TV * Shinichiro Watanabe * A New Genre Unto Itself, Apparently * 1998
I guess it was only a matter of time before anime happened. I mean, look at the track record. Video games, science fiction, an unabashed love for animation. It was inevitable. That said, it took a long time to get here. Before this particular show, I’ve watched maybe two other series and a movie here or there. Like, enough to know that maybe I could be down for what Japan is selling. For whatever reason, probably concern for my sanity, anime never really got its hooks in. I still don’t know that it does, but we’ll see how it goes. Anyway, Cowboy Bebop seems to be a seminal work of the genre, and it’s a post-apocalyptic one, so here we go.
The setting for the show is probably not far-future enough, considering that the event that destroyed the earth happened like sixty years before the narrative takes place (2071). The apocalyptic event in this case is pure background, and I only realized what happened several episodes in, but there was an accident involving technology. Specifically, a hyperspace gate malfunctioned which devastated the planet and basically rendered the surface unfit for life. There are, of course, some stragglers here and there, but the surface is still getting bombarded by meteorites all the time, so it’s a bad place to hang out. Humanity wasn’t vanquished, obviously. The hyperspace technology that killed the earth allowed for the terraforming and colonization of the rest of the solar system, so the show spans territory from Mars to the moons of Jupiter and asteroids and whatnot. Civilization seems to have coalesced into a monoculture situation, at least insofar as the media is concerned. Beyond this, and despite the appearance of some large cities, it can be assumed that humanity has suffered a massive population loss with the death of earth. It should be noted that none of this is explicitly stated in the show, mostly because such concerns aren’t all that important to the people in the show. None of the characters seem too worked up about the death of our home planet, as everyone is far more concerned with their own personal history.
Cowboy Bebop’s story does a lot of things and goes a lot of places, but in the end it’s about a small group of unlikely companions running from their past. Everyone has a different hang-up, and they’re not really into communicating with each other much. The protagonist of the show, Spike, is first introduced as a too-cool-for-you space ninja/cowboy. He’s a bounty hunter who flies around with his partner, Jet, who is an older ex-cop that owns the ship Cowboy Bebop. Later, they pick up a few other crew members. There’s Ein, the genetically engineered Corgi, there’s Faye, an amnesiac hustler who really wants you to look at her butt, and Ed, a mostly obnoxious but oddly endearing child hacker. Most of the series follows these weirdos as they chase bounties and have stylish adventures and generally fail to make any money. There are quite a few stand-alone episodes over the course of the series, but there is an overall story arc. This involves Spike and his criminal past, Jet and his history in law enforcement, and Faye’s mysterious origins. Jeez, even the kid has issues. Essentially, they’re all running from something they don’t really understand about themselves, and it’s this internal conflict that pushes Cowboy Bebop into its seminal status. Without the character moments, the show would still be stylish and fun to watch, but it would be an empty experience.
Oh, but that styyyyyle, though. Sorry, we can make that sound smarter if I use the word “aesthetic.” Fuck that, though, because listen to that opening sequence. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a title sequence that so encapsulates the entire essence of a show before, with the possible exception of The Simpsons. It’s visually arresting, the music is flippin’ great and compliments the tone of the animation, and it shows you pretty much exactly what you’re in for over the next 23 minutes or so. The design of the world is unique, in that everything feels kinda dirty and worn out. The musical compositions are uniformly outstanding, as is the animation direction. Each episode has its own unique feel, depending on the story being told, and the music and visual cues are always on point when it comes to complimenting the narrative. Cowboy Bebop dabbles in a lot of genres, from goofy Westerns to self-serious noir, which could be a very dangerous proposition in less capable hands. Yet I’m sitting here trying to think of an episode that just flat-out didn’t work, and I’m coming up empty. This kind of flexibility in storytelling is an achievement in itself, but despite what kind of story is being told, it always feels like it belongs in the universe. It’s impressive.
The narrative itself is a little less so, mostly because since the show goes in so many different directions it can be difficult to follow the overall character arc. Spike’s main antagonist, Vicious (way to reach deep on that name), crops up from time to time before the series finale. Here and there we get an episode dedicated to Spike’s past dealings with him, and his old ladyfriend Julia, but most of the time that stuff is on the back burner. There were certain points watching where I kind of forgot Spike’s tortured past, so when it all culminates at the end of the series, it felt a touch unearned. Like it wanted to make a profound statement about Spike’s growth and sacrifice but just didn’t have the build-up to really pull it off. Julia gets smoked and I’m like, okay. The problem is, Bebop just doesn’t spend all that much time building up that particular story arc. And that’s totally fine! It’s the trade-off necessary in order to follow all the creative impulses that lead to the aforementioned variety in the series. The Cowboy Bebop with laser focus is not the Cowboy Bebop that is held in such high esteem. Its strength is, ultimately, styyyyyle over substance.
This is not to say that the characters themselves are shallow or exist without eliciting any kind of emotional payoff. It’s super fun and satisfying to watch these off-putting, rough, and uncommunicative people rub against each other enough to the point where they actually end up caring about each other. Faye in particular spends a lot of time being a tryhard hustler in an attempt to gloss over the enormous hole in her memory and life. This aspect of her personality becomes almost immediately transparent, of course, which can lead to some irritation with her commitment to being all self-sufficient and aloof – but then the same could be said of everyone else. Each character has been burned so nobody wants to get too close to anyone, but at the same time are unable to help themselves. The most emotionally impactful scene, for me, came during the penultimate scene of the series when Faye decides once and of all that she cares. While she fails in keeping Spike from… whatever it was that Spike thought he had to do, it was her attempt that matters. And that’s the actual tragedy here. Not the death of Spike’s old girl. Not the ambiguity of Spike’s fate. But the choice Spike makes to leave his hard-won friends behind to chase his past. Faye, at least, realized too late what was being lost, and one can only speculate whether or not Spike understood before the end.