Cowboy Bebop Review
The following review is for the anime series Cowboy Bebop, a renowned anime released by Studio Sunrise back in 1998-1999. It also had an additional film released in 2001, and the movie will also be discussed later in this review. The series and movie were directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, whose other major works include Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy, and Terror in Resonance. It was written by Keiko Nobumoto, who went on to create Wolf’s Rain. The soundtrack was composed by a renowned musician named Yoko Kanno; a composer famous for her work on anime such as Wolf’s Rain, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Darker than Black. I don’t typically point out composers in anime reviews, but she’s an exception. Her soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop is noteworthy and she is widely renowned as the best in her business.
This isn’t my first time watching the series. Far from it. I think this may have been my third or possibly even fourth time watching Cowboy Bebop over the years since high school. I initially watched it as an introductory anime, and I absolutely loved my experience. Then I went ahead and purchased the Bandai Perfect Collection, and then purchased/watched it again when Funimation rescued the license and re-released the series on blu-ray. Finally, I streamed the series subbed on Hulu because I hadn’t yet watched Cowboy Bebop in its native language. I feel a bit conflicted on how to say this, and I'm having a hard time bringing myself to write this Cowboy Bebop review without anxiously browsing elsewhere. But I feel a lot more ambivalent to Cowboy Bebop than when I first saw it years ago. Coming out as an outward hater for a beloved series is a hard task to take on. Don’t get me wrong: I still love Bebop. Just not all of it. Let me explain.
The reason for this change in opinion is because the nature of the show’s writing; it is an episodic series, which means how much you like it depends entirely on each individual episode. For those few readers that haven’t yet seen Cowboy Bebop, an episodic series is basically one where the main story is told through a few “story-centric” episodes scattered throughout the narrative, while the majority of other episodes are side adventures meant to further endear viewers with the main characters. The unfortunate reality is most modern viewers will probably see these intervening episodes as filler. Heck, I’d like to think of myself as a more patient viewer who has traditionally loved Bebop, and I had a heck of time trying to get through it. Partly because I knew where the good episodes were from prior viewings I didn’t see a need to sit through the superflous material.
So…why didn’t I like it?
To further elaborate, I did like it overall. I was just at my wit's end watching what felt like endless filler. Even the fans that love Cowboy Bebop would endlessly parade the Spike-centric episodes as some of the best climaxes they’ve ever seen. So I’m calling a double standard here. I’d argue that its fair to claim the pacing/tone between episodes is haphazard and inconsistent because it ranges from mediocre to great from episode to episode. A hardcore fan would turn around and say that description is unwarranted; that those filler episodes endear the characters to us with the intention of having those climaxes inflict a greater emotional impact. Personally, having seen the series enough times to think on this matter, to me it seems like this attitude would have the opposite effect. With all the mediocre filler episodes I’d imagine disinterested viewers would feel inclined to just drop the series altogether. I’ve talked to some head-scratching fans to know that this can be true. Where is the payoff or endearment for viewers when they were led to believe Cowboy Bebop would blow them away, and it doesn't? They ought to have been honestly told what to expect without bias and nostalgic hyperbole. The main story only encompasses five episodes.
The best story elements suffer from one of three issues. (A) there is not enough of clear elaboration (B) the story leaves intentional gaps in the character’s motivations and timelines or (C) there is not enough substance period. This means ultaimtely the time investment is not worth the payoff. Let’s use Spike as an example. In episode 1-4, 6-11, and 14-24, we practically know nothing about Spike’s past. In all five of his character-centric episodes beginning with Ballad of the Fallen Angels, (EP05) continued in Jupiter Jazz, (EP12-13) and concluded in The Real-Folk Blues, (EP25-26) we get almost no exposition through spoken dialogue. The only examples I can think of offhand are the jarbs between Vicious and Spike, a brief discussion between Spike and a woman named Anne, when Gren speaks to Faye about Vicious, and Spike's rendevous with Julia. The vast majority of exposition all comes through dream-like sequences of Spike’s memories.
This is what we're shown:
In episode 5, it is revealed that Spike was part of the Red Dragon Syndicate and that he is old friend and comrade to the antagonist Vicious. We see an incredible shootout between the two, but most of what we get in terms of actual exposition is a small montage of Spike’s memories as he falls out an exploding building. We get nothing again in terms of his background until Episodes 12 and 13, which is a more subtle and coincidental affair mostly concerning Vicious. Faye abandons the Bebop and encounters Gren, who is a comrade of Vicious from a war on Titan who was betrayed by him. We discover Spike is searching for a woman from his past named Julia, only he missed her stay on Calisto and instead runs into Vicious again when he is executing a simple drug run. Spike has another shootout with Vicious--this time in the form of a dogfight over the skies of Calisto--and two old acquaintances of each named Lin and Gren are killed in the crossfire. Finally in Episodes 25 and 26, Spike meets up with Julia but she dies in the crossfire of their escape. Vicious pulls a successful coup, but dies in a final confrontation with Spike who hunts down Vicious after Julia's death. Spike seems to be mortally wounded by Vicious and collapses outside after mouthing “bang” to the remaining syndicate members. Then the series ends.
So here’s the actual “story”:
Spike is a loyal member of the Red Dragon Syndicate. At some point, he brought in and trained Vicious who in turn admired Spike, but Spike grew disillusioned with his life of violence and crime after he grew to love Julia, whom reciprocated his feelings. Julia already seemed to be in a relationship with Vicious, so when Vicious found out about their plan to escape he held Julia at gunpoint and tried to kill Spike in a shootout. Since then, it isn’t clear if Julia is still working with the syndicate, living under the syndicate’s watch, or is independently on the run too. The timeline isn’t clear of anything prior to the series or even how much time passes during the series. Spike escapes the syndicate before the series starts and has lived as a bounty hunter on the Bebop ever since and continues looking for Julia. That was the most short-version of it, but even the long version analysing every detail leaves an astounding amount to viewer interpretation. Even if the primary Spike-related episodes of Cowboy Bebop are subtle and intelligent in their design, I don’t like giving credit to writers/directors for what isn’t there. Keep in mind also that these five episodes are literally all we have about Spike, and every character related to Spike's past dies.
I write the following a my re-watch post (EP13) : “Clearly, the plot is indicating that there was a love triangle going on with Julia, and that maybe that's the reason Vicious and Spike had their falling out. Rather than just Spike meeting this random girl and deciding to ditch the Red Dragon Syndicate. In a way, though, I kind of think that's overtly simplistic and an otherwise disappointing background for Spike and Vicious' gut-wrenching conflict. Within a gritty underworld defined by power, most traditional mafioso stories focus on the corrupting accumulation of influence and the psychological pressure that comes along with it, rather than on cliche love triangles that break apart bromances.”
The reason Spike’s backstory vague and never truly elaborated on is because, in reality, it isn’t all that meaningful or interesting compared to what we thought it could be. It’s just not. And as for the rest of the Bebop's crew: Faye's story is the only one that really has any sort of emotional impact. Edward gets just one background episode devoted to her, Episode 24, where it is revealed she was an orphan and that she longs to find her father. That's the same episode that she leaves the Bebop crew and is never heard from again. Faye’s backstory is told over three episodes, Episode 15, 18, and 24, and amounts to her being cryogenically frozen and accepting/finding closure that her life from a prior time period is essentially over. She’s the only character that shows any semblance of development as she journeys with the crew, but it is not nearly enough to stop Spike from running off and getting himself killed. Jet’s backstory is told over three episodes, but really only one episode of note, Episode 16, when he confronts the assassin who took his arm and discovers the truth of why he was targeted by the syndicate. His other two developmental episodes have him reconnceting with an old love interest and discovering what happened to a former acquaintence. Both are boring and at times cringe-worthy experiences.
And its not like the ending does us any favors.
I write the following in my re-watch post: (EP26) “I also return to my previous post's criticism, and I still think it remains true. Given that I'm going with a 'he's [Spike's] dead until proven otherwise' interpretation of the ending, I do find myself again asking what was the point of all of this. The answer I'm lead to believe isn't altogether satisfying or positive, but it is certainly honest and practical. The answer that springs my mind is this: 'They were budgeted for 26 episodes and had to fill it in with something' I don't really appreciate fake-outs or shock-value moments with Spike's psychology or past here. But really, what I'm getting at is you could watch the five Spike-centered episodes as a movie and probably get the gist of the series. Presumably, Spike spends 21 of the other 26 episodes--potentially years in the show's universe--trying to escape his past and make a living with new surrogate comrades. I just ponder the point when you can skip every single episode relating to his time as a Bounty Hunter and still understand the resolution to his story.”
The series pulls a double negative on us. Not only when it wastes its own opportunity to condense its story and utilize more than half of its runtime to maybe continue it, but it also leaves unresolved plot-lines with an ending to the series that does not give closure to the intra-character relationshps. By that logic, I don't think its unfair to label Cowboy Bebop's ending as both a cliffhanger meant to instill shock-value and unsatisfying. I cannot emphasize this point enough: the combination of a undeveloped storyline mostly containing random episodic adventures with an impromptu shock-value ending means that the entireity of the intervening episodes were redundant. It’s hard to make a sprawling storyline, to show viewers that the dangers and hazards of the main character's adventures come together and have greater meaning...but this director didn’t try.
This now brings us to the movie.
Even the movie, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, for all of its other incredible attributes is treated as another independent filler episode. I see this decision as yet another major mistake in addition to those listed above. It's not like there isn't precedent for using movies as sequels in the 1990s: two major franchises in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Armitage III had the guts to create an entirely new sequel/ending. The director and creative writer for Bebop decided to play it safe and craft an adventure with no connection whatsoever to anything in the plot; outside of a vague understanding that it occurs between Episodes 22 and 23. I went ahead and watched the series in chronological order to see if the movie adds anything to the original series…and it really doesn’t fit into the original narrative at all. Thus, I feel the creative decision to make the movie a spinoff filler episode was a shortsighted one. As I discussed above the show had very genuine issues that could have possibly been rectified with a film sequel or prequel. The writers doubling down on their own poor creative decisions seems to be a subtle insult to the fans, as does the creative decision to create the movie to be accessible to new viewers.
I write the following in my re-watch post: (Movie) “The Cowboy Bebop movie has a finality to it, which is why it seems to scramble to fit every single major theme from the series into itself as a singular exclamation point. Two hours is not nearly enough to capture everything, however, and it loses some of the series' hard-earned goodwill by trying to commercialize on its own legacy. I haven't finished the series before watching this yet, but maybe in retrospect I should have. I still cannot bring myself to let go, and continue playing what if with what we could’ve had given the production values. Alas I digress.”
I guess the moral of the story here is that Cowboy Bebop makes a lot of genuine mistakes. But you wouldn’t know that because traditional fans to defend Bebop with such vigor. I love Bebop, yet I also seek to be honest about its failures. Likewise I do not believe in arbitrarily lowering one’s standards just because the show is older, if its considered popular, or if it is thought-of a masterpiece. My honest feelings on the matter is that only half of the series’ episodes are worth watching, maybe less all the way down to a mere five episodes if you only care to know Spike Spiegel’s story. It isn’t really fair or appropriate to go around seriously arguing to new viewers that this is the best series ever made when its greatness can only be found in a minority of the episodes (in an episodic series, no less). Spiritual successors to Cowboy Bebop take individual elements that we like about it and do it better, including by the same director in Samurai Champloo. That's just my opinion.
Thanks for reading,