Cowboy Bebop review

Cowboy Bebop is a tour de force of animation, music and writing, blending a variety of cinematic styles and themes with memorable characters to create what truly deserves to be called a classic.

Plot synopsis:

Set in the year 2071, the bounty-hunting crew of the  Bebop, Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed and their dog Ein travel across the galaxy in search of bounties.

Cowboy Bebop doesn’t waste anytime settling into its strut, with the very first episode giving the audience a clear picture of what’s in store for them. Most episodes of Bebop are well-structured episodic adventures involving the crew of the bebop in their quest to earn money from bounty heads so they can continue to eat. Comically, it also becomes clear very early on that they rarely wind up getting their bounty, with the criminal either being killed or apprehended by someone else. However, this does little to hamper the viewing experience, and in some cases it is quite amusing to see the crew get so close to attaining their prize, only to have to give it up or have it snatched from their hands at the last second. Many of these episodes focus on individual characters or relationships, usually providing characterisation or insight into the past.

The stand alone episodes all provide some deeper level of understanding into the deceptively layered cast of Bebop, and this is often done in stories which take on a variety of cinematic styles, from spaghetti-westerns to gothic horrors and even crime epics, all of which manage to fit consistently within the tone of the series. Some are focused on small gangs and their escapades, while others may focus on dangerous individuals with tragic or complex pasts. There is a consistently high level of quality between these, as they vary from good to excellent. They are often uproariously entertaining, unpredictable and on several occasions may even be thought provoking. From questioning the relationship of Mankind with technology, to whether it’s right to charge a criminal who wasn’t directly responsible or justified for his actions, and even whether the actions of the crew of the Bebop are justifiable, Cowboy Bebop can be a surprisingly smart series in terms of themes. Some episodes focus on the criminals and themes, others on the Bebop crew and their pasts and actions, and all of them are sufficiently substantial.

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Along with the stand alone episodes, there are others that do have an overarching story line and villains, namely episodes 5, 12 & 13 and 25 & 26, which focus on Spike and the series main antagonist, Vicious. These episodes have more complex themes, a sharper atmosphere, and represent the best of what the series has to offer in more ways than one. Typically, these episodes also have higher stakes and more violence, though they also have stronger animation, music and scene composition to back them up. The run times of the stand alone episodes in Bebop are used extremely well, with the action playing out in quick, satisfying fashion so as to move the plot along and give the characters time to interact, with a good balance consistently being struck. The overarching episodes, however, have longer actions sequences and longer dialogue scenes to support their more grandiose and ambitious stories. Not all of Bebop’s episodes are as strong as each other, though even the weakest ones still have a lot to like.

For a series like Cowboy Bebop to really work, the characters must be strong enough to support it, and the cast of Bebop, particularly the central ones, are wonderfully fleshed out and watchable. Spike Spiegel is a relatively laid back man who reacts to what occurs directly in front of him, rarely bothering to plan beyond his immediate obstacles. He is a man who kills when he needs to, though there is rarely any malice behind it, as he kills because it is required for his job, rather than because he derives any enjoyment out of it. He is uncompromising, and in most cases he acts as a character whom the others play off in the stand alone episodes. When he shines is in the aforementioned overarching plot lines, which give him particular focus. He goes from a relaxed and flexible man to one driven by rage and regret that will risk his own life, and the lives of others, to attain his goal. This doesn’t make him seem inconsistent, however, as he is still intellectually and at his core the same man.

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Jet Black is a straight laced, mature man who serves as the voice of reason on the Bebop, though he certainly isn’t above pulling pranks or enjoying himself. Episodes focused on his past tell a different story to that of Spike, as Jet’s unwavering by-the-book approach resulted in him being emotionally and physically crippled by those who weren’t so straight and narrow. Often seen tending to his bonzai, he prefers peace and efficiency, neither of which Faye or Spike could care less about. However, he is similarly stubborn like them, and doesn’t find the idea of death any more frightening than they do. Faye Valentine is another deceptively complex character, thrust into a world she doesn’t know and forced to enter dangerous situations to survive. She, like Spike, doesn’t really find the concept of a “future” that enticing, as she seems insistent on losing all of her bounty money gambling or betting as soon it comes her way. Her sneaky, passive-aggressive behavior makes her a great source of comic relief, though her past is just as dramatic as most of the other members. At her core, she is a lost soul, wandering through space without a care of where she will end up, making her plight both tragic and inspirational. Rounding out the cast is Ed, as strange young boy/girl who seems absent minded at first glance due to his inability to listen to others, but has keen eyes for picking up details and is to an extent emotionally aware of the situations of the Bebop crew.

The crew of the bebop is so strong that any one of them would probably be capable of holding a 26 episode series on their own, as they display in the episodes that focus on them, but what really propels this character cast from good to great is their entertaining yet subtle interactions and relationships with each other and the supporting cast. Faye and Spike both behave recklessly, which causes great strife for Jet, though Jet tends to treat Faye as a burden and Spike as a friend because both he, and the audience, are aware that Faye isn’t quite as skilled or quick-thinking as Spike. She’s good enough to get herself exactly where she wants to go, though usually not enough to get herself out of dire situations. However, Spike and Jet are both aware of her prowess and even loyalty, as she puts herself in danger to protect them, too. The Spike and Jet relationship, established before the beginning of the series, is explored subtly, through dialogue; it’s easy to see that they have a level of mutual respect for each other, even if the disagree with the methods of the other. The major contrast occurs whenever Vicious is involved, as he brings out a wild fury in Spike that is reaffirmed as unusual by how Jet reacts to it.

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The crew of the Bebop all have a level of respect for each other, valuing the others skills, though the also have a level of contempt, as one may find the other too dull, too flighty or too personal. With that being said, it is easy to see the characters grow closer together as the series continues, with Faye in particular exhibiting this well. The side characters and one-off villains are also good, with Julia (Episode 25 & 26) and Gren (12& 13) being the most notable. Vicious is a strong final boss figure, with his cruel methods and ambitions being revealed through actions and visual metaphors rather than dialogue. The way in which he speaks to his subordinates, superiors and Spike effectively establishes him as a serpentine, megalomaniac utilitarianist, much like many of history’s most ruthless rulers. His sadistic edge is icing on the cake, as is his tendency to frame and betray those closest to him; his is as uncompromising as the bebop crew, though with far more influence and subordinates. The variety of characters in the stand alone episodes also are worth mention, as they nearly always have good chemistry with the Bebop crew, though they usually end up dying. On the whole, like an efficient machine, all the gears in Bebop work together to have it work as a multi-functional anime.

 

Visually, Cowbow Bebop is one of the most consistently high quality productions I have yet experienced. The action scenes, of which there are plenty, are very fluid and impactful, with bullets and knives reacting realistically with their surroundings and foreign bodies. The set pieces are highly detailed and well designed, with the battles almost always having a clear sense of direction, and the few instances where they do not normally involves a character being pinned down or confused. Even outside of the action sequences, the character movements are expressive yet subtle, with Ed’s deceptively random movements and Jet’s steadfast, decisive body language saying a lot about the characters’ history and attitudes, and short-cuts are rarely taken. In terms of visual pacing, the series is very broad and successful in never making itself, at any point, feel like either a slog or acid trip. Conversations are efficiently designed, without unnecessary cuts or flamboyant editing so as to distract the viewer, nor uninspired long shots of talking heads with minimal expression. It isn’t difficult to tell that the series isn’t entirely new, as it lacks that polish basically all new series have, but that only adds to the gritty, realistic style. The staff at Sunrise, most of whom subsequently migrated to Bones, really knocked the visual presentation of this series out of the park.

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The character designs are another area that deserves praise, as they are so different from stale anime appearances that it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine them being used in western entertainment. There isn’t a single noticeably off model or oddly proportioned character throughout the entire series, which is quite the achievement give how detailed the character designs are. The lighting in this series, though not as layered as that which can be achieved these days, is also commendable, particularly during flashback sequences and emotional moments. The cell shading is implemented seamlessly in exotic, wavy patterns that gives the characters’ hair a sense of age and personality, with Julia’s in particular possessing a steely, wild beauty to it. The full lips on the female characters and great diversity in skin and eye colours while retaining Bebop’s mature aesthetic was an added bonus.

As a quick glimpse at the titles of many episodes will inform you, music is extremely important to Cowboy Bebop, which makes it no surprise that in terms of sound, Bebop stands high among the best anime ever created. Not only is the soundtrack very extensive and consistently high-quality, but there is a stark variety in the types of music used. The application in the series was often great, and sometimes transcendent, in particular in those mentioned in my Top 5 Cowboy Bebop episodes. Ballad of Fallen Angels has a sombre, mythical tone that embraces and emphasises the tone and set pieces, while not feeling so on-the-nose as to be distracting. Mushroom Samba has a spaghetti-western kinetic energy to it that blends in with the simplistically comedic and up-beat nature of the episode, and Jupiter Jazz has classy, subdued saxophones to give it an tragic, though not unforgiving, atmosphere. Each piece of music played is tonally, lyrically and individually designed for its specific scene. Like with the story, there is little repetition between the tracks, with each song feeling fresh and unique. Unless one is an uncompromising musical traditionalist who disproves of any genre blends, odds are that even those who don’t particularly like jazz will be able to appreciate this soundtrack.

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Both musically and visually, the OP and ED are smart, memorable and eccentrically fitting to Cowboy Bebop. The opening’s bombastic wind instruments and jazz play out in eccentric glory at the beginning of all but the final episode, with symbolic colour work and words in the background that would come across as tastelessly boastful (the series refers to itself as a triumphant classic) if the series did not live up to them. The extremely fluid smoke, mechanical and character movements are also notable, as is the way in which each member of the Bebop, baring Ein, is showcased. The ED is arguably even better, musically, with Mai Yamane’s unorthodox, for Japanese singers, voice and instrumentation by the Seatbelts combining with visual metaphors that grow in meaning as more about Spike’s past is unveiled to make for one of my favourite endings. The other ending song by Yamane, Blue, which only plays over the final episode, is perhaps even better, though my favourite ending theme comes in the form of Jupiter Jazz Part II’s ending “Space Lion”, as chants reminiscent of the Lion King combine with an appropriate lullaby-like saxophone and soft drums, which in the context of the episode resulted in an almost ethereal experience.

Regarding the voice acting, the Japanese is quite good, with most of the characters matching their character well. Kouichi Yamadera fits the deceptively laid-back Spike Spiegel, Megumi Hayashibara is great is Faye, and all of the supporting characters play their parts very well. However, this is a rare instance where the setting and references in a series prevent the Japanese language from meshing well with it, as Bebop is a highly western anime in terms of both tone and themes. As a result, the Japanese voice actors try to get as close as they can to matching what they’re supposed to be, but often they still feel Japanese, and this ultimately breaks immersion for western viewers who know what the characters should sound like.

The English dub, on the other hand, delivers on the material with top-class ADR directing from Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and a well-adapted script; Cowboy bebop’s dub far surpasses most others from its time and holds up very well to this day. Steve Blum’s depiction of Spike is more gravely and less gallant, fitting into the context of the story much better, Wendy Lee is outstanding as Faye in both the dramatic moments and comedic ones, and Melissa Fahn gives Edward a distinctive style of genius and crazy that surpassed the little sister vibe exuded by Aoi Tada.  The plethora of supporting characters are played with subtlety and well-measured volume to give the audience a better sense of their character than listening to them talk for 10 minutes would. Many of the best performances in the series, such as David A. Thomas as the hypnotically androgynous Gren or ADR Director McGlynn’s stellar performance as the strong, yet soft spoken Julia,  were performed by voices which are sadly rarely heard in anime anymore. This dub was the pinnacle of anime acting in all regards for its time, and fitting for a series of its quality.

 

Overall (English): A

Overall (Japanese): A-

Story: B+

Characters: A-

Visuals: A

Sounds: A+

 

Cowboy Bebop may be viewed on AnimeLab and Funimation, and is also available on DVD and Blu ray.

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