Cowboy Bebop

Back when I published my review of the first DVD of Cowboy Bebop, there had been little fanfare about this series. Although the buzz was good, there was no talk of phenomenon, no word of a movie, no thoughts of sequels. My first paragraphs asked the question, what kind of a name is "Cowboy Bebop" anyway?

The world has since found out. And so have I. After running on the Adult Swim segment of Cartoon Network, Cowboy Bebop has become one of the entry titles for modern anime viewers. And frankly, I couldn't be happier. Bebop takes the best of anime and makes it instantly accessible to the person who can't tell apart Spongebob from Pikachu. Despite the accessibility, it also pulls no punches, containing the sort of material (especially near its conclusion) that frustrates Americans because of its uniquely Asian viewpoint. After finally getting to see the entire series, I can say that Cowboy Bebop is worthy of further investigation.

For those who haven't caught any of the show or the hype, Cowboy Bebop initially involves just two guys, Spike and Jet, who are trying to make a living as interstellar bounty hunters. They travel from system to system trying to earn rewards for bringing in various and sundry criminals in their heap of a spaceship named the Bebop. As their journeys continue, we learn more about their pasts--Jet's life as a cop, and Spike's membership in a crime syndicate--while they meet up with others who become a part of their crew. Faye Valentine's a selfish but beautiful gal who occasionally works with the guys when not gambling or trying to understand the memories of her past that have gone missing. Ed's a she that looks like a he that can hack into any computer system, providing she doesn't giggle and goofytalk her way into oblivion. And Ein's a good-natured data dog with as much personality as his companions in just a simple woof. A ragtag bunch if we've ever seen one, the five nevertheless wind up capturing the imagination and hearts of their audience easily during their 26 episodes of adventures.

I have never seen an animated television series look so fantastic. Almost every episode of Bebop rivals theatrical animation, trouncing on OVAs that supposedly have better budgets. It looks amazing. The soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, a jazz fusion blend, is immediately catchy, but it has surprising depth, enough that the CD has become a regular companion. If you like animation at all, you'll have to see Bebop. And, frankly, it doesn't matter if you are a subtitle purist or a dub fan, because both versions are fantastic. I watch subs almost exclusively, and I got hooked on the dub. That just doesn't happen to me, but it did here. It's that good.

But beyond that, the show has a style and colorfulness lacking in too many anime. True, some shows like Hellsing are drenched in style, but that's all they are. Cowboy Bebop is cool without ever having to rely on attitude alone to see it through. Although I tend to prefer shows with plotlines that build on each other, Bebop grows our affection for the characters through mostly stand-alone episodes. There is back-story to be told, and it's told well, but rarely do shows without a strong story arch feel so natural. It shouldn't be as powerful as it is, but it's a testament to good storytelling.

Then there's that wonderful history and the drastic ending (which I won't spoil here, though I'll discuss it below under the main review). I'm reminded when watching Cowboy Bebop of the tagline from the beautifully haunting film Magnolia: "We may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us." Bebop is effective because each character has such a rich history before the stories here even begin that they are fully realized in every way. Sadly, in most anime, characters exist only to fulfill plot purposes, rather than existing as entities unto themselves. In fact, Bebop works because we go through the entire show, right up to its conclusion, without knowing everything there is to know about these folks. They are motivated by issues that the writers developed that we don't even fully understand. That lends a reality to the characters that makes them far more enjoyable than we expect. When their pasts catch up with them, we care.

This leads us to the controversial part...the last few episodes that wrap everything up. The events of those episodes are cataclysmic, to say the least. For American audiences, they can mar the experience, even. (As one friend said to me, "Now that I've watched the whole thing, the last couple episodes make me sad, in a way, that I did.") But they are very Japanese, encapsulating the ambiguity and realism that set the very best anime apart. I believe that they make the show even more authentic and worthy. At the same time, the only thing that keeps me from giving the show an A+ is that the ending doesn't have the emotional impact it should because we just don't know quite enough back-story yet for it to work. We are left with too many questions. Again, I attribute it to the fact that Japanese stories are rife with ambiguity. But this one could have stood just a little bit less.

That being said, Cowboy Bebop is easily in my list of "best anime ever". If you like anime, you should see it. Period. Normally, I use my final paragraph to sum it all up, but that says it all. You should see it.

Cowboy Bebop -- violence, profanity -- A