"Cruising the Crunchy-Catalog" looks back at the genre-blending 1998 TV anime that became a modern classic
Wanted for Anime Crimes.
It's a bold new world out there for anime fans with so many streaming options at their fingertips, but it's still possible to be spoiled by a surplus of choice, and it's hard to tell at a glance which series will become legendary and which ones will drift into oblivion like a tumbling tumbleweed.
“Cruising the Crunchy-Catalog” is here to help. Each week, we provide additional info and cultural context to help fans determine whether or not they'd like to pursue a given series in Crunchyroll's catalog of titles. This week, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of a series that left an indelible mark on anime history and Western fandom.
What's Cowboy Bebop?
Cowboy Bebop is an original TV anime with direction by Shinichiro Watanabe and animation by Sunrise. The series debuted on TV Tokyo on April 3, 1998, although it's probably better known in the United States for its 2001 TV broadcast on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming block. Crunchyroll describes the story of Cowboy Bebop as follows:
The Bebop crew is just trying to make a buck. This motley lot of intergalactic loners teams up to track down fugitives and turn them in for cold hard cash. Spike is a hero whose cool façade hides a dark and deadly past. The pilot Jet is a bruiser of a brute who can’t wait to collect the next bounty. Faye Valentine is a femme fatale prone to breaking hearts and separating fools from their money. Along for the ride are the brilliant, but weird, hacker Ed and a super-genius Welsh Corgi named Ein.
Cowboy Bebop is cool, but there's more to it than just surface-level style. For example, Jet Black's appearance is intimidating, but he's actually one of the most conscientious and level-headed members of the crew, while Faye Valentine's “femme fatale” persona is a defense mechanism born out of retrograde amnesia. But these are just details, and the question remains: what is Cowboy Bebop?
Chop Suey Before Champloo.
Cowboy Bebop is a work of science fiction, often classified under the curious subgenre of “Space Western,” i.e. a work that despite its futuristic trappings (such as laser cannons and intra-stellar hyper-space gateways) still evokes the look and feel of films set in the American Wild West.
Cowboy Bebop refuses to be bound by a single genre, though. It is a mash-up of myriad influences, from Bruce Lee's martial arts films, to John Woo's “ballet of violence” movies such as The Killer and Hard-Boiled, to the energetic escapades of Lupin the Third. As Spike and company wander the Solar System collecting bounties, the series can be comedic in one episode, somber in the next, and down-right horrifying in the episode after that.
Cowboy Bebop pivots from one cinematic style to another effortlessly, all the while maintaining such a consistent tone that it's no wonder its creators cheekily claimed that “the work...becomes a new genre itself.” In the anime industry as in all art, this level of talent, skill, and vision coming together so smoothly is rare achievement indeed.
Blue Collar Universe.
One reason that Cowboy Bebop is still fondly remembered twenty years after its initial broadcast is because of its stellar production values. The CG space stations and heavenly bodies may not have aged gracefully, but the beautiful background artwork and the diverse character designs are still as engaging today as they were two decades ago. The quality of the animation and editing are also on point.
Cowboy Bebop envisions a future in which the humanity has colonized the Solar System, but where technology has advanced much further than the culture and the politics that keep it in check. Spike, Jet, Faye, and the rest of the 300,000 bounty hunters of Cowboy Bebop exist in a society plagued by the same ills (crime, poverty, pollution, terrorism, etc.) that concern us currently, only on an interstellar scale.
Known space is a series of working class worlds, and everyone is just trying to make a buck. A running gag in the series is that the Bebop crew is constantly running out of food and fuel. They live hand-to-mouth and bounty-to-bounty, always looking for the ultimate score that will allow them to escape their lot in life. Easy come, easy go...
Music of the Spheres.
No discussion of Cowboy Bebop is complete without mentioning the music composed by Yoko Kanno. Kanno's career in anime has no shortage of outstanding soundtracks and scores (Macross Plus, The Vision of Escaflowne, and Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, just to name a few), but she and her jazz band SEATBELTS are absolutely on fire here.
The entire series explores a range of musical themes, to the point where each episode is referred to as a “session” and each session samples a different musical style, including jazz, funk, blues, and even heavy metal.
See You, Space Cowboy.
Thanks to our partnership with Funimation, Crunchyroll currently streams Cowboy Bebop in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guernsey, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, the United Kingdom, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Minor Outlying Islands. The series is available in the original Japanese with English subtitles.
Funimation publishes Cowboy Bebop on Bluray and DVD in North America and also streams the series in an English dubbed format. I highly recommend this version as well, because the English dub of Cowboy Bebop is one of the finest ever produced, and it still serves as a high-water mark for English language adaptations in anime.
Sometimes it's tough to recommend an older anime to a younger generation of fans, some of whom weren't even born when the series first broadcast. This is not one of those times. Cowboy Bebop is a bona fide classic and its qualities not only speak for themselves, but they have also endured the test of time. If you haven't seen it yet and it's available in your area, or if you'd merely like to revisit the memories, please consider giving Cowboy Bebop a look.
Is there a series in Crunchyroll's catalog that you think needs some more love and attention? Please send in your suggestions via e-mail to [email protected] or post a Tweet to @gooberzilla. Your pick could inspire the next installment of “Cruising the Crunchy-Catalog”!
Paul Chapman is the host of The Greatest Movie EVER! Podcast and GME! Anime Fun Time.