In the year 2071 mankind has spread to the stars…..thanks to the invention of Hyper-Space Gates the majority of the solar system has been colonized in less than a century. But as in the American Old West, law and authority cannot keep up with the rapid expansion of the frontier. Crime is rampant, and the powers that be must rely on bounty hunters more so than the organized police force. And through these bounty hunters another aspect of the Old West is reborn: the Cowboy.
Reformed gangster Spike Spiegal and ex-cop Jet Black are two down-on-their luck cowboys trying to earn a living in this uncertain future. Despite the two men’s experience in dealing with the criminal element, they never seem to quite catch their bounty. You’d think they might get some help from the data dog Ein, gambling queen Faye Valentine, or the hacker-prodigy Ed….but more often than not this motley crew is left empty-handed. In their ship, the Bebop, they cruise the solar system fighting crime, running from their pasts, and trying to find a decent meal.
Since premiering in 1998, Cowboy Bebop has quickly become one of the most popular and respected anime titles in history. Blending futuristic sci-fi with an urban retro-1970s feel, Bebop is a unique television show which skillfully transcends all kinds of genres. Episodes vary drastically in tone, from cartoonish farce to dramatic tragedy and everything in between. It’s all held together by some of the most endearing characters to ever grace an anime, along with movie-quality animation, sophisticated writing, and an incredible pop score by the great Yoko Kanno. One of Bebop’s commercial bumpers proclaims it, a bit pretentiously, “the work which will become a new genre in itself”. It’s right: Cowboy Bebop is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. “The Perfect Sessions” collects all 26 episodes of this landmark anime series, along with a CD of some of the excellent music that puts the “Bebop” in Cowboy Bebop.
Cowboy Bebop is a series that fairly oozes style, which is a very hard-to-define element. There’s just something undeniably cool about it. Perhaps it’s the exotic-yet-familiar vision of a future in which space-age technology coexists with more everyday items like ceiling fans and automobiles (in this aspect, Cowboy Bebop is reminiscent of the old Dirty Pair television series). It could be the back-ally jazz compositions that punctuate the action, or the main character Spike’s laid-back, cavalier attitude towards life. But whatever it is, Cowboy Bebop has it in doses. You’ll be hard pressed to find an anime with more panache.
The characters are so convincingly portrayed that the show could have been successful without any of the afore-mentioned style. Spike’s character in particular runs the gamut from goofy to blasé’ to teeth-gnashing tough; he is one of most three-dimensional anime leads in recent memory. Jet may seem like a no-nonsense heavy but he’s actually a concerned father-figure for the rest of the crew, and Faye’s sultry tough-girl act covers up a very insecure individual. Only the 13-year-old female hacker Ed is given a one-sided persona, but her oddball mirth is presented so vividly it’s easy to accept her as a genuine personality as well. These strong characterizations help carry the series through some predictable storylines that might otherwise be pretty dull.
The series is episodic in nature, each episode (or “session”) tells a self-contained story that often has no bearing on the others. Many of the plots are taken straight from the pages of old pulp-fiction novels or classic American cop shows. The show relies on it’s unique interpretation of these familiar cliché’s to give it a fresh spin. There is very little “point” to the series than to entertain it’s audience, which it consistently does.
One of the few recurring themes of Cowboy Bebop is that your past has a way of catching up with you. Spike has left his life of crime, but still relentlessly seeks his old mob flame Julia. Instead he usually winds up running into Vicious, his former superior in the Red Dragon Mafia who wants him dead for leaving the syndicate…..or is it because of Julia? Jet wants nothing at all to do with his own past, which only holds painful memories of a lost love and a lost left arm, yet events surrounding his old misfortunes come back to haunt him. Faye, conversely, is an amnesiac who his actively seeking the answers to her missing past. When she finally regains her memory, the truth turns out to be very bittersweet. Even carefree Ed is faced with her troubled past when her neglectful father reappears late in the series. These serious moments are at odds with the gritty-yet-lighthearted tone found in the majority of the series, and yet there is no feeling of inconsistency in the show’s varying attitudes. Cowboy Bebop makes no attempt to hide it is inspired by the musical format of the Blues (The show’s closing theme is “The Real Folk Blues”), and most good Blues melodies manage to be jazzy while at the same time a little somber. Cowboy Bebop is, in a way, a physical manifestation of the Blues.
The usual J-pop soundtrack would not suit such a project well, and the Bebop staff rightly sought an American jazz sound to accompany their work. Yoko Kanno had proven her talent by creating memorable orchestral scores for anime like Macross Plus and Escaflowne, and with Cowboy Bebop she shows a remarkable musical versatility. Her instrumental pieces for Bebop outrank many a Hollywood film’s, and the many songs (almost all in English) that are peppered throughout the series could certainly be top-40 hits on American radio, particularly “Call Me Call Me” and “Want it all Back”. Kanno’s music is vital to achieving the eclectic mood Bebop strives for, and oftentimes the music takes precedence over the action or the characters.
The amazing musical score complements a high quality of animation seldom seen on television. Character movements are much fuller than that of a standard TV anime. Character Designer Toshihiro Kawamoto, who previously had worked on the Gundam series 08th MS Team, has a very appealing yet simple style that is easier to animate than the more complex designs found in other anime. The animation of the various vehicles featured in Bebop is also of very high merit, and is made more impressive by the fact that much of it was done traditionally, without the aid of computers. The CG that is present in Bebop blends very well for a series done in 1998. Though not as seamless as the merger of old and new techniques in recent productions like Vampire Hunter D or even the Cowboy Bebop movie, it is a far sight better than earlier attempts at mixing computer and hand animation, as in Blue Submarine #6.
Much has been made of Cowboy Bebop’s English dub, and rightly so. All too often the inclination in voice-over work is to caricature the voice, make it “cartoonish” and unnatural. There are frequently times where this is of course the appropriate method, but many anime tell sophisticated stories that require a more realistic approach. Several serious anime have been belittled by their English dubs that feature hammy, over-the-top voice acting. Cowboy Bebop is to be commended for boasting a flawless English cast which plays it straight and low-down. Even the cartoony Ed, whom the directors easily could have given an equally cartoony voice, sounds like a sincere 13-year-old girl…albeit a very oddball one. The English cast is so convincing, in fact, they actually one-up the Japanese originals. Wendee Lee in particular is to be commended for besting the great Megumi Hayashibara as Faye.
“The Perfect Sessions” collects all 6 DVD volumes of Bebop in a snazzy box that’s as cool as the show inside. The main cast is featured in a gold-tone portrait on the front, and a little picture of Ein graces the back corner. Inside is a sampling of Bebop tunes on CD. It showcases some of the best tracks from the first part of the series but regrettably leaves out some great compositions from the latter episodes, such as the aforementioned “Call Me” and “Blue”.
I’ve never met an anime fan who didn’t like Cowboy Bebop, and I know many non-anime fans who admire it as well. Like the best works of film, it has a universal appeal that transcends cultures and personal tastes. It is an anime that will be remembered long after many others have been forgotten.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B-
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A+
+ simply one of the greatest anime titles ever, showcasing brilliant characterization, animation, music, and above all entertainment
− storylines are nothing new, music CD included in Box set leaves out some of the best tracks