Cowboy Bebop Anime Review
US Release By
Bit o' Everything Sci-Fi
26 25 minute episodes
1998-04-03 - 1998-06-26
What's In It
- Dogfights (and spaceship battles)
- Music (not part of the plot, but all kinds)
- Down-to-earth Super Technology
- Space Ships (big ones)
- Chases and Races
- Slapstick (a little)
- Parody (also a little)
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 2 (moderate)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
In the not-too-distant future of 2071, Earth is a bit of a mess as a result of an accident testing a new transportation system, and now nobody is left on it but folks to poor to get away. But, humanity has colonized and terraformed the rest of the solar system, so things are going just fine. Taking advantage of the frontier spirit of the day, there is a new breed of bounty hunters, known as Cowboys, living a loose life, traveling between worlds, and hunting down the most wanted criminals for enough money to keep doing it. Two of the best (if unluckiest) of these folks are the owners of the good ship Bebop, Spike and Jet, both leaving behind pasts they'd rather forget. Things get even more interesting when a couple of unwelcome companions join them: Fay, a gambler with a huge debt, no past, a penchant for cheating, even worse luck than Spike and Jet, and a lot of people after her, and Ed, a rather odd young hacker. Oh, and there's also the genetically-engineered dog Ein.
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Cowboy Bebop is a whole collection of classic genres, all mixed into one series and all done right, to the point that it breathes new life into a very stale genre. In one episode it may be dark, stylized, and serious, and in another light and filled with offbeat humor and antagonistic banter, but in every case it's done right. Back that up with a great cast and writing (in both the dub and original Japanese, no less), fine visuals, cool retro-high-technology, and some of the most varied and well written music I've ever heard in a series--Yoko Kanno's score covering everything from heavy metal to worldbeat--and you've got good anime. Cowboy Bebop isn't deep, but it has style and little bits of creativity everywhere to make up for what it lacks in substance, and from start to finish it's a marvelously well-built production.
Massively popular with good reason, Cowboy Bebop is worth at least a chance from almost any anime fan, and is almost guaranteed to be loved by fans of stylish action and sci-fi, as well those into space adventure of almost any sort.
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Cowboy Bebop is one of those series that takes a relatively tired concept and manages to breathe new life into it. In this case, the well-worn concept is a ragtag band of bounty hunters, tooling around in their quirky space ship, headed up by a slick gunslinger with a mysterious past. The refreshing twist comes from a near-perfect combination of stylish directing, not-quite-formula characters, interesting setting, a mix of offbeat humor and drama, and a whole lot of very cool music. All of which makes Cowboy Bebop both a quality classic space adventure and entertainingly original.
One of the defining features of the series is its mix of moods; it's one of the few truly multi-genre series I can think of. Though there is a bit of ongoing plot, most of the episodes are essentially self-contained stories tied together loosely by the motley crew of characters. About half of these are dark, serious episodes full of grim situations and stylish set-pieces. The other half are generally light (though never to the point of being truly silly), with a relatively subtle, quirky sense of humor.
These two styles are almost never mixed within an episode, which works very well. The fun episodes are very much so, but never so silly that you can't take the remainder of the stories seriously, while the serious half are executed well enough to easily stand with the best of that genre. And, by clearly segregating the two moods, the series avoided almost all of the emotional tug-of-war that you (or at least I) get with some series that try to be both funny and dramatic at the same time.
The range is even more impressive than just dark and light; although most of the humor is of the low-key, offhanded, quirky sort, there are a couple of parody-heavy, straight comedy episodes that are downright hilarious. These little gems even manage to feel at home in the series. One, Mushroom Samba, is a semi-parody of exactly the sort of too-cool hero the series is about (it even has several Shaft references), while the other, Toys in the Attic, is a direct parody of the original Alien movie. The latter starts out darned funny, but it builds to a 2001-inspired crescendo of music and visuals that has to be one of the most oddly appealing pieces of filmmaking I can think of. I'll freely admit that I have a weird sense of humor, but I thought it was sheer brilliance.
That's the broad picture, but Cowboy Bebop has so many other things worth mentioning that it's hard to know where to start.
I'll go with the one thing that the series is pretty much built on: style. Cowboy Bebop has style all over the place--from the visuals, to the music (I'll come back to that), to the settings, to the stories, this series is as slick as you could ask for in even the most serious of sci-fi. In fact, that's is the only significant problem I personally had with the series--there's slick style to spare, but substance was sacrificed to make room for it--nearly every serious episode is entirely predictable. There are a few ongoing questions surrounding Spike's past, and about three minor points at which you aren't quite sure how something will turn out, but for the most part the dramatic stories are about as formula and obvious as they come.
Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not saying the stories aren't good. Quite the contrary, they're usually quite interesting, exciting, and the classic plot-lines (particularly the dark, moody ones) are executed so well that they're a pleasure to watch, but don't come expecting anything unpredictable. If you just can't stand obvious plots or the occasional sacrifice of realism (or even making much sense) for the sake of style, you might get annoyed once in a while, as I was. Those who prefer style over substance, on the other hand, should be drooling over what Cowboy Bebop has to offer.
That said, it easily makes up for the lack of story originality elsewhere. Take the world (or rather worlds--the characters are always hopping around the solar system) it's set in. Each locale has a very distinct feel to it, none of which are generic sci-fi. There's an international feel to everything, with each location having the flavor of some particular period or nationality. Building on that is the fact that the locales aren't one-shot deals--the characters return to familiar areas once in a while.
Adding to the variety of the settings is the detail in them, not to mention almost everything else. I can't call it perfect, but the towns and cities of Cowboy Bebop have a level of crowded detail and a sense of being lived in (and of being functional enough to live in) that few sci-fi stories manage. There's also a collection of little touches surrounding the main characters that add a sense of realism that could have easily been lacking. They do stuff like cook food and eat, look up information on a variant of the Internet, and lay around on a beat-up couch... in their spaceship.
That sort of sci-fi that doesn't feel futuristic is the best part of the setting. There are spaceships and warp gates, sure, but that sort of thing isn't prevalent, and the rest of the technology has a down-to-earth, almost retro feel. The spaceships run out of gas, the computer links crash, the TV gets poor reception on backwater planets, and there is a grand total of one laser gun in the series--Spike's fighter has one that is used very infrequently, and everything else just shoots regular bullets. (The concept of shell casings in space is very cool, in fact.) Heck, there are even space truckers. In a few cases, it's so low-tech that the realism is perhaps questionable (they actually made an effort to patch a few tech holes in the dubbed dialogue), but in all it gave me the feeling that these were normal people living in a slightly different place and time, and made it very easy to get a grasp on the setting. It also contributes a bit to the wild-west feel, though that theme is usually surprisingly subtle considering the title.
Moving on, no discussion of a good anime series would be complete without bringing up the characters, and Cowboy Bebop had plenty of good ones. None are terribly original--we have the grumpy old bounty hunter with a mysterious past, the slick young bounty hunter with an even more mysterious past that keeps coming back to haunt him, a self-serving gambler on the run with a mysterious past, and a slightly mentally unstable hacker punk (with--big surprise--a mysterious past). Oh, and there's a genetically modified Welsh Corgi (with a mysterious past), which never does anything--it has unusually high intelligence, but only by dog standards.
Individually, the characters each have a good chunk of personality, and as a group they develop a semi-antagonistic dynamic that, by being neither too over-the-top nor too vicious, is fun and serves as the foundation for the whole series. There's also plenty of lively banter, which I enjoyed.
This dynamic is fueled by the acting, and this is one series where both languages are top-notch. The casting is dead-on and the match-up between the originals and the dubbed versions is impressive. And, in both cases, all the characters have an effective emotional range all the way from silly to serious. Of particular note is the quality of the writing in the dub--almost shockingly good. The English dialogue is quite colorful--lots of accents, unusual voices, and odd expressions (particularly Jet's)--without seeming at all out of place. The Japanese has its own appeal and is equally well done (though a bit less colorful) so it's just plain enjoyable to listen to in either language--take your pick. It's hard to choose any particular standouts in a cast this good (even most of the minor characters are solid), but I'd single out Megumi Hayashibara's Fay in Japanese for her perpetually annoyed tone and Ed in the dub for some really bizarre (and very funny) speech patterns that fit the character to a T.
The expensive-looking visuals tie everything else together. All that style I talked about before is carried though in the art--dark, moody scenes and John Woo-esque action set pieces (there's a classic church shootout, for example) abound. The character designs are distinctive and varied, the character art is very sharp, and the backgrounds are pretty, appropriately creative for a good sci-fi series, and usually quite detailed. The animation is also of very high quality--from the character animation to the fast and slickly produced action sequences (they are rare, but there are some great aerial dogfights), everything is well toward the top end of the OAV scale... and this is a TV series. Plus, there is lots of neat zero-gravity stuff (all executed marvelously, unless you get really picky).
I haven't mentioned the music yet--the series is called Cowboy Bebop, after all--because I was saving the best for last. The score is downright amazing, and I don't throw terms like that around lightly. The primary musical style is blues or jazz, but the range of musical genres represented is a thing to behold--almost every episode has a different musical motif. From heavy metal (for the space trucker episode), to the perfect funky accompaniment to the '70s-style opening sequence, to "The Real Folk Blues" (the jazz end theme for most of the series), to the very cool worldbeat end theme used for "Jupiter Jazz," it hits just about every musical genre you can think of at some point. And, even more surprisingly, they all written very well.
As if that weren't impressive enough, the bulk of the music was written by a single person, Yoko Kanno (of Macross Plus fame among other things). Considering her previous work, it shouldn't be a surprise that she can cover such a wide range of styles, but all of it sounds so authentic, and so good, that my hat goes off to her. I can't think of anywhere else you can find this sort of musical variety, but I can say that the music alone could carry the series (not that it has to), and it gives Cowboy Bebop a flavor all its own.
That is pretty much everything I can think of to mention about Cowboy Bebop; in one episode it may be dark, stylized, and serious, and in another light and filled with offbeat humor and antagonistic banter, but in every case it's done right. Back that up with a great cast and writing (in English and Japanese, no less), fine visuals, cool retro-high-technology, and some of the most varied and well written music you're likely to hear anywhere, and you've got good anime. Cowboy Bebop isn't deep, but it has style and little bits of creativity everywhere to make up for what it lacks in substance, and from start to finish it's a marvelously well-built production. Worth at least a chance from almost any anime fan, and is almost guaranteed to be loved by fans of stylish action and sci-fi, as well those into both not-too-serious space adventure and way-too-serious space adventure.
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The closest series in style and mood is almost certainly the live-action Firefly. Anime-wise, it stands pretty much on its own, but you might have a look at Outlaw Star for a relatively similar (though less serious and less creative) spacefaring series. The heir apparent to the multi-genre twist on an old premise is the similarly named Samurai Champloo, but though it shares a lot with Cowboy Bebop, it's not quite as much of a consistent spectacle. There is, of course, a movie ("Knockin' on Heaven's Door") that is less a sequel than a side story.
Notes and Trivia
For those wondering, this series is not based on manga, although there are a few spin-off comics, available translated into English from Tokyopop.
This is a relatively random observation, but the money situation in the world of Cowboy Bebop seems a bit odd; if you assume a Woolong is worth in the range of a US Dollar or Euro, then the bounties seem extravagant and the dire financial straits of the characters doesn't make sense. Yen, on the other hand, are only worth in the general range of 100 to the US Dollar or Euro right now, so numbers look big--something that would cost $250 in America would be priced at about 25,000 yen in Japan. It would make sense for a Japanese series to use a denomination of money that's familiar to their intended viewers, in which case the bounties in the series are much more reasonable--a bounty of 1,000,000 would only end up being worth about US$10,000, not in the same league at all. However, some of the numbers thrown around--the numbers on gambling chips and a fellow arguing over 100 Woolongs in the value of a Welsh Corgi--make the issue a little fuzzier.
Also, if you noticed my comment about nit picking the zero-g scenes above, you might have been wondering what I meant. The thing is, in zero gravity, there is no "up." Hot air (or hot cigarette smoke, in this case) usually rises, as it did in this series when the characters were smoking without the benefit of gravity. But, realistically, a burning cigarette's smoke would just sort of drift out in a small, even cloud from the tip of the cigarette. And actually, due to the lack of any convection currents, the tobacco-stick wouldn't even burn very well when you weren't sucking on the other end.
US DVD Review
Not fancy, but good solid DVDs. The main feature of each is a very sharp video transfer and clear Japanese and English audio tracks, with a proper English subtitle track. It's interesting to note that the cases (unlike the VHS boxes) match the Japanese versions (at least of the Laser Discs) almost exactly (I believe even the English text was the same on the originals). The first DVD includes the first 2 and a half, I believe, volumes of the VHS version, as does the second, and subsequent discs have 4 episodes--two VHS volumes--each. (Speaking of which, I liked the fact that for once the discs actually say how many are in the series--"Disc 3 of 6"--and so on.)
The series has since been re-released in a "Remix" edition that adds 5.1 audio for both the English and Japanese soundtracks; these discs were sold individually at first, then as a box set.
There is also a 2-disc set of the six "best" episodes of the series, also remixed in 5.1 channel audio. The episodes on the disc are Asteroid Blues, Ballad of Fallen Angels, Wild Horses, Waltz For Venus, Mushroom Samba, and Hard Luck Woman.
A few mature themes and a lot of violence put it easily in the 13-up range, probably 16-up in at least some episodes.
Violence: 3 - Not usually graphic, but plenty of violence, little of it cartoony.
Nudity: 2 - A bit here and there.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Nothing explicit at all, but a few rather mature themes.
Language: 2 - Not noteworthy.
Available in North America from Bandai on a 6-disc "Remix" Anime Legends box set with improed audio from the original release. The Remix version was previously available as six individual volumes; prior to that it was available on six non-remixed bilingual DVDs and, before that, on 13 subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes. There was also a "Best Sessions" box set of six episodes with the fancier audio.