Last week you may have seen a bunch of hubbub about a show called COWBOY BEBOP. Word on the web is that the classic anime is destined for a live action remake and that has a lot of people feeling a lot of different stuff. Some of you are worried. Some are angry. Some are excited. Some of you may even be thinking, “what the hell is COWBOY BEBOP?”
The easy answer is this – COWBOY BEBOP is a 26 episode* anime (and a feature film that you don’t need) about a team of bounty hunters working in a future where humanity has colonized other planets in the universe. These three cowboys – Spike Spiegel, Faye Valentine, and Jet Black – travel around with an androgynous teenager and a super smart dog as they hunt down wanted men and women. Each member of the team (which isn’t called Cowboy Bebop – the team has no name, they just hang out) has a secret past that pushes them to, more often than not, do the right thing over the thing that will get them paid.
Each member of the team has their own specialty – Spike, who was born on Mars and worships at the altar of Bruce Lee, is an amazing fighter and one hell of a detective. Faye, a woman out of time, is a superb con artist as well as an escape artist. Jet is a hard as nails mechanic who tries to do things by the book and takes advice from long dead saxophonist Charlie Parker. Ed the teenager is a computer genius who, along with Einstein the dog, keeps things running.
Considering that the show is 20 years old, the animation is still some of the best out there, and the overall story, which I won’t spoil here, holds up so very well. COWBOY BEBOP has a ranking as the anime that people who don’t like anime will love, and it is true. Why? Because COWBOY BEBOP is an American story told through Japanese eyes.
For many of us who never got into anime, the biggest issue is that anime tends to put style before character. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just isn’t our bag. We like our entertainment to be more about the character than about the look. That isn’t to say that look isn’t important, just that story matters more to us. That is why COWBOY BEBOP can work for you even if you don’t dig on anime – the series, while flowing with style, is really about the characters and story with a healthy look at American pop culture from the lense of another country.
Everything about the show, from the name to the jazz score to the more adult A-TEAM feeling all screams American, and creator Shinichirō Watanabe planned it that way. Along with obvious inspirations like John Woo, Watanabe and his team looked at American movies, mainly westerns and noir films, for reference, steeping the show in the American lore of the wild west, Native American shamanism, film noir, and American made music.
All the while, Watanabe made a conscious decision to never have the story travel to the United States, though the actions of the country can be felt throughout the series. While COWBOY BEBOP isn’t the first anime to use US pop culture, it is the one that handled it best. Where so much future set anime pulls from BLADE RUNNER, COWBOY BEBOP looks for the deeper state of what makes American films and TV work. Well before our own studios would figure out that viewers would reward TV shows that used an episodic style to tell the story, COWBOY BEBOP made it clear early into its run that the story would only last so long.
This isn’t to say that COWBOY BEBOP hides from its anime roots. From the look of the series, to much of the humor and pacing, this is definitively anime, but the skeleton of the series, the pieces that really make the show stand out, are taken from a more American storytelling format.
Take Spike Spiegel, the suit wearing, Marlboro smoking, deeply conflicted main character who wants little more than to lead a quiet life where he can afford beef to go with his bell peppers. Spike’s life is not unlike the kind of story you may see in a John Wayne movie – he has a dark past, and he believes everything bad that happens to him is karma for what he has done before. Spike spends his life torn between being as lethargic as possible and going out of his way to help the downtrodden, even to suicidal extremes. Spike is, in the most general form, your basic hero in any classic western.
The influence of jazz can’t be ignored either. Each character is a musician playing their own tune, but as they come together, the tunes merge to create a song. Each episode is called a “session”, making the connection almost too obvious. Yoko Kanno, the composer for the series, used her jazz band The Seatbelts to create most of the music for the series, which in itself creates an amazing yet odd sound – jazz is undeniably an American form of music, and hearing it done by a Japanese band is endlessly interesting. Kanno and her bandmates never feel like they are trying to ape any specific American jazz artist; the music flows out from the moment and, much like the show in general, works on a level normally missing from anime.
For all the jazz and Western movie connections, COWBOY BEBOP most feels like a ’70s movie. That feeling of people making something without really being sure what it is they are trying to make. Films like EASY RIDER or ROCKY, films that are more about the character than the plot, come to mind. The “cool” factor, which COWBOY BEBOP has a whole lot of, exists not because of the design of the characters – though they do look cool – but because these characters feel real. As their lives are revealed, you see how every action they take comes from a deeper place.
This is where the concern of an American made live action COWBOY BEBOP comes in – when one of the things that makes the show so special is seeing American tropes through the eye of another country, how can that work with an American crew behind it? American pop culture, especially these days, tends to take something that is cool and different and force it into a singular spot. People like the connected universe of the Marvel movies, so studios quickly ran out to form their own connected universes and, so far, none of them have worked because they misunderstand what makes Marvel’s so cool. When anime first gained popularity in the US in the ’90s, so many “cool” things took on an anime look, even if it wasn’t actually from any specific anime. Shirts and bags and whatever else college kids would buy suddenly had second rate GUNDAM looking mechs on them. These things tended to be found in bargain bins because they missed why people liked the anime style.
These things, I think, are why you don’t hear more about COWBOY BEPOP. Where there was a period that you couldn’t help but see DRAGON BALL and its influence on pop culture, COWBOY BEBOP never exploded in the same way because the power comes from, as with all things cool, the understanding of it. Even those of us who don’t dig jazz know that it is inherently cool because of the undercurrent that each tune carries – that each song is about the player and what they feel. COWBOY BEBOP is the same thing, but with spaceships.
*If you’ve looked up the show, there’s something I haven’t discussed that you may be aware of – the movie. There’s a reason I leave it out – because it doesn’t fit. That isn’t to say that the COWBOY BEBOP movie isn’t good – it is – but the show tells a complete story. The movie, which was made after the series ended, takes place between episodes and, because of that, has no real power behind it. The characters can’t grow or change in any way in the movie, and COWBOY BEBOP, across the 26 episodes, has a lot of character growth. The movie, to stick to the cowboy and jazz stuff, feels like an unneeded ranch hand or an extra sax player who is talented, but can never seem to connect with the other players. What I’m saying is that you can skip it.