Cowboy Bebop
An anime series that plays like smooth jazz
Cowboy Bebop
Bandai Entertainment
Japan, 1998
One of the things that attracted me to anime--and this goes back as far as Battle of the Planets when I was a kid--was the striking visuals of the show openers. Few, it seemed, relied on the tried and true method of assembling clips from existing footage; most that I watched nicely set the tone of the show, the best of them experimenting with interesting visual styles. (Find yourself a copy of a Dirty Pair OAV, Dirty Pair: Project EDEN, or Golgo 13--released here as The Professional--and imagine watching them during the creative wasteland that was Western animation in the mid-1980s.)

Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing the opener to Cowboy Bebop, a nice little retro number with line art against bold flat color, and creative use of type as a design element. It evoked that same sense of adventure and cool-cat smoothness as the classic spy shows of the 1960s, leaning more toward, say, I Spy than the more dour Secret Agent. Reinforcing this was the title theme, a hot jazz ditty inexplicably named "Tank!" which, with its rousing brass and bongo drums, suggested spy-type action aplenty.

The care that went into the Cowboy Bebop opener propelled it to the top of my list of newer anime to review, and it's definitely lived up to its promise.

Cowboy Bebop is set in 2071, a future where people travel through hyperspace like we hop oceans. Our hero is Spike Spiegel, a bounty hunter who travels with his mechanic/manager/pal/backup-in-a-fight Jet Black. There is a reason given for the series' head-scratcher of a title, but after watching the first eight episodes, I discovered there's another perfectly good explanation: Spike easily fits the mold of the wandering cowboy. Episode after episode, he and Jet arrive on a different planet, and while corralling their quarry end up righting a few wrongs before moving on. More to the point, Spike is very much a loner in spirit. He glides through the scenery shrouded in mystery, his past revealed to us (and everyone else) in maddeningly tiny scraps as the series progresses. The first episode, for instance, begins with a look at a younger, more violent Spike, who is very different from the easygoing Spike we subsequently become acquainted with. Spike's past is never even hinted at again until he confronts some of his demons in the fifth episode, but this leaves us with more unanswered questions.

Then there's the "Bebop" part of the title, which "Tank!" should make obvious. The soundtrack alone is reason enough to get the DVD version of this series; since there is currently no domestic release of the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack CDs, it's the only way to hear the music the way it's meant to be heard. (At least the DVD includes the complete version of "Tank!".) Composed by Macross Plus musical mastermind Yoko Kanno, the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack is a healthy mix of jazz and ska, with occasional other styles thrown in. Kanno is quickly shaping up to be my favorite anime soundtrack composer; I'll be curious to hear what she comes up with next.

Music notwithstanding, the "Bebop" could also apply to Spike himself; he's cool, but not in that arrogant sense which seems to have taken hold of current pop culture. The liner notes invoke the Beats of the 1950s, which doesn't fall that far off the mark. Spike doesn't work at being aloof; he regards the chaos of life from a distance, goes his own way, and honestly doesn't give a damn.

All of which would get tedious if it weren't for this invisible thread connecting his past, present, and future. There's a subtle sense that something is building up here, just perceptible enough to be intriguing. Until we find out what it is, there's just the fun of seeing where Spike and Jet's travels will take them next. And that's cool.

Originally printed in Parsec (Fall 2000)