The Beginner’s Guide to Anime, No. 16 – Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop

Recently a new British anime licensor set up business, called Anime Ltd. It’s always good to see someone new attempting to set up shop in a branch of entertainment that is generally ignored in this country. Not surprisingly, they have decided to make their first release a big one, bringing out a Blu-Ray edition of one of the biggest anime series of the 1990s.

The sci-fi crime series Cowboy Bebop was first shown in Japan back in early 1998, but due to some of the adult content in several episodes (murder, drugs etc.) it didn’t get aired during its first run and the full broadcast until later in the year, not finishing until 1999, with a film version being release in 2001. It’s a series noted for taking many standard elements from both crime and sci-fi, but still making them entertaining.

It’s set in the year 2071, by which point most of humanity has left Earth, it having become uninhabitable due to a mixture of climate change and the partial destruction of the Moon and the resulting meteor showers. Most humans now live in other places in the solar system, such as Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter.

The central figures are the crew of the spaceship “Bebop”. The main two are a pair of bounty hunters – the “cowboys” of the title. These are Spike Spiegel, a former hitman for a crime syndicate and Jet Black, an ex-cop with an artificial arm. Together they try to make a living tracking down wanted criminals from across the solar system. Later they (reluctantly) take on three more crew members: Ein, a Welsh corgi of enhanced intelligence due to experiments by scientists; Faye Valentine, a woman with a gambling addiction and huge debts; and a girl called Edward, who is an expert hacker.

As the series progresses we learn more about Spike and his motivation. We discover that he had a relationship with a mysterious woman called Julia whom he wants to track down, and we encounter the appropriately named Vicious, an enforcer with Spike’s former crime syndicate. The two used to be friends but now they are deadly enemies.

There are many elements as to why the series became such a hit. For example, it covers much in scale of genre. Some episodes are comedic, others are tragic, some more romantic, a few are scary. Cowboy Bebop easily shifts from one dynamic to another.

There is also the issue of the man who was primarily responsible for Cowboy Bebop’s creation: director Shinichiro Watanabe. As this is a series set in the future the normal thing to do would be to explain how everything came to be: why does the technology work, why did humans move to such a place and so on. None of this appears. It shows that you don’t need to explain to people the entire set up to a sci-fi show in order to make it work.

Watanabe’s other notable contribution is the soundtrack to the series. A motif of much of his anime is the music that accompanies his work. In the case of Cowboy Bebop Watanabe, along with composer Yoko Kanno, uses a soundtrack consisting of mostly blues and jazz music. The episode titles also related to music and songs. Examples include “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Honky Tonk Women” and “Sympathy for the Devil”.

Cowboy Bebop remains to this day one of the anime classics. It combines a wide-ranging plot with great music, and the way it is produced by the people behind the scenes ultimately results in a superb creation.

Part 1 of the Blu-Ray release of Cowboy Bebop is out now. Part 2 of the Blu-Ray and a DVD collection are released on 23rd September. The movie is out on DVD, released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.