Howdy, folks, how y’all doin?! Welcome to the very first in a 27 week series which, much like my 2014 series “Batman Reanimated,” will review and discuss every episode (and the movie) of another mega-influential animated program, the 1998 (in Japan) anime space western masterpiece Cowboy Bebop.
This series will review each of the 26 episodes of the series as well as the spinoff, midquel movie. (Question: Do you folks think I should do the movie within timeline continuity or after the series? Think it over, we have a long time to get there.) I’m going to be watching and talking about the show the way I saw it the first time on Toonami in 2001, meaning with the English language dub, because this is, among many things, a revisiting of an old favorite and since I didn’t watch it in Japanese first, my allegiances lie with the dub. We’re going to focus primarily on why Bebop remains so beloved and how it perfectly melded visuals, writing, and music in a way that other animated series have always wished they could. For me, and probably many others, this is the show that introduced me to what anime could be when it wasn’t just kid-centric fare like Pokemon or Sailor Moon (though there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of them).
So, please enjoy these weeks looking over one of the best sci-fi shows in history. THIS is Cowboy REbop. Let’s jam.
Cowboy Bebop was the fruit of the perfect collaboration between a great big group of people, including director Shinichiro Watanabe, screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, designers Toshihiro Kawamoto and Kimitoshi Yamane, and composer Yoko Kanno. The stories, dialogue, action, setting, and music all had to be in absolute harmony and they were. It’s an amazing feat of creativity. For a show like this, which could be construed as hyper-masculine by people not paying attention, to have been both written and composed by women is a testament to not only to how talented they Nobumoto and Kanno are, but also how subversive and deep the show actually can be.
At the outset, the story follows a pair of bounty hunters named Spike Spiegel and Jet Black. They’re clearly not the wealthiest folks, flying around the galaxy in a beat-up old freighter named The Bebop. We get precious little information about these characters in the first episode, or session as the show refers to it, “Asteroid Blues,” but what we do get sets the two up nicely: Jet is the older, more sensible, and in-control one, while Spike is the opposite — young, brash, seemingly without a care in the world. We soon find out he’s much deeper than that, but that takes a little bit of time. Instead, here we just get glimpses of Spike training in martial arts alone and in the dark.
The episode opens with some oblique images of, washed out and grey, of Spike, in a raincoat, holding a bouquet of flowers at his side, walking though a rainy city that flash and cut very quickly. This cuts back and forth with explosive flashes of a gunfight in what looks to be a church possibly. Spike drops the bouquet in a puddle and the sequence ends. We’ll learn several weeks later that this is a flashback to the traumatic moment in Spike’s past, but as of this moment, the first minute of the program ever, we have nothing else to go on, and soon we forget the whole affair because we’re immediately bombarded with “Tank!” the opening credits theme that perpetuates the whole series.
Wow! What a way to start a show. None of these images mean anything to us yet, but the colors and the kinetic energy of it all really sets a tone. Kanno’s music throughout this series is nothing short of superb, and without her melding of acid jazz, blues, big band, cowboy melodies, and Neo-noir saxes, this serious would absolutely not be what it is. “Tank!” is like a ’60s spy movie theme ramped up to full throttle. It’s evocative, punchy, and absolutely a key part of the very fabric of this series.
In fact, what struck me a lot about “Asteroid Blues” in terms of its music is when it’s used. It’s not wall-to-wall score; in fact there are many scenes with no other sounds besides ambient noise, and yet at least four cuts from the original series soundtrack album appear just in this one episode. Music plays a huge part in the series as a whole, given that each episode title is a reference to some specific song or style of music, here being the blues, obviously.
The main plot is this: Spike and Jet take a bounty on a criminal named Asimov Solensan, a member of The Syndicate, a crime family that stretches the cosmos, who killed off members of his own crew and made off with a huge supply of Bloody-Eye, a drug that’s put directly into the ocular cavity that keeps the eyes from blinking and allows the brain to process things faster. This is represented visually in Asimov’s POV with everything being tinted red and people moving slower. Asimov has a girlfriend named Katerina who is apparently pregnant. They try to make a sale at a bar, but are ambushed by Syndicate goons trying to get revenge. Katerina clearly loves Asimov, but he’s become too addicted to Bloody-Eye and the sale of it to care about her much in return. She’s more of an accomplice at this point. Spike finds her waiting for Asimov at one point and talks her up, but then reveals that he’s a bounty hunter just as Asimov appears and attempts to choke Spike to death, but Katerina pleads for him to stop. Spike re-emerges later pretending to be a buyer of drugs, and he and Asimov fight before more goons show up and things get really messy. We also learn in this skirmish that Katerina isn’t pregnant at all, and that her belly is actually a bag holding dozens of vials of Bloody-Eye.
There are five main characters in the series, with two other important recurring characters, but only Jet and Spike appear in “Asteroid Blues.” This is important because it lets us know what a “typical” day in the life of these two is like. They sit around the ship, eat bell peppers and beef (which is really just bell peppers because they can’t afford the beef due to Spike’s recklessness during the last bounty), and wait for the next big payday. They seem to be kind of bored. They’re good at what they do, but they lack all kinds of excitement, the kind which will show up sooner than they know.
It’s amazing to me just how much time is given for things to unfold. Granted, there’s not a ton of story here, which is good for a first episode, ease us in gently. But, Spike sits in his ship getting ready, which takes a few seconds; there’s lots of scenes of Spike and Jet separately looking for leads; we get time just to be in the world of the show without having to have wall-to-wall story. It’s also an incredibly violent first episode. People get shot up in the various gunfights and we get to see it pretty graphically, in the way that only anime can do.
While having nothing at all to do with the overall plot arc of the series, “Asteroid Blues” does a masterful job of setting up the universe of Cowboy Bebop. We get the future-western vibe of the whole thing, know the kind of action we’re going to get, see that Spike fights like Bruce Lee, learn what Spike and Jet do every day, and know that the ending probably won’t be very happy. It’s a completely standalone piece of storytelling and if no one ever watched beyond this, they’d at least get to see a full story and know, in the most basic of terms, what Cowboy Bebop is.
But we’re not stopping here, of course. We’re only just beginning! Next week is a real romp of silliness (that a lot of people don’t think is very good, actually) that introduces us to the first NEW member of the Bebop crew: Ein, the data dog. “Stray Dog Strut” is next week, so star gearing up now.
See you, space cowboy. Bang.