Bebop is a style of jazz that is fast-paced, complex and unpredictable. This definition encapsulates the 1998 series Cowboy Bebop, a genre-bending animated series which is often cited as the best anime series ever created. Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who recently directed the Blade Runner short Black Out 2022, the series shows no signs of its popularity fading, even almost 20 years after its first broadcast.
Set in 2071, the series follows a motley crew of bounty hunters – Spike, Jet, Faye and Ed – as they travel through space in search of criminals. Earth is now uninhabitable – humanity has colonised planets and moons, the vastness of space creating a sense of disconnect. The characters travel through space, isolated from the outside world, and rely on collecting bounty to survive. The relationships between each of the main characters are also tangible; they are more than co-workers, but less than friends – they live together as a family, but know next to nothing about one another. This sense of mystery permeates the series, making for a fascinating and compulsive viewing.
Stereotypically, anime is bright, loud and cheerful. Anime is pretty divisive in its nature; audiences either love it or hate it. Bebop, however has the ability to transcend audience expectation and therefore appeals to both those who love anime and those who don’t. It is the highest-rated anime series on IMBD, and for good reason. Bebop is complemented with muted yet striking cinematography, dry humour and subtle symbolism- not your stereotypical anime series. What really makes Bebop stand out from other animated series, however, is its heavy sense of melancholy. The limitlessness of space means that relationships are meagre – no one seems to have a purpose in life, or seems particularly content, their minds elsewhere. The audience learns very little about each main character, but it is clear they are all slightly ‘broken’ in some way, physically and psychologically, unable to fit into society and, as a result, lonely. Jet lost his arm, and his robotic arm makes him feel less than human; Faye has amnesia and can’t remember anything from her past; Spike lost his eye, and his artificial eye causes him to lose track of what is real and what is the past. While each character is likeable and believable, and skilled psychically for action scenes, there isn’t anything particularly ‘special’ about them. Unlike many other animated characters in equally popular series, their personalities are not over exaggerated – they seem ‘real’. As they drift aimlessly through space, the 26 episodes grant the audience an intimate access into their lives, and begin to feel as if they are on the Bebop spaceship.
The famous opening track and score was composed by Yoko Kanno, who formed a jazz and blues band to create the perfect musical accompaniment for the series. The soundtrack is symbiotic with the series, as was Kanno and Watanabe’s working relationship; he would listen to the music she created and would create scenes inspired by it, and she would be inspired by the scenes he created. The soundtrack perfectly matches the melancholic atmosphere, while also accentuating the action scenes. A harmonica is heard recurrently throughout the series, reminiscent of spaghetti westerns. The opening theme is one of the most iconic features of the series, loud and exhilarating, reminiscent of ‘60s crime shows. The series isn’t oversaturated with jazz or blues music however, and the score never feels tired. Key scenes are often emphasised by orchestral music, for example in episode 18, when the group watches a video of Faye as a child- before she lost her memory- the scene is paired with a soft piano, enabling the audience to listen in quiet bewilderment alongside the cast. The music seems out of place, but so does the scene- the characters who are usually bickering are completely united in speechlessness. The scene is undeniably morose and exemplifies the intense analysis of each character’s psyche, and how the show is equally capable of action, comedy, and tragedy.
Cowboy Bebop is a must-watch for sci-fi fans and is available to stream on Netflix.