50 Favorite TV Shows: #24 Cowboy Bebop
Originally Aired on: TV Tokyo
I think it’s time to blow this scene. Get everybody and their stuff together. Ok, three, two, one, let’s jam. And just when you thought it was safe, anime starts appearing on this list. I like anime. I’ve liked it since I was a young kid watching whatever nonsense that came on the Sci-Fi channel, even if I didn’t totally understand it. Cowboy Bebop was far from my introduction to the genre, but it stands as a kind of hallmark for many people as the show that got them watching and made them want to explore a rather wide net of different titles. Those late nights watching it on Adult Swim… I remember when I first saw the episode “Toys in the Attic,” the one about the Ganymede lobster that gets loose on the Bebop and picks off the crew one by one. I was so convinced that that was the end of the series, as it seemed like every character was on the verge of death and the next week Adult Swim didn’t air an episode. Oh my, how foolish I was. But in retrospect, that’s one of the things that makes Cowboy Bebop such a particularly bespoke series, as the episodic nature of its construction allowed it to languor among various genres. The obvious allusion for “Toys in the Attic”: would be Ridley Scott’s Alien, as the crew is stranded in space with a creature is intent on harming then, going so far as to feature Spike utilizing a flamethrower at one point in the episode to hammer the point home. But science fiction horror was but a taste of its wide palette, with other episodes becoming even more fanciful in execution. An episode like “Mushroom Samba” sees the Bebop crew undertake this weird combination of exploitation film drama and straight out slapstick comedy, the drug tinged plot material allowing the driving narrative to act as a chase sequence, but fueled by the flighty character of Radical Edward. “Pierrot le Fou” gives constant references to Western animation through its visual design, but acts as a more purely thought out action sequence, as Spike seeks to take down the eponymous clown who is seemingly invulnerable by any means necessary. “Brain Scratch” is an existentialist thought piece, having a mystery involved, but largely concerning itself with monologues regarding the nature of existence and the human mind ala Bergman. While film noir is the usual and probably most direct reference point people use in regards to Cowboy Bebop, the show often times seems less concerned with a shadowy world of mystery and instead delves into the possible other facets of existence. While the overarching narrative of the series bridges a mystery, the show uses genre as its was originally intended, showcasing the various sides of human existence within art, allowing the show to paint with such a broad and evocative emotional spectrum. Rather than parody, Bebop showcases the way in each character is informed by the extraordinary features of their existence, their demeanor seeming to determine the makeup of the show’s genre. It becomes remarkable powerful in later episodes of the series, in which the tropes slowly begin to shed away to leave the core existences of each of the protagonists, each’s past having come into the light to haunt them and leave new scars upon them. While the Bebop could easily have consisted as solely a drive towards this goal, the intervening episodes more fully flesh out the characters, allowing us to see them in different lights, rather than a painful and all-encompassing grittiness.
I’ve heard it said that the reason Cowboy Bebop has such a strong resonance with Western audiences is because of how particularly Western it is in presentation. This makes sense, as normal anime clichés and tropes are for the most part ignored in favor of slickness and the previously mentioned noir styling, a particularly Western genre. But I just can’t help but think this is not as true as it would appear at first glance. The show was originally made back in 1998 and one of the things I’ve noticed on repeated viewings is just how well it holds up. Aside from story concerns, I could just say that everything about the show works (though this would be lazy and I’m not going to do this). First off, the animation is absolutely gorgeous, rarely falling into any sort of cheats to imply movement within a frame, though not at all afraid to linger. Director Shinichiro Watanabe is so adept at those moments that require an almost painted like stillness to convey atmosphere, with shots of people in repose unmoving being broken only by the movement in a drink or the sudden intrusion of a shadow. It’s one of those types of shots that does so much to establish the attitude of the character in question, but brings a more powerful dichotomy to the normal fluidity in the animation, when kicks and bullets are flying at rapid speeds and cuts are made as quick as possible to imply both the confusion and the impermanency of the actions being made. That the show plays so well with light and shadow aids this greatly, as scenes cast in the warm glow of light overhead feel more alive and capable of the liveliness we see in the main characters, while ones cast under the dull specter of shadow give way to the mood of melancholy within. Bebop just paints so well with tones, giving us that immediate visual signal of how we’re supposed to be feeling about a scene. Matched to this is quite possibly the best soundtrack to an anime (or show in general, really) I’ve ever heard, with composer Yoko Kanno capturing the chaotic and free energy of the various plots in the show with the quick vibrations of jazz. The show’s opener, “Tank,” (which is what I was referencing in the opening lines of this review) is an iconic and memorable song and the ending theme “The Real Folk Blues” is so evocative of the sweet melancholy that follows the elation seen in each episode. It almost synchs perfectly at times with the episode, the music driving the action playing out, like some ballet of violence. And the dub… It’s pretty much the standard of what an anime dub could be. The entire cast, Steven Blum, Beau Billingslea, Wendee Lee and Melissa Fahn just breath so much life into the characters with their speaking, able to range into all the subtle nuances as the episodes bounce them in and out of precarious situations and sensibilities. It’s a well-oiled machine that just runs so well.
I’ve seen other anime I’ve liked better since Bebop, but it remains a favorite among many for a reason. A stunning execution of sight and sound, Cowboy Bebop is the chaotic wind rising through the universe that sadly, must inevitably end.
Key Episode: “Sympathy for the Devil” I can’t help but think I’m in the minority for this being my favorite episode, but it was my “holy shit” moment. Spike and Jet track a terrorist who mysteriously dies after confronting a young harmonica player. Spike soon finds himself drawn into an elaborate underworld that sees the boy live life as an immortal, capturing hapless victims and leaving them catatonic to act his guardian as he does whatever he pleases. It becomes Spike’s resolve to end his immortality. It’s such a quiet episode for the most part, having two notable action sequences, but largely consisting of the boy playing harmonica and Spike researching. But there’s this one moment when the crew search’s the mind of the captured guardian to see exactly what it was he saw and you can see those close ups of the eyes and just wonder how those tears flow past the physical barrier. It’s one of those great individual shots that the show does and I just love the episode ends in this devil may care way, even though Spike will confront more enemies of a more… existential nature later.
Favorite Character: Gotta go with my main man Jet Black. Bald and bearded brothers unite! I feel a little sorry for Jet, as he is so rarely the focus of an episode in the series, usually being relegated to either field support or nagging mom onboard the ship. But I always felt like he was the most human of the characters, seeming to show emotion regarding those in his charge, as to whether they’ll survive or whether they’re in fragile state of mind. It may all go back to his origin as a cop, which saw him as incorruptible, but ultimately injured due ot his loyalty. At other times he seems the most vulnerable of them all, not cut off from the world like Faye or drawn to it like a magnet like Spike, but instead tentatively trying to find the pieces of it he lost. “Ganymede Elegy” is just so painful to watch at times, as we see why Jet is so careful of those he actually cares about, encountering a former lover and simply falling out of anything but resolve for the crime fighting that tore them apart in the first place.