With the announcement of a Netflix live action film in the works, the critically acclaimed anime Cowboy Bebop is popping up in trending topics and riding high on a new tide of attention. The anime, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, has been embraced by many. And over the years, its amassed a cult-like following for its flair, blending a dizzying array of genres and ideas into a coherent and engaging masterpiece of dealing with demons in the past.
Critics and fans have run down a litany of what makes this anime so timeless and what ranks it amongst the best animes of all time. Yet, the hue of empathy that Shin’ichiro Watanabe saturates every episode with—that pokes through in every decision—ultimately primes the canvas.
To ask someone to describe Cowboy Bebop is almost like asking them to describe a Basquiat piece or one of Lina Iris Viktor’s Constellation works. You will typically get a genre that is closest to what they recognize that will start meandering until it dives into a flurry of genres coming at your ears in staccato. While that might sound overwhelming and hard to visualize, it is the most accurate way to verbalize what Cowboy Bebop is. What makes it so engaging is the fact that it is accessible to almost everyone. If you are open to it, you will inevitably find something that pulls you into the world of Bebop. And what Bebop is about is much easier to describe than what it actually is.
Cowboy Bebop is set in a dystopian future where the haves have a lot and the have-nots have less than nothing. Much of the human race has left the harsh living conditions of Earth for greener pastures in space. The vastness of space leaves law and order stretched thin, so tasks are outsourced to bounty hunters often called cowboys. The show follows a haphazardly thrown together crew of bounty hunters with a past. There’s Spike, an aloof and charismatic ex-mafia kung fu artist gunslinger; Jet, a cyborg, gruff ex-cop; Faye, a sexy, money-hungry con artist with a bout of amnesia; and Ed, a young gender fluid genius hacker. The crew’s paths cross in the early episodes, and they all decide to work together to carve out a living on their repurposed fishing spaceship, The Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop mixes neo noir, western, futurism, dystopian, sci-fi, crime, mafia, drama, black comedy, horror and 80’s kung-fu movies to create a 26-episode gallery exhibition that explores the future, government, economy, and dealing with your past. There are episodes that having you laughing out loud, and a few for stoners—like the episode where the crew trips off mushrooms. There is s particularly heart-wrenching episode where we find out more about Faye and her loss. And, of course, there is the last episode—which if you have seen it you know, and if you haven’t… I’m not going to spoil it for you. There’s something for everyone in Bebop and it is that understanding that we are not singular creatures that only see things one way that makes it so enthralling.
If you’re a music lover (if the name didn’t clue you in) you were aware from the driving opening theme that music plays an important role in filling in the white spaces of Bebop. Jazz, classical, rock, country, funk, blues all help bring Bebop to life. The choice of music sets the tone for each scene and often can be its own character acting as narrator to critical moments for those who might not be clear on what’s going in each character’s mind. Every episode is named after a band or genre of music. Titles like, “Honkey Tonk Women”, ”Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Jamming with Edward” are nods to the Rolling Stones. And the “Ballad of Fallen Angels” episode not only takes its title as a nod to Aerosmith, but a conversation between Vicious and Spike also references the song. “Bohemian Rhapsody “ is a reference, of course, to the hit performed by Queen.
Where empathy and accessibility to the audience shows up the most is probably in the characters and their progression through the story. These are not heroes. They are all flawed people dealing with loss and issues from their past. Some are trying to find answers, while others are running away from them—ut all are trying to live their lives. This internal struggle shows itself throughout the show in not only their dealings with those they come across, but how they deal with each other.
It is no great sense of purpose that brings them together. No treasure, or heroic goal that drives them forward. And even though the premise for their partnering is to utilize each other’s skills to hunt bounties and earn money, more often than not they end up letting the bounties go. In fact, it is their pasts that bring them together. Their lives mingle, but they still keep their individuality and their singular goals, and this is the relationship that they each need to deal with their issues. But it also galvanizes them, as this is not the family they were born with, but the one that chose them. It is this exploration of goals and life and loss that exemplifies the human condition. Through this, Cowboy Bebop possesses a level of sophistication and endearment rarely seen in works, animated or not.