TV: Cowboy Bebop (Original)

The original Cowboy Bebop (1998) slipped under my radar initially, but its reputation has a long tail, and I was happy to belatedly catch up with it—and not just because of the recently released Netflix live-action remake. This quirky anime space western is a unique beast, and while it doesn’t have the compulsive watchability of Peak TV’s best, it does possess an appealing oddball tone, striking design, and innovative sound work. (Note: I watched the English-language dub.)

In an inhabited solar system of the future, bounty hunters known as “cowboys” comb the backwaters of space, tracking down wanted criminals. The crew of the Bebop includes former mafia hood Spike Spiegel (Steve Blum) and the ship’s pilot/mechanic Jet Black (Beau Billingslea), who work together to eke out a meager existence on the frontiers of human civilization. In the course of their adventures, the Bebop accrues new teammates, including sultry fellow bounty hunter Faye Valentine (Wendee Lee), pint-sized teen hacker Edward (Melissa Fahn), and a genetically engineered corgi named Ein. The series, which plays out in twenty-six varied and engaging episodes, chronicles the formation of this unlikely found family, and carries through until the group’s disbandment.

Cowboy Bebop doesn’t have the most coherent serial narrative throughlines, and its more melodramatic beats don’t always connect, perhaps due to translation issues. But there’s something unmistakably infectious about it, which can be attributed to a few key factors. One is the character design: the crew of the Bebop, while it doesn’t always get along, has a terrific group dynamic, with a nice mix of classic anime brood (Spike), toughness (Jet), fire (Faye), and absurdity (Edward and Ein, who provide most of the comic relief). The second element is the visual design; the animation is very nicely done, and while the space-western world-building is unconvincing, it’s also inventive and fun, in a Firefly-ish way. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Firefly took notes here.) But the really key element is the third asset: tone, which breaks down more specifically to the show’s unique approach to sound design and music, which complements the visuals in striking, unexpected ways. Composer Yoko Kanno’s brilliant score crosses all sort of genres, and even when the soundtrack decisions are completely off-the-wall, they work shockingly well, generating a singular atmosphere straddling the cool, the dark, and the funny. (The title song, “Tank!,” may be one of the best theme songs ever written, contributing to a sensational credit sequence.)

I’ve never really gotten into anime, but Cowboy Bebop could change that; it’s certainly earned its reputation, and I suspect the Netflix series (which I’ll surely watch) will have its work cut out for it matching the original’s unique vibe.

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