[HEADS UP: There are some very minor spoilers for the Cowboy Bebop series in this piece, so if that sort of thing bothers you I don’t recommend reading this!]
Cowboy Bebop is one of those series that literally every dude between the ages of 25-35 tries to recommend to every casual nerd. It has the distinction of being one of the best examples of anime, and of dubbed anime, from a very specific point in time, so people latch on to it as a classic and insist on acting completely scandalized when someone hasn’t seen it or doesn’t like it.
It’s that kind of behavior that I’ve mentioned before that I completely hate. And yet…I love Bebop. In fact, I recently convinced my coworker to watch the whole series — not because I told him he had to! But because he’s been enjoying noir comics lately, and I thought some of the themes would scratch a similar itch for him. He’s enjoying it thus far, I’m happy to report.
In general, I’m content to leave my discussions about Bebop in the past, or among like-minded friends. But on Thursday I had the incredible experience of being able to see the movie in theatres, and I can’t stop reflecting on how much I enjoyed it. I’ve seen the movie before, of course, but when it first hit US shores, it wasn’t in any theatres near me. At age 13, living in the middle of Connecticut, there was no option for me to see it that didn’t involve a multi-hour trip to either New York or Boston. I was heartbroken.
But I was finally able to live out my dream. I bought my ticket nearly a month in advance, I got to the theatre early, I bought way too much popcorn for way too much money, and I had an excellent time of it.
Before the movie, instead of endless previews or ads for other events, there was a short Q&A session with the dub voice actors. It lasted maybe ten or fiifteen minutes, but it was a nice little reintroduction to the characters and the movie specifically. It was amazing to hear how the VAs didn’t really alter their voices overmuch for their dub performances, so that these incredibly recognizable voices were coming out of the mouths of people I’ve seen before, but less frequently than their animated counterparts. Getting the little bit of background, and learning about the excitement of the actors to have worked on this project, definitely helped set the mood for the feature presentation.
Cowboy Bebop‘s opening sequence and song, “Tank!” are iconic at this point; for me, so too is the opening credit roll of the film, with its black and white panorama of Martian city life (that always struck me as looking a lot like New York City life). Whole books have been written about Yoko Kanno’s scoring prowess, and the entire Bebop OST is a musical masterpiece; but I do especially love the movie soundtrack and the film’s sanguine opener, “Ask DNA.” This series is one that is based firmly around music and mood — as themes, not just as enhancements to the story. The film is no different.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door takes place before the end of the series, but after we have already been introduced to all the core cast. The crew of the Bebop is on Mars, following small-fry bounties and trying to keep themselves from starving. Spike and Jet go after some small-time convenience store robbers, while Faye ropes Ed into tracking down info on a hacker. Everything goes sideways when Faye witnesses a terrorist bombing and Mars is suddenly beseiged by a completely inexplicable viral warfare.
As our intrepid heroes dive further and further into this case, they have to untie the threads of military experimentation, memory loss, doomed romance, global terrorism, and a crooked pharmaceutical company. It seems like a lot, but it all comes together in a seamless tapestry, peppered with the usual humor and a lot of really adorable jack-o-lanterns.
There was a practice, when I was young, of hating female characters in anime because their presence either got in the way of your gay ships, or got in the way of your two-dimensional love interests. Faye Valentine is a ripe subject for this, an easy target in her tiny yellow outfit, with her gambling vice and her vanity. But something always prevented me from hating her outright, and it wasn’t until the last decade or so that I realized I actually really love her. In the film, she’s the first person to witness Vincent Volaju’s terrorist attack; she’s the one who takes the initiative to go after the bounty; and she’s the one who remains defiant in an otherwise hopeless situation. It is poignant, we later realize, that she should be the one to have a conversation with Vincent about lost memories — a touch that I’m not sure I had noticed until this most recent viewing. She is a stark contrast to Spike’s Julia, the perfect, mild-mannered (though disloyal) woman who also happens to look good in a catsuit.
The movie reminds me, also, that the things I like best about Cowboy Bebop are all the things that don’t directly involve Spike’s eyeroll-worthy hang-up about his girlfriend and his best friend having a shag. I love the adventure, the puzzle-solving, the use of music, the references to old film, the late-90s vision of a terraformed future, the comedy, the comraderie…the things that set Cowboy Bebop apart are the ways in which it defies the conventions of science-fiction while placing it self firmly within that boundary. There is a sort of self-aware pseudo-philosophical thread running through everything, including the movie, that feels more like a nod to the spaghetti westerns of a bygone era than an actual moral the audience is expected to believe. But it’s such a loving and respectful nod that it makes the heroism of those once-worshipped cowboys seem worthy of consideration.
I don’t really expect every anime fan to lose their minds about Cowboy Bebop these days, not when there’s such a wealth of animated media at everyone’s fingertips, and new and incredible works are being made all the time. But I’m glad, once again, to have watched it when it was still so fresh and new, and to be able to feel so strongly about it even to this day. No matter what I say, I can’t deny that I’m completely taken in every time I hear those first audacious horns blasting, that deep base thrumming over the James Bond-esque opening sequence. I’m completely taken in by the warmth of the cel animation, the absurd theatricality of film references and seamless blending of old film genres. And damn it if I’m not a sucker for every episode’s distinct musical theme.
Also, Cowboy Bebop is like…the one anime my mom would occasionally catch snippets of an genuinely enjoy, so that’s gotta be good for something, right?