After the samurai-honor-meets-B-boy-attitude of Samurai Champloo, I backtracked to its immediate predecessor, the jazz-riffs-on-Wild-West-in-space of Cowboy Bebop. Describing a show this influential, this aesthetically solid and this fun is like talking about a sunset over the phone: it might be better to watch it first, get bitten by the bug, and then come back here to talk it over. It is probably no exaggeration to call it one of the best anime ever made, but why it works and works so well is not a question of genre or attitude. The show succeeds because it stars some of the most irresistible and unforgettable characters around, gives them the freedom to speak their minds and do their thing, and puts them in a story that makes us care deeply about what happens. We don’t want to just watch them, but climb up in there and jam with them, and when it’s over—with, quite literally, a bang—it’s like good friends have left us.
The story is set in an only slightly-romanticized version of a far future, where mankind has spread out through the whole of the solar system but many of the same problems remain: terrorism, crime, stupidity, greed and plain old boredom. Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are old hands at dealing with almost all of the above—they’re freelance bounty hunters, knocking around the solar system in the Bebop, a tattered crate of a ship that was probably already heavily used when they bought it. Most of their big leads come in over the TV (in an amusing future variant of America’s Most Wanted that panders explicitly to bounty hunters), but they also know how to twist a few arms and prod the right people to find out who’s worth bringing in.
But most of their big scores end up sliding through their fingers, and the first several episodes show them mostly broke, mostly hungry (Jet’s “beef with bell peppers special” is special because it has no beef in it), and mostly pretty fed up. Spike is, however, the sort of person who was born to navigate this territory without cracking: he wears an easy smile even when he’s smashing three guys at once in the face, and Jet’s artificial arm and street-smarts help make up for the rest. They may be down, but not out, and after a number of screw-ups—a drug hustler and his woman, a pet thief who snagged an experimental animal, and an eco-terrorist gang, among others—they find they’ve come up empty, but have inexplicably acquired a few hangers-on.
The first is Faye Valentine, the best incarnation of a future femme fatale that has been put into anime yet—she of the self-professed gypsy blood and perennially wretched luck, possibly even worse than Spike and Jet’s put together. When she shows up she’s lugging around a massive debt, and to help dismiss it she’s roped into doing a little sleight-of-hand at a casino where there’s a lot more going on than card-counting. Spike runs afoul of the whole thing—she thinks he’s supposed to be the designated player of the evening—but he doesn’t take pity on her. She is, after all, just as mercenary as they are, if not more, and runs off with a take intended for them. Then her bad luck kicks in, and her ship runs out of gas only to be picked up by the Bebop—and as what I can only interpret as an act of revenge, she ends up insinuating herself into their company. There is no competition over her as a sex object (at least not immediately), because both Spike and Jet are cynical enough at this point to know that in their world, a woman is automatically trouble.
There is more trouble in the form of, you guessed it, another woman—more of a child-thing, really, a precocious, quasi-autistic and strongly androgynous goofball named Edward for whom (to borrow a phrase) work is play and everything else is work. She functions a little like Toshiro Mifune’s seventh samurai, interjecting humor and breaking up the tensions that form between the other three—or four, if you count Ein, the dog, another oddball add-on who eventually proves his own unexpected value to the rest of the gang. (They meet Ed’s father later on as well, and he turns out to be just as nutty as she is.) What sets Bebop apart from so many other anime about a group of loosely-knit misfits (the dismal Burst Angel, for instance) is that their interdependence is a matter of character and not plot demands. In other shows, it felt like this disparate bunch was together only because a screenwriter had corralled them along; here, we see how their functioning as a group evolves in hesitant stages.
If the structure of the series is jazz—improvisation, riffing, new variations on old themes—the mood of the story is definitely blues. The dice are loaded, hard luck is all around, and the devil is definitely a woman. Subtler connections between the bounty-hunter universe and the world of the jazzmen abound, too: incidental characters are named “Miles” and ; at one point Spike calls his spaceship his “machine” (in English), and we remember how “machine” was a jazzman’s slang term for his instrument of choice. The episode titles themselves refer to blues and jazz classics: Herbie Hancock’s “Speak like a Child” gets namechecked at one point, as the title for an episode that starts as slapstick and then becomes one of the most unexpectedly moving parts of the series. And by degrees the show works its way out of blues-as-noir and into blues-as-tragedy, when old hurts out of the past manifest themselves and require great personal sacrifice to be dispelled.
What makes the series all the more absorbing and compelling is how the psychology of each character flows out so naturally from their actions; things happen because of them, not to them. Spike in particular snags center stage without trying—he’s easygoing and charming, and twists arms when he wants to but only breaks them if he has to. Over time we see how he is capable of being a coldly efficient killer when the circumstances demand it, as when a member of his family is assassinated by an old nemesis. That episode has one of the best moments of the whole series, when the present freely interleaves with the past in a way that has been only hinted at obliquely before, and the origins of deep, complicated wounds are explained completely through nothing more than images. The weight of the past as dealt with by each of the characters becomes the show’s real theme—how time and distance can’t always ameliorate memory or the agony of parting, and how the past can assume a life, and a mind, of its own.
In the same way, the humor in the show (and there’s a lot of it) flows right out of everyone’s behavior and isn’t imposed from above. Look at the scene where a hung-over Spike plays with a raw egg while a barfight explodes around him, or at a scene he will go back into a very dangerous part of the ship where a monster may be running around just so he can get his cigarette lighter back. That particular episode plays as tongue-in-cheek homage/parody of the Alien movies, and the punchline is a scream. Other in-jokes work their way in later, too, as when one walk-on character appears dragging a coffin (as per the Django Westerns, a very thematically-fitting point of reference)—only to have it run over by a passing truck. And then there are things that just come completely out of left field, as when the space shuttle Columbia makes a cameo appearance—but it happens in a way that actually makes a fair amount of sense by the logic that has already been set up.
A show that plugged into jazz and blues as concepts but didn’t include any of that on the soundtrack would be like a Technicolor musical on a black-and-white TV. Bebop’s score is loaded with it, and it would seem like they were simply slumming the territory if said score hadn’t been provided by the disturbingly talented Yoko Kanno. She’s created a body of music for various anime productions that is unmatched in its quality: Macross Plus, Macross Zero, Arjuna, Wolf’s Rain, and the phenomenal Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the music for which is so broad-reaching and inspired it is practically a genre unto itself. Sometimes she steps freely out of the jazz/blues realm and simply conjures up a backdrop, like the frantic conga drumming that accompanies Spike gunning down an adversary.
Bebop’s director was Shinichiro Watanabe, a name that ought to be intimately familiar to other anime fans: he was responsible for the equally-dazzling Samurai Champloo, key portions of The Animatrix, and Macross Plus (which I reviewed ages ago and need to get around to revisiting at some point). Bebop was the first production that created any broad awareness of him as a creative force, and he reprised his involvement for the Bebop movie that followed a few years afterwards. With this show, he and his creative team set the bar that much higher for everything that came afterwards. If I call it a classic, it’s only because that’s the best description that fits, and not simply idle praise.