Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a dark, violent past. Nowadays, he roams between the seedier colonies of space along with his partner Jet Black and their spaceship Bebop as they try to catch a bounty or two, barely making a living at it. Some of their bounties, like the mysterious Faye Valentine and the intelligent ‘data dog’, Ein, end up as fellow partners. Is Spike trying to justify prior misdeeds by working for the right side of the law? What will happen when his past catches up to him? And what of the pasts of his fellow shipmates? Will any of them survive long enough to find out?
There are some anime titles that I watch and think that I can’t quite put into words what I felt and write a review. Sometimes I have to watch it, leave it and then re-visit it in order get the full experience – to know that watching things a second time will give me that deeper knowledge and understanding. Cowboy Bebop is one of those anime. It’s not one to be reviewed lightly and, in my opinion, is very much worth that extra watch.
Cowboy Bebop can be described in a few ways and through a few genres and some of them even seem contradictory. It’s been referred to as anime noir, a western, a space anime; it’s been seen as retro and it’s been seen as modern. It’s withstood the test of time with its slow encroach on the fanbases hearts and minds, spanning across generations of anime fans to become the classic it is now.
When the story starts, it is just Spike and his pal Jet trying to score an easy bounty whilst traversing space in their rather basic (by Cowboy Bebop standards) craft. They visit different places, different versions of the countries that we know now, dusty run-down shanties with people working and living in close quarters with one another whilst the other half watch operas and blow big money at casinos. The idea of ‘space’ in the Cowboy Bebop world is wonderfully ethnic, with each place a real melting pot that any multi-racial city could be proud of.
The character designs are not your moe, over-exaggerated fare here – the aim is for gritty realism. Spike is tall and slovenly-handsome, Jet comes across initially as a big, burly tough guy (who enjoys cooking and pruning his bonsai trees), Faye is a classic femme fatale without having outrageous breasts or having the attitude of a bimbo and their mascot Ein is clearly a Welsh Corgi – and a cute one, at that – and Ed is a sprightly pre-teen tomboy. Between them all, they’ve got the ‘erratic group of complementary misfits’ part down pat.
The animation throughout is very impressive. You almost wouldn’t believe that the anime is 20 years old as the quality is very much about many of the releases being broadcast now. Cowboy Bebop‘s animation is with computer-aided graphics, but the way that it’s used doesn’t negatively effect that great, gritty feel to make anything feel artificial or out of place. Everything is so fluid and yet so sharp – sometimes contradictory to the point where I’d have to re-watch a spacecraft scene, or a shooting scene. Scenes like that also shift so seamlessly into something slower and softer, such as when we see Spike falling from a great height and watching significant moments of his life flash before his eyes… and then be pulled back into an explosion in the present day. Visually, it pulls you about but doesn’t make you feel jarred or dizzy. I just kept being impressed.
And I can’t not mention the soundtrack at this point. Yoko Kanno’s iconic blend of jazz and blues really sets the scene at the beginning of every episode. It’s one of those opening themes that I never skip. It’s iconic and so there’s plenty of people who will recognise it just by the first 10 seconds.
The way Cowboy Bebop is structured is for each episode to stand well enough on its own with a thin line of deeper storyline running through it. We see flashbacks of Spike’s past and his motivations for being a literal space cowboy as well as some traumatic experience that has put him on the course he’s on now. Things seem basic as I’m discussing them, but it’s the subtle layers of characterisation, action, sophistication, relationships and humour that make it so unique and memorable. As I’ve said, it’s an anime you can watch several times and find new things. It’s a classic and I’d also recommend it as a gateway anime to anyone looking to get into the anime life. See you, space cowboy…