iSugio

Cowboy Bebop – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Jazz Agers, flower children, lost generation, beatniks, rockers, punks, nerds, hackers, lovers, generation X—whatever the designation, there have always been outlaws in our society who live in pursuit of autonomy. At time they are revered fro their roles as pioneers, challenging the unknown; other times people consider them lawless desperadoes and a dangerous presence. Yet, really, it is only their exuberant music and an autonomy founded to express opinions different from those of others that set them apart from society.

The year is 2071 AD. The future is now. Driven out of their terrestrial eden, humanity chose the stars as the final frontier. With the section-by-section collapse of the former nations, a mixed jumble of races and people came. They spread to the stars, taking with them the now confused concepts of freedom, violence, illegality and love, where new rules and a new generation of outlaws came into being. People referred to them as Cowboy Bebops. Spike Spiegel is bounty hunter looking for such people, and together with his partner Jet Black, traverse the known galaxy in search of the next bounty.

Cowboy Bebop is simply one of those animated series that might not appeal to people at first, but after the viewing initial episode, it will certainly come as a surprise at how creative it truly is. Seemingly playing homage to a variety of films, themes, and cultures, the series distinctly establishes itself outside the realm of conventional Japanese animation and instead chooses to forge its own path. With a setting within the realm of science fiction, the series wisely offers a world that seems entirely realistic considering our present time. Free from many of the elements that accompany science fiction in general—whether that be space aliens, giant robots, or laser guns—the series delegates itself towards presenting a world that is quite similar to our own albeit showcasing some technological advances. Certainly not as pristine a future we would see in other series or films, Cowboy Bebop decides to deliver a future that closely reflects that of our own time. This aspect of familiarity does wonders in terms of relating to the viewer, and it presents a world that certainly resembles our very own. Going even further, the series presents a vision of multiculturalism concerning the future. With the rapid growth of globalization within our own time, its fitting see this implemented into the series that came out in 1998, which is often an element rarely seen within many animated series during that era.

This is what the series does fantastically well. Reinventing all the genres it incorporates is not something you see every day, but Cowboy Bebop does it well—for the most part. Considering that the series is as broad as it is, the episodic nature of the show might discourage some viewers due to its sporadic approach. This is certainly not bad per se, but within the context of absolute continuity, the series explores various genres within the confinement of individual episodes, which might be discouraging for some. Those looking for a strictly linear fashion of storytelling won’t certainly find it here, which presents somewhat of a dichotomy for viewers accustomed to such narrative structuring. While the episodes are quite sporadic in nature, the series does remain quite focused on its characters throughout their trials and tribulations. Even the self-contained episodes provide excellent viewing, mainly because they’re just as engrossing in enveloping the viewer further into the established world.

Besides the setting, what truly stands out within Cowboy Bebop is the characters. Rather seemingly archetypes throughout the initial episodes, as the series steadily progresses we find these characters developing into individuals with depth and immense background. With each main character being distinctive in appearance, their history and personality is just as robust. Viewed all as individuals with a past, the characters all deviate from their initial archetypical nature established in the beginning into something entirely refreshing unto itself. Whether it’s painful memories of a forgone love or trying to regain one’s own memory, the series delegates much time towards the emotional journey the characters undertake to sort out their perplexing past. The story showcases these characters as real people attempting to deal with their past, and it remains a consistently engaging element of the show. Consider the character of Spike for example, a bounty hunter trying to outrun a dark criminal past that’s slowing catching up to him. Spike knows the inevitable, but his determination to rid himself of the wrongs he committed in the past makes for exceptional viewing. No only does he—as well as practically every other character in the show—grow throughout the series, but we begin to notice them as individuals all attempting to deal with their rather complicated histories and inner turmoil. These characters all share some sort of internal confliction, which ultimately allows the series to break away from the stereotypical character development often viewed in other series or films.

On a side note, Shinichirō Watanabe and company seemingly pay homage to the 1970’s animated series Lupin the 3rdwith their construction of Spike, Jet, and Faye. Sharing similar visual attributes with Lupin’s Fujiko, Jigen, and Lupin himself, the series also shares many elements found within Lupin as well—grandiose action sequences, humor, and a shared rivalry between the cast. While quite similar in many respects, Cowboy Bebop does away with solely focusing on the characters in a humorous light, instead choosing to develop them further as emotionally involved individuals. In essence, the series might appear to be a visual ode to Lupin, but the similarities between the two diverge greatly as the series progresses, effectively establishing Cowboy Bebop in its own terms.

Regardless of this, the show still presents a plethora of changes concerning it tone. With episodes consisting of humor, violence, battles, drama and horror, the series expertly transfers from one genre to the other all the while weaving an intricate tale. It’s this variety that I feel provides the series its greatest strength and most certainly contributes to its substantial popularity. This is essentially a series that offers little bit of everything to every viewer and does a superb job of it. Because of this—and this is certainly par for the course—the series narrows down its main focus onto Spike in its latter half. While the wide cast still retains their moments during this period, the series coincidentally suffers from being somewhat contrived within the space of the few remaining episodes it has left. Spike’s past, while explored tremendously throughout the course of the series, gets concluded rather expeditiously towards this segment of the show. While we learn a portion of Spike’s criminal involving past, the concluding episodes seem somewhat rushed in an attempt to wrap things up. Certainly more time should have been dedicated towards fleshing this portion out—whether that would’ve been more episodes or allotment of time—but this is just a minor quibble considering the splendid narrative of the series.

Another facet of series that excelled immensely was that of the music, composed by Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts. Always one to push the boundaries of music, Kanno delivers an exceptional soundtrack that is as varied as the series itself. The music is essential towards establishing the mood of the series, which it does to such a high degree—it easily becomes a welcomed extension of the series itself. From blues, country, jazz, rock, and even classical, the music certainly reflects each episode in its own capacity. It’s also interesting to note that a majority of the episode titles reflect that of a musical style—certainly a creative way to provide some foresight into what the episode will entail. Consisting primarily of the musical genre of jazz though, the soundtrack is certainly appealing in its wide breadth of musical compositions. In this regard, the soundtrack stands separate from many of the pop-infused scores viewed in animated series of that day. From the initial jazz-fueled opening theme, all the way to its soulful closing, the music within Cowboy Bebop is perhaps its most notable element. This is great considering that the soundtrack can be easily listened to as stand-alone music separate from that of the television series, which certainly showcases the resonating beauty of it.

Cowboy Bebop presents a huge leap in what Japanese animation can offer in terms of presentation. Its culmination of themes is simply astounding, and it’s a series filled with an imaginative style that permeates throughout its course. The series certainly has style, but also contains substance to go alongside of it—even it is somewhat jumbled at times. Regardless of this, the production of the show—from its music to its animation—is simply impeccable to the say the least. Watanabe and Sunrise did a fantastic job of presenting a uniquely crafted series that is as creative as it made itself out to be, all the while expanding the creative scope of what animation can offer. It should come at no surprise then why this series has garnered the success it has—it simply delivered something different. This rich vision has presented Cowboy Bebop as a series that can’t really be duplicated, but most certainly admired. While Shinichirō Watanabe and Sunrise would go onto to produce another unique take on Japanese animation with the Edo period series Samurai Champloo (2004), this series is considered one of the prominent catalyst in furthering the impact of Japanese animation within the Western world. A gateway series for its broad appeal in almost every aspect, Cowboy Bebop is simply a series that presents deep characters, a multi-layered storyline, and fantastic music. It’s one of the prime examples showcasing that Japanese animation can obtain universal appeal—with Cowboy Bebop certainly being a series that showcases this with immense ease.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • Square

    CB imo is the pinnacle of the great early 90’s golden era of anime. Story, acting, art/animation, music and characters there we all heads and shoulders above the other anime at the time and still holds up well to anime from today.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Wholeheartedly agree. This series truly established itself as one of the premier anime series of the 90’s for sure.

  • http://thevelvetview.com Alvaro

    Great piece Miguel, as usual. And I couldn’t agree more. This is by far one of the best anime shows of its decade, and personally, of all time. So eclectic in its choice of visuals and themes, and its soundtrack is so exquisite and unforgettable. For me this is one of the very few anime series that I believe have a pitch perfect ending, both visually and aurally. I still hear the live version of Blue every now and then, and it still gives me the (good) chills.

    Funny though, so many people who I have introduced to Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts couldn’t believe what they were listening to was not composed or performed by U.S. artists.

    Anyway, thanks for the great review Miguel, it makes me wish for a Bluray version of CB, though I don’t think will happen anytime soon.

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the kind words Alvaro!

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