By Meghan Ellis
Speaking as someone who is definitely ‘into’ anime, it can still be intimidating just how ‘into’ Cowboy Bebop other anime fans are. The show is often considered a gateway into the wider world of Japanese animation for adults (and I agree), but the overwhelmingly positive urgings towards Bebop can have a little of the playground fanatic about them. There's no excuse now though: the show was recently made available to stream on UK Netflix.
Does Cowboy Bebop live up to reputation? While the short answer is yes, the longer answer involves the kind of late-night-at-a-party existentialism you’d be surprised to find in a show about stir-fry loving bounty hunters in space. On the other hand, with the first bad guy introduced as a violent rogue called Asimov, watchers with their sci-fi hats on will find their antennae tingling from the off.
Going back to its roots, Cowboy Bebop was nearly a footnote in director Shinichiro Watanabe’s career. When it first premiered in Japan way back in 1998 on anime-giant TV Tokyo, the series was cut from the channel for its uncommonly adult-centric plot in a time when the Pokemon phenomenon was at its zenith. Watanabe jokes that he might otherwise have ended up as a supermarket cashier but, thanks to much lesser known satellite channel WOWOW, Bebop instead became one of the most important anime of the early 2000’s. Shortly after, it became the first anime broadcast on Adult Swim and one of the first on short-lived UK channel AnimeCentral, gaining it an international audience most Japanese directors couldn’t have hoped to rival, and paving the way for a decade of more mature anime than ever before.
Cowboy Bebop’s appeal lies in this very internationalism. Much like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the story’s events take place in space, giving it licence to draw unashamedly from a melting pot of culture without engaging with a specific audience. Right from main character Spike’s donning of an Eastwood-esque poncho in the first episode, you know this is an anime that you could probably convince dad to have a look at. Or at least that friend who watched Dragonball Z once and is convinced anime is for children.
Back when it first aired, Watanabe made the pretty bold claim that Bebop was a new genre unto itself - but anyone who’s watched even a little of it could tell you it’s a haywire pastiche of film noir, slapstick comedy, action thriller and good old American Westerns (after all, it’s in the name). Watching the crew of the Bebop muddle along will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever gone on a road trip that lasted just a little too long, or lived in small towns where everyone knows everyone's business. The characters spend a lot of their time bored between jobs. They get on but there's that pressure of low finances, no personal space, and nothing to do. If you’ve ever sat at a desk thinking about nothing so much as whether you have enough change for a chippy on the way home, Cowboy Bebop is the anime for you.
This mashup between pop culture references and zeitgeist documentary is a great way to strike a balance between old fans and newcomers to the series, offering viewers different things to take away from each “session”. Whether you’ve always been tempted by it or the last time you caught it was on a dubious VHS in 2002, Bebop definitely deserves an HD viewing on Netflix. It’s a good one to watch with friends, too; while those watching it for the first time will be caught in the thrill of the space opera, old hands can try and find things they’d never have noticed back in the day, like this sneaky inclusion of creator Studio Sunrise’s logo in the junk heap of this shot:
Cowboy Bebop’s loving treatment of some of the 20th century’s entertainment greats is a major reason why the anime is so popular in the West. As Spike’s fighting style is heavily influenced by the movies, weapons and martial arts of Bruce Lee, so too is composer Yoko Kanno’s music a roaring tribute to the jazz giants of the United States. And aside from all the American and Hong Kong influences, those of us in the UK will instantly recognise Watanabe’s love for British music. My favourite instance of this is the casino named 'Spiders from Mars', as well as the constant allusions to The Rolling Stones.
There’s even hints of a hip-hop influence, more heavily explored in Watanabe’s later work Samurai Champloo: dog-thief Abdul Hakim’s criminal pseudonym is Snoop, and crime lord Piccaro Calvino is modelled on legendary American rapper the Notorious B.I.G. In fact, if you put together all the musical references in Cowboy Bebop into one big list, you’d have a sweet party playlist on the go. Seriously, why hasn’t anyone done this?
This genre-hopping and brazen lifting of ideas is what makes Cowboy Bebop great, but it’s not the sole substance of the show. If it was nothing more than stitched-together citations of older, bigger works it wouldn’t have any lasting allure, something Watanabe was determined to achieve. A collaborative effort between much-loved anime studio Sunrise’s most distinguished employees, Watanabe reportedly cheered these formidable creatives on during production by telling them they were working on something people would still be talking about in 30 years.
Since we’re almost at the 20 year milestone and Cowboy Bebop can still reduce a room of disagreeing anime fans into an enthusiastic mob, clearly they hit the mark. And if you’ve never seen it before, you’re bound to have watched something Cowboy Bebop has in turn inspired - even if you usually wouldn’t touch anime. O-Ren Ishii’s origin scene from Kill Bill is a homage to Tarantino’s love for Bebop, and renowned sci-fi author Orson Scott Card seems to think fellow space western Firefly owes a lot to the similarly shambolic crew of the Bebop.
Whether you’re convinced or not, it’s in other anime that we can see the evidence best, with Watanabe’s later work itself often taking a tongue-in-cheek attitude to its predecessor. Most memorable recently is in the hectic galactic adventure Space Dandy, where a forlornly abandoned fridge, of all things, creates a link between the shows.
The topmost fridge is found in Space Dandy on a junk planet, and has an eerie similarity to the inhabited fridge jettisoned from the ship in its original Bebop appearance. To deepen the mystery, in Cowboy Bebop the fridge is part of a homage to the plot of the original Alien. References within references: Watanabe’s desk must look like it belongs to an old-school film noir detective.
If it’s been 15 years since you last watched Cowboy Bebop or you’ve finally been convinced to give it a go, try to enjoy its patchwork nature, and don't be intimidated by its reputation as one of the greatest anime of the 20th century - just trust that it lives up to it.