There’s nothing quite like a great story brilliantly told. They can make you laugh, make you cry, and enrich your soul. Sometimes, a story can do all that in 21 minutes and change. Rarely you will find story a arc that will do that a dozen times. And only once will there be Cowboy Bebop.
The credits tell us that Bebop was created by the legendary ideas-man Hajime Yadate. Of course, Yadate would contribute little to Bebop outside of giving the show’s true mastermind Shinichiro Watanabe the idea for a story about space bounty hunters. Watanabe would reunite with many of the principle talent behind the four-part Macross Plus OVA, acting as a spiritual successor to the classic space opera with many of the same thematic and stylistic motifs. It was Watanabe’s excellent and diverse universe filled with the stories of series writer Keiko Nobumoto, characters designed and animated by Toshihiro Kawamoto, and the amazing musical works of the ‘Goddess of Anime’ Yoko Kanno that defines Cowboy Bebop’s twenty six episode run.
They gave us the story of the Bebop, the fishing boat fitted to be space worthy, and her crew of perpetually broke and hungry cowboys just looking to earn some woolongs by bringing down the galaxy’s most (incompetently) dangerous criminals. Bebop is cool.
Let’s talk about the music, get it out of the way first. Bebop’s love of music is found all over the place, from how the episodes are called ‘sessions’ to the way the U.S. DVD’s were designed to look like records. The series opens with a rain drenched day bathed in frosty blue. A music box plays and we see a man in a long coat, holding a bundle of roses and standing over a mound of cigarette stubs. As he walks away, a rose falls into a puddle. We stare at that rose as the scene intercuts with a gunfight- bullets, blood, and a smile. The rose turns red as we watch. It’s haunting.
Then the title theme ‘Tank’ explodes with a brass fanfare, beats with drums, and plucks at a funky bass before turning into ‘I think it’s time we blow this scene, get everybody and their stuff together…O.K., 3-2-1, lets jam’ and moves your feet for you. It’s got that pulpy adventure feel to it- a series of brandished guns, fast spaceships, and silhouettes dancing in color.
Cowboy Bebop’s got jazz, it’s got rock, it’s got western. First time I ever experienced honest music variety in a show; ‘til that point, everything worked in tidy little themes for samey nothing scenes. I stopped being a child.
Bebop’s main bounty hunters are a motley crew, but they all have a great relationship with the morally grey area they work within. The former syndicate member who has seen too much and grown a nihilistic callous to the world; the grizzled cop that lost too much of himself to the job; the con-artist amnesiac whose femme fatale body masks her cunning. They would all be at home in an issue of Monkey Punch’s Lupin III, fitting considering the classic show had inspired Watanabe.
In session #1 we meet Spike. Even if he didn’t have one of the greatest names ever, Spike Spiegel would be the motherfuckin’ man; a spindly red-eyed 27 year old with the fluffy-haired look of Bob Dylan and Lupin, down to the hands-in-pockets-while-hunched-forward-walk. Spike is calm, he’s reserved, he’s brash, he’s smart, he’s dumb, he’s a master of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. This was the first time I’d ever taken notice of the silver-tongued David Lucas (Steve Blum), the English dub voice of the Mars native.
It’s also where we met his beefy partner, former detective Jet ‘The Black Dog’ Black and his cybernetic arm played by the gravelly yet wise voice of Beau Billingslea. The first time we see him, the dopest bald man in the galaxy is wearing an apron, making his famous Bell Peppers and Beef but, as usual, is too broke for the beef.
These two are living their lives when we find them, just trying to get by. They’re not out to save the world, but they might be able to fill their stomachs and fix their ships. The world doesn’t exist for them, their stories aren’t told for our benefit. I was 17 and hadn’t ever seen anything like it before. Their actions tell you everything you need to know about who they are. ‘Asteroid Blues’ is where it starts.
As a way to finally get off space Tijuana and make it to Mars with his girlfriend, Asimov Solensan stole a valuable shipment of Bloody Eye from his syndicate. In between setting up deals, he’s fighting off his pursuers by juicing from his product, giving him superhuman speed and reaction time and leaving a sea of corpses in his wake. Spike goes after the cash bounty on his head. It’s a sad tale of a man who loves a woman and gets lost in his drug-fueled quest to be with her only to let it take everything from them.
The episode does a great job of showing how well put together the entire aesthetic is. Aside from capturing the sleepy TJ feel in the dry brown environments, the animation is superbly crafted, offering quick motions full of personality and pizzazz. You especially see it in the fight scenes, the best of which has Spike using a restaurant table to spin around, gain momentum and bury his heel in Asimov’s side. It’s well-choreographed, perfectly directed, and brimming with energy. The animation is remarkable for the fact that the majority of the cells were hand drawn in a time when CG was becoming the predominant cost effective technique giving many shows generic, awkward movements. Bebop uses CG to smartly accentuate rather than relying whole cloth.
Asteroid Blues is a western drama that takes inspiration from several entries of the genre. The episode’s two antagonists are essentially Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and when he tries to set up a fake drug buy to catch them, Spike’s disguised in Clint Eastwood’s poncho from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. These sorts of film homages are crammed into every episode of Cowboy Bebop. They’re all good.
The credits return to the washed out blue from the opening and the red rose sitting in a vase at a window. ‘The Real Folk Blues’ starts and we are given a series of still images: Spike, a blonde woman, and a man with long white hair playing through the streets; the blonde finding Spike face down on a sidewalk; the two of them caught off guard by the white haired man. It closes on the red rose in the puddle. There’s so much about this sequence we can’t know.
But by looking into Cowboy Bebop, maybe we’ll discover it’s story.
See You Space Cowboy…