Binge Watching Cowboy Bebop, the Best 90s Anime, Is Worth All 650 Minutes
"It's not space-opera. This is space-jazz."
Cowboy Bebop. Courtesy of Quad Cinema and New York Asian Film Festival.
The year is 2071. The Earth has been ruined (big surprise) and its people scattered across a solar system where migration between planets is common, especially for the criminally inclined and their other half—bounty hunters earning a livelihood (or not) out of pursuing colorful outlaws in all their tawdry footsteps. And so the scene is set for “The work, which becomes a new genre itself…COWBOY BEBOP.” Creating your own lane is surely a lofty goal, but minor intentions don’t usually produce such gatecrashing classics as this anime, which will be screened in its entirety at Quad Cinema (sold out!) in partnership with the New York Asian Film Festival and Anime NYC. It kicks off starting at high noon this Sunday and rolls straight through to midnight.
Originally airing in 1998 on Japanese television, only half of Cowboy Bebop’s twenty-six episodes, or “sessions” as the intertitles claim, were shown as part of its premiere run, perhaps due to an unprecedented level of violence and unmistakably mature tone which may have shocked native audiences accustomed to lighter but no less bizarre fare. (As something of an amateur expert on the medium, I’d say about 60% of Japanese animation is firmly set in high school or at least stars adolescents, and generally features at least one girl casually infatuated with her brother or endowed with universe altering powers. It’s problematic.) Anime’s core audience tends to be in Japan, but Cowboy Bebop really found its foothold when the American channel Cartoon Network brought it over to Adult Swim, its block of late night programming in 2001. Five seconds into the first episode’s bombastic opening—titled “TANK!” and written by the legendary Japanese composer Yoko Kanno with her group the Seatbelts—and little mystery lingers as to the secret of its crossover appeal. The characters, most notably Spike Spiegel, resemble personages from American noir novelist Raymond Chandler’s books—think Philip Marlowe as rendered by Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye—and Yoko Kanno’s soundtrack pulls more from early American blues music and mid-century jazz than any other sonic genre one might think of as native to Japan. The approach is fitting for a story set in a future where any notions of nationality have been destabilized by an interstellar diaspora. Space is, indeed, the place.
Enter our bounty hunters: the wily Spike—who, as he claims, lives as if he is “only watching a dream that I never awakened from”—and Jet Black, Spike’s gruff partner in vulturing. Together they cruise the galaxy on the good (air)ship Bebop seeking cash for their pockets and escape from their respective pasts. Jet, who sports a prosthetic arm, would seem to be able to count himself lucky to have emerged from his former life with just a limb missing, whereas Spike, whose lanky frame skulks and fistfights throughout the show as a preternatural embodiment of “cool,” lost his heart to love and nearly his life to an organized Chinese crime syndicate (the exit interview was bad enough that most from his past believe he has, indeed, perished). It’s no spoiler to say he dances on the edge of death many times through Bebop. (By the fifth, stunningly designed episode “Ballad of Fallen Angels” he’s been stabbed with a sword and shoved through an enormous stained glass window of a cathedral by his former best friend from the Red Dragon syndicate, a guy who is called—what else?—Vicious.) Spike’s aura of ease—has anyone ever fallen so beautifully?!—is but one manifestation of the entire show’s remarkable fluidity. It ricochets between cultural references, plot points, the characters’ side hustles and eternally returning pasts, parody, and melodrama, all while the animation itself moves with the kind of natural bearing that perhaps only Bebop producers Sunrise Inc., funded by the Gundam franchise, could afford for an anime production on TV at the time.
Spike tends to survive the mortal challenges the show throws at him, though by the end of the fifth episode he’s wrapped in full body bandages and still trolling his comrade, the absurdly beautiful gambling queen Faye Valentine (voiced by demi-goddess Megumi Hayashibara), about the quality of her singing pitch. This is the kind of élan with which Cowboy Bebop proceeds, through matters of both life and death (as well as its subcategories of rotting food turning into home hauntings or narrow escapes from being turned into monkeys by a femme-dom animal rights activist). Give credit where it’s due to screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto—every chapter functions like a short story, no mean feat given that none exceed twenty-five minutes (adding up to 650 minutes total for you bingers out there who are counting). Each member of Bebop’s crew is ushered both in and out of the story at various points, giving each other their own time to shine, or crumble, as it may be.
Faye enters the picture brassy, bold, solo, and barely dressed, her end of the story leaves her broken, sobbing, alone, and (still) barely dressed. The mad teenage genius, non-binary STEM icon, and hacker Radical Edward—short for Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV—adorably manipulates the adults into letting her come aboard Spike and Jet’s ship (if not into their hearts) and proceeds to limber around the mise-en-scène in a charade of comic relief. Ein, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi with a major data chip embedded in him, is just about the only safe constant in the show—man’s, and viewer’s, best friend.
After spending a few precious days in blissful isolation with this world, reality holds increasingly less of an interest to me—no wonder the language of addiction and disorder is applied with such ease now to what used to be leisure activities (#gorgethearts?). No matter how bonkers everything in Bebop’s universe gets though—a psychotic chess master wanted for robbery, an insane clown assassin who appears in an episode named after a Jean-Luc Godard film, and a terrorist wielding teddy bears are just some of the more sparkling personalities rounding out the cast—the closing credit sequence as sound-tracked by the enough-said-song “Real Folk Blues” hints at the end of every escapade that we will get to the bottom of those red roses in the rain, just what Spike’s thinking about so intently when he lounges perfectly with a cigarette, and that woman forever staring out the window at her own reflection. Until then, the show rambles onward—a long haul gait suited to a marathon—establishing its range of secrets and showing how the need to hide brings these characters together, before the inevitable desire to tear apart rears it head. Bring a friend.
Cowboy Bebop will screen in its entirety at Quad Cinema in New York on Sunday, April 22 starting at 12 PM.