Anime Review: Cowboy Bebop

A band of eccentric characters who have nothing in common come together to become bounty hunters. Spike is the shady one with ties to the mob, Jet is the tough ex-cop, Faye is the foxy temptress, and Edward is the utterly crazy hacker who is actually a girl. Together, they travel across space getting into one weird encounter after another. Fame and fortune taunt them at every turn, but at least it’s marginally better than living uneventfully.

Plot

Reflecting the improvisational nature of bebop jazz, Cowboy Bebop is freely formed with sudden changes in theme and tone between episodes. There is no primary story line, although a few of the episodes form a miniature story arc concerning Spike’s past with the syndicate. Aside from that, the episodes are an eclectic collection of stories that play out like on-screen improv sessions. There are few connecting threads between them; each episode is a self-contained unit.

This is a risky way of storytelling, but thankfully, director Watanabe Shinichiro does it with such style and flair that the lack of substance goes largely unnoticed. I won’t criticize Cowboy Bebop for a lack of depth because it has no pretense to such. This is a work of moods and movement that invites the audience to take part in an experience rather than disparage it from a distance.

In this rarest of occasions, Watanabe’s unique vision of a jazz-space-western far overshadows anything that can be gained from a strong central narrative or complex themes. The series is so enjoyable exactly because of its style, its laid back attitude, its peculiar sense of humor, and the Zen-like way in which we are asked to accept its myriad absurdities. It can be fun or serious when it wants to be, and its impeccable charm gives Cowboy Bebop copious amounts of that x-factor that turns a TV show into a phenomenon.

Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the early episodes. They were quirky in their own way, but the series doesn’t pick up momentum until the fifth episode, “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” It’s the first story arc episode, but more importantly, it ranks as one of the best single episodes ever produced in anime. Watanabe brilliantly crafts it out of a collection of moments, setting the mood and pacing with expert discernment. After that episode, I knew Cowboy Bebop was going to be a great anime series.

On a per-episode basis, they are usually more hit than miss. They are sustained by the strength of the cast alongside the energy and devotion with which Watanabe exercises his creative talent. Cowboy Bebop stands as a singular moment in anime history – it’s a show that defies generic categorization, and actually deserves every bit of its populairty.

Characters

The four main characters form the foundation upon which each episode is built. Watanabe gives them each enough screen time to establish their pesonalities and backgrounds. Each character brings something meaningful to the series, and Watanabe eschews a regular supporting cast to focus on the crew of the Bebop.

The series begins by introducing Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, two bounty hunters traveling aboard the good ship Bebop. Their relationship is complex, alternating between a cool professionalism and a rapport developed between old friends. It serves as a source of tension between the two (at times), but also as a way of showing the nature of the bounty hunter (“cowboy”) lifestyle.

Of the two, Spike is definitely the stronger character. He steals whatever scenes he gets with his insouciant persona, and is characterized as a mix between Bruce Lee and Laozi. His prowess with martial arts, along with his calming presence, gives him an undeniable magnetism. Spike’s nonchalant personality may be derived from cinema and anime of the past, but the character is able to pull it off so well that it manages to be fresh and appealing.

Jet is not built up to be the bruiser that he resembles. In fact, he is the intellectual of the Bebop crew, frequently carrying out investigations and serving as the ship’s mechanic. Watanabe avoids stereotyping him as the muscle of the crew, a role that fits Spike more than anyone else. This makes Jet a little more real, like a regular guy and not just another face in a sci-fi show.

The series really picks up when Faye Valentine is introduced. Aside from being the show’s femme fatale (and in turn an integral part of many plot devices), she is given a layer of vulnerability that contrasts well with Spike’s outward apathy. Her presence makes the series a bit more lively and vibrant, and gives it a romantic/sexual edge. With regard to the femme fatale archetype, she breaks it in several ways. Faye is not emotionally distant as such characters tend to be; in actuality she is strongly motivated by her confused feelings. She can hold her own in combat, but isn’t exactly a dangerous figure. Also, she relies more on her own resourcefulness than her looks to get what she wants.

With Faye, you get the sense that the Bebop crew is built on personal interests rather than true solidarity. She’s an unpredictable element who happens to be seductive too. As a counter to her pragmatism, Watanabe brings in Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, the genius (and mentally questionable) hacker who manifests her usefulness at unexpected times. I believe Ed may be what started the trend of many Japanese action movies requiring the presence of one character in every cast that is as weird as possible. Although mainly used for comedic purposes, Ed forms a Lassie-like friendship with the crew’s dog, Ein, that leads to an especially hilarious episode about mushrooms.

The only somewhat regular villain is Vicious, who is central to the story arc commenced by “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” His relationship with Spike is nothing new from a storytelling perspective, yet he oozes a homocidal menace that definitely tints the mood of his scenes. Aside from Vicious, there is no real supporting cast to speak of. This just means that the four main characters are that much better made, and that much more interesting. Given Cowboy Bebop‘s narrative style, it is crucial to have well-formed characters to provide a common thread for the viewer to connect to. Fortunately, this show’s cast has ample amounts of charisma and vitality to do just that.

Technical

Watanabe’s directorial style is very cinematic. He pays a lot of attention to crafting a good scene, coming up with the right angle, and getting the animation to look fluid. In particular, Spike’s body language is extremely effective at conveying his temperament. Some CG visuals are also included, but they’re not a big part of the show.

The voice actors are very relaxed and comfortable in their roles, especially Yamadera Kouichi as Spike and Hayashibara Megumi as Faye. What stands out most in this department, aside from the noirish visuals and setting, is the music. Composer Kanno Yoko threw together a soundtrack containing lots of jazz, but also some pop and even a choral track. The selection of music is all too suitable for a series that also combines disparate genres.

Cowboy Bebop has one of the best technical productions for its time. The pleasing audiovisual presentation enhances the viewer experience, but is also the realization of Watanabe’s artistic direction. Like the music of its namesake, Cowboy Bebop uses all the various elements of its production to create a single, compelling ensemble.