Reviewed by ekt
Posted June 23, 2002
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Let me start off by saying that Cowboy Bebop is probably the best anime series I've ever seen. And that's saying something, because anime is one of my favorite things in the Universe. Let me continue by mentioning that I never get to see anime which hasn't already been dubbed into English. However, I'm given to understand that dubbed anime is usually not as good as the original Japanese versions, in various respects. This may include the written translations themselves, the basic plot and the stories, the voice talent, etc. And despite having nothing to compare shows against, I'm often inclined to agree with this assessment.
But... Cowboy Bebop fans seem to generally agree that the English version of this series is quite exceptional. The voice talent is... well, pretty damn talented. The dubbing is pretty much perfect. The writing is excellent. The stories are great... Even many of the fans who have seen both dubbed and subbed (subtitled) versions will agree that this show is an exception to the rule. Some would say that not only is Cowboy Bebop one of those rare animes where the English version is as good as the original Japanese, but it's probably even better.
There's really so much about this show that is excellent. The voice talent, as I've said. And the animation itself is really beautiful... that is to say, serious. Stylized, detailed, somewhat gritty and noirish. It's a great example of the wide range of artistic styles which can fall under the category of "anime." Think for a moment of Pokémon. Now notice that I have deliberately started a new sentence, and am about to move on to another. Because I don't believe it would be morally justifiable to put that show in the same sentence as Cowboy Bebop, and indeed it's best to have at least one sentence separating them. Don't get me wrong, here. I have nothing against such kiddie anime. I quite enjoy it, actually. I'm just sayin', I worry about the unitiated lumping different things in together. Which is patently absurd. I mean, obviously there's a wide range of animation styles in American cartoons, so it stands to reason that there would be in other countries as well.
Moving along... another element of this series which is often and rightly praised by its fans is the music. This is mostly composed by the brilliant Yoko Kanno and performed by the Seatbelts and Mai Yamane. As the show's title suggests there is a lot of jazz, and not just of the bebop persuasion. But there are many styles of music from around the world; American, French, Japanese, Native American, and so forth. All of it absolutely incredible stuff, and perfectly suited to the show as well as the individual episodes and actual scenes each piece of music is in. Enough cannot be said about the music in this show. Besides, as someone once said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So, I'll just say you gotta listen to this series as well as watch it, and move on.... (But there are several soundtracks available).
Perhaps it's about time I got around to actually telling you what the show is about. Well, it's about bounty hunters. It's set in the year 2071. There are colonies throughout the solar system, and interplanetary travel utilizes the phase differential gate system. In 2022, during the gates' development, there was an accident which caused great damage to the Earth and Moon, so most people don't live on Earth if they can avoid it. Mars is of course the best place to live. There's a great deal of criminal activity, much of it interplanetary. Such things fall under the jurisdiction of the ISSP (Inter Solar System Police) which introduced a bounty reward system. There are now about 300,000 licensed interplanetary bounty hunters, called "cowboys." That's just a little background information, for you.
The series focuses on four people and a dog, who travel on a ship called the Bebop. Of these people, the main two are Spike and Jet. The Bebop actually belongs to Jet Black. He also owns a MONO boat called the Hammer Head (two other characters have personal MONO ships, which all dock on the Bebop, as well). Jet used to be in the ISSP, and lived on Ganymede. Elements of his past pop up now and then, though perhaps not quite as much as Spike's. We sometimes see him talking to old friends who are still with the ISSP, whether providing some information or advice or warnings, etc. We might see some criminal he once put away as a cop show up for a good old-fashioned revenge story. (Okay, so nothing about this show is old-fashioned, except for everything about it. Um... what's that they say? Everything old is new again... Or something.)
Anyway... we might see the woman he once loved, Alisa, who left him years ago, and is currently involved with one of the bounties our heroes are after. Jet is easily the most sensible of the main characters, and often quite put out by having to put up with his more erratic partners. What else to say? Hmmm, he has a cybernetic arm, having lost one of his real ones in the incident which led him to leave the ISSP.
Spike Spiegel is the man. He is very cool, in every sense of the word. He has a MONO racer called the Swordfish II, originally owned by a mechanic named Doohan. Spike comes from Mars, where he used to be in the Red Dragon crime syndicate. Three years previously he staged his own death to get out, but it seems pretty clear that a lot of folks know he's still alive. His past often resurfaces, particularly in the form of Vicious, another member of the Red Dragon and an old rival of Spike's. Particularly for the affections of a mysterious woman named Julia, who Spike hasn't seen since his "death." (Vicious will eventually attempt to overthrow the leaders of the syndicate and take over for himself.) ...In a sense Spike really is dead, and just marking time. There isn't much left in life he truly cares about, and so he can afford to be rather... um... nonchalant. But despite not caring about much, he's still quite adept at complaining. What else? He's expert in the Jeet Kune Do style of martial art.
Faye Valentine first showed up in Session 3 (episodes of Cowboy Bebop are called "sessions"). She has a MONO carrier called the Redtail. She awoke a few years ago from cryonic suspension, after having had some kind of accident about 50 years earlier. She has no memories of her past, all she really has is alot of debt (and a major attitude). So she has two major goals in life: making money and finding out who she is, or was. She'll eventually get a few hints about her past. Meanwhile, she sort of invites herself to stay on the Bebop and work with Spike and Jet, but it's not a situation anyone is entirely comfortable with. She doesn't get along well with them, or much of anyone. She's not particularly trustworthy, and rarely displays much of any loyalty, but she expects it from them anyway.
There is a very silly, crazy, brilliant young genius hacker girl who gave herself the name Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV (or Ed, for short). She showed up in Session 9. She comes from Earth, and long followed the exploits of the Bebop crew on her computer. She helped the bounty hunters with one of their jobs, and Faye promised they'd take her with them (though she didn't mention this to Spike or Jet). When Faye rushes the others to leave without her, Ed uses her remote control to bring the ship down so she can board. In subsequent sessions, she often provides invaluable assistance to the bounty hunters, as well as comic relief... er, I mean... her own inimitable charm. (She's really a character you'll either love or hate; I love her.) She really likes everyone on Bebop, but her closest relationship seems to be with Ein.
Ein is a data dog, developed in an illegal research lab on Mars. It's not clear what a data dog is, but whatever it is, it is as I've said highly illegal. And worth a fortune, if you could find the right buyer. He first showed up in Session 2. He's a very clever and helpful dog (a Welsh Corgi), but is often seen as a pest. These people are all pretty damn good at what they do, but they generally have terrible luck. Fairly often the authorities refuse to pay the bounty because of some technicality. Well, there are any number of reasons things don't always pan out for them, and they're often dangerously low on funds. In fact they frequently come close to starving, and may occasionally run out of fuel. But they always manage to get by somehow.
There are 26 original Sessions, as well as a movie, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." (I haven't seen the movie yet.) It's really pretty amazing how much happens in these episodes; such a rich and full world is developed, everything very consistent and fleshed out and real... These are real characters, fully thought out and realized. They have pasts which are important, which we can clearly see made them who they are, and from which they can never truly escape. There are several recurring characters throughout the series, whether just in the background, or central to the plot. There are plenty of characters who we may see in only one episode, but who nevertheless leave a lasting impression and contribute much to the development of the overall story.
Two other characters who bear mentioning are Punch and Judy. They host a show called "Big Shot" which provides information for bounty hunters, so of course we occasionally see some of the Bebop crew watching bits and pieces of it. We might learn a bit about what's going on in the episode from them, about the bounty our heroes are going to be chasing. Or have chased, or have caught and probably not been paid for, anyway. Of course, "Punch" and "Judy" are not their real names, just characters they play on the show. They're dressed up like some sort of stereotypical cowboys of old, and talk with fake accents. (Well, Punch does a fake cowboy accent; Judy's fake voice seems more just affected to sound kind of dimwitted in a way that's meant to appeal to the sort of guys who would go for that kinda thing, as if her outfit wasn't enough for that purpose.) At the end of Cowboy Bebop, "Big Shot" gets cancelled as well, and we do get to see both of them out of character, at different times, each in a very different way.
Anyway... I'd like to try to choose a favorite episode, but it's nearly impossible, since they're all practically perfect. Though many would say that for a straight comedy episode, Session 22, "Cowboy Funk," is one of the best. In it, Spike meets and quickly comes to hate another bounty hunter named Andy. They have a lot in common, except that Andy seems pretty clueless, and often mistakes Spike for a bounty rather than a bounty hunter. It'd be one of the great rivalries of all time, if they were ever anywhere near the same page. But despite their commonalities, they generally seemed to be reading entirely different books, so to speak. It's a terribly funny episode, with a great twist on the standard ending tagline for episodes in the series.
For drama, it's tough to beat Session 5, "Ballad Of Fallen Angels." This episode stands out for me as having some of the best music of the series (though I'm not entirely comfortable saying that, because as I've said, the whole series is full of great music). Also this is the first major look at Spike's past, in which we meet his old friend Annie and his old rival Vicious, and learn of Spike and Vicious's common obsession with Julia, and their involvement in the Red Dragon syndicate.
All these elements will recur from time to time throughout the series, leading finally to the 2-part series ender "The Real Folk Blues," Sessions 25 and 26, which is another of the series' best stories. ("The Real Folk Blues" is also the name of the song which plays during the end credits of most sessions).There really is a great deal of humor in this series, usually casual but sometimes pretty out-there. But there's also a lot of action, and character development, and drama. It can be quite moving at times, quite touching (and this is only enhanced by the wonderful music). You've gotta care about the characters. And as remarkable as they and their lives are, in many ways you can't help identifying with them. You can't help looking forward to the next episode... and you can't help being sorry when the last one is finally over.
The ending is unclear to me... I do have questions about it which may never be answered satisfactorily. But... I'll let you watch the series, ask your own questions, draw your own conclusions. And after that... well, you know... such a brilliant series can't help but be eminently rewatchable.
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