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 shows 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. Bebops love of music is found all over the place, from the way the US DVD’s were designed to look like records to how the episodes are called ‘sessions’. 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 was 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.
It’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.
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 the hands-in-pockets-while-hunched-forward-walk of Lupin the III, 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. I have friends that mean less to me than Spike does. 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 that isn’t Patrick Stewart is wearing an apron, making Bell Peppers and Beef but too broke to afford one of the main ingredients.
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 that before in a television show and certainly not in an anime. 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 own 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 lose everything because of it.
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 pizazz. 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 directly into Asimov’s side. It’s well-choreographed, perfectly directed and full of energy. The animation is particularly 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 smartly to accentuate rather than relying whole cloth.
Asteroid Blues is a western drama that takes inspiration from several entries of the genre. The episodes two antagonists are essentially the Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek characters from Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado and when he tries to set up a fake drug buy to catch them, Spike’s disguised in the same poncho that Clint Eastwood made famous in 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…
Know what the key fictional difference between a bounty hunter and a private detective is? A bounty hunter hunts, a detective solves mysteries. One moves forward, the other looks back. Yeah, there are similarities- both live somewhat laterally to the law and use leads to track criminals for profit- but the bounty hunters open-ended lifestyle doesn’t accommodate sitting in an office and waiting for a client. Time’s money and he’s got a fistful to make.
Understanding that a story’s potential starts with its character archetypes is crucial to identifying why Cowboy Bebop was able to tell 26 wonderful stories. By laying its foundations on space bounty hunters, Bebop gave itself the tools to create a wide range of rich stories and build a series whose every episode exists independent from each other.
The second part of the Bebop Sessions is about those characters and the storytelling opportunities they provide, so we’re gonna start with two that are integral: Punch and Judy.
Despite the fact that the gun-slingin’ hosts of ‘Big Shots For Bounty Hunters’ aren’t complexly-defined, they are fundamental to the shows structural freedom. With a hearty ‘Hi, amigos!’, this team’s low-budget daily broadcast informs all three hundred thousand bounty hunters on the latest and biggest-paying jobs. They are characters with a practical use- they are regularly appearing mechanisms to start and update the majority of the stories and give information on the bounty heads in a way that doesn’t feel forced. They allow the characters to be anywhere in the solar system and still be on the clock.
Though it takes a couple slaps and a kick for Spike to get his old beater tv working, we tune into their show for the first time in Session # 2, Stray Dog Strut. The two flash the mugshot of pet kidnapper Abdul Hakim, the man worth 8M woolongs for breaking into a lab and stealing an experimental animal. In an attempt to shake off the men on his trail, he’s undergone extreme facial reconstruction. With fresh intel from the doctor that had performed the plastic surgery, Spike goes after the bounty.
Stray Dog Strut is a fast, fun episode that features three separate chase scenes with progressively more exotic animals and an antagonist who looks like Kareem Abdul Jabar. It also introduces the first new addition to the Bebop’s crew. Ein, the young welsh corgi.
Ein is a data dog and if you know what that is then both of you is smarter than I. Here, that apparently means he has a passable grasp on the English language and understands that pushing buttons makes things happen. The Lab Security Guards chasing Hakim (chasing Ein) race finishes with the first running the second directly through the front door of Police Headquarters. Punch and Judy tell us that no one gets paid when the bounties turn themselves in.
Stray Dog Strut is the first example of Bebop’s naming conventions, a riff on the Stray Cats 1981 song ‘Stray Cat Strut’. Look at a list of the series episodes, you’ll notice that all the titles either have musical vocabulary or directly reference real songs.
Honky Tonk Women starts with a purple-haired woman with a penchant for yellow clothes and a red blouse walking coolly into a smoke filled head shop. Spotting the silhouettes of a couple men tailing her outside, she pulls an uzi from her grocery bag and unloads the clip. Some claim that with her unbelievable luck, this woman is the legendary Poker Alice, but when the thugs casino-running boss pulls out the Ace of Hearts from her shorts, he proves that here ‘luck’ is just good ol’ fashioned ‘cheating’. He needs those talents, so makes her a deal- relieve a target of the weight of his wallet or the debt that’s put her on the lam will put her behind bars. Faye Valentine is a woman who knows when to bluff. But when the simple exchange for a mythical hacking program lands on its head, Faye hitches a ride with our bounty hunting heroes. With a sparkly new 6 million woolong bounty on her head care of Big Shots, ends up handcuffed to the Bebop’s toilet.
Faye is played by the great Wendee Lee. Lee, like David Lucas/Steven Blume, would go on to appear in virtually every other voice over dub for a more than decade, but both would do their best work here. Lee’s Faye is cocky to cover uncertainty, brash but emotionally cautious.
For its scope, Honky Tonk Women is a slickly directed quasi-Vegas heist flick full of flashing lights and clacking coins. It’s so well styled that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the ethereal hollowness of the song playing over the establishing shots. When Spike and Jet’s luck goes tits up and Faye steals the bounty money they had chanced into, it’s hard to not respect the way the episode plays with the here today, gone tomorrow rollercoaster of gambling. For their troubles, the two come out the end exactly one chip richer. They head back to the casino to place a last bet.
All right, let me come clean. You know how I’ve been talking up and down about how separate from each other all the episodes are? There’re two times bookmarking the entire series where a pair of episodes is chronologically connected without sharing a common title. It first happens with Honky Tonk Women and Gateway Shuffle.
Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always found the matriarchal crime family dynamic to be cult levels of creepy. Why do the grown men of the Space Warriors need to call their eco-terrorist leader Twinkle Maria Murdock ‘Mother’? I think my discomfort comes from my belief that misfits who need obedience and the overwhelming sense of kinship could easily be duped into becoming violent fanatics. When they gun down a restaurant for serving Ganymede Sea Rat while their protectors-of-the-weak rhetoric plays over the sea of dead bodies, I have to entertain the thought that maybe I’m right.
Floating aimlessly through space at the exact moment is the food-less Faye in her gas-less Red Tail, hopelessly sending out an SOS to any passerby. She drifts within range of a destroyed shuttle and because she’s just that way Faye ends up disregarding its critically injured government agents last wish and opens the case he died protecting. He had infiltrated the Space Warriors ranks and stolen a vial of Monkey Business, a retrovirus they were using to hold the Ganymede in terror until the moon instigated new ecological protections for the Sea Rat. The room full of screaming ape men trapped in test chambers tells us Ganymede should be very afraid of what will happen if they don’t comply with the demands. The episode ends with Faye forcing her way onto the Bebop to the quiet protests of the others.
Bebop is like Jazz: there’s an underlying structure but its flexible enough to allow for improvisation. On the surface, these stories have few similarities. We’ve got a light-hearted chase, a cool high stakes game of 21 and dark social commentary on terrorism. They’re different, but, by design, they all fit within the context of the show. What’s more, aside from a few exceptions, every episode can be viewed in any order, jumping from 10 to 22 to 6 without damaging the larger narrative that a few key episode beautifully construct. That’s true versatility. And it’s all thanks to a misfit crew of bounty hunters living aboard a beat up old fishing boat flying through space. Like its characters, Cowboy Bebop is really cool but it’s the sort of cool that comes from being really smart.
See You Space Cowboy…
Ballad of Fallen Angels
I would have given up on Bebop if it weren’t for Ballad of Fallen Angels. I changed my mind the moment the church organ blared across the purple sunset above a crumbling gothic cathedral. The beginning of the third act finds Spike, hands stuffed in his large overcoats pockets, walking up the cobblestone street to the lyrics of Yoko Kanno’s ‘Rain’. A woman sings.
I don’t feel a thing
and I stopped remembering.
The days are just like moments turned to hours.
Rain’s vocals are provided by Kanno-collaborator Mai Yamane. Yamane’s voice fills the air over a scene intercut with the silhouette of a silver-haired figure resting on one of the cathedrals broken stone pillars, a katana leaning against his shoulder.
Mother used to say
If you want you’ll find a way.
But mother never danced through fire showers.
As he approaches the entrance, Spike’s footsteps echo into the high ceilings. They betray his presence to the man sitting in wait. Spike is walking back into his past.
Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain
I walk in the rain, in the rain
Is it right or is it wrong?
And is it here that I belong?
The bounty hunter stops in the vestibule at the beginning of the rows of pews. Footsteps echo around him and the camera points down the stairs leading to the altar cast in black below. A demon ascends from hell. The scene is so stylish, so beautifully directed that you might not notice that not a single drop of water has fallen from the sky.
Bebop’s fifth episode opens as Mao Yenrai, capo of the Red Dragons, is betrayed moments after signing a peace treaty with the head of a rival syndicate. Their contract, sworn in blood, was rendered void as the new allies ship exploded on takeoff and Yenrai’s own guard lies in pools of their own blood. The silver haired man steps over their corpses. Yenrai pleads with him that the violence has to end for the syndicate to survive. His pleas end as the blade slides from under his chin and his blood hits the floor. Yenrai gasps ‘If Spike were here, you would never have done this.’ An impossibly large smile breaks across the silver haired man’s face.
Ballad of Fallen Angels may not be the heaviest story in the series, but it is certainly more serious than the ones that preceded it.
A 28M woolong bounty on Mao Yenrai for killing the head of the rival syndicate catches the attention of the Bebop crew. For the first time in the series, there’s disagreement about pursuing the money, and Jet’s hesitance conflicts with his usual stoicism. Of course, the stack of credits cloud Faye’s judgment and she leaves, looking to collect.
A performance of Ave Maria foreshadows the events that will transpire at the cathedral. Ushered to a private box at the theater, Faye meets Mao’s pale corpse and a whisper in the ear. Turning wide-eyed, she comes face to face with the silver-haired man staring at the performance on stage. He gives his name: Vicious. If is name is supposed to represent who we are, that one’s a bullseye.
Spike’s return to the past puts him in the newsstand with the motherly Annie, a photo of her revealing ties to Mao. She arms him and he toasts to Yenrai’s name. There’s a third man in the photo that we see one time, with a familiar long face and grey hair.
As important as this episode is to me, I have to admit that the chunking up in the second act brings it down. The attempt to balance the burden of each scene as they introduce the backstory and characters ends up spreading few story points over too long a time.
With the reveal of Spike’s past, his partnership with The Black Dog becomes exponentially more interesting. Spiegel pulls ammo and grenades from throughout the ship as Jet chides him for getting sucked back in. A call from Faye brings friction between the two.
And so Rain falls. Spike stands across Vicious in the old church.
When angels are forced out of heaven, they become demons. You agree, don’t you Spike?
I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.
I’ll wake you up. Right now.
The exchange is one of the most lyrically beautiful I can recall this side of a Dashiell Hammet novel, and Spike’s opening line alludes to the existential motif that runs throughout Bebop.
The direction in this scene is powerful, as Spike draws his pistol to find Faye held as gunpoint. The music rises as we stare at a shot of Spike sighting down the barrel, his eye square above it. This one angle communicates everything we need to know about what Spike’s doing, but also shows his dispassioned, determined mental state. Rain’s church organ crescendos and Spike pulls the trigger.
Then all fucking hell breaks loose. Consider the expert composition of the unfolding scene. Suddenly, men pop up from under the benches, from behind columns, and on top of balconies. The music gone, all we have is the staccato of gunfire emptying clips and the concussive blast of the grenades. The animation is fast, fluid and expressive and the church is ripped to shreds.
A massive stained glass window frames a stalemate at the end of the battle, a heart-gripping shot of the barrel of Spikes gun against Vicious shoulder, the tip of his own sword against Spiegel’s. The two men staring into each other’s eyes, there’s a look approaching happiness painted on their faces.
You should see yourself. Do you have any idea what you look like right at this moment, Spike?
A ravenous beast. The same blood runs through both of us. The blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.
I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.
Then why are you still alive?
Vicious stabs. Spike fires. It’s slick. Vicious lives up to his name by grabbing Spike by his face, cracking a smile bigger than his mouth and throwing him through the stained glass window.
The next minute is a complete tonal shift. Green Bird, a piano lullaby set to hollow, ephemeral vocals, stitches together a quick-cutting scene that alternates between Spike’s fall and his past reflected in his red iris. Each shot is stylish, exaggerated by the color filters and the minimalism of the onscreen actions.
What we see is Spike, Vicious and a tall, strong and confident blonde woman. We also see clips of the firefight that had opened the series’ first episode: the rain, the flashing muzzles, the bloody tear, the torn letter and the rose, all washed in cold blue. But we’re given more. Spike and Vicious fighting back to back, Vicious and the woman at a poolhall, a small clean apartment and a gun pointed at a blonde head all cast in a warm orange hue. The color palette differentiates the two flashbacks- when things were good in Spike’s life and after drama turned the lives of all three. The sequence ends with an injured Spike stumbling through the night streets and her walking from a building. He collapses on his face and wakes in her care and to her song. She looks him over and he says through his bandages “Just like that. Sing for me, please.” She smiles.
Spike wakes from his dream, wrapped head to toe in bandages back on the Bebop to a familiar humming. Faye reads next to him. She looks curiously over him and says he should be grateful to her for staying with him the last two days. He motions her over and manages a few words through the pain: “You sing off key.” Her face contorts in anger. Parallels between the two main women in Spike Spiegel’s life have been connected, his priorities to one have been made explicit.
There’s another version of Rain, identical save for one fact. It’s sung by Steve Conte. The two renditions speak to themselves in the moment, to each other across space.
Walk in the rain, in the rain, in the rain.
I walk in the rain, in the rain.
Why do I feel so alone?
For some reason I think of home.
See you space Cowboy…