Much has already been said and written about Cowboy Bebop. The characters, story and storyworld have been put under a magnifying glass by countless people. With the Netflix remake coming soon the influence of the show cannot be denied. Even 13 years after its debut many people remain fascinated by a show which, according to some, stands alone in the medium. I’m not here to discuss that. Instead I want to focus on what I think gives this show its stickiness: Atmosphere. This is the third part in my series on the 1998 space western anime. You can find part one on Trigun here and part two on Outlaw star here.
3, 2, 1 let’s jam!
The atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop
From the first episode it’s clear that this is a strange world. The unfamiliar scenes of spaceships travelling through hyperspace gates are blended with the familiarity of bar shootouts and smoking, lots of smoking. It might not be very far fetched to say that the smoke is the connecting tissue between the show’s western and noir elements with the science fiction part of it. Rickety space crafts are piloted by (smoking) gangsters and other dirty characters. In fact, the whole world seems to be filled with less than honest people.
In this world we find Spike, Jet and Faye1. A strange group of bounty hunters or cowboys who hunt criminals of all shapes and sizes to claim the reward money. At first sight they seem to be on the good side of the law, but all of these characters are deeply flawed with a dark past. And while some are stuck in their past, others seem to just ignore it.
The portrayal of these characters, especially in combination with the close up shots, give us a picture of a world that is unfair. A world where the characters are disconnected, simply because they believe they cannot influence it anymore. They feel powerless and always return to the one place or mental state that they feel comfortable with. The Bebop itself is a relic that supports this notion. A ship that feels as lived in and looks like it’s flying on the fumes of the last earned reward. Much of the world is shown this way: dirty and gray. Especially in the episodes where we explore a bit of the characters history it looks like humanity is trying very hard to just sustain itself, rather than moving forward.
This thick layer of Film Noir is all over Cowboy Bebop. The Britannica says this about the genre: “Classic images of noir included rain-soaked streets in the early morning hours; street lamps with shimmering halos; flashing neon signs on seedy taverns, diners, and apartment buildings; and endless streams of cigarette smoke wafting in and out of shadows.”
This is the world of Cowboy Bebop in a nutshell. And it’s not just the images on screen, but also the music that empowers this feeling that the show is trying to convey to the viewer. While listened to out of context the OST might give you just the notion that it’s just blues or jazz, but combined with the imagery it creates a feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia of an imaginary time long ago when the world was perhaps a more depressing place to live in. A world where characters make selfish decisions for their own benefit and nothing that lasts comes from it.
Watching Cowboy Bebop is a good experience
Due to time constraints over the last few weeks rewatching the entire show to write a blog was a bit of a scary prospect for me. I already knew the episodes well enough to just start writing. And I probably would have been able to write an interesting piece in this anime western series, even if I wasn’t able to find a specific hook to start with.
But that notion left me as soon as the opening credits rolled on episode one. I could not suppress a big grin, knowing that watching the whole thing would be a good experience. I created time in my schedule to watch the entire series and wasn’t disappointed. The world and characters remain interesting; the shots feel important; and the music completes the bittersweet package.
Though I am heavily biased when it comes to this show, I continually find that there’s something special with it. For me it is the combination of genre elements; the use of the animated medium and the nostalgic feeling of a time when I was younger. A time when the outside world seemed less detached then it is now. Perhaps that is a reason to watch the show. To remind yourself of that feeling and to realise that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Because for all the detachment and somberness shown on screen, the music of this show shines a light of hope on the world that is sorely needed.
Should you watch it?
Somewhere on the background images of the commercial bumpers it says: “it’s not a kind of space opera; it’s a sort of space jazz.”
I believ that this is how you should approach this show. See it as a sort of jazz. Sometimes it’s slow and methodical and a few minutes later it’s a high energy dance. You alone can decide if this is for you, but you’ll never know if you like it if you haven’t tried. After rewatching this show, I can only conclude that Cowboy Bebop remains a staple in the medium. A character show where the characters don’t seem to progress that much over it’s 26 episode run. And that’s fine, given how contradictory it sounds. I also believe it was a good decision of the creators to end it. Sometimes it is just better to stop with a great project to let it live. Especially for Cowboy Bebop, since its ending allowed it to breathe amongst the community. And we now know the result of this decision. Cowboy Bebop remains a show that fascinates people like myself for many years to come.
Next month in the final part of this series I will put all previous parts together. And also comment on the value of doing a remake. Because I believe that there are valuable comments to make. See you then, space cowboy.
1. I’m not denying that Edward and Ein aren’t part of the crew. They play a different role in the show.