20 Years Since Its Finale, ‘Cowboy Bebop’ is Still Defining Pop Culture
Last year, when it was announced that Netflix planned to adapt the beloved anime Cowboy Bebop into a live-action series, most of the reactions from fans were ones of trepidation and weary cynicism. Plenty of American studios and producers have tried to get their hands on Shinichirō Watanabe’s series for their own purposes over the past two decades since it left the air. Keanu Reeves was attached to a splashy Hollywood version for several years, but that never got out of the early planning stages and remained one of many anime adaptations to languish in development hell. Most of us thought Netflix’s project would face the same fate, and then they announced a cast that included John Cho. Suddenly our interest was piqued. How could one not be hyped for the prospect of seeing Cho as Spike Spiegel, chasing criminals across the galaxy accompanied by a hyper-intelligent corgi? Of course, even with our anticipation levels for this new series higher than ever, it would be foolish to ignore that the general default mode among fans is still one of glass-half-empty realism. After all, how do you improve on perfection?
It’s been twenty years since the 26th and final episode of Cowboy Bebop screened on Japanese television. Originally, it premiered on TV Tokyo during a primetime slot, but the depictions of violence and other adult themes meant that audiences didn’t even see half of the made episodes, and wouldn’t do so until it screened on the satellite network WOWOW between late 1998 and early 1999. For Americans, the show didn’t become available for viewing until 2001, when it was one of the major features in Cartoon Network’s original Adult Swim late-night block of viewing. For many, it was their introduction to anime outside of kiddie fare like Pokemon and Sailor Moon, an experience free of the moralistic sanitizing and shoddy attempts at Americanization earlier anime had faced. There was no embarrassing English language dub, no impossible to ignore edits cutting out the good stuff, no softening of tougher themes. To call Cowboy Bebop cool is almost too glib a description of a show so achingly ahead of its time and steeped in style. Over two decades on and it’s still shaping the pop culture that followed in its footsteps.
For the uninitiated, Cowboy Bebop follows the exploits of a crew of bounty hunters traveling the galaxy in the spaceship Bebop. Following on from the building of a hyperspace gateway that made Earth essentially uninhabitable, humanity has taken to the stars and bounty hunters like Spike Spiegel and Jet Black chase criminals across the myriad planets the former residents of our world have colonized. Spike, a former hitman with the notorious Red Dragon Syndicate, still lives with the traumatic memories of his past and the not quite concluded rivalry with his former partner Vicious. Jet, a former cop, carries his demons too. They are later joined by Faye Valentine, a con artist who has no memories of her past, Radical Edward Wong, an exceptionally skilled hacker and proud weirdo, and Ein, the smartest corgi in the universe.
If the entire series was just the hijinks of a ragtag group of bounty hunters trying to scrape out a living in a mostly lawless galaxy then Cowboy Bebop would still me one of the most exciting and endlessly watchable shows of the past three decades. It’s a kinetic show, lightning in a bottle, leaping between a breakneck pace and more languid moments of existential contemplation. This is an ensemble you want to spend time with, each one layered with charm, cheek, warmth and sadness.
As ridiculously fun as the series is, it’s at its best and most potent when it delves into the more emotionally tangled moments of its vibrant heroes. There’s a deftness to the way Watanabe allows these characters’ lives and emotions to unfold that feels dishearteningly rare, even to this day. They are utterly at home in their dystopian sci-fi surroundings yet wholly relatable in ways that never feel at odds with the world they inhabit. They are the working class of this bright new future, something seldom seen in mainstream speculative fiction. This is a galaxy where the utopian promise of the future has been denied to the vast majority of Earthlings, one where poverty is rampant and our heroes go hungry more often than not. In such a society, there’s really no such thing as unambiguous morality. Everyone’s scamming someone, and the crew of the Bebop aren’t always that great at it, especially when emotions or that sliver of goodness gets in the way.
Cowboy Bebop is typically viewed by American and English language audiences in terms of its closeness to American pop culture. It’s the Tarantino of anime, critics said, one whose biggest influences stem from Hollywood, pulp fiction, the science-fiction authors who moulded the minds of George Lucas and company. The Atlantic writer Alex Suskind said the show ‘reads like something John Wayne, Elmore Leonard, and Philip K. Dick came up with during a wild, all-night whiskey bender.’ Those influences are certainly there, but the show is also inimitably a piece of anime, one that pays homage to the past of its medium. And then, of course, there is the music. Yoko Kanno, long-time composer for anime and video games like Escaflowne and Wolf’s Rain, crafted a soundtrack like nothing else heard in the medium before or after, although plenty of pretenders have tried to replicate her. It’s as much a character in Cowboy Bebop as any of the ragtag ensemble, blending blues with jazz, rock, J-pop and bluegrass. If you can get through an entire episode without getting at least one piece of music stuck in your head then you’re a better person than I am.
Ultimately, Cowboy Bebop is a show about loss and the false nostalgia that often accompanies it. It takes a long time for the respective members of the Bebop crew to understand that they will never regain what they have lost to time and circumstance, no matter how hard they try, and even if by some miracle they did, it wouldn’t fix them. The best you can hope for is that you will drift by someone else on your lonely journey and find some brief connection along the way. Maybe that’s the main reason I remain so trepidatious about this new version, even though the casting has vastly improved my life. How do you capture the essence of something so acutely when everyone has already copied it? Netflix will remember to focus on the cool of Cowboy Bebop, but will they overlook the pain?
Header Image Source: YouTube // Sunrise
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