cowboy bebop poster

For over 20 years, “Cowboy Bebop” has built a legacy that has captivated audiences, new and old, and will continue to live on for eons. Now, it’s getting a live-action revival.

Through 26 episodes and a movie, the anime series set in 2071 follows the crew of the Bebop, a rundown ship full of starving bounty hunters looking for their next score. However, they just so happen to get caught up in something bigger than they thought half the time, even saving planets.

There’s Spike Spiegel, a go-with-the-flow bounty hunter with his eye on the past. He’s partnered with Jet Black, an ex-cop stuck in his old ways. Over time, they meet Faye Valentine, a seductive femme fatale with a talent for finding trouble and a severe gambling problem. Finally, the aloof genius child hacker Ed and the data-dog Ein join the crew — the latter of which is canonically the smartest being in the show.

To sum up the show bluntly, it’s about bounty hunters in space. To be controversial, it’s the best piece of “Star Wars” media out there, especially considering that it has nothing to do with that brand at all.

Currently on Netflix, the series was directed by Shinichirō Watanabe and written by Keiko Nobumoto. The anime is interesting in that it was an original property, meaning that it wasn’t based on a preexisting manga like most anime are. As a result, it was unclear whether or not it was going to succeed.

Originally broadcasted in Japan in 1998, “Cowboy Bebop” didn’t initially take off, receiving a cancellation midway through its run. But after a return to Japanese TV from late 1998 into 1999, it began to grow in fame. It became cemented as an anime classic in 2001 when it kicked off Adult Swim’s introduction into anime programming.

“Cowboy Bebop” is a show that has stood the test of time. It not only continues to be loved and appreciated, but it has grown within the fans and viewers into something more. It’s a transformative property, which is one thing that some pieces of entertainment wish could have.

A good portion of this is because of the pitch perfect voice acting. Within anime, it’s common to find the age-old debate about subtitles versus English dubbing. Sitting comfortably outside of that skirmish, “Cowboy Bebop” has the best English dub of any show, to the point that it is universally considered the only way to watch the show, even in Japan.

Full credit goes to the Japanese actors, who gave great performances — and will soon be coming back — but they don’t hold a candle to the English dub and the legacy they’ve created.

The iconic performances from Steve Blum as Spike, Beau Billingslea as Jet, Wendee Lee as Faye and Melissa Fahn as Ed truly transform the characters. Their line delivery brings the proper somber, melancholy, heavy, funny and goofy tones that echo through the episodes. From Blum’s introspective monologues to Fahn’s quirky Ed-isms, their performances elevate the show and the characters to the point that it is impossible to imagine the series without them.

This is also built upon by the characters themselves. The show does an incredible job of building up the ragtag team that doesn’t quite get along, but they somewhat mutually understand that if they work together, they can all collect a little money for their collective work. It’s amusing to watch them bicker over who discovered the bounty first before storming off in 20 different directions to try and collect it.

But they always help each other. They always have each other’s back during an intense shootout or an aerial dogfight. And that’s because they live and grow together. The Bebop works as a familial ship for this unlikely group while they build bonds between each other without betraying their characteristics.

That’s one of the universal qualities of the show: its characters. They are the essence of cool individually personified. Their distinct personalities allow for all sorts of misadventures and antics, while doing it in a suave manner. And that works because of the careful attention given to each character. There is just as much going on under the surface as there is on display.

For every uncaring line, Spike doesn’t ignore the people around him, often helping others almost against his wishes. Faye keeps coming back for gas or bounties but won’t tell them that she misses them. Jet has to keep moving, otherwise his older age will catch up to him and everyone will leave him behind — even though they always come back. Ed is probably the only one who is everything that she presents to people, but it works because her goofy sensibilities bring brevity.

Along with that, each character has an in-depth backstory that gets slowly unveiled through the course of the show. The show beautifully deconstructs this through character centered episodes, like the Jet episode “Black Dog Serenade” or the Faye focused “My Funny Valentine.”

These episodes build upon the previously lived in characters and it begins to break them down even further. The only times this happens for Spike are the five main “story” episodes, which consist of “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” the dual part midsection “Jupiter Jazz” and the final two episodes “Real Folk Blues.” Everything combined makes an experience truly unlike any other. The emphasis on character and story is unmatched, with bits of each character’s philosophy and worldview presented clearly throughout the character breakdowns.

One of the main strengths of the show is these characters, crafting them into tragic people stuck in an endless cycle of running from the past while trying to survive in the present. Even though they might not seem like they care sometimes, they still have to eat. But they don’t let their hunger for cash overshadow the importance of a situation.

Along with the main characters, the show does a surprising and excellent subversion with the episodes’ villains. Except for the main villain, Vicious, who only shows up occasionally, each episode has a specific threat that needs to be dealt with. Some of the time, they are just some craved individual or terrorist trying to make a statement, like in “Gateway Shuffle,” which features the first major planet saving event in its fantastic climax.

But the other villains are made out to be tragic individuals pushed to the brink because of their circumstances. The show nails the sympathetic villain trope by actually making you feel for the bad guy’s plight. For example, “Waltz for Venus” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” contain excellent bounty heads that you end up understanding by the end of the episode. It’s not uncommon to feel sad for the people involved.

Again, it speaks to the strength of the characters when they understand the situation more fully by the end. There’s no point in chasing the bounty if it means Mars is going to explode or a good person is going to end up hurt. The show works because it knows when the stakes become too high for the characters, so they switch priorities accordingly.

This is equally true for the universe of “Cowboy Bebop.” Split across different planets in the solar system, it effortlessly creates a setting with consistent rules and immediately understood concepts. The show doesn’t need to take three episodes to show how the astral gates work for hyperspace travel, or how Woolongs are the universal currency or how there is a large portion of bounty hunters in the system to the point where they have a TV show to detail new bounties.

It shows all of this, which in turn creates a natural world for the show. The show moves freely from the biosphere cities on Mars to the desolate and ruined Earth, which is explained at different points in the show. This makes the show feel lived in, grimy and old in the best possible way. It gives the show the perfect old west feeling while taking some of the best parts of science fiction. In a sense, it captures what makes the original “Star Wars” trilogy so textured.

This is represented by the ships in the show too. Huge and worn down, the Bebop acts as the perfect home for imperfect people. Spike’s iconic Swordfish is old and dusty, yet sleek and fast, allowing for quick movements when needed most. Faye’s Red Tail works as a balance between the two along with Jet’s Hammer Head. They’re worn-down ships for people barely holding it together, but still moving forward.

The world, ships and characters give the show a nostalgic feel, representing both the pervasive past and fast forward future. It feels outside of time, representing the outlaw west with the free-range bounty hunters set in a galactic space travel world. It’s almost indescribable, the kind of feeling you only get from experiencing the show for yourself.

If none of that has convinced you by this point that this show is special, then the music will. Orchestrated by Yoko Kanno and her band Seatbelts, the music for the show is phenomenal. It combines big band jazz with somber interludes that always match the tone and scene of the episode. It is kinetic, fun, melancholic and beautiful. It perfectly captures everything that the show is going for in every possible way.

For example, the title sequence song “Tank!” immediately grabs your attention, moving from the big band to the saxophone solos. It guides the viewer through the technicolor and silhouette visuals, making the experience already one of a kind. This is also contrasted with “The Real Folk Blues” at the end of each episode, as the heavy rock song belts out the pent-up emotion felt through the course of the show.

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This all plays with the individual songs that appear within the episodes, most of which are only used one time. But every time the guitar starts on “Waltz for Zizi,” it brings forth the somber mood created by the end of the episode, mixing in the country twang of the western feel as Spike takes a drag from his cigarette.

Along with that, the music is always perfectly timed. The show knows exactly when to introduce the music in a scene, and it always is better for it. One of the best examples of this is in the movie during one of the climactic fight scenes.

In the scene, Spike is flying against the clock to stop an attack while some military jets try to stop him. It shows the scene for a minute only using the sounds of the ships and Spike’s comments. But then, “What Planet Is This?!” comes soaring in, changing a good scene into one of the best aerial dogfights in cinema as Spike maneuvers through tight spaces and explosive missiles. It’s perfect.

Clearly, the music is intertwined with the rest of the show. It helps create one of the core identities of the series, with episode titles referencing music in some way along with the fact that they are called Sessions instead of episodes. It could probably exist without it, but “Cowboy Bebop” is elevated to a new stratosphere because of the musical stylings of Yoko Kanno.

All of this continues to breathe life in the show 20 years after the North American premiere of the show, and 23 years after its initial airing. The show is fun and exciting to watch, with funny jokes, energetic action and sometimes ridiculous plots. But it became a masterpiece that is continuously watched because of its ability to blend all of that with the broken characters, weighty philosophy, introspective episodes and resonating storylines.

It weighs on the viewer’s mind, in a good way. All the individual moments stick out, with everyone having different favorite episodes or characters. Even the “bad” episodes — meaning a good episode by most comparisons — are still known and loved. There might be one or two episodes that you skip, but it all works beautifully together.

Personally, I recently finished a re-watch of the show and movie. When I first watched it, my initial understanding of the series was based on what everyone else had said about it. But it still immediately stood out as something special. I had the pleasure of introducing my younger brother to the show, with all of the surprises, melancholia and exciting action fresh to him. Our favorite episode ended up being the Ed and Ein Session “Mushroom Samba,” just for every wacky event that occurred during the episode.

It speaks to the legacy of the show that it can be infinitely re-watched and infinitely loved by anyone of any background. That’s why it became the entry point to anime for a lot of people. It’s blend of western sensibilities and jazz within a sci-fi setting eased people into the medium, only for them to come out the other side a changed viewer.

It’s also worth noting that outside of the movie and the TV show, there isn’t much else. Besides some supplementary material like a brief manga and a video game, it’s mostly just been the show and movie as the main forms of “Cowboy Bebop.”

That’s why it’s significant that there is a live-action Netflix show coming out soon. It’s one of the first times that the series has been touched by anything other than music concerts. In a way, it could be seen as devaluing the original show. But it’s too soon to say what effect, if any, it will have on the original series — if it means anything, the teaser trailer is fun.

Honestly, whatever happens, happens. The original will still be around regardless of if the new show is good or bad. It will continue to float in the upper echelons of entertainment and understanding, bringing in new audiences within its introspective folds.

That’s the true legacy of “Cowboy Bebop,” and it is one that will fly off into the stars looking for the next bounty. It’s not only one of the best anime ever created, it’s one of the best shows of all time. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or the 100th time …

See you space cowboy …

cowboy bebop ending credits

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