“Cowboy Bebop” remains the coolest kid in school even after 25 years

Two and a half decades have passed since the debut of Cowboy Bebop, and yet its allure continues to captivate audiences with its distinctive blend of “kids, animals, and women with attitude.” I still recall that late-night encounter in a Carolina suburb, where my weary-eyed comrades and I were ensnared by the enigmatic offerings of Adult Swim programming. Suddenly, a resounding cacophony of trumpets erupted, accompanying a backdrop of conspiracy theory visuals that immediately seized our attention. A silhouette of a man, engrossed in a cloud of smoke, appeared before us, while seductive bass notes harmoniously intertwined with a voice that calmly beckoned us to abandon our mundane lives and embrace the art of jamming. It was an exhilarating whirlwind of imagery: cigarettes, guns, girls, kung-fu, and spaceships. The question hung in the air: what in the world was unfolding before our eyes?

Cowboy Bebop, this extraordinary show, this groundbreaking anime, was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. At the time, I wouldn’t consider myself a fanboy, as my interests were largely consumed by donning black attire and fervently listening to Korn. However, the world of anime had yet to unveil itself to me, and like any journey into uncharted territory, an enthralling gateway drug was needed to expedite the process. And so, on that fateful night, nestled comfortably on my friend’s couch, Cowboy Bebop swung open the doors of perception, forever altering my artistic sensibilities. Two and a half decades later, the series remains just as potent, its enduring impact unabated.

To fully comprehend the magnitude of Cowboy Bebop’s arrival, it is crucial to establish some context. The 1990s represented a golden age for anime, a period that holds sacred significance among fervent fans. Works such as Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Pokémon, and Berserk dominated the scene, leaving an indelible mark on the medium. In 1994, the series Macross Plus, directed by the sunglasses-aficionado Shinichiro Watanabe, penned by the talented Keiko Nobumoto, and graced by the original compositions of the gifted composer Yoko Kanno, emerged triumphantly. Its success paved the way for an even more ambitious collaboration in 1998, which, as you likely guessed, was none other than Cowboy Bebop.

Cowboy. Bebop. Two seemingly disparate nouns interwoven by the whimsical hand of a supremely cool random-word generator. Uttering the words was an utter joy, encapsulating succinctly the profound themes that lay at the heart of the show. Set in a future where solar systems and galaxies resemble the untamed wilderness of the “Old West,” a realm where law enforcement merely scratches the surface of rampant criminal activity, allowing a motley crew of bounty hunters, contractors, and hackers to deliver justice on their own idiosyncratic terms. Within these fertile parameters, a dystopian world brimming with multidimensional characters and a mesmerizing soundtrack took shape, standing tall on its own artistic merit.

Upon revisiting the series, I discovered nuances that had eluded my younger self. At its core, Cowboy Bebop was, and still is, a “space-western” par excellence, an unmatched fusion of genres that effortlessly appealed to diverse demographics. Drawing inspiration from the realm of cinema, director Shinichiro Watanabe wore his influences on his interstellar sleeves, paying homage to the hard-boiled detective films of yesteryear. The interior of the Bebop itself could easily be mistaken for one colossal metal ashtray, engulfed in a perpetual haze of cigarette smoke. The spirits of Phillip Marlowe and Spike, Jet, and Faye intertwine as the trio indulges in their nicotine-laden vices. In the world of celluloid, smoking exuded an aura of refined elegance, and within the medium of anime, the animated smoke gracefully billowed forth from the characters’ lips, its languid movement echoing the nonchalant nature of the cosmos. Superficial as it may seem, there’s an undeniable allure in the way smoking is depicted on the screen—it simply exudes class.

So many of Cowboy Bebop’s defining moments hinge on the delicate dance of mood, often unfolding when little of note is transpiring. Curiously enough, these tranquil interludes rank among my personal favorites. The meticulous attention to detail dedicated to crafting specific atmospheres underscores the significance of cultivating a truly unique ambiance. It goes beyond the confines of the Bebop spacecraft itself; entire planetary colonies and bustling metropolises boast distinct personalities, becoming living entities that breathe alongside the characters. If one were to strip away the intricate plotlines and dialogue, leaving only the imagery of ships soaring through space and individuals savoring meals, drinks, and cigarettes, the impact would remain unscathed. This notion bears semblance to Martin Scorsese’s anarchic tribute to film noir, Taxi Driver, where the streets of New York City become an entity unto themselves. Similarly, in Cowboy Bebop, locations pulsate with vibrant life.

Amidst my recent rewatch of the series, the first episode still mesmerizes me. With no subtext, no explicit explanation, its refusal to yield to conventional narrative norms only amplifies its coolness. It beckons us to relinquish our need for immediate context and simply surrender to the experience. The haunting melody of a harmonica lazily sets the tone, while spacecraft depart from their futuristic docking stations with routine precision. Yet, in this future society, the novelty of space exploration has long faded, becoming just another banal facet of daily existence. Mirroring the spirit of the Wild West, everyone is striving to make a living, their financial struggles preventing them from truly appreciating the vast cosmic landscape that unfolds before their eyes.

Cowboy Bebop’s characters stand as some of the most diverse and iconic figures in the anime pantheon. The suave and impetuous Spike Spiegel, a master of martial arts and a chain smoker, is aptly paired with the level-headed ex-cop and skilled pilot/cook, Jet Black. Witnessing their dynamic interactions, it felt as though I was meeting them for the very first time, with fresh eyes unburdened by the passage of time. While Spike and Jet possess a rich history that can sustain the show on its own, engaging in humorous squabbles over the definition of a true bell pepper and beef dish or commiserating over their perpetual financial woes, the addition of subsequent characters injects a much-needed dose of diversity into the Bebop’s intimate circle. The entry of the enigmatic hacker Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV in Episode 9 completes the family-like dynamic of the crew, defying initial expectations with their eccentricities. However, true to the Bebop’s enigmatic essence, sentimentality is eschewed in favor of a detached approach, ensuring that the tone remains consistent. In fact, the peculiar living arrangement of the crew is only tangentially addressed, and it is precisely this refusal to delve into conventional emotional territory that elevates the series to new heights.

Cowboy Bebop remake: please Netflix, keep the anime classic wild and raw |  Television | The Guardian

One of the most remarkable aspects of Cowboy Bebop is its brevity, which serves to amplify its inherent coolness. The anime diamond gleams for a mere 26 episodes, with a feature film nestled in towards the end of its run. Yet, within this concise timeframe, the show garnered prestigious accolades such as the Kobe Animation Award in 1998 and the esteemed Seiun Award for best science fiction work in 2000. It stands as a testament to the series’ unequivocal brilliance. Any attempt to extract additional material from the franchise would inevitably feel desperate, diluting the essence of the original and resulting in a pale imitation, as evidenced by the ill-fated live-action adaptation on Netflix.

In Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” a film that greatly influenced Shinichiro Watanabe, there is a quote that resonates deeply with Cowboy Bebop’s ethos: “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.” It conjures vivid imagery and encapsulates the core essence of the show—an exploration of individuals yearning for that elusive missing piece, navigating a world devoid of Earth’s embrace. Even after 25 years, no other series has captured this detached coolness with the same profound impact as Cowboy Bebop, a tale woven by the lives of a few bounty hunters, their loyal canine companion, and a prodigious teenage hacker.

So, ignite the engines and savor the flavors of bell peppers—it seems there’s an opportunity for employment on Mars. And in the unlikely event that this is our farewell, remember: See you, Space Cowboy.

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