What's life without adventure? But also, what's life without quirks, without eccentricities, without difficulty, without disappointment, and even without death — in short, without life, period? And what life is really lived without knowing whether or not you've stepped out of the shadow of death, even if only briefly?
The beautiful paradox of Cowboy Bebop is how these heavy ideas are explored through a show remembered best for being a rollicking, two-fisted, downright hilarious romp — "not space opera, but space jazz," as the now-famous promo copy put it. Part brooding noir, part Hong Kong action drama, part Western-in-space, part science fiction pastiche, and part slapstick comedy, you never expect something this much fun to add up to so much, and to leave you with so much to savor and to revisit.
I've watched Bebop several times over the course of more than a decade, and I've struggled to say something about the show that isn't mere hagiography. For all that time, an explanation for how the show worked as well as it did remained out of reach. Maybe because, in the end, it turned out to be so simple: it stars some of the most irresistible and unforgettable characters around, gives them the freedom to speak their minds and do their own thing (not that they could ever do anything else), and puts them in a story that makes us care deeply about what happens to them.
Put so succinctly, such a formula should be easy to pull off. But but barely one show in a dozen can do it, because the best stories are about character and a good character is hard to find. Bebop is one in a million because of how much justice it does to its people, and how effortlessly it tricks its audience into going along on such an arduous journey with them. When it’s over — with, quite literally, a bang — it’s like good friends have left us. Small wonder, then, that the first impulse that comes to mind after it's over is to go back and watch it again.
Bounty hunter's hustle
Mankind spread through the whole of the solar system, but the worst of its spacefaring future looked a great deal like the worst of its earthbound past: terrorism, crime, stupidity, greed and plain old boredom. With the police largely ineffectual or corrupt, it's the bounty hunters (in the show's argot, "cowboys") that pick up the slack — among them, our heroes, Spike Spiegel and Jet Black. Both men are as weatherbeaten as the ship they fly: Ex-Mafioso Spike walked out of the syndicate and never looked back (save for one too many over-the-shoulder glances at his old flame Julia); Jet is an ex-cop who literally lost an arm and a leg to that line of work.
The work of a bounty hunter is one of perpetual frustration, thanklessness, and danger. Most of Spike and Jet's big scores end up sliding through their fingers, leaving them perennially broke, perpetually hungry (Jet’s “beef with bell peppers special” is special because it has no beef in it), eternally longing for that one big score, and retreating into the relative safety of their ship, the Bebop, a tattered crate that was probably already held together with spit and baling wire when they bought it. The bounties they see advertised on the syndicated show "Big Shots" all look like easy money, and turn out to be anything but. Yet despite their wretched jobs that throw them up against countless hives full of scum and villany, they're romantics at heart: Spike with his fast fists and his easy smile, and Jet with his artificial limbs and his grumpy concern for their mutual welfare. They may be down, but never quite out; always outnumbered, but never outgunned.
After a slew of bounties that go pear-shaped on them — a drug hustler and his woman, a pet thief who snagged an experimental animal, and an eco-terrorist gang, among others — Spike and Jet find that while coming up with empty coffers, they've inexplicably acquired a few hangers-on. First comes Faye Valentine, a would-be femme fatale of self-professed gypsy blood and perennially wretched luck, possibly even worse than Spike and Jet’s put together. When she shows up she’s lugging around a massive debt, and to help dismiss it she’s roped into doing a little sleight-of-hand at a casino where there’s a lot more going on than card-counting. Spike runs afoul of the whole thing — she thinks he’s supposed to be the designated player of the evening — but he doesn’t take pity on her. She is, after all, just as mercenary as they are, if not more, and runs off with a take intended for them. Then her bad luck kicks in, and her ship runs out of gas only to be picked up by the Bebop — where, much to Spike and Jet's consternation, she insinuates herself into their company. Interestingly, there is no competition over her as a sex object, because both Spike and Jet are shown to have their hearts already owned by other women, and perhaps also because the two are cynical enough to know that in their world a woman is automatically trouble.
There comes more trouble in the form of, you guessed it, another woman — more of a girl, really, a precocious, quasi-autistic and androgynous goofball, self-christened "Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV", or just Ed for short. Hacker, wild child, jester, and pest, Ed goes from possible bounty to team member when she's fingered as the prime suspect in a crime involving orbital laser cannons being used to draw Nazca lines on the Earth's face. (The real culprit turns out to be a very lonely AI with whom Ed got chummy.) Al functions a little like Toshiro Mifune’s seventh samurai, interjecting humor and breaking up the stasis that forms between the other three — or four, if you also count Ein, the dog, another oddball add-on who eventually proves his own unexpected value to the rest of the gang. (The gang meets Ed’s father later on as well, whereupon it becomes plain at least some of the kid's loopiness is hereditary.)
One misadventure follows another: a blues-harp-playing boy turns out to be a deadly assassin (and, for that matter, not a boy at all); a mobster trying to fence a rare plant takes a shine to Spike, much to the other man's chagrin; a load of explosives forces Spike to pair up with a long-haul trucker who despises bounty hunters; an alien gets on board the Bebop and wreaks comic havoc. In every case, though, the story plays out at right angles to its original idea: Spike and the gang don't always get what they want, but sometimes they do get what they need.
What they do not need, but what they get anyway, is a figure out of Spike's past who comes to dominate the choices in their lives. Vicious, as he's called (and nomenclature was never more destiny than it is with him), used to be Spike's gang compatriot — but then Spike went his own way, and now Vicious finds his his own syndicate is more interested in going legit. His war to take power for himself drags down Spike, and by turns everyone else, not just because of the violence it unleashes but because of the way it forces Spike to realize he has been living on a cache of borrowed time, that he has been less living than simply existing in the shadow of his past, and that he has to get busy living or get busy dying.
All the things you are
It's people that stories most need to be about, not plots, and if I had to attribute Cowboy Bebop's enduring stature to any one thing, it would be the cast. Spike shouldn't be someone we would describe as endearing, but he is — not just because he's a little soft in the gut, but maybe also because he has a dash of holy-fool/trickster in his blood (look at the way he swipes, then returns, someone's groceries in the opening episode). He's a good guy at heart, but the show also never shortchanges itself proving that point. The same goes for Jet: he looks tough and he moves tough, but under it all he'll bend any number of ways for his friends, and the show prefers to let that side of him speak for itself instead of trying to hammer it home. Faye, ironically, is someone we should dislike; she's an order of magnitude more conceited and opportunistic than the others put together. The show wins us over to her side, first by making us laugh at/with her plights, and then by discovering that under her sassy skin (and maybe under Ed's loopy behavior, too) is someone looking for home everywhere and finding it nowhere.
In a much earlier version of this essay, I dashed off, and deleted, a sentence to the effect that Bebop is one of those shows where a gang of loosely-knit misfits eventually learn to work together. It's true, but trivial, in the sense that the show is not really about these five combining their strengths, or even learning to like each other all that much. In fact, for most of the time, the crew only seem to be together because, well, who else would tolerate them? But it's through that kind of tension that the show unveils its greater — and weightier — themes, the biggest being how each character fights against the gravitational pull of his or her own past, and how the tension between that and the present (and the future, assuming they have one) threatens to pull them all apart.
If Spike, Jet, Faye, and Ed were in fact all so close together, they wouldn't each be tempted as strongly as they are to step back into the shadows of the past, knowing full well they may not be able to return to the light. Faye's past is a time long gone, never to be returned to, but that doesn't stop her from mourning for it; Jet's past life as a cop was shattered by the fact that it was his allies he had more to fear from than his enemies; Ed floats as freely as a dandelion seed, but at least as much because she was abandoned than because of her actual character; and Spike can't pretend some part of him has only felt half alive, at best, after walking away from the woman he loved. And through all of those things, the show works its way out of blues-as-noir and into blues-as-tragedy, as old hurts and lost connections out of the past manifest themselves and require great personal sacrifice to be dispelled.
That all of this should come through in a story that is predominantly an action comedy is another miracle. Even when the show is tickling our ribs, it never seems to do so at its own expense. Consider one of the most flagrantly absurd episodes, "Toys in the Attic", where an alien gets on board. It's a blatant and cheeky homage to Alien, right down to Spike crawling through the ventilation ducts of the Bebop with a flamethrower. But it allows the characters to still be entirely themselves, as when Spike realizes he's lost his lighter — you never separate a man from his Zippo, don'tcha know — and spends all of two seconds thinking about where or not to go back into the ductwork to get it. (The punchline for the episode is a howl, too.) Ditto "Mushroom Samba", another episode that front-loads the show's Western references (a character named "Django" drags a coffin ... until passing traffic obliterates it), should be a throwaway because of its plot where everyone save for Ed gets stoned out of their minds. But somehow it adds up to more, without ever seeming to try.
The way the story puts personality, not character, first, is present in all the big story threads — Spike and Vicious's fateful collusion — but also in all the little moments as well. When the stars of "Big Shots" lose their jobs, one of them shows up in a scene near the end of the show that provides exactly the right humanizing touch for someone that until then we've only seen as a TV caricature. The same applies to all the major characters as well. For the longest time, we only see them as they would want us to see them: easygoing Spike, hard-nosing Jet, alluring Faye, loony Ed. Bit by bit, the masks fall, and soon our emotional attachments are to them as they really are. This emphasis on emotional attachment, I think, is also how many individual episodes' plots can, say, revolve around coincidence without looking strained or silly. What the head hears as coincidence, the heart hears as fate.
If the structure of the series is jazz — improvisation, riffing, new variations on old themes — the mood of the story is definitely blues. The dice are loaded, hard luck is all around, and the devil is definitely a woman. Subtler connections between the bounty-hunter universe and the world of the jazzmen abound, too: an incidental character is named “Miles”; at one point Spike calls his spaceship his “machine” (in English), and we remember how “machine” was a jazzman’s slang term for his instrument of choice. The episode titles themselves refer to blues and jazz classics: Herbie Hancock’s “Speak like a Child” gets namechecked at one point, as the title for an episode that starts as absurdist comedy (the crew have to track down a hopelessly obsolete piece of technology ... a VCR) and then becomes one of the most unexpectedly moving parts of the series by way of revealing Faye's lost history.
That tendency, I think — the way each episode starts off on a disarmingly comedic note and then works its way around to something bigger — is at least one of the magic ingredients. The very best entertainments never tell you they're imparting a lesson, but rather slide their wisdom into the room from under the door. Cowboy Bebop never stops being thoroughly entertaining, which is why it's easy not to notice how the depths were there all along, hiding in plain sight.
The birth of the cool
Much has been written about how Bebop's legendary status was a near-fluke, as it was originally conceived by Sunrise as a way to sell spaceship toys courtesy of its parent outfit Bandai, in the manner of a Gundam or a Macross. Bandai pulled out when they saw how Bebop, as conceived by Shinichirō Watanabe (already notable for Macross Plus, and later notable for Samurai Champloo), didn't present itself at all as a marketing vehicle for a toy line. Fortunately, Bandai Visual, the arm of Bandai more directly responsible for TV anime productions, stepped in to keep the production running. Soon Watanabe and his creative team, including screenwriters Shoji Kawamori (the Macross franchise), Keiko Nobumoto (also of Macross Plus), and Dai Satō (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eureka Seven) were hard at work on something they envisioned as being appealing to an adult as well as an adolescent audience.
One key way the show further distinguished itself in that manner was the music, which also drew on sounds aimed at an older audience. Yoko Kanno, fresh from her work with Watanabe on Macross Plus, had outfitted that show not only with the electronic pop-idol tunes it needed as part of its storyline, but with a panoply of other musical styles — lush orchestral washes, barbed C&W passages, nervy synthetic textures — that seemed like the product of a dozen composers rather than one. With Bebop, Kanno drew most directly on jazz, blues, C&W, big-band swing, and torch songs — the latter two for the show's beloved opener "Tank!" and closer "The Real Folk Blues". Enough music came out of the project, courtesy of a cadre of musicians under the collective label Seatbelts, to fill four albums and an EP, all printed with jacket designs that hearkened back to classic Blue Note or Impulse! pressings. That hearkening back to classic jazz wasn't just an affectation of taste: none other than legendary jazz producer Rudy Van Gelder served as recording engineer for much of the soundtrack.
What makes Cowboy Bebop significant as a part of anime history isn't just its status as a classic — few would dispute that with a straight face — but also how it constitutes one of the major titles to pass between two generations of anime fans in the West. It first aired, albeit abortively, in Japan in 1998; then more completely in 1999; then found U.S. distribution the following year, and a place of honor as the first anime title in the Adult Swim programming block the year after — a span of time during which anime began to enter the public consciousness all the more aggressively, and the anime boom began to balloon. Anime titles go in and out of print with terrible volatility, but Bebop remained in print and on the air for almost a solid decade, time enough for a generation of fans to come and go and for the first anime boom to go bust.
I wonder how those just now entering anime fandom will react to Bebop, seeing it for the first time courtesy of FUNimation's sparkling reissue. Part of me fears that they will be dismissive of the show as being merely "old" — hey, it isn't even in widescreen! — in the same way that many filmgoers turn up their nose (and thus deprive themselves of any number of great experiences) at anything produced before their teens, or in another language, or not in color. Would younger fans reared mainly on shōnen action vehicles or high-school farce find anything to connect to in the show? But the optimist in me suspects that the best of Bebop cuts through any amount of generational unsophistication, that it really does present something for just about anyone.
Bebop survived its original moment in time so handily that even when it first appeared, it seemed like an artifact of an earlier, wiser, more world-weary era. Now, fifteen years and change later, unmoored from all faddishness and fashion, Bebop is permanently on the far side of timeless. Under that jazzy, free-wheeling atmosphere, under the homage and the cross-pollination of genres and mashing up of influences, there's something that burns on, something encapsulated in a couple of lines from the show's closing song:
THE REAL FOLK BLUES
I only want to know what true sadness is
By the end of the show, Spike does, and so do we. Boy, do we ever.