Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are working as bounty hunters, hunting down people -- mostly -- but also sometimes unraveling mysteries or trying to catch a dog. It's a very day-to-day life for the two of them, but they soon find themselves with more partners in crime with their own mysterious pasts than the two of them can handle, particularly once their own pasts come a-knocking.
For the longest time, Cowboy Bebop was my anime Pulp Fiction. Not because the two franchises necessarily have a lot in common -- though Quentin Tarantino is supposedly a huge fan of Bebop -- but because like with this show to anime fans, Pulp Fiction was THE movie to induce slack-jawed expressions in people once they realized I hadn't watched it, usually followed by many attempts to get me to watch it, or at least getting me to promise to watch it, preferably as soon as possible. It's one of those shows that apparently turns people into religious fanatics, and it is their God-given duty to make sure as many people watch it as possible. People offered to buy the show for me. People even offered to compromise their moral stances by offering the show through... less than legal means. I have received ransom letters, written in cutouts from magazines. That is not a joke. Well, the ransom note sort of was, but that's beside the point, other than that it is a perfect example of the kind of lengths people would go just so I could watch this show.
Let it not be said that I might be a little too stubborn for my own good, though, so when the promotional effort got to a certain point, it was just a matter of time before I dug in my heels. And as a result, Cowboy Bebop remained unwatched for more than a decade, and eventually the voices silenced. The show remained in some kind of limbo in my mind, through a relicense and a release on Bluray. And finally, it ended up on my list of choices for my Reverse Secret Santa review of 2016. By this time, the voices had all but quieted down, and so after a moment's deliberation, I though "Well, why not include a bonus review this year?" To live up to the hype, though; that was my main worry when I put in the order for it. Even if people didn't nag me about it anymore, any review or opinion piece on Cowboy Bebop tended to be overwhelmingly positive, and needless to say, I was kind of afraid I wouldn't like it nearly as much.
One thing I noticed more or less immediately, though, was that Cowboy Bebop is an amazingly beautiful show from beginning to end. The character designs tended to lean towards more accurate representations of human beings for the better part, at least when it come to our main characters, and despite things like Jet's robotic arm, Faye's eye-gougingly tacky yellow-ish outfit and Spike's afro. The show was released in 1998, which means it closes in on its own 20th anniversary, and the show does look the part for better and worse. (But mostly better.) Yet, though the show be a 90's show, it still picks its inspirations from a lot of sources. Most of this leans towards the film noir experience, which would explain why Tarantino is a fan of this, with its seedy bars, frontier settings and life on the edge of the law. Yet a lot of the show is centered around space travel and interdimensional gates that allows for fast travel between Earth and Mars, and possibly also other worlds.
Ship designs are especially appealing, following a variety of bulky, practical shapes and forms coupled with vaguely plane-shaped smaller crafts. One episode is even centered around intergalactic variants of truckers, which ended up being one of my favorite episodes in the show, mostly because it had one of the best single-appearance support characters, sort of a throwback to the hot-blooded retro shounen era, which made it all the more hilarious because said character was a woman.
Even better, the animation is fantastic for a TV show. I have seen movies with (supposedly) decent animation that this show beats hands down, and given the occupation of our main cast in this show, it has action scenes up the wazoo. And they all look great. Double points because despite the amazing visuals, the show respectfully refrains from pulling off artsy-fartsy camera angles or movement styles most of the time, said styles being reserved for when the Bebop crew has to deal with the more eccentric residents in the universe.
What's more, the music is equally excellent. Yoko Kanno is a household name for anime fans by now, and for good reason. I don't know if Cowboy Bebop's soundtrack is what she's the best known for, but this is definitely Kanno at her jazziest and bluesiest, though the show will throw in some rock and classical (Avé Maria, anyone?) every now and then, depending on the situation. By "rock", I'm mostly referring to more indie or grunge fare, but the aforementioned favorite character was the support cast of an episode called "Heavy Metal", and yes, that episode definitely follows suit with its music too. (And how?)
I was very much aware that Cowboy Bebop is mostly known for its characters and their supposed coolness. Seeing as Spike is the talented martial artist of the group, who tends to take part the most often in chase scenes and gun- and/or fistfights, his first appearance being him doing tai chi in the main ship made it all the more surprising when I also saw that he would occasionally be portrayed as kind of an idiot. Jet, on the other hand, is the bearded ship's captain and mechanic and in some ways the most sensible of the lot, though he has his moments of lack of common sense too. I wasn't sure what to think of Faye, though. She had been introduced as a bit of femme fatale before I had the chance to watch it, so I was a bit worried that she'd end up being this show's variant of Fujiko Mine, a character whose sole role was to double-cross the guys and leave them in the dust, laughing all the way to the bank. She is a bit of that, but mostly, she turned out to be a bit of a mooch, and -- more surprisingly -- also kind of an idiot in the same way as Spike. She's definitely sexy, though... as long as you get her out of that tacky trademark outfit of hers and into... just about anything else.
I quickly learned to appreciate this informal way Cowboy Bebop carried itself. It was a lot more comedy oriented than I expected, with most of the episodes centered around various marks the crew hunted, marks that varied from the dangerous and capable to the catastrophically inept and stupid. In yet another two examples of the type, two of those hunts added them further additions to the crew. The first of those two were the almost criminally adorable corgi puppy Ein, who, despite his status as "a dog" might very well be the most intelligent member of the crew. The second is resident hacker girl Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, or Ed to her friends... and probably everyone else, because her full name is a pain in the ass to say. Ed is a hyperactive slight of a girl, and easily the most hilarious addition to the Bebop crew, mostly because she's an almost neverending bundle of energy, yet not in that loud, obnoxious way that tends to get on the nerves of some people out there. (Read: at least me.) She's a master of movie-style hacking, which involves a lot of custom graphics on screen, apparently, and her skills tend to bring the most of the show's usage of CG to the table. She's a ridiculously fun character who turned out remarkably well, given her circumstances... or maybe not so much, once you learn where she grew up -- well, at least up to her current age -- and meeting her father also puts a few more pieces into the puzzle. Honestly, I wouldn't be very surprised if her father is of Manderville stock.
With the exception of Ed and Ein and the show's penchant for goofy humor, Cowboy Bebop does take the time every now and then to get involved in its cast and their "dark pasts™". Faye, as it turns out, has absolutely no memories of her life from a certain point, and we eventually learn that she was the sole survivor in some kind of space-gate-related accident, which is basically the starting point of the life she now knows. I don't really remember whether they actually got into how and when she decided to turn to bounty hunting for a living, but her personality as it is now is sort of a byproduct from that. Jet is the first one who gets a visit from his past, and maybe not surprisingly, he's had his share of lady troubles, it seems. As for Spike, his ties with the past does include show antagonist Vicious, as they both used to be a part of a syndicate, but things happened (partially involving a woman named Julia, because of course) and you don't have to spend much time watching this show to learn that they are now bitter enemies. When the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate wanted to make peace with another rival gang, Vicious wanted none of that, and this is at least partially the reason why the two are at each other's throat. Weirdly enough, I expected Vicious to show up more often than he did, but his role seems limited to a couple of double episodes that goes into either of the characters' pasts. Given how often he's spoken of as a great villain, I didn't really get a lot of why he's considered just that. He's the sort of brooding prettyboy who just HAS to have his confrontations in churches if he can have his pick, which might have been seen on as cool in the show's heyday, but now, it just makes him come across as an overdramatic ponce. The show is a bit of a classic, though, so I'll give it a pass.
If I may go back to Pulp Fiction for a while, I think part of the entertainment for me eventually became people's reactions to realizing I had not watched it, but a couple of years ago, two of my closest friends basically made sure I had to. I can honestly say that I think Pulp Fiction is a good movie at what it does, but I didn't really enjoy it all that much. I respect a movie that knows its audience. It just happened to be that I wasn't one of those, and having to tell people the movie did not live up to the expectations they set for me to have, well, that's always going to be the hardest part. Thankfully, Cowboy Bebop didn't have to suffer that indignity, because I found it to be a really fun experience, at least up until the last two episodes.
See, I went into the series knowing very well what would happen at the very end of the last episode. It was inevitable, what with it being nearly 20 years since it was made. Sure, there might be some people out there who still don't know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, but chances are that you will have heard about that, even if you've never seen any of the Star Wars movies. To be fair, I didn't really have any problems with the way the story unfolded as much as the way it chose to go about it. In many ways, this is how Cowboy Bebop really is a child of its era. The show really is knee deep in the noir genre, and that includes the way it works inevitability and predictability into the mix. It didn't take me long to start predicting who wouldn't survive the episode, an ability that hit home with an alarming frequency amids the forest of death flags. To its credit, a lot of the episodes also managed to subvert some of my guesstimates, not as much with the deaths as with the pre-death actions and motives. But here's the thing: the one reason I feel people paint this show as a work of genius is its ending, which in this case is a double episode called "The Real Folk Blues", and to put it as kindly as I can; I strongly disliked them.
The main problem I had with the end of the show is that it takes the melodrama up to eleven during these two episodes, which has most of its cast and the accompanying mood change to a chillying degree. All the little hints and vague backstory clues regarding Spike shifts into high gear, and the characters start putting metaphors into their verbal diets, along with whatever scenery that had the misfortune of getting in their way. Even the animation gets in on the whole thing, with a whole host of birds symbolizing freedom taking off in a weirdly straight upwards angle... from a building whose top just blew the hell up not five minutes before that, because symbolism is more important than birds' sense of self-preservation, apparently. I wish I could put to words how different the last two episodes feel compared to just about every single other episode, serious or not, and the dialogue is particularly painful during these 45 minutes or so, too much of it bordering on pretentious gobblydook that had me shouting "shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!" at the screen. The show was cool before that point, but it just had to go and partially ruin that mood. The ending actually kind of felt like a relief, which, given what happened, is just all kinds of wrong when you think about it.
But despite all this, I recommend this show. Honestly, I can easily see myself rewatching this show in the future, and it's just a matter of ignoring the show's ending since it's enough to know what happens. And hey, if you LIKE overwrought melodrama, then even those episodes are going to hit all the best notes. Cowboy Bebop is definitely a classic in all the ways that counts. Its 90's visuals fit the show to a tee, and there's a perfect blend of action and reflection (again, save for those last two episodes) and the animation easily backs all that up. Hell, even the dub is pretty excellent. I'll easily recommend this show for anyone looking for good sci-fi noir.
...once or twice. And here is my request to all of you who think this show needs to be watched by everyone: please, PLEASE do not be pushy about this. It might lead to people ignoring it for more than a decade, and you don't want that to happen, right?
An excellent show... when it's not being so MELODRAMATIC. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: Well, after the first episode, Spike Spiegel says it's "family fun for all", but that isn't quite the case. ^_^;; It has plenty of mature themes, with the hard, violent life of a bounty hunter leading to many an intense situation. People do die, sometimes graphically, but never gratuitously. And Faye IS a femme fatale, though not as much of a fan-service object as one would expect. Kids may find the pop-culture spoofing hilarious and Ein cute (well, he is ^_^), but this series would really go right over the heads of most under-twelves. Mature teens and above would understand the underlying point of the story, though.
Version(s) Viewed: Region A Bluray, bilingual.
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Cowboy Bebop © 1998 Sunrise
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