operation.

The series was originally released in the United States by Bandai and in the UK by Bandai Europe ( aka Beez). After Bandai’s anime labels shut down it was subsequently picked up and re-released by Funimation in the US and Anime Limited in the United Kingdom. However it was its airing on Adult Swim that is responsible for much of its popularity stateside, and it went on to be in near-constant rotation for many years later. The series also aired in full multiple times on the UK's short-lived Anime Central TV channel in the noughties.  As of October 2021, the series is also streaming on Netflix worldwide.

It's also one of anime's rare crossover hits. Its appeal reaches not only the conventional anime fanbase but also draws in people who don't even generally like or watch anime at all.

Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071, a future where long-haul space travel is possible, allowing humanity to colonise planets, both in our solar system and beyond. It follows the crew of the spaceship Bebop, a gang of bounty hunters ( or cowboys) who try to make a living chasing runaway criminals across the galaxy.

On paper, Cowboy Bebop sounds much like any other sci-fi show. But it's in its execution, it's particular, singular style that made the show quite unlike anything else. That 2071 (ie the 70s) setting is no accident- this is a futuristic show that looks to the past for its inspiration. The series is a melting-pot of influences. It’s part (19)70s cop show, part film noir, part space western, part kung-fu movie, part blaxploitation, part gangster drama… I could go on. This combination of elements makes for a series that is uniquely entertaining, and positively dripping in retro-cool.

This is cemented from the word go, opening with one of animation’s – with the whole of television's- most iconic opening sequence. Channelling the 70s cop show vibe (with a bit of James Bond intro thrown in for good measure) and set to the strains of the jazzy track Tank from legendary composer Yokko Kanno and Seatbelts, (the international super-group Kanno formed especially for the soundtrack) it grabs your attention and does not let go.

Cowboy Bebop takes place in a fully realised world. Despite the presence of spaceships and jump-gates, the rest of the show’s universe does not look so different from our own. It's no idealised Star Trek-style vision of the future and it's no Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland. There are no aliens or space wizards here- most of the time it hardly feels like sci-fi at all. This adds a layer of believability and relatability to the whole series, making it easier to accept whatever the show decides to throw at you. 

Across the 26 episodes, it tells a wide range of stories that vary wildly in tone. The very first episode is a gritty hard-boiled tale featuring a drug-running couple on the run from the mob, featuring John Woo style shootouts and a tragic ending. Contrast that with the second episode, which ends up in a wacky chase after a hyper-intelligent corgi, and they could barely be more different.

Much the same could be said of the main cast who are a crew of unlikely allies who ultimately become a kind of (slightly dysfunctional) family unit. Laconic, impulsive hothead Spike Spiegel has partnered up with the physically imposing ex-cop (and owner of the Bebop) Jet Black. As the series progresses the team grows to include femme fatale Faye Valentine, genius hacker kid Ed and the previously mentioned supersmart corgi, Ein.

The dynamic between the leads is a key part of why the series works so well. They bicker like siblings a lot of the time, but are there for each other when it matters. Watanabe is on the record that their relationship is inspired by Lupin III, and fans of the gentleman thief will be on familiar ground.

The series consists primarily of one-off standalone stories, but has a running plot surrounding Spike’s criminal past catching up with him that is threaded throughout the series, coming to head at the end of the series. Some episodes stand out above others, but impressively there are no weak links here.

The variety of stories is incredible. The comedic horror sci-fi and Alien homage of Toys In The Attic. The wacked-out road trip (emphasis on the trip) of Mushroom Samba. The noirish drama of the two-part Jupiter Jazz. Whatever genre the series tackles, it does it well. Originally marketed in Japan as "a genre in itself", Cowboy Bebop certainly lives up to that billing.

The tone varies wildly too, from dark crime drama to slapstick comedy, often within a single episode. These tonal shifts are something that is often found in anime (and in fact in much East Asian culture) but it's handled particularly nimbly here, managing to avoid feeling too jarring

Visually, the series has aged very well. Appealing character designs and beautifully painted backgrounds combine to create a series that still looks great all those years later. Due to its age, it comes from a time when cel animation was still the norm in anime- and much of that has actually aged better than the early years of digital. There are some elements of 3D CGI which has not aged nearly as well, but it's hardly enough to diminish the show. To be honest, it stuck out like a sore thumb even when the show was still new.

The soundtrack has in itself become legendary. Kanno is a genius, and Bebop is arguably her best work. Kanno and Seatbelts produced several albums worth of material for the series, and tracks are scattered throughout the show. Songs are written as if they exist in the show's world and the soundtrack is full with absolute bangers. As well as Tank and the closing theme The Real Folk Blues, standouts include  Green Bird,  Rain and Call Me Call Me all of which are played at pivotal moments in the series.

The series is also one of a select few anime where the English dubbed version of the show is widely considered to be better than the original. Bang Zoom's casting including Steve Blum as Spike, Beau Billingslea as Jet and Wendee Lee as Faye was masterful, and their performances add to the overall experience of the show.

It's perhaps key to its classic status that the series went out at the top of its game. It was intended to be a self-contained story. Although the ending is deliberately open to interpretation, this single season and the subsequent 2001 movie are all there is. It follows the old adage "leave them wanting more". All in all, it's not difficult to see what has made Cowboy Bebop such a perennial favourite. This is no case of nostalgia goggles clouding fans' vision. It's as entertaining as it always was and easily one of the best animated series ever made.



IN A NUTSHELL: Believe the hype: Cowboy Bebop's towering reputation is well deserved. A stone-cold classic. 3,2,1... Let's Jam!



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