How do you make an otaku feel old? Remind them Cowboy Bebop is turning 20 this year. To celebrate its 20th birthday, we’ll be running a series of posts, articles and poems. To kick things off, I cast my mind back and explore how I first discovered the show.
Time and places have a way of resonating with us despite having never lived in or visited them. For me, the nineties have long held some unending fascination. Despite being born in ’92, I was much too young to appreciate the art and culture around me – beyond Pixar, Star Wars and localised shonen – and its only as I get older that I excavate deeper into the decade.
Anime originating from this ten-year period is among my favourite, when animation was still largely hand drawn, with a more organic aesthetic and originality was in apparent abundance. As a kid, my anime experience was limited to heavily censored versions Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, and also Cardcaptors, the anesthetised English adaptation of Cardcaptor Sakura. Then there was Yi-Gi-Oh!, Pokémon, and later Digimon. But in all that time, I never once appreciated anime as its own art form, as a vehicle to tell complex stories. That is until I happened across Cowboy Bebop.
The exact channel was unimportant, and has since been struck from Sky’s television schedule, but knowing that viewers would be treated to an evening anime slot felt like a victory. Myself and others had formed a campaign group on one forum or another where we agreed to bother Sky for our own anime channel here in the UK. A two-hour window would have to suffice. Though the other shows aired escape me now, I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Bebop.
I still remember the episode – ‘Wild Horses’ – which, I discovered much later, took place a good way into the series. But it didn’t matter, I was already hooked. There was something so different about Cowboy Bebop compared to the other anime I’d seen. The line art was crisper, more fluid. The animation was altogether more impressive and the scope of those dazzling space scenes and busy backdrops wasn’t lost on my teenage self.
The characters were complex, not just funny and engaging, but flawed and often at odds with one another. It was impossible not to be won over by Spike Spiegel’s’ roguish charm and devil may care attitude, but Jet felt like a father figure and offered an interesting riff on the cop trope. As well as being undeniably attractive (I was 14at the time), Faye Valentine was tough and capable, but also as wounded and flawed as the rest of them. The closest thing I had seen to her at that time was probably Dragon Ball’s Bulma and they’re worlds apart. Ein was the show’s dose of kooky cute and Ed, well Ed’s a character I’ve come to appreciate more in subsequent re-watches.
Certain anime are so crystallised in my memory in their English dub that to watch them in the any other way just feels wrong. For that reason, I can only watch Dragon Ball Z in English. My first encounter with Bebop was with its English dub. Fortunately, its collected cast is one of the best assembled, with Steve Blum nailing Spike’s attitude and Beau Billingslea giving Jet a bassy timbre. Melissa Fahn as Ein manages to convey the androgyny inherent in the character, without grating on the ears like so many other English voice actors.
I knew from the opening credits that Cowboy Bebob was something special. The hip visuals paired with that jazzy swing number remains one of anime’s best openings, and a blueprint for future shows to follow – just look at the end credits for Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens. And that’s to say nothing about Bebop’s own ending – the moody redolent ‘Real Folk Blues’ – which is still a mainstay on my headphones.
Creator Shinichiro Watanabe set out to splice together anime with the art, music and culture he loved from the west. It’s become a hallmark of his entire oeuvre, establishing him as a key bridging point between the art of east and west. Indeed, the show was emblazoned with “And the work which has become a genre unto itself shall be called: Cowboy Bebop”. It’s a tough series to define, one-part detective show, by turns space opera and western, with elements of cyber punk, dystopia, philosophy, martial arts… and the list goes on. This effortless blend has influenced many anime creators, but also western minds. Just look at Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
Then there’s that ending. Even now, Spike’s fate from the final episode remains unresolved, an impressive feat in this current cultural epoch of sequels, reboots and remakes. Yes, Hollywood is taking a punt at adapting it (which we’ll explore in a later post) but Bebop’s closing scenes rank among the greatest television endings, anime or otherwise.
But I digress. This is a post about my own introduction and subsequent love of Cowboy Bebop. The fact that you’re reading these words – or any other article on this blog, for that matter – is testament to that discovery. Without that, I doubt I would have seen how beautiful, explorative and vital anime could be. Bebop forever remains in my top five anime of all time, as much a part of my past as my future.
So space cowboys, how did you first discover Cowboy Bebop? Share your stories below and we’ll collect the best in a round-up response.