Cowboy Bebop is one of the most acclaimed episodic anime series ever created, and for good reason. With a plethora of exciting and deceptively subtle storylines, a cast of imminently watchable characters who play off each other both comically and dramatically, and the outstanding presentation courtesy of director Shinichiro Watanabe, composer Yoko Kanno, and the staff at Sunrise, Bebop has earned its classic status and holds up to this day. Though the series doesn’t contain a single “bad” episode, some are definitely better than others, and today, I would like to celebrate the best of the best. Ladies and Gentleman, these are my top 5(?) episodes of Cowboy Bebop. Do not read this list unless you have seen Bebop till the very end.
Episode 17- Mushroom Samba
Of the entire series, this is perhaps the one that requires the least prior knowledge of its characters to be fully enjoyed. Being one of the most Ed-centric episodes of Bebop, this features how deceptively aware he is of his surroundings and potential dangers. Playing out like a building joke, it starts with the crew of the Bebop noting that they have a severe lack of food. Faye’s bowel problems as a result of eating the expired emergency rations see her deservingly punished, to Jet’s great satisfaction, and introducing a running theme in this episode. Edward and Ein then proceed to go out looking for food, but when a melon vendor refuses to give them anything, they stow away in the car of a woman who was perfectly content to leave him to starve. She is then arrested when police discover Ed in her car, though this feels completely justified given her earlier indifference to poor Ed.
Ed then finds a man selling poisonous mushrooms, only to be confronted by a man carrying a white coffin in which he intends to put the drug dealer’s body. The subsequent break of the coffin under the weight of a car is both unexpected and very welcome, and it results in the dealer getting away and dropping mushrooms for Ed, causing hilarity to ensue. Ein refuses to share, eating the mushroom and becoming intoxicated. Ed then tests this out on the crew to see how they work. This also feels natural, as Ed is not intending to hurt them, but they deserve what’s coming to them because they all ate food lying around when they promised not to. Their drugged sequences are excellently funny, and surprisingly insightful, particularly Spike’s dream of climbing the stairs to heaven, as announced by a toad (Led Zeppelin reference anyone).
Ed then runs back into town, looking for the drug dealer upon learning his the bounty, to buy food for the Bebop crew, while attracting the earlier woman bounty hunter and man with the coffin, causing him to eat his snow cone very quickly and get a brain freeze. This leads to them all converging on the train, with coffin man stealing the melon merchant’s van. The climax is just as excellent as the build-up, with an intricately and energetically choreographed train fight sequence with the wonderful “Mushroom Hunting” insert song playing over it all. The explosions are weighty, dialogue snappy and a sense of karma bears over the antagonists. The female bounty hunter shoots at the coffin man, who eventually falls on her and flips her car over, ending the mission for both of them. Ed and the dealer seem at a stalemate, only to end with a cow, seemingly possessing human intelligence, causing the train to come to a stop. The drug dealer negotiates for Ed to take the illegal mushrooms, as they have higher market value than his bounty, and Ed does, only for a police scan to reveal that the mushrooms were safe and edible.This is yet another comeuppance for the bebop crew, as they let a criminal go for the sake of money, bringing the flow of selfish actions full circle.
It may feel more like Family Guy or even SpongeBob than an anime, but that only adds to its strong western appeal. Every character, barring the police men, are in the wrong, and all of them are punished, giving the episode an effortless full-circle vibe. It’s not entirely waterproof (the man with the white coffin chased after Ed even though he had no way of knowing Ed was chasing after the Drug dealer), and is easily the lightest entry on the list in terms of tone and themes, but it is so competent in its execution of the basics, with bombastic energy, fluid animation and western humour, to be left off the list.
Episode 5- Ballad of Fallen Angels
Ballad of Fallen Angels is a monumental cinematic accomplishment, easily the best episode of the first quarter of Bebop. Beginning on a severe note, not with establishing the new location and tone a la most episodes, Vicious is immediately identified as a legitimate threat, in terms of how he can pluck a plane from the sky like a bird, his emotional and historical ties to Spike, and even his cold eyes and hair colour. This is effectively emphasised by Spike’s reaction to hearing his name, and how Jet seems acutely aware that something is wrong.
As per usual, Faye follows a case too big for her to chew, though the outcome is very different this time, and from the beginning this is foreshadowed. Trading her usually skimpy outfit from an elegant full body dress and earrings, entering a theatre with top-range opera performances, this is quality of life is plausibly as new to Faye as it is to the audience. The sense of dread only builds, as Spike is revealed to have acquaintances here, and for the first time, the bebop crew were expected. This boils over in a brilliant scene where Faye looks to her right to see the body of a gang leader, eyes wide open in fear and horror, throat slashed as a result of an act of brutality that juxtaposes the lavish theatre and singing perfectly, and for the first time ever, Faye is genuinely afraid.
Spike ascends the stairs to the church to rescue her, mirroring his rise to a task beyond his abilities, while the uncomfortably loud song “Rain” plays in the background. The church windows are tinted with multiple colours, far more than most other series before the implementation of digital animation. The talk between spike and Vicious is dripping in tension, broken by Spike graphically shooting someone between the eyes. The battle is extremely well animated, with the bullets interacting realistically with the backgrounds, and the confusing framing adds to the feeling of danger and overbearing odds. The highlight is the sword-and-gun battle between Spike and Vicious at the top of the church, even if it only lasted for a single minute. Then the best moment of the episode arrives; Spike’s metaphorical and literal fall from grace (the top of the church) as yellow-tinged memories fly before his eyes; memories of the battlefield and Julia, her warmth and importance to him emphasised by the pure church music and images of the cross.
The silence that ends the episode carries with it the grave realisation of Spike’s defeat, with Faye’s signs of maturation being icing on the cake. Even the ending song, which contains formerly ambiguous visual metaphors, can now be understood on a deeper level. With this, the series transcended from smooth and cool to beautifully poetic. While earlier episodes could be described as fun, efficient and even heart-warming, this is one of the few that feels mythical and epic. It’s certainly one of the most violent episodes, though this fits in very well with the grave tone. Faye’s flighty, impulsive behaviour and Spike’s chequered past result in both of them being put in genuine danger, and for the first time, the series does not paint them as indestructible. Few series have a single episode this good, and that this doesn’t have the number 1 spot is indicative of the series quality. The next entry brings with it even more goosebumps.
Episode 20- Pierrot Le Fou
The film noir horror entry on the list, Pierrot le Fou translates to “Pierrot the madman”, probably in reference to the award-winning 1965 French film of the same name and the villain of this episode. Opening on a much wider scope than a typical episode of Bebop, with ambitiously detailed shots of a city wreathed in gothic blacks to the unnerving sound of sharp violins, the episode wastes no time establishing its horrific nature and tone. Pierrot makes his entrance and immediately is established as a freak of nature, slaughtering men with a rifle so strong it can blast through cars, made even worse by it containing seemingly unlimited ammunition, before turning his attention to Spike.
He’s different to Vicious, who was more of a rival to Spike, because Spike is depicted as something akin to an insect to him, with the shot composition making Spike appear much smaller than usual. Also, Pierrot has nothing against Spike, he just enjoys killing. The red tinge of blood and ghostly green overlay of the dark alley perfectly contrasts the black and white lighting, and the confrontation between Spike and Pierrot makes most other bebop confrontations look tame in comparison. Spike’s efficient and reliable fighting style is paltry against the wild, unpredictable nature of Pierrot, and Spike has to push himself just to escape this time. The animation with the fire and explosions is particularly memorable, especially in terms of how it affects Spike and the surroundings, yet does absolutely nothing to Pierrot.
The subsequent cool-down and information gathering session keeps the horror tone up, with the flash backs to the madman’s past and a reminder of how, for the first time since Ballad of Fallen Angels, the Bebop crew are out of their league (Faye herself brings up this comparison). The set piece of the climax is an amusement park, which is poetically fitting to the freak child nature of Pierrot. This stands among Bebop’s best set pieces, boasting a believably child-friendly design, though the skilful mood lighting lends it an almost menacing atmosphere. From the sharp shadows in the background, to the faces of the animatronics, the park is as threatening as the madman. What ultimately sells it, however, is the way in which Pierrot interacts with it; Spike can try and hide anywhere, and Pierrot can find him easily, but Spike hasn’t the first clue of where to find Pierrot, and has to rely on razor sharp instinct to keep him alive. The ice rink, roller coaster and even shops seem determined to kill Spike, who is a breath away from death on a dozen occasions. This chase scene, inter-cut between images of Pierrot being tortured and experimented on, makes the climax an effective thriller as well as a horror.
The resolution matches the climax in directorial merit, courtesy of a very tense 10 second shot where the only thing moving is the lights, and ending with Spike overcoming his adversary by having a mascot trample him to death. Beyond the brilliant aesthetics, what defines this as a film noir entry is its cynical overtones, from the madman’s tragic history to the inability of anyone to lay a scratch on him, so much in this episode feels futile, making the ending feel completely earned. It’s without competition in terms of how effective of a horror it is, though it doesn’t quite have the substance to surpass the next four (yes, four) episodes.
Episode 25 & 26- The Real Folk Blues (Parts I &II)
Ballad of Fallen Angels, Jupiter Jazz and The Real Folk Blues could be considered a trilogy, of sorts; they’re all Spike oriented, each of them contain some of the most iconic moments of the series, they explore similar themes, and all of them made my list. Though this episode is equal in terms of quality to Jupiter Jazz, and ahead off all its other contemporaries, it falls slightly behind because of its reliance on the rest of the series to carry the same impact. Nonetheless, I hold it in very high regard. Part I starts out on an understated note, with serious news being delivered over the long-anticipated arrival of Julia to a classy and melodic song, giving the audience all they need to know about her in less than one minute, showcasing Cowboy Bebop’s strength for subtle and efficient characterisation. Quickly, Vicious’ coup fails and he is left to die at the hands of Red Dragon, leaving Julia and Spike in mortal peril. The subsequent shootings are surprisingly grounded, in contrast to the above entry on the list, with the blood and bullet wounds looking more real than ever, and making the crew of Bebop feel unprecedentedly mortal and vulnerable.
Part I then knits together the earlier shown fragments of Spike’s time with Julia, silence working particularly well in this case. Faye, meanwhile, has come to realise that following her past won’t bring her peace or happiness when she runs into Julia. This, and her feeling of emptiness, leads her back to Spike; they then work together to save the ship from attacking fleets in the series final, and biggest, space ship battle. This is quickly eclipsed by Vicious’ daring escape and rise to power. The use of Vicious’ bird as a bomb is both a stunningly unexpected twist, and final confirmation that he will never view anyone, or anything, as something besides a means to an end (his line “Tears of scarlet” as he gashes the eyes of the Red Dragon elders in the cherry on top). Finally, the emotional highpoint of the episode; Julia confronts Spike and, with no words, reveals to him how much she truly cares. Were this a top 10 and didn’t involve cheating like this, Part I would probably make the cut, but Part II would likely take the top spot.
Ditching the not-at-all tonally appropriate opening song for the first, and last, time, the episode immediately picks up where the last left off. The intricate call back to the very important music box from Jupiter Jazz is a nice touch, and the presence of the woman from Ballad of Fallen Angels enhances the sense of finality even further, making Part II the most referential episode of the entire series. The action sequence that immediately follows is the biggest in scope since Ballad of Fallen Angels, and Julia’s death is even more heart-wrenching than Spike’s fall from grace, with the simultaneous ascension of doves and fading of all sounds but rain enhancing the scene even further. Spike’s farewell to Jet is emotionally hefty, but walking away from Faye for the last time, knowing he will die, is downright heartbreaking. Faye’s development is concluded in a very satisfying way; she doesn’t get what she wants, but is instead left to decide what she is going to with the rest of her life.
After the emotional pay off comes the action-packed finale. Spike storms the complex in an intricately designed, lavishly animated sequence that nothing else in the series can hold a candle to, with clever tactics, an energetic insert song and a sense of finality; and then the definitive confrontation begins. If the Spike-Vicious confrontation in Ballad of Fallen Angels was the entrée, then this is the main course. Short, but extremely satisfying, the composition and fluidity here matches that of the movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, and packs ten-fold the emotional weight. Spike faces his adversary, wins, and in spite of his resulting fatal wounds, he descends the stairs, faces the mob, and says “Bang”, summing up Spike, and to an extent the whole series, wonderfully. The Seatbelts Song “Blue” closes the finale sensationally, both lyrically and tonally, and the final shot of black-and-white Spike, and the words “You’re going to carry that weight” ends the series on a pitch perfect note. The relevance of these words will doubtlessly be perceived differently by different people, maybe they refer to dealing with your past, or asserting your worth in this world, but the poetic beauty of this episode surpasses most anime from any period. However, as was mentioned above, another episode wormed its way deeper into my heart and soul…
Episode 12 & 13- Jupiter Jazz (Parts I & II)
Some may disagree with me for putting this above one of the most famous endings in all of anime, and I wouldn’t necessarily mind. Jupiter Jazz only wins by a hair’s breadth. Personal preference may play into it, as I’ve always been a big middle chapter fan, though regardless of personal bias, I hold this as the best episode(s) of Cowboy Bebop. From the beginning, it takes the essence of Ballad of Fallen Angels, to which it essentially acts as a sequel to, and improves upon to make it something truly special. Things once hinted at are now shown; we are shown that Vicious isn’t the top dog, how much Julia means to Spike, and the history behind of Jet’s and Spike’s relationship, all in the first 8 minutes. Gren’s introduction is handled with finesse, courtesy of David. A Thomas’s melodically androgynous performance as him and meaningful silhouetting.
The cold, snowy backgrounds, jazzy wind instruments and decayed overtones to the city lend it a bleak feeling, though for an episode that nails the heavy tone, the comedy is also handled very well. Faye’s banter with Glen is energising, but Spike sells humour and seriousness simultaneously like no other time (upon being mistaken for Vicious, he proceeds to attack his assailants… viciously?) Faye’s reaction to Glen’s true nature (“A woman… *looks down*… which one are you!?”) is also handled well thanks to smart foreshadowing and dialogue. The Glen-Faye relationship is another highpoint; Glen treats Faye like a woman, though he still establishes boundaries, and cuts through her tough facade like a hot knife through butter, indicating experience and a level of callousness contrarian to his voice and appearance. With Spike’s confrontation with Vicious ending in him defeated and lying in the snow because of a man he once trusted, and Faye’s true nature being further explored, Part 1 is among the most sophisticated entries in an already smart series, and Part II only improves upon it.
Part II kicks off with sombre back-to-back flashbacks of Gren’s and Spike’s respective humiliations and backstabbings (both of which, coincidentally, stem from Vicious), while Jet is trying desperately to find his crew; the tension and emotional resonance is at an all time high. Julia and Vicious are also given new layers, the former as a sharp, yet warm presence, and the latter as a serpentine fiend. The climax is my personal favourite dog fight of the entire series, making up for its relative lack of spectacle with a potent sense of danger. In the end, Gren died not from a fiery explosion or a superfluous shooting, but an internal injury, and Spike’s kindness to fulfill Gren’s final request is a genuinely heart-warming moment. He didn’t do it for money, information or even a long lost friend, but a man he barely knew, but yet could understand anyway.
Musically, the final moments of Jupiter Jazz match the quality of The Real Folk Blue’s composition, with the sombre saxophone bringing a tone of melancholy and maturity perfect for this grim, yet not quite harsh tale of a man’s journey coming to an end. Whenever I think of Cowboy Bebop, I’ll remember the brilliant action sequences, which stand up even today; the outstanding acting from the English cast, and Yoko Kanno’s superb music. I’ll remember Spike falling from the church, Faye’s existential crisis and how Jet’s wisdom and straight-laced behaviour turned everyone against him, but the track aptly titled “Space Lion”, consisting of a saxophone mixed with soothing and beckoning chants as Gren floats off to Titan, through endless space, is a mesmerising scene that I’ll likely remember for a long, long time.