Spike and Jet are the only crew of the Bebop – two penniless bounty hunters who wander the galaxy in search of the next big bounty head in any corner of the galaxy. Neither of them have any place to go back to and continue to wander the universe where only bad luck seems to follow. They are eventually joined by the wanderer Faye Valentine, the master hacker Edward who’s only a child, and a Welsh Pembroke Corgi named Ein with a genius-level I.Q. in their travels. But the question remains: will they finally strike gold and get money to live off from the next big bounty, or be stuck living off of scraps for the rest of their lives?
The Good and the Bad
Cowboy Bebop does ask a lot more questions than if the crew of the Bebop won’t starve in a given episode, just not at first. Most of the story is told in an episodic format where the crew is after a particular bounty head or other goal, with the resolution typically being they don’t end up with any money and start from square one. The series takes a few episodes to get going as a result of both the chosen format and repetition of the same sort of resolution. Episodes 1-4 serve as an introduction to Spike and Jet for the most part; Ein comes in at episode two when Spike rescues him. Faye and Edward follow a bit later on, and once episode five rolled around I felt that the story began to take better shape.
The remaining episodes continue to be told in a series of vignettes which are brought together at the finale. Yet, for the numerous questions the anime asks, it doesn’t actively seek out a whole lot of answers. In one episode, Spike talks about his fighting style where he imagines his entire body being liquid – where the source of his strength is derived from. Looking back at the anime as a whole, I like to think of the storytelling method utilized Cowboy Bebop being completely like liquid as well. There are connections that remain ever-present throughout. But they aren’t always the primary focus of a given episode. Some sit in the background, waiting until the proper moment comes together for resolution.
Much of the plot doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table; the endings of most episodes can be predicted if you’re familiar with storytelling conventions prior to watching. This does also tie back to the idea discussed by literary scholars that every story is derived from the same place and no story will ever be truly original as a result. If the stories being told in Cowboy Bebop aren’t, in fact, original, then can they really have any lasting effect in anime? By extension, can a story of any medium continue to have an impact?
In short: yes. What made Cowboy Bebop such an enjoyable experience was the attention to detail given to the presentation of each episode. I could really see the time and care put into these stories. The crew of the Bebop grew on me because, ulterior motives aside, they’re not bad people. Their travels across the galaxy bring them in contact with numerous other humans who are trying to make their way in the world by whatever means they can. Some, like the Rumplestiltskin-esque space trucker VT, keep pushing onwards in spite of what’s happened to them in the past. Others are trying to find some sense of purpose to hold onto in a world where one wrong step could lead to someone robbing you of the chance to even look.
One of the biggest thematic elements repeated often is the idea of belonging, having somewhere where you’re wanted and truly fit in. To quote Faye from the dub in episode twenty-four: “Belonging is the best thing there is.” The crew of the Bebop has nowhere to truly be in the beginning of the anime. Slowly but surely, we get to learn about their past and what it is they’ve left behind to be on the Bebop in the present day. Jet used to be a cop with the nickname “Black Dog” whose girlfriend left him behind one night, only to turn up years later when her boyfriend has a bounty placed on his head. Over time, more of his old connections turn up to bring the past back to the present. Faye was put in cryogenic sleep after an accident for fifty years and once she awoke everyone she had known was long gone, leaving her without a family or home to call her own.
And at the core of these stories, what everything else orbits around in terms of plot progression, is the past and continuing adventures of Spike himself. Unlike the other main characters who once had a home or can still find semblances of said home lost in the universe, Spike has nowhere to return to. The life he lives as a perpetual drifter and bounty hunter (including his continual failures to capture bounties properly) directly reflect how he will never have anywhere to go even when the rest of the crew will. His past does return by the end of the series, though Spike openly admits that his past is nothing more than a dream he can’t wake up from. One eye sees the past, the other sees the present day. The end isn’t actually the end for Spike or for any of the characters, either. Life will go on. The past will always chase them no matter how far they travel or how many years pass by, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make an effort to carve out the present.
By trying to chase after one bounty to the next and running away from the steps they’ve walked already, Spike changes the Bebop from an ordinary ship to a place where Faye, Jet, Edward and Ein can belong. Sure, they’re broke. Sure, they might individually have some lingering debts. But at the end of the day they each can come back to the Bebop and feel at home even when they’ll eventually get on each other’s nerves time and time again. Such a home is only temporary, though I think one of the other major themes in Cowboy Bebop is the simple message of the journey being more important than the destination. Who knows where the ship might be headed? What matters more in every episode is embarking on that journey with some good company.
My favorite character of the main cast was Ein by a landslide. I love real Corgis enough already so to see one with a genius-level I.Q. go adventuring in space and escape bad guys never failed to make me smile. Ein also gets to use a child’s toy which functions off of brain waves to hack into a system used by cultists when Jet almost becomes an unknowing convert to the cult in one episode. I don’t think pets in general get enough time in the limelight in anime, either. When developed properly, a pet can be just as strong of a character as a human in anime.
There wasn’t a whole lot for me to dislike about Cowboy Bebop aside from its slow start. It isn’t the pinnacle of perfection by any means and can certainly be faulted for the frequent repetition of a few plot devices in many episodes. Admittedly, I was a bit bored from time to time inbetween the stronger moments of the series. The crew has their successes at times but I wanted them to finally be well off without having to be on a constant hunt for the next meal. Such a resolution never came, unfortunately.
I loved Yoko Kanno’s entire score for this series. It comes from a different time period than the present day, where a lot of scores feature high-energy, upbeat tracks, but nonetheless I loved the powerful presence jazz music held in combination with what was happening on-screen. The score felt hand-picked to each individual moment and was great on its own just as music. The opening, “Tank!”, was also extremely catchy. I’m confident it will remain in my memory along with my other favorite OPs, like Haganai‘s “The Regrettable Neighbours Club Two and a Half Stars” among others.
For this review, I looked at a copy of the Standard Edition release that comes packaged in a DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack. The Standard Edition comes packed with a plentiful amount of extras, including: Audio commentaries for episodes 1, 5, 10, 17 and 24, interviews, the full “Tank!” opening and the remixed UK version, original and textless OP/EDs, segments about the dub sessions and extra shorts. I was very happy that a standard release didn’t get snubbed when it came to extra features.
It only took one viewing to show me why Cowboy Bebop is not only so beloved but has also managed to stand the test of time for so long. This anime really is an experience worthy of any fan and is one you should take the time to watch once. No matter what genres you may or may not like, no matter if you don’t like Watanabe’s other work. While not perfect, it is a masterpiece that I’m glad I finally sat down to watch and one I hope will continue to be fondly remembered many, many years in the future.
Final Grade: A